One of the most common questions I receive about VPNs (or “Virtual Private Network”) is this: Is it legal to use a VPN in China in 2020? Since China censors the internet using the “Great Firewall of China” to keep people inside the country from accessing different websites like Facebook, Twitter, Google, Gmail, etc., it’s no wonder that some of the best VPNs are most popular in China.
The question isn’t popularity, though, it’s legality. Is using a VPN legal in China? I have a few interesting anecdotes to share as we figure out what is right and what is wrong…because it’s clearly not a black and white issue.
UPDATE JANUARY 2020: There has been a lot of talk about whether or not it’s legal to use a VPN in China these last two years due to the fact that China has threatened to ban all VPNs and even took the step to remove all VPN apps from China’s Apple store.
Seems ominous, right?
Why would China try to ban and remove something that was legal?
I propose a different way of looking at this. If VPNs were illegal in China, why wouldn’t they just start arresting foreigners who use VPNs instead of making big headlines with a ban?
Yet as of 2020, no foreigner has been punished for using a VPN.
Historically, China tends to talk big on these type of things. As I’ll describe below, the legality of a VPN in China is debatable…
…but for now, I can still consistently connect to my favorite VPN.
*Note*: Some of the links in the article below are affiliate links, which means that at no extra cost to you, I may be compensated should you decide to use the services. I only recommend these services because I’ve used them myself and they work! Thank you for your support.
Why Doesn’t China Block VPNs?
Obviously, everybody knows that within China the use of a VPN is pretty important if you want to access blocked websites (not sure what a VPN is? Watch this visual explanation of VPNs).
So why doesn’t China just stop the use of all VPNs altogether?
Every year I hear a news story about how China has clamped down on the use of VPNs and it seems silly that they don’t just cut off VPNs altogether.
Considering all of the different websites and apps that are blocked in China, it should be easy to block VPNs as well.
So why hasn’t China completely blocked VPNs?
The answer is quite simple.
You see, it’s not a matter of whether it’s legal to use a VPN in China.
No, the real reason is…
…because VPNs are a necessary part of doing business.
This is particularly true for international companies doing business in China. VPNs are what keep the information that companies transmit between China and the rest of the world secure.
International companies will use VPNs on a daily basis, so if China were to shut down all VPNs, it would severely affect the ability for companies – both domestic and foreign – to do business in China.
Individual VPNs vs Corporate VPNs in China
As an individual though, there’s a lot of gray area as to whether or not it’s legal to use a VPN in China.
In places like Tibet and Xinjiang, which are politically sensitive areas in China, there have been reports that locals have been put in prison for using a VPN.
Read that carefully: local Chinese, not travelers and expats.
There was a news report published in early 2017 that talked about China really clamping down and making it illegal to use a VPN. A lot of fuss was made about this news report.
What people didn’t read was the fact that China was being very directive towards businesses that use VPNs illegally.
You see, when businesses use a VPN they have to get clearance from the government to do so. They can’t just use a VPN because it’s necessary for business. They have to get approvals from the authorities in China in order to create and use a VPN.
As for individuals, this rule doesn’t **technically** apply to us.
We still have the ability to log onto a VPN. Now, I say we have the ability…it’s not a right.
At any point in time, China can change their minds, and they have done so in the past, making trouble for foreigners who use a Virtual Private Network.
Will China Punish Me if I Use a VPN?
One example of possible retribution occurred in Xinjiang at the end of 2015. The authorities in Xinjiang decided to shut down the cell phone service of any person, foreign or local, who was using VPN.
This happened to me personally.
One day while I was using my phone, all of the sudden it stopped working.
I couldn’t make phone calls.
I couldn’t text.
For days I would add money to my phone trying to figure out why it wasn’t working.
When I brought it to my cell service provider they told me it had been shut down by the police and that I was required to go to the police in order to get it reinstated.
What happened next shocked me.
The police took my phone, went through all my apps and deleted all the VPNs and foreign messaging apps (Skype, Viber, Signal, etc.).
The police took my phone and proceeded to go through all of my apps and VPN services, telling me which ones needed to be deleted before we were able to unlock our phone.
Now, keep this in mind: I did not get in trouble.
Nobody that I know of went to jail.
This did not go on our record.
All they did was make it extremely inconvenient for us to use our VPN. Once I got my phone back, I’ll be honest…I reinstalled my VPN, and I reinstalled Skype and a couple of other apps that they had told me to get rid of.
I am still able to use these, and it’s very hard for them to legislate the use of a lot of these things.
But you better believe they’re going to continue to make it so annoying that you don’t want to. It’s what they’ve already done and what I’m guessing that they’ll continue to do.
You may read about China issuing fines for using a VPN, but again, this is only for local Chinese people and has never happened to a foreign expat in China to my knowledge.
There’s still every indication that it is legal to use a VPN in China for foreigners.
#1 Recommended VPN for China
As you can tell, I still use a VPN every day while living here in China.
I connect on my phone. I connect on my computer, I connect on my iPad. Heck, I even connect to a VPN on my Amazon Fire Stick for my TV!
Over the 10 years that I’ve lived in China, I’ve tried dozens and dozens of different VPNs and I can confidently say that the most reliable and consistent VPN has been ExpressVPN.
It’s easy to use but even more importantly, their focus on the China market means that it’s the one VPN that has worked consistently when others have been shut down at times.
If I’ve been able to put your mind at ease about the legality of VPNs in China and you’re looking for a recommended VPN to use, definitely check out ExpressVPN.
Using the link above, you’ll receive a bonus 3 months free on any annual plan!
Final Thoughts | Is it Legal to use a VPN in China?
So…is using a VPN illegal in China?
The truth is that it’s a gray area.
As a foreigner, you’re not going to get in big trouble using a VPN. You just might have a lot of annoyances in life because they’re going to make it hard for you to do so but you can be assured that at least VPNs still work in China.
One thing I will say here that is important to note.
Just as China makes life hard for people who use VPNs, they also make it hard for VPNs to do business in China. That’s why it’s incredibly important to use a VPN that has dedicated resources to out-maneuvering China’s internet censors.
As mentioned above, I’ve found a lot of success using ExpressVPN (use this link to get 3 months of FREE service) as well as NordVPN (use this link to get 3 years of service for the price of 1), but there are a number of great VPNs for China that might work better where you’ll be visiting or living.