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? 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 it illegal to use a VPN in China? Let’s discuss this a little bit and figure out what is right and what is wrong because it’s clearly not a black and white issue.
UPDATE JANUARY 2019: There has been a lot of talk about VPNs in China this year due to the fact that China threatened to ban all VPNs starting in April 2018 and then took the step to remove all VPN apps from China’s Apple store. Seems ominous, right? Historically, China tends to talk big on these type of things. As I’ll describe below, the legality of a VPN in China is questionable but for now, I can still consistently connect to my favorite VPN.
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.
Why haven’t they?
The answer is quite simple. The reason is because VPNs are a necessary part of doing business, particularly for international companies 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 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 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. Fortunately for you, none of those reports have ever mentioned a foreigner getting in trouble for using a VPN while in China.
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 didn’t **technically** apply to them. We as individuals still have the right to be getting on a VPN. Now, I say we have the 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.
What Would China Do 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. 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 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 they’re going to continue to just make it so annoying that you don’t want to. That is what they’re going to do.
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 on my Amazon Fire Stick for my TV!
Over the 10 years that I’ve lived here, 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 always worked 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. If you use the link here, they’ll even give you a bonus 3 months free!
Conclusion | Is it Legal to use a VPN in China?
So…is it legal to use a VPN in China? 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.
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.