The Best VPN for Shanghai, China
Back in October, I spent an entire month in China. I started in Shanghai and then visited Suzhou, took a cruise down the Yangtze River, spent an enjoyable few days in Chongqing, ate all the spicy food in Chengdu, and then headed up to Xi’an to see the Terracotta Warriors. It was an amazing trip and I really love China. But the one problem I had was finding the best VPN for China and especially the best VPN for Shanghai, where I spent most of my time. What I’ve learned about China is that the internet is different everywhere…depending on what city I was in and what internet network I was connected to, sometimes I got Gmail, sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes I could access Facebook, sometimes I couldn’t. To be fair, most of the time I couldn’t access anything, but other times, something would slip through and I would be pleasantly surprised, like in Chengdu where all of a sudden, Facebook worked for me over my hotel internet.
Consistently though, I could not access anything in Shanghai.
Luckily though, I had come to China prepared. I had been to Shanghai before and knew that I would need a VPN in Shanghai to access my work email (which is based on Gmail) along with Slack (!), Facebook, and horror or horrors, The New York Times, which I have been addicted to since I was in high school. I even knew that one VPN in Shanghai might not be enough. Internet access is a cat-and-mouse game between VPN providers and the government, so I planned ahead and before my trip, I invested time in finding the best VPN for Shanghai.
Selecting the Best VPN for Shanghai
I have been a long-time user of NordVPN so before I left for China, I made sure my subscription was current and also made sure I had it installed on all my devices…my main iPhone, my unlocked iPhone, my desktop computer, and my Amazon fire table. I also made sure that I was logged in on all devices before I entered China. Lastly, I carefully read NordVPN’s instructions on how to use NordVPN in China. One thing that was a little unclear was whether NordVPN would only work on my desktop computer in China, which would significantly cramp my style because in Shanghai, I needed to rely on things like Google Maps and Google Translate. And of course, my work email. (Note: As I detail in my post about recommendations for Shanghai, I’ve since learned that Google Maps is useless in China and hasn’t been updated in years.)
Everything that I was reading about NordVPN was making me a little nervous, so I decided to add Express VPN to my arsenal. I did the same thing I did with NordVPN…I installed Express VPN on all my devices and made sure I was logged in to everything before I left for China. (If you do not do this before you leave, good luck trying to do it within China.) I also made sure I read Express VPN’s own description of their VPN in China. One thing that stuck out to me here was to always make sure I had the latest version of Express VPN so honestly right before my flight left for Shanghai, I was updating all my apps in Krabi airport! Lastly, I made a note of the support email address in case I needed to email them directly. (Another tip: because Gmail won’t work, make sure you have a backup email account like Yahoo or something that will work. You may even want to make this the primary email account attached to your VPN account so you can easily contact support if necessary and they believe you are who you say you are.)
Please note that I recommend paid subscriptions. There are free VPNs out there but whether they have the resources to keep up with the Great Firewall is unclear. I think a few dollars month for Express VPN is a small price to pay for internet access!
Working with Your VPN in Shanghai and China
I had two iPhones, one with a UK SIM and one unlocked with a local Chinese SIM. Oddly, even though they both would be on the same wifi network, at times, my VPN would work on one phone but not the other. A lot of VPNs have “suggested locations” for you to use when you are in China, and I would sometimes find that “Singapore” (for example) worked fine on one phone but not the other. It was very odd and I did not spend enough time researching it, BUT I was glad I had brought two phones because I think I would have gone crazy otherwise.
Sites that are Blocked in China
This may differ depending on your location but here is everything I found that was blocked in China. I need a VPN to access all these sites:
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Slack, The New York Times, Gmail (even when it’s a hosted corporate account with a different domain name), Google along with all Google properties (Maps, Translate), Reddit, Whatsapp, Wikipedia
Don’t Panic When Your VPN is Blocked in China
One afternoon in Shanghai, I lost hours when I realized that although I could use my VPN on my phones, it had stopped working on my laptop. This was a problem in that I had about 200 emails to respond to and doing all this work on my phones just wasn’t going to cut it. I contacted Express VPN who explained that the government had blocked their apps but that they had released new ones which solved the problem. I was able to quickly update these on my phones no problem but updating Express VPN on my desktop was a much more manual process and required getting a special link from Express VPN to download the updated software. Express VPN support was amazing and helped me through it, but it is about four hours of my life that I would like to get back.
Best VPN for Shanghai: ExpressVPN or NordVPN?
I tried both and found that ExpressVPN worked 85% to 90% of the time, whereas NordVPN only worked about 50% of the time. To be fair to NordVPN, once I ran into trouble the first few days, I just stopped using it and would always check ExpressVPN first. So I probably didn’t give NordVPN a fair shake in China. But when something doesn’t work, how much time would you spend trying to get it to work? Not much…
Note ExpressVPN says you can only connect up to three devices. I had it on four devices and it seemed to work on all of them so I’m not sure if they mean three simultaneous connections or what.
In short, in my opinion, the best VPN for China and the best VPN for Shanghai is ExpressVPN.
My Top Tips for Using a VPN in Shanghai
- Consider using a Yahoo or Hotmail email address for your VPN accounts as they are not blocked by China and this will make it easier to work with the VPN in case you have problems behind the Great Firewall and need to reset your password or contact support.
- Register, pay for, and download/install at least one if not two VPNs BEFORE YOU ENTER CHINA. Per the above, I definitely recommend Express VPN as one of them. I also think if you really rely on the Internet for a living, you should make sure you have a backup VPN as well.
- Log into your VPNs on ALL your devices before you enter China. Make sure you know the passwords because if you get locked out, you will run into problems and may not even be able to get to the login screen.
- Make sure your VPN apps and desktop apps are entirely up to date before you enter China. It’s possible that the government may suddenly block older versions and then you’ll be locked out while you try to get a new version from your VPN provider.
- Write down the support email addresses of your VPNs before you enter China, just in case you need to contact them. Remember, you may need to email them from a non-Gmail account so hopefully you have other email address options.
Summary of Choosing the Best VPN for Shanghai
I hope you’ve found my advice for selecting the best VPN for Shanghai and China helpful. If you have any experience to share, please do so in the comments. I’d love to hear any tips or advice you might have.