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Leaping Over the Great Firewall: Technology Life Hacks for China

Dec 08, 2014 By Alex Schofield , Comments (16)     Add your comment Newsletter

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As any expat who has been in China for a period of time will be aware, using technological products with the same freedom to which we have become accustomed is simply not possible. However, there are workarounds so that popular services and applications can be used with no restrictions at all and you can enjoy the same media options as you did in your home country.

Photo: Kate Ter Haar

Restrictions are in place for essentially two reasons: to censor content and to promote Chinese-made products. As many famous Western technological giants such as Google, Facebook and Twitter refuse to censor their content for the Chinese market, they have simply been blocked behind the infamous “great firewall of China”. Removal of these behemoths from the market obviously allows local Chinese companies to create similar products to cater for the local market such as Weibo and WeChat, which are heavily modelled on Twitter and Whatsapp respectively. In addition, many overseas subscription services such as Spotify Music, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video impose their own geopolitical restrictions; primarily for copyright reasons, which can be circumvented with a VPN that allows you to choose which country your server is located in.

Finding a good VPN

For me and many other expats in China, a VPN is an essential purchase. I rarely plug products, but I have tried several paid VPNs and Astrill has been the winner for me. It costs US$70 per year, and allows you to choose which country your server is located with over 50 countries to choose from. This is invaluable because it allows you to circumvent the geo-restrictions that some websites impose. For example, using a UK server I can watch BBC Iplayer and then I can switch to a US server to watch NFL on a Sunday.

A VPN is now needed for most of the following:

  • Any blogging site
  • Some cloud storage solutions such as Dropbox and Google Drive
  • Google Play store
  • Any news site with articles that are deemed “sensitive”( the BBC was blocked last month)
  • Any social media outside of China

Astrill’s smartphone app for Android and IOS is also excellent.

Buying technological products

To be blunt, I advise against buying products such as smartphones and tablets in China, especially if it’s a foreign brand. The first reason is cost – despite many of the products being made here they are levied with an exorbitant import tax that makes buying the same product in Hong Kong, Macau or any other Asian country an attractive proposition. A further issue that you will encounter is that many brands have started producing a model that is made exclusively for the Chinese market. The model will reflect local trends in usage (IE App availability) and must conform to China’s censorship laws. It is far better to buy an “International version” in your home country or in a neighbouring Asian country and make sure it isn’t locked to any particular carrier.

How to use the Apple App store in China

The Apple store is quite flexible in that it lets you choose the country store in which you buy the Apps, so I use the UK App store. The key here is that I still have a UK bank account and billing address, which is my mother’s home. This means that I simply link my UK Visa card to my Apple account and I can freely purchase whatever I wish with little fuss.

With regards to updating Apps, I have found that a VPN is sometimes required to download updates to Apps that are blocked in China. This is actually quite hit and miss; sometimes it will update with no issues and sometimes it takes several attempts even with a VPN. At one point I could not access the Apple store at all without a VPN, and availability comes and goes periodically, so it really is best to have a reliable VPN installed on the device.

How to use the Google Play store in China

There is no nice way of putting this: accessing Google Play is a serious pain. China is not on the list of countries in which Google allows developers to sell apps for a fee, which means that only free apps are allowed in the Google Play store whilst you are in China, and any Apps that are banned in China are filtered out. Rather than allowing you to select the country store that you wish to purchase Apps from, the store automatically assigns you to the country store that your mobile carrier is based in. If you have a Chinese SIM card in your phone, it will give you the Chinese app store. If you try to buy an App or download one that is blocked you may see a message that says “This App is incompatible with your device” or “This App is not available in your country.”

This is also true with App updates; you will not see the updates of any Apps that are blocked in China, not even a VPN will help you.

The best solution, and the one that I use, is to have a SIM card from your home country. It does not need to have any credit stored on it nor does it need to connect to a network. Insert it into your phone and then restart the device. You should then be able to access the Google Play store from your home country. If you simply wish to download and update free Apps that are blocked in China then this is all you need to do but if you also wish to purchase any Apps that are now available to you then you will need a Debit/Credit card from that country that is registered to a billing address in that country that you can link to Google Wallet. You will then be able to purchase Apps at your leisure. You will also be able to update those Apps freely as and when the updates are available.

Amazon now also has an Appstore for Android, which does offer paid Apps to the Chinese market. If you have an Amazon account and a card to pay for them then this is a good workaround, however the App selection is much smaller than in the Google Play store and any Apps that are banned in China are still not available.

If any readers have any other workable solutions to these issues, please feel free to leave them in the comments.

Using subscription services

If you’re a fan of music, movies and TV shows then several services popular in the west come in handy in China. My personal favorites are Spotify Music and Netflix, however there are many competitors that may be of interest. For music there are Google Play Music, Deezer, Tidal and the upcoming YouTube music and Apple Beats services. For movies and TV there are Amazon prime Instant Video, Hulu and HBO Go among others.

All of these services are only available in certain countries so to use them you must access them from an IP based in one of those countries. To subscribe to any of these you will need a VPN with a server in your home country or the country the service is available in as well as a debit/credit card registered to an address in your home country to pay for it. In addition I advise buying the best Internet package your carrier supplies for it to run as smoothly as possible. For fans of music and movies these services are a godsend and for convenience of use they just cannot be beaten.

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Keywords: best VPN for China technology life hacks

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16 Comments ( Add your comment )


google play is blocked in China... you should try another alternatives like anzhi or baidu.

Dec 08, 2014 02:22

Never try those alternatives, Googleplay is not blocked it is interfered with. So it is best to wait it out with google. Go to a cafe with great wifi.

Dec 08, 2014 07:06

I don't know where you are, but where I am it is absolutely blocked, and has been for 4/5 months. Could be another case of different parts of China having different censorship.

Dec 08, 2014 09:02

don't download from a chinese source. They are all full of spyware. I have had 2 email accounts wiped out because of chinese apps. western apps don't work properly on my chinese phone either. Definately buying a new phone back in the UK next month.

Dec 08, 2014 10:52

Don't get me started on China's internet system. Anything internet related here is a bloody nightmare. Blocked websites, apps that don't download, blocked VPN's (paid for) and the slowest internet connection on planet earth. A terrible place for trying to do business.

Dec 08, 2014 11:12

This is why iphones are better for China, the itunes app store is not blocked and works just the same as when I was in America. No need for vpns, switching sim cards, or third party app stores full of spyware.

Dec 08, 2014 11:13

I'm not an iFan but I must upvote you cuz dis is true.

Dec 08, 2014 21:20

A VPN will pretty much solve all of these app/video/internet issues. Free VPNs work for the most part but there's usually some catch. TOR is a solid choice but slower. Paid VPNs are faster but may retain identifying information. Check their policies.

Dec 08, 2014 17:56

I tried milion times, but I never can connect to nowhere with Tor. how do you do that ?

Dec 08, 2014 21:32

Good luck trying to access any "free" veep services here in China,

Dec 12, 2014 14:38

i usually use psiphon3 on my laptop and it works, slow, but works. There's another one i use on my phone called fqrouter2 and it works all the time i use it to check instagram

Dec 16, 2014 14:12

Great article!

Dec 08, 2014 19:40

Eh... so what exactly are the solutions here? Everyone knows about VPN's etc. I don't know if I have a crummy VPN or what, but I cannot for the life of me watch Netflix or NBC Sports. It could be my internet speed too... 3-5 mbps is not fast...

Dec 27, 2014 21:01

I don't know wha the issue is...use GreenVPN or Ark VPN. Ark gives you 30 min free VPN everyday. Which is more than enough to check emails and updated social media etc. (use Japanese servers)

Jan 10, 2015 15:55

A tech guy in Hong Kong recommends 2VPN.Co to me. I am testing their 7 days conditional grace period.

Jun 30, 2015 19:20

Leap Leap!

Jan 16, 2016 22:27

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