Friday, July 22, 2016

Using a VPN service while working in China

By Steve Endow

UPDATE:  Since writing this post in July 2016, China has apparently declared VPN services to be illegal and has taken additional measures to prevent their use in China.

I have read a few articles claiming that some VPN services still work in China, but based on my experience in 2016, if I have to travel to China again, I will assume that I have zero access to the global internet.


In my last post, I discussed some of the things I learned about working remotely while travelling in China.  In that post, I mentioned that using VPN services in China to get past The Great Firewall and access resources in the US was frustrating at best.

In this post, I'll share which VPN services I used and discuss my experiences trying to use them in China.

Here are the three VPN services that I purchased and used:

1. VPN Unlimited by KeepSolid
2. VPN Secure
3. ExpressVPN

This is not a recommendation or endorsement of any of these services--they are just the three that I semi-randomly tried, out of the dozens and dozens of offerings.  If you ask 10 people which VPN service they use in China, you are likely to get 10 difference answers or recommendations.

Based on my experience, it doesn't really matter which service you choose.  Just find a few that seem to have a good price, the features you need, and some positive reviews.  I'll explain what I mean shortly.

I used the services on iOS and Windows 10.  I didn't bring my Android device with me, so I don't have any feedback about using them on Android.


I would recommend asking the following simple questions when shopping for a VPN service for use in China.

1. Does the VPN service work from within China?
2. Does the service support the devices you use? (iOS, Android, Windows, etc.)
3. How many devices can you use on your account?
4. If you need to use a corporate VPN (Cisco, SonicWall, etc.) while in China, can you connect to the VPN service first, and then connect to the corporate VPN through the service's tunnel

My impression is that virtually all of the VPN services will claim they work in China, and the ones I looked into all had Windows, iOS, and Android clients.  So the first two questions should be easy.  For the last question, you are on your own to test dual VPNs.

All of the VPN services seem to claim that they are the best, have a bunch of servers worldwide, and that they are fast.  One I used claimed to have "stealth mode" to avoid detection by The Great Firewall.  I can attest that feature didn't seem to make any difference.

If you are working in China, ignore all of the sales and marketing claims and just set your expectations very low.  If you are able to connect to the VPN and get over 1mbps, consider yourself lucky.

I first signed up for VPN Unlimited based on a recommendation by Scott Hanselman.  VPN Unlimited offers a lifetime subscription for a very reasonable price on Stack Social, so I purchased it.

Since I wanted to have a second service as a backup, I signed up for 1 month with VPN Secure, as it was one that received good marks in this rather extensive review of VPN services:

Near the end of my 3 weeks in China, I had a day where I was having a lot of difficulty connecting to either of the two VPN services from two different residential networks.  Frustrated, I signed up for the third service, ExpressVPN.  ExpressVPN didn't work that day either, so I pretty much confirmed the problem was not with the VPN services.  But that's how I ended up testing 3 different services.

Of the three services that I tried, VPN Unlimited was probably the one I preferred the most, but for a pretty trivial reason.  On iOS, all three of the VPN services prompt for a username and password when launched.  VPN Unlimited was the only one of the three that supports Touch ID on the iPhone and iPad.  So when I had to kill the app or reboot my iOS device (which I had to do constantly in China), it was much easier to launch VPN Unlimited and use Touch ID than to have to login by typing my username and password repeatedly.

This may seem trivial, but when in China, I had to shut down the apps and relaunch them a dozen times a day, at least, to try and get them to work.  Logging in every single time gets really old.  So for that reason alone, I used VPN Unlimited the most.

I just tested VPN Unlimited and ExpressVPN on Android, and neither app prompts me for a password every time the app is launched or after the phone is restarted.  So that's a bonus for Android users.

Signing Up

I recommend signing up for at least two services prior to going to China.  They aren't expensive, so having two or three handy is worth it.  You will want to have your account setup and paid for, the client software installed and configured on all of your devices, and you will want to test the VPN on all of your devices.

I would recommend using the same simple password for all of the services.  Since I had to constantly re-enter my login on iOS, it was annoying having to type long passwords every time I launched the apps.

Using the VPN

The vast majority of the time, I used the VPN services on my iPhone and iPad.  It is easy to launch the apps and they are relatively quick to connect on iOS.

Using the VPN services on Windows 10 was a different story.  For some reason, they were horribly slow to connect on Windows, and the Windows apps were very bad at refreshing or updating their status.  So I couldn't tell if the app had hung, was stuck, was connecting, or was connected.  Sometimes they worked okay, but most of the time it was a hassle to use them.

And for some reason I had a much harder time successfully connecting on Windows.  One day I used over 50% of my Surface Pro 4's meager battery just trying to connect to the VPN, and I eventually gave up.  I dreaded having to use my Surface Pro to connect to the internet, since it wasted so much time, and I had such little success with any of the VPN services on Windows 10 while in China.

So if you use iOS and Windows, I would recommend trying to get everything you need setup on your iPhone and iPad, as I found the VPNs to work much better on iOS.  I'm guessing Android is better than Windows as well.

Using Multiple VPN Services on iOS

If you install multiple VPN services on iOS, there is one thing you'll want to be aware of.  In the iOS VPN configuration settings for each VPN service, there is a setting called Connect On Demand.  The idea is that whenever you connect to a WiFi network, the VPN service will detect it and automatically connect for you.  This is fine when you only have one VPN service installed.  But if you have multiple services installed on an iPhone, they will fight with each other.  If you turn on your phone and try and connect with one service, the second service may be trying to connect behind the scenes, preventing either connection from working.  So you have to make sure to turn off Connect On Demand.

Unfortunately, it seems that every time the VPN apps refresh and download their configurations and server lists, they re-enable the Connect On Demand setting.  So you have to constantly turn it off again.  Normally, you'd only need one VPN service, and Connect On Demand would be a good feature, but when in China and using multiple VPN services, it isn't.

The reality of using a VPN in China

The VPN services do work.  You can test them while in the US and easily connect to different cities and different countries just fine.  When you test from the US, you'll likely see decent speeds without too much latency.

And technically, the services do work in China.  But for me, they didn't always work, and some days they didn't work at all.

All of the 3 services I tried had issues, so one wasn't better than another or less prone than another to have problems.

I'll let these screen shots speak for themselves.






While all of the VPN services claim to work from China, clearly they don't always work from China. Between The Great Firewall, local network firewalls, flaky WiFi, and questionable internet connectivity, it was a constant battle to get and maintain a decent connection with any of the 3 services I used.

And even when one of the VPNs did appear to connect, sometimes the connection just didn't work, or the speed was so slow, or so high latency, that it was unusable.  Many times my phone would appear to be connected to the VPN service, but I couldn't connect to any web sites or retrieve my email.

I would disconnect, turn WiFi off, turn WiFi back on, then try and reconnect to the VPN.  I would also regularly reboot my iPhone in the hopes that would work.  I don't know if any of those things actually made a difference.  It was a constant battle.

Based on my experience, it seems that China has become fairly good at blocking VPN traffic.  As I mentioned in my last post, it seemed as if it became harder for me to connect over the course of my three weeks in China, and I speculate that there are MAC address filters that start to completely block all traffic that is associated with VPN usage.

Given how frustrating it was for me to get a decent connection and get any work done remotely while in China, I don't know how business travelers can work in China.  Either everyone is suffering and coping like me, or there is some secret that I'm missing.

If you have to travel to China, just be prepared to potentially have limited or intermittent connectivity to web sites or internet services outside of China, and for your productivity to be severely limited.

Good luck.

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1 comment:

Sumit Bhardwaj said...
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