China is not exactly known as the last bastion of internet and media freedom. The communist government ruling the country has long censored their citizens’ access to websites and services from outside the country.
While China’s constitution bestows freedom of speech and the press to its citizens, the vagueness of Chinese regulations allows authorities to crack down on any news report by claiming it exposes state secrets or endangers the country.
The Chinese government’s definition of “state secrets” is vague at best, allowing authorities to censor any information that they deem to be harmful to political or economic interests. This leads to media and internet policies that can change day-to-day, seemingly at the whim of Chinese officials.
When a website is not being blocked, access to the site is usually slow at best. A 2018 report shows China’s internet speed ranked 141st among 200 countries ranked, with a blazing average speed of 2.4 Mbps.
(It should be noted that the China Broadband Development Alliance reported in the fourth quarter of 2017 that the nationwide average broadband speed was 19 Mbps.)
The government blocks access to websites and services that folks in the West consider an essential part of their lives. Blocked sites and services include Google, Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Netflix and many more.
Website-blocking such as this is a particular pain in the butt for folks who travel to China on business or pleasure. This is especially true for travelers who use Gmail to stay in contact with friends, family and business associates while on the road.
If you’re curious if a website you access on a regular basis is accessible from inside China, visit the Comparitech website and their Blocked in China tool and enter the URL of the site in question. The site will quickly let you know if access to the site is allowed.
The Easiest Way to Access Gmail in China
What can a user do when they need to access a blocked site while in China? Is there a way to tunnel under the Great Firewall of China and access blocked sites and services like Gmail? Thankfully, there are a couple of ways to access Gmail – one more reliable than the other.
In this article, I share my knowledge with you about how to break through the Great Firewall and access Gmail and other blocked web services.
I’ve tested numerous VPNs and I’ve found ExpressVPN to be the most reliable VPN to use to access Gmail from inside of China.
The provider offers reliable access to Gmail and other blocked websites and services while inside Chinese borders. The provider offers reliable protection for numerous mobile and desktop device platforms, and its customer support is second to none.
Accessing Gmail From Inside China
When attempting to access your Gmail account while behind the Great Firewall, two methods have proven successful.
One method is to use a proxy server, while the second (and usually more successful) approach is to make use of a Virtual Private Network (VPN).
I’ll take a look at both options and explain how they work, and what the pros and cons of each method are. I’ll tell you how to use both a proxy server and a VPN, and share some of my own experiences with you.
Note: While I found reports of Chinese citizens being arrested or fined for getting around the government’s internet restrictions, I did not discover any reports of foreign visitors being arrested or fined.
However, there have been cases where foreign journalists have been ejected from the country and had their visas revoked. So, consider yourself forewarned.
1. Why Not Tor?
Up front, let me explain why I did not include using a Tor Browser to hide your internet usage from the Chinese government as a potential method.
It’s because officials in the country have taught the Great Firewall to block Tor anonymity traffic.
The Tor project is a free network run by volunteers, designed to hide your location and internet activity from anyone monitoring the connection. This results in mostly anonymous online activity.
As you can imagine, anonymous activity is not something that sits well with a communist government that does its best to shut off its citizens from the knowledge available on the web.
While the Tor browser worked for anonymizing Chinese internet traffic for a while, the folks that control the Great Firewall have figured out a way to detect and block Tor traffic. While the technique they use is too involved to go into this space, interested readers who wish to learn more can view the technical paper at the Cornell University Library website.
2. Using a Proxy Server to Make It Through the Great Firewall
First, we’ll take a look at using a proxy server to hide your internet activity from the Great Firewall of China.
A proxy server is a computer that acts as a middleman between your computer and the web servers you wish to access. It redirects the client’s network traffic, allowing you to make an indirect connection to the online resource you want to access.
The computer connected to the proxy server requests information, such as the weather for Sydney, Australia, from an individual resource. The proxy server accepts the request, passes it on to the relevant server and then returns the info obtained from the server to the requesting computer.
This method of requesting the data helps hide your actual internet activity by cloaking your online requests and where the information is retrieved from. This can assist you in China in accessing Gmail and other blocked content by simply cloaking the activity.
While using a proxy server is a proven way to access blocked websites when behind the Great Firewall, Chinese officials have become much better at detecting proxy server usage and have become even better at blocking it.
While some helpful folks have attempted to keep an up-to-date list of available proxy servers that still fool the Great Firewall, such resources are obsolete almost as soon as they are published. This makes the list less than reliable and leads to hit-or-miss success by users.
Proxy servers are also notorious for slowing down a user’s internet connection, and since China’s connection to the rest of the world is already one of the slowest around, it’s likely that a proxy server might not meet your needs – especially if your Gmail usage includes attachments. Your mileage may vary.
3. Using a VPN to Make It Through the Great Firewall
All in all, a Virtual Private Network connection is likely to be your best bet for reliably tunneling under the Great Firewall of China.
A VPN offers an encrypted connection, which reveals nothing to anyone monitoring your internet connection. It does this by creating a private tunnel between your computer or device and the VPN server itself.
An encrypted connection keeps prying eyes from seeing the online activity of the VPN users. While VPNs have become popular for protecting personal information from crooks and such, they have also become a favorite tool to be used for fighting governments that monitor internet connections.
When using a VPN, you connect to a VPN server, which is located in another part of the world.
Ideally, if you wish to access a website or other online content originating in the United States, you will connect to a VPN server located in that country. This usually allows you to get around any governmental or other types of restrictions placed on the content.
Here’s a fun story: On April 3, 2016, Fang Binxing, architect of the Great Firewall, was put in the embarrassing position of using a VPN in order to access web pages hosted in South Korea to demonstrate a point he was making during a speech on internet safety at his alma mater, the Harbin Institute of Technology.
Fang made use of the illicit tool that vexes the Chinese government in order to access the content and continue his talk. Fang was so embarrassed that he ended up ducking out of the room immediately after his talk instead of participating in a planned Q & A session that was to take place following his speech.
Now back to our regularly-scheduled program.
How Well Do VPNs Work?
VPNs are known to be an excellent tool for users residing in or visiting areas stuck behind the Great Firewall of China. Numerous VPN providers pride themselves on being able to offer a reliable way to connect to blocked content from within China.
While Great Firewall technicians have been working on ways to detect and block VPN connections, and in some cases have proven successful, a VPN is still your best bet for connection to the world around you.
Pro Tip: For those of you who are planning to visit China and who are considering using a VPN to access blocked sites, be sure to get a VPN subscription and set up your VPN app on your computer or device before visiting the country.
While many VPNs work great in China, the government does block many VPN providers’ websites, making it difficult to purchase and set up a VPN from behind the Great Firewall.
There is a constant battle going on between the Chinese government and VPN providers. I’ve experienced times when a VPN provider worked great for the first few days I was in China, and then suddenly, the provider stopped working.
Be sure to check the web for other users’ experiences using any provider you’re considering for use behind the Great Firewall.
Which VPN Should I Use to Unblock Gmail While in China?
While there are a number of fine VPNs available, and new ones seem to appear every day, there are few providers who truly pride themselves on offering reliable VPN service from within China. However, I have found only one that works reliably from behind the Great Firewall.
As I mentioned above, no matter your choice of VPN provider, be sure to sign up for a VPN service, download the app and install it before entering China. The country blocks website access to many VPN providers.
ExpressVPN (full review here) offers an excellent history of service from behind the Great Firewall of China. I have used it a number of times while in China, and each time it has worked well, allowing me to access Gmail, Facebook, Twitter and a number of other services usually blocked by the Chinese government.
ExpressVPN customer support is second to none and is always available to help if you do run into issues using the VPN service while in a particularly restrictive area of the world. The provider offers 24/7 support chat, email support, a searchable support library, and a support ticket submission and tracking system.
App support shouldn’t be an issue, thanks to the provider’s app offerings, which include apps for the Amazon Fire, Android, iOS, Linux, Chromebook, macOS and Windows device platforms. Browser extensions are available for the Chrome and Firefox platforms.
ExpressVPN also offers OpenVPN (TCP, UDP), L2TP-IPsec, SSTP and PPTP encryption protocols for connections to protect your privacy. ExpressVPN customer support suggests you set the protocol in your app to “Automatic” for best results.
The service also warns that completing a connection from inside China may take longer than you’re used to, so let the app finish attempting a connection before retrying. It also recommends you use one of the following VPN server locations:
- Hong Kong – 4
- Singapore – Marina Bay
- Japan – Tokyo – 3
- USA – Los Angeles – 5
This provider does zero logging of your online activities while connected to the service. What this means is that neither the government nor any content providers can get their hands on records of your online activities, because there are none. This means you’re safe from being prosecuted for any of your online activities. Their connections are reliably fast and trouble-free.
Admittedly, ExpressVPN subscriptions are more expensive than many other VPN services. However, the level of service and protection they provide make for an excellent return on investment, especially when you’re using the provider in a restrictive country like China.
For more information, visit the ExpressVPN website.
If you plan to visit China, be sure to make an internet-related plan of action before arriving in the country. You’ll want to be prepared if you expect to access your Gmail inbox or other blocked sites such as Facebook, Twitter and other popular sites.
1. Be Prepared Before Your Visit
If you’re not sure a website you use regularly is available from behind China’s Great Firewall, visit the Great Firewall of China website and enter the URL of the site in question. The website will tell you if the site is accessible.
Remember, availability of sites can change in an instant, so be ready.
2. Subscribe to a Proxy Service or VPN Provider
Subscribe to a proxy server service to allow connecting to outside websites. Better yet, subscribe to a VPN service, like my #1 choice, ExpressVPN.
3. Check to Make Sure Your VPN Works Inside China
Make sure your VPN works from within China. Most VPN services offer information about using their VPN from behind the Great Firewall. If you can’t find any information, contact the provider’s customer support folks. They’ll be able to tell you if their VPN works in China.
4. Install and Configure Your VPN Software Before Entering China
Set up your VPN provider of choice on your computer or mobile device before setting foot in China. Some VPN websites are not available in a browser in China, making it difficult to download the installation files for their VPN apps.
By following the advice I’ve laid out here, you should be able to access your Gmail inbox, along with your other favorite websites and services while you visit China. Happy travels!