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Moving to China

Helpful Stuff


Category: Helpful Stuff

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VPN

China’s Great Firewall is almost as famous as that old wall it takes its name from. “How will I access Facebook in China?” is now the third most asked question expats ask before they come here. I take my internet access pretty seriously, so I’ve spent a few years now trying different VPN’s. I’ve learnt a hell of a lot (and I still know less) about VPN’s in China. This is what I’ve found. Please remember, this is not a technical or thorough analysis, it’s just what works for me in Changchun. I’m also not being paid for this article, though if any VPN company out there would like to pay me to write nice things…you have my contact details.

So here is what I’ve learnt about VPN connections:

•They make no sense to me. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t.

•Connection success varies from computer to computer, network to network. Connections that work in my office, don’t work at home, and vice versa. My work computer could access a VPN gateway, while the computer next to me could not.

•Change your DNS to 8.8.8.8 (Don't worry, I'll explain this later)

•Connections at work are always where I have the biggest problems. Wifi connections are ok, but the more public, the less reliable. 3G is touch and go.

•Those fancy apps for your iPad…don’t work in China…you gotta go manual.

•PPTP is the best protocol at the moment., but this could change.

•VPN's blocked in Shanghai and Beijing seem to work in Changchun, sometimes it's the other way.

Most people aren’t tech savvy. You don’t need to be, but here are a few key words;

VPN - Virtual Private Network.

Think of it like your own, private freeway between you and everywhere you want to go.

Gateway:

Like the name implies, its where you enter your network. The most reliable gateways for Changchun users are via South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Los Angeles, though Singapore, Sydney and other west coast US cities are also OK. The general rule is - the closer your gateway, the faster your connection. Gateways can be a number, like 123.456.78 or an address jp.myvpn.com

One of the cute benefits of a VPN is that it makes you LOOK like your using the internet in that country. That’s very useful if you’re trying to watch a TV show or listen to a football match on online radi, or even find which country offers the best travel deals.. Just log in to a gateway in the country you want to access!

 Protocol

In keeping with my freeway analogy, the protocol is HOW you enter your freeway. This is where it gets a little tricky, but I’m really going to try and push the boundaries of oversimplification here, and say there are three different protocols:

PPTP:

Who knows and who cares what it stands for. Supposedly the simplest, and least secure of the three protocols. Five years ago, it was as good as useless, but for now (Early 2015), it’s the most reliable protocol / way to access your VPN. This will change sometime, so be prepared

L2TP:

Again, who cares what it means. This is reasonably reliable, but prone to connection problems. This will change in the future, as I think the government takes turns in blocking protocols.

Open VPN:

The most secure and reliable protocol is having big problems in China. This is where I think most people have there problems connecting - because its so darnn good (everywhere else), its the default protocol in most VPN software.

DNS

Let me try to keep oversimplifying things I don’t understand like this…your DNS is like an very basic ID number your internet provider gives you. It’s not really a big deal, but its the simplest way the government blocks access to websites - Just block all Chinese ID”s. It’s a pretty basic procedure, so it’s also simple to fix. Just change your DNS to something else, usually 8.8.8.8 is good enough. I could show you how, but its pretty simple (and dead easy on an apple), just look it up on the internet yourself. 

Manual connections:

The VPN market is getting pretty competitive, so many of these companies are creative fancy looking software and apps. The computer software works ok, but for some reason, apps don’t work very well on ipads, iphones (apologies to apple junkies, but it’s true), and probably Androids. The best thing to do is to ditch the sexy looking apps and set up your own manual connections. This may sound scary to a novice, but it’s very easy (especially on a mac). All the VPN companies have very good, simple to follow and understand web pages on how to do this.  Nothing to be frightened of, it’s just that it can be a bit tedious setting up ten connections. Once you’ve taken the time to set them up, they are easy to use and offer faster connection times. 

A VPN is more than just a way to access Facebook. It can actually speed your internet connection up dramatically in China. I'm not sure why, but I put it down to the content not being held up by filtering programs.

A totally opinionated review of a few common VPN providers:

Freegate and Hotspot Shield.

OK, I haven’t used this freeware for years. Maybe it’s changed, but I doubt it. This is free software by a bunch of people with a serious grudge against China. It’s the most popular method of accessing Facebook (hey…it’s free), but I found that’s all it’s good for. It’s slow, clunky and targeted by the government, so you always need updates. Sure it’s free, but for those who NEED a connection, pay.

Witopia 

My first VPN. It’s really really cheap, very reliable and has fantastic support. They’re main website is blocked in China, but they do have an alternative. The downside for them is they’re targeted by the government a lot. I’d say they are 90% reliable, which is pretty darn good. I think for most people, they are who I’d recommend.

I had problems with connecting using the computer software they created, so I set up manual connections, which usually work pretty well. Other people had no problems on their computer using the witopia software.

Astrill

I've never used it, but it's pretty popular here, and everyone swears by it. They got targeted by the government just recently, but every VPN company will. They'll recover.

ExpressVPN

As good as Witopia is, I really need 99.9% reliability, and you have to pay premium for this. Express is the most expensive at US$99. I had a few teething problems, but once I changed the protocol to PPTP on my work computer, everything went smoothly. Their iPad app is pretty bad, so I wouldn’t recommend it. Spend the time setting up the manual connections, even though they make this process more tedious than everyone else. I didn’t really like there support, and having their site blocked is a real pain in the neck, but I’ll stick with them because the speed is so cool.

Vyprvpn

(viper) Dang! I was feeling impulsive, and things weren’t working with Express…so I went out and got me a second VPN. This too is $US99, but was getting pretty good reviews. Again, I had problems at first, but their support helped me out (just change the protocol). It’s all been smooth sailing since then. It’s pretty cool how it finds the fastest connection for you. There iPad app is a little more reliable, but I really like the interface. Setting up manual connections is the way to go, and its much easier than ExpressVPN. It’s tiresome, but worth it in the long run.

So who do I recommend?

Horses for courses. I like them all. This is hardly a comprehensive survey, and most of my problems and solutions I put down to “magic”. Two other popular VPN’s I didn’t try are StrongVPN and Astrill, I’ve only heard good things about those as well. But…in the interests of a satisfying conclusion, here’s my assessment:

Freegate / Hotspot: Use it for Facebook, but not great for anything else.

Witopia: Perhaps the best choice for users who need more than Facebook. It’s cheap and pretty reliable. Great customer support.

Astrill: I can't recommend it, but plenty in Changchun do.

ExpressVPN: Awesome connection speeds, but loses points on customer service and interface. Their iPad app leaves a lot to be desired. manual connections are good. At the moment I'm having some problems with connections.

VyprVPN: My favourite. In this current VPN attack, it seems to be pretty reliable. If you’ve the cash, and need to go up to “11” (Thanks Spinal Tap), this is the one to go for. Their iPad app is slightly better, but still not as good as a manual connection.

 Sadly, the future looks bleak for VPN's. They will come under more frequient, and sophisticated attacks. The cheaper, most popular VPN's like witopia and Astril will keep being targeted. I thought I was being impulsive buying two VPN accounts, but I fear this will become the norm in future.

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