Beyond the great firewall?
September 9, 2012 2:20 AM   Subscribe

What is the best way to stay connected during a trip to China?

I will be spending about a month in China in the near future. I would like to stay connected with friends and family (and share photos of the trip) - email at a minimum; ideally access to twitter, facebook, etc. I currently use gmail but would be willing to use something else for this trip if it would work more reliably in China.

What is the best option for me? Paid vpn (if so, which one)? Other?
posted by Urban Hermit to Travel & Transportation (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I have a couple of friends living in China and I know they've pretty much given up using facebook because it's such a hassle to log in and I havent' seen them on google+ for a while either. They mainly use email to keep in contact.
posted by kadia_a at 3:07 AM on September 9, 2012

I've been living in China for 2 years and have been happy using Witopia. Their support desk is responsive, and they have both email and chat support. If you can't connect to their chat support from behind the great firewall, they have an alternative server as well.

The downside is that you cannot use their service "as is." Let them know you are connecting from China, and they will share with you how to connect.

On the other hand, China's internet is notoriously slow in hotels - especially at night. For
example, it is impossible for me to watch youtube in the evenings.

Memail me if you need more info!
posted by xmts at 3:10 AM on September 9, 2012

Yes, get a paid VPN. Witopia is a perennial favorite (it's one of the VPNs I use) as xmts mentions above, but they don't do subscriptions in increments of anything less than a half-year. VPNinja and Astrill will let you sign up for shorter periods (3 months for Astrill -- I remember them offering single-month deals a while ago, but that may be false memory -- and week-by-week plans for VPNinja). I use VPNinja fairly regularly, and find it to be quick and reliable. Astrill is becoming a favorite alternative to Witopia here; my own experience with it was not that great, but to be fair it was during a period (February-March 2011) when the Chinese Internet was being extra-special sucky because of Arab Spring-related paranoia.

The thing is that in the event of anything seriously major, the Chinese government will block major VPN providers -- this is what happened with Witopia, and is why they give their China-based customers access to unlisted gateways. Astrill was not visible enough to get blocked at the time, but may now be; VPNinja is fairly under the radar, but would probably eventually get blocked in the event of a super-long clampdown.
As xmts mentions, the Chinese internet is also slow at the best of times, so you probably shouldn't expect anything to allow you to stream Youtube or upload large videos or anything like that. (P2P software actually can get pretty reasonable speeds over VPNs, but most providers don't allow Bittorrenting.) If you're sufficiently techy, you could try setting up your own OpenVPN-based gateway -- it's actually pretty straightforward, and less likely to get blocked if stuff really does get seriously bad, though it won't be accessible from your smartphone.

GMail will usually work without a VPN here, but sometimes they mess with the access just to be jerks. Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube are always blocked. If all you need is access to GMail, you'll probably be okay without any VPN at all -- but if you don't mind shelling out, browsing through a VPN means you'll barely even notice the Great Firewall while you're here.
posted by bokane at 3:23 AM on September 9, 2012

If you're only away for a month, you might just want to consider giving sporadic updates to your friends and family via a blog - my friend used Posterous.
posted by pikeandshield at 3:34 AM on September 9, 2012

I never had trouble accessing gmail in China. That was 4 years ago, though.
posted by backwards guitar at 4:40 AM on September 9, 2012

Our roomate just got back from a year and a half in China. She and everyone she knew used a paid VPN. Gmail would go in and out for them, and facebook was impossible, as was twitter.

She used Witopia as well.
posted by furnace.heart at 5:04 AM on September 9, 2012

There is a free VPN called Freegate. It doesn't work really well, but you might want to use it since you will only be in China for a month (I live in China as well). The address is, and you can click on the blue rectangle on the right to download. THey may have an English website too.
posted by bearette at 5:56 AM on September 9, 2012

The thing is that in the event of anything seriously major, the Chinese government will block major VPN providers...
Keep in mind that the 18th National Congress of the CPC will be starting in October. Communication out of China has been much worse this year than it was last year. So don't be surprised if nearly all of your communication channels are randomly shut off.

A lot of services are very intermittent. Google services are generally more blocked than others, and my contacts in China are rarely able to open attachments sent from my gmail address.
posted by b1tr0t at 8:52 AM on September 9, 2012

Some advice for anyone logging into any sites/services while in China: beware of interceptions of your user name and password. This is not conspiracy stuff. It does happen. Let's say for example you use Logmein or GoToMyPC. Normally you will see a login screen for those services. If someone (i.e., the Chinese government) is trying to intercept your user name and password, you will see an unfamiliar login screen. Don't input your user name and password into that screen. If you do, you will then see the familiar screen to login, but it's too late, your username and password have been compromised.
posted by Dansaman at 3:02 PM on September 9, 2012

One add - lots of blogs are blocked as well. Blogger/Blogspot is blocked.

Twitter, Facebook, bloggers, CNN, BBC... a lot of places are blocked. Even IMDB is blocked. Also, lots of sites/apps integrate twitter/facebook log in, so these are also blocked.
posted by xmts at 10:30 PM on September 9, 2012

Thanks to all for your responses - some good options here to look into, and some important caveats to be aware of as well.
posted by Urban Hermit at 12:12 AM on September 11, 2012

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