How to Browse the Internet Freely When Traveling in China

jamesb2147 reports that he was able to use the internet traveling in China without restrictions of China’s Great Firewall while roaming with Google’s Project Fi, and suggests that any sort of roaming on a cellular network should behave the same way.

What’s happening anytime you roam onto a network is that your data packets, at an extremely low level, are forwarded to the local controller (e.g. France’s Fake Telecom). From there, they’re packaged up and forwarded, likely over the public internet but crucially inside that packaging, and sent along to your home network’s controller. Once at your home network’s controller, they’re handled just as if you were in your home country on your home network. So, whether you’re using Project Fi, T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon, ATT, or Billy Bob Joe’s Cheapo Cell-u-lar (aka Ting), as long as you’re roaming then your traffic should behave as it does on your home network, just slower.

This probably isn’t an effective solution to scale for Chinese people to circumvent internet controls, both because of cost and that cellular networks likely won’t allow roaming on an ongoing basis.

    The “Other” Great Wall, at Badaling

How cost effective, though, is it to roam with Google’s Project Fi when visiting China?

What’s interesting about the Project Fi angle to this is that they’re fairly consistent about giving you high speed data internationally (I’ve yet to find a country with anything slower than a strong 3G network) and they price it the same as in the US, $10/GB (notably better than Verizon’s $10/day international charges on top of your usual bill). The terms are a little fuzzy on this, but I’ve not heard complaints from anyone about weird charges (yet), so it may be a case of inartful drafting of the terms.

Seemed interesting enough to pass along.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Sadly, simply roaming didn’t work for me (have tmobile – loving the free roaming). The first few days of our trip, it seemed as though the Great Firewall hadn’t found us. Then, about three days later, it happened: instagram, facebook, gmail, and newspapers were all blocked as usual. What does work is downloading a vpn before you leave the US. There are a number of decent apps with free versions that give you enough data for a short vacation. (From a technical perspective, I think the issue is that without encrypting the packets like with a vpn, the Chinese government can still read and block requests to blacklisted sites)

  2. Generally China allows international roaming phones to access most websites in China but they down-throttle all connections, so you have the choice of a fast connection with local phone and many sites blocked or access to your sites at slow speeds and frequent need to reconnect on the network.

    Express VPN seems to be the current king of VPNs among my friends in China.

  3. Definitely did not experience this while roaming in China with my Verizon phone. And I don’t see why I would. When you’re roaming, your using whatever local network your provider has a contract with so you’re subject to their internet usage “policies”.

  4. Noticed the same thing on a previous trip to China – sites that were blocked through the hotel wifi were accessible (albeit slowly) on my iPhone which was roaming (T-Mobile being my U.S. provider). Ironic that pretty much everything we use to access the Internet (laptops, smartphones, tablets) is made in China yet some of the highest-profile sites are blocked there.

  5. I can also confirm with tmobile 2g speeds Facebook and youtube were available at really slow speeds. No VPN required!

  6. I had very good success with VyprVPN and its Chameleon mode on my last trip there. Set it up to connect to a west coast US endpoint.

  7. I just returned from China after being at the Canton Fair in Guangzhou for 1 month and from first hand experience, I can say the only VPN that works okay there is ExpressVPN and that is solely because they are constantly on the offensive against the GreatFireWall. TunnelBear does not work there. A referral link is below but it gets you 30 free extra days. Highly recommend ExpressVPN if you are going to China.

  8. @GringoLoco – Here, there, and everywhere these days, friend. 🙂

    @Andy – Interesting experience. I’d love to have more datapoints and confirm this with some of my own tests. Who’s your cellular carrier in the US?

    @RapidTravelChai – I’d be curious why you use the phrase “China allows…” I can think of a couple of reasons that roaming would be slower in China compared to a local SIM:

    1) Your data has to traverse the Pacific ocean in an encapsulated format with several extra devices, some likely slow, in between you and your server. Lost a packet somewhere inside your data tunnel? You can go ahead and add an extra 600+ms just for a retransmit of that one packet (including timeout, natch).

    2) Business decisions. T-Mobile guarantees 128Kbps. Project Fi guarantees only 256Kbps. I’ve run some really comprehensive network tests with Netalyzr and found, so far, that my HSPA or LTE connection in Great Britain was still being limited to 256Kbps. It’s kind of astonishing what you can accomplish with such little bandwidth in this day and age. What might feel like “China allowing” slow connections could easily be cellular providers not paying for high bandwidth (read: fast) connections.

  9. Travel to China regularly for work (every 4-8 weeks). I use a China Unicom Hong Kong SIM card that works perfectly to avoid the great firewall, and even has a China number (as well as an HK number). I also have a China Mobile mobile hotspot (Mifi) with a China Mobile HK SIM that has the same effect. (I use China Unicom for my phone since its a Verizon iPhone 6 which doesn’t have the right TDD LTE bands for China Mobile). You can get either SIM on ebay, and the China Mobile Hong Kong (w/ mainland roaming) data-only SIM’s are sold by Cathay Pacific in their duty free catalog.

    VPN does obviously work too (I use PIA, manually configured as PPTP on my phone and laptop), but is annoying to deal with on your phone (connection isn’t always on).

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