Moving to China is definitely a bit of a culture shock for most people — different social customs, different cuisine, and different internet access. That's right — if you didn't already know, sites like Facebook, Instagram, and even Gmail are unable to be accessed once you move to China.
This might sound a little scary — especially if you're used to communicating with friends and family through social media — but there's no need to panic. In fact, the solution is pretty easy — all you need to do is get a VPN.
If you're from a country without censorship laws (like the United States), you might not even know what a VPN is. Essentially, VPN stands for "Virtual Private Network", and it's a service used to privately and securely access any website you want from anywhere in the world — including China.
Once you have downloaded a VPN software or app, it will encrypt your data so that nobody will be able to see it (including your internet provider or any WiFi network you're using.) The encrypted data goes to the VPN, and then to whatever site you're visiting.
In other words, the VPN server acts like a middle-man between your information and the world wide web. The main difference to note is that any website you visit will see your information coming from the VPN server, not your actual location. So basically, you could be in one country, but your VPN may show you are accessing the internet from another country. This is basically how you can fool the internet and censors and thus be able to access these sites even when you are in China.
Many people use VPNs for more than just logging into censored sites — they also provide a much more private and secure connection. Think about it like this: when you browse the internet without a VPN, it's like leaving your valuables out in the front yard. Even if you live in a good neighborhood, you still run the chance that somebody might take your stuff.
Surfing the web with a VPN is like building a wall around those valuables — your information is still out there, but it's much harder for people to see and to trace it back to you.
Now that you know what it is, you may be thinking: why do I need one? Is it really THAT important? Yes — just like your passport, a VPN is not something you want to forget.
It was briefly mentioned before, but perhaps the most important reason to get a VPN is so you can access blocked sites like Facebook, Gmail, etc. Although China has their own form of social media called WeChat, you'll probably still want to log into your Facebook account or check your email every once and awhile to keep in contact with friends and family.
In fact, there's a surprisingly large number of sites blocked in China (which you can read about farther down.)
Another reason is safety. A WiFi network from a Chinese hotel or another public place is insecure. If you're using one of these networks, you don't want to be browsing without the added security of a VPN.
A VPN also won't log any searches you make or store any websites you visit. That way, nobody will know what you've been looking at except for you.
If you did move to China without a VPN, you'd be missing out on a lot. In terms of social media, you wouldn't be able to access these sites: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, Reddit, Periscope, Tinder, Flickr, and Blogspot.
You also wouldn't be able to use popular search engines like Google or Yahoo. (That also includes anything Google-related like Gmail, Google Docs or Google Drive.)
Streaming services like Netflix, Youtube, Dailymotion, Twitch and Vimeo are restricted, too.
It would be extremely difficult to stay updated on world events without sites like BBC, New York Times, CNN, ABC, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and Wikipedia. Although these aren't the only blocked websites, they are the ones you're most likely to be affected by.
Curious about popular apps used in China? Check out The Top 7 Apps For Living And Traveling in China
Luckily, downloading a VPN onto your computer or phone isn't a complicated process. The important thing to understand is that there are several different VPNs out there—some of them are free and some of them are not free.
Choosing the best VPN to use is ultimately up to you, and it may take a little online research to figure out which one you like best. (A paid VPN doesn't necessarily make it better than a free one, but free VPNs do usually have more ads.) Or, if it's possible, you can ask a friend who's lived overseas what is the best VPN for China.
If you're not sure which VPN to download, check out this article: What Is The Best VPN To Use In China?
Once you've picked out your VPN, all you really need to do is download or install it onto your device. If you're using a cell phone, you'll find plenty of VPNs in the app store. (Downloading VPNs shouldn't require anything more than clicking a few buttons, and the website should direct you to what you need to do.)
After the VPN is installed, you may need to turn it on — depending on the specific VPN. However, once you do that, the set-up is over — you're free to begin browsing whatever and wherever you wish.
You should always download your VPN before you get to China. Once you get there, you may be unable to access the website you need. Or, you may have to settle for getting a VPN that isn't as good as the one you originally wanted. (There are a few VPNs available in China, but they're overpriced and don't always work as well.) So, no matter what, installing the VPN before you go is always the best option.
If you've never used a VPN before, you might be hesitant to start. However, if you're going to live in China, using one is essential—not only to communicate with loved ones, but also to enjoy entertainment sites like Netflix or Youtube. Besides downloading a VPN, what else should you do before coming to China? Check out this list of 11 Things To Do Before You Arrive In China.