This article will cover how to read your emails without a VPN, even if you use Gmail, and 7 other solutions to internet access problems caused by the Great Firewall of China.
What is the Great Firewall?
Basically, China has some concerns about the data security of specific western companies and they have blanket banned their services. This includes all Google services, not just Google search, so Maps, Gmail, Google Drive, Scholar and Google Books are all affected.
You might be forgiven for thinking that no one in China uses the internet, or that it’s a bleak, pared-down service with no real value to anyone. Google is EVERYTHING, right? Uh… no.
People in China use the internet like 24/7, and they do pretty much everything on there. More things than you. I’m pretty sure they’d use the internet to sleep if there was an app for it. The internet in China is thriving, and you can use it, too, you just have to know what to do instead of what you’re accustomed to.
If you have an iPhone, you can use Apple’s in-house programs instead of Google services.
If you have Google’s Maps app on your phone or tablet, the app will still work (ish) but it will be horribly inaccurate because it doesn’t know where anything in China is, streetview doesn’t work, and half the addresses are written in Chinese characters instead of English, so don’t use Google Maps in China anyway.
So anyway, there’s this firewall, and you’ve heard the answer is a VPN (virtual private network… you basically lie to the internet and tell it you’re somewhere else). You’re about to go to China and you are wondering about buying a VPN? STOP! Ask if you really need it. If you’re only going for a short trip, you likely will be about to waste £100!
Lots of rich-kid travel bloggers will tell you that you need a VPN to use the internet in China but it’s just not true. And actually, it can cause more problems than it solves.
Here’s the main reasons people think they need a VPN to visit China:
- Google Search
- Google Maps
- Google Drive and Dropbox
- Google Translate
- To access news sites and anything using AdSense or Analytics
This article is going to cover how to set up your stuff so you won’t need a VPN for most purposes. It’s for people who are only going to be in China for a week or two.
If you’re going as an expat, a VPN makes more sense because these workarounds are not long-term solutions, but as a tourist, why waste £100 on a year’s subscription to something you’ll never use after you get back from China?
How to get at your Gmail emails in China (do this before you go):
The biggest reason you might seriously need to use non-Chinese internet is to access important messages in your email inbox. Many things in the West are done via email these days so not being able to communicate with people is an abject nuisance, especially if you’re a digital nomad running a business.
Here’s how to read your emails and and stay in touch with your contacts while you’re on holiday in China:
- Go to Mail.com (that’s a different website to Gmail.com – note there’s no G at the start because it’s not a Google site). Set up a free account. It’s fairly basic and their popups are really annoying but they have one huge advantage for tourists in China trying to read their email, which is that mail.com is not banned in China.
You could also use Yahoo Mail (the search engine is banned but not the email, so bookmark a direct link), or if you have a self-hosted website or a work email, you could set up Outlook, Mac Mail or Thunderbird (but these are complicated for getting at web-based mail).
- Go to your Gmail account and go to “settings” (the cog). Click “go to all settings” near the top of the menu. In the tabs across the top (grey and hard to spot, see my screenshot), go to “forwarding and POP/IMAP” and check “forward a copy of incoming mail to:”
- Click “add a forwarding address.” Type your new mail.com email address into the box here and check “keep Gmail’s copy in the inbox” so you have a record of all your emails in case you need them later. Ignore all the rest and click “save changes”.
- Go back to your Mail.com account and confirm the forwarding request. If you don’t do this, the whole thing doesn’t work.
- Go to China and read your emails. It’s that simple!
What to use instead of Google Search in China?
These work fine. Bing throws up more results in English. Take your pick.
What to use instead of Google Maps in China?
A mapping app is something we’ve all come to rely on to help us find our way around. Sure, you could buy a paper map, but it won’t tell you shop opening times or give you a company website when you click on it.
However, there are LOADS of alternatives to Google maps which work in China. Here I’ll review all of them along with the problem all of them share:
1. Bing Maps.
This is basically the best mapping app for China.
Pros: The road names are all in English so you can read them. It shows the public transport lines really clearly, like WAY better than Google which absolutely isn’t geared up to showing you public transport very well. It gives you details about things on the map such as their website and opening hours, where these have been added to Bing. It works in your browser so even on a Mac you can use this Microsoft app. There’s also a downloadable Bing Maps app for your phone!
Cons: None. I am not a fan of Bing search engine but their mapping app is really good.
Find it: https://www.bing.com/maps
2. Apple Maps.
Misses out on the top spot because it only works on Apple products and there’s no browser option.
Pros: Works on your iphone, ipad or Mac. You don’t need to remember a URL to get a map. Has more up-to-date China maps than Google.
Cons: Doesn’t work on non-Apple products and you can’t use it in a browser.
Find it: On your Apple products.
3. Here We Go.
This works in your browser or as an app, across a range of products. I saw reviews which said it only worked on Windows, Android or iOS but I tested it on my MacBook Pro and I can safely say it also works on Macs.
Pros: Works on all platforms and there’s a browser mode. Great for getting from A to B when you know where you are and where you are going.
Cons: No business listings, destinations or places of interest, it only works with addresses you already know, so it’s not great for getting travel inspiration or mapping to somewhere by place name rather than street address. Very simple in terms of features shown, e.g. there’s no green to show parks.
Find it: https://wego.here.com/
This is a mapping app that claims to work offline and be a great friend to travellers.
Pros: Works offline (if you downloaded the map)
Cons: Doesn’t work on laptops, you can only run it on iOS or Android. No good for late-night laptop research for tomorrow’s itinerary (am I the only one who does this?).
The one problem all mapping apps share when you’re in China:
Street names are shown in Chinese characters or Western translations, both of which are, of course, useless for people who aren’t bilingual. Pinyin of the Mandarin street names written out in full would have been a better choice for readability and would also help with conveying addresses to taxi drivers (many of whom can’t read Chinese characters either).
If app developers are looking to update their maps with a major improvement, things like the screenshot below (from the English-language version of Apple maps) are basically useless when trying to get around in China. Instead of Fengcheng 1 Rd, it would be 1000% more useful to see “Fengcheng Yi Luo” written out in Pinyin, so travellers to China can read this out loud to taxi drivers, and those Chinese characters are hopeless, too.
Bing maps, y’all. It’s the best of the lot for getting around in China.
How to access Google Drive or Dropbox in China without a VPN:
You basically can’t. Sorry. The best workaround is to back up your files onto an external hard drive and use that, instead. Large-scale file sharing is a non-starter in China.
How to translate things in realtime in China:
Google Translate is very useful when you want to paste some text into a box and see some English. However, it is banned in China, which is a country where few people speak English.
Instead of using Google Translate in China, locals use a phone app called WeChat, which includes a translation option. You can either translate text, if someone sends you a message in Chinese, or you can use the phone’s picture scanner to translate Chinese into English.
Go to “options” “QR code scanner” then on the QR code scanner, press the “translate” button to toggle between QR scanner and translation. This will take a picture of the thing you want to understand, and it will translate it for you. Be sure to snap a screenshot if you need to keep the translation, as WeChat doesn’t save the translations for you.
You can also use a translation app but I have tried about 6 and none of them (even the expensive ones) were useful for China if I’m honest so I have nothing else to recommend.
If you want an app to actually learn Chinese, get Duolingo.
How to use Facebook in China (and Twitter) without a VPN
The only way to use Facebook in China is by using a VPN. And you can’t use a VPN on mobile data. BUT you can stay on top of your notifications by being clever.
Go to Facebook and look at your email settings. Get it to email you notifications for everything that happens on your Facebook. If you set your email up (first section, above), these notifications will be forwarded to your Mail.com and you can see who has liked your cat photo. This also works for Twitter. Who knew those crazy emails every 2 seconds, like “Bob Smith liked your post!” were actually useful for something?
How to read western news in China without a VPN
A lot of western news sites are blocked in China. Without saying too much, this is usually because they’ve been identified as having an anti-China bias. To make it even more annoying, paranoid webmasters in western countries block Chinese IP addresses for no good reason.
You can still get western news however. Your local hometown newspaper is very unlikely to be affected by this, because when was the last time the Springfield Gazette ran an article on China?
Bookmark your local hometown news site. If you’re from a big city like LA, Washington DC or New York, you might be better finding a smaller gazette or chronicle.
Additionally, certain western news sites are not blocked. This list is ever changing but if you bookmark the main sites, you have a good chance of finding one that can keep you abreast. When I last checked, the Independent and the Guardian weren’t blocked, and both cover US news as well as European news, although I suspect it’s only a matter of time before they get banned.
How to get YouTube in China without a VPN
Sorry, YouTube is a Google company, so you basically can’t access YouTube at all without a VPN. If you’re a Youtuber without a VPN in China, stay up to date on your channel notifications by getting them all via email, and save your videos of China to share when you get home.
For non-Youtubers, if you download your favourite videos with a YouTube downloader (my go-to one has just stopped doing free downloads so I no longer have a recommendation for this), you can watch them offline. Otherwise, buy a DVD and external DVD drive to take with you.
Are there any other apps or sites you’re struggling to use in China? Let me know in the comments and I’ll do some looking and update this article for you. 🙂