Seth Barham Design
Minimal and effective design, inspired by culture.

Spartan Wanderer

Ramblings from the road, gear reviews, design trends, and whatever else happens to be on my mind.

A Review: ExpressVPN

This week, we’re taking a look at something that is absolutely essential if you plan on traveling to or living in China. Due to the government’s Golden Shield Project (really grinds their gears when you call it the Great Firewall for some reason), you will not be able to access Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and the like while in China. But it goes further. You can’t even use what we now consider basic online utilities like Google or Gmail. This can really complicate things if you’re here on business or need to contact loved ones back home. 

Without going into great detail on why China does this (I still live here), let’s talk about the solution. A Virtual Private Network (VPN) allows you to connect to another secure network located in a different country. If I connect to a server based in Los Angeles, it’s basically like creating a tunnel from China to the USA by pressing a button on my laptop. As long as you’re connected, you can access restricted sites, watch Netflix from your home country, and enjoy a secure, encrypted connection. 

There are many VPNs to choose from, ranging from free to more premium options that can run up to $100+ for an annual subscription. Let me go ahead and tell you now that a free VPN is not going to cut the mustard for China. Those have been smacked down a long time ago. Even some of the big VPN brands struggle to evade the government’s ongoing crackdown. Therefore, it’s important to do your research and choose carefully. 

Not all VPNs are created equal

I’ve lived in China for over 5 years now (Jesus Christ) and have gone through many VPN services during that time. The first option I used was PureVPN. It did the job, but did not have as many features as other services and quickly got squashed. I had to move on to another option, which means having a useless subscription that you’ve already paid for. This is why it’s so important to choose carefully. 

Next, I used Astrill, which was also squashed (welcome to dumb club). The up-and-comer VyprVPN was my next refuge, but they also suffered under the robust VPN crackdown. Annoyingly, they never provided many updates on the situation, so their China customers are left to watch a Connecting… screen that never connects without any explanation. Not only could I not waste time browsing Reddit, but I also couldn’t access Gmail to communicate with my clients. After many years with Vypr, I had no choice but to take my business elsewhere.

Why I use ExpressVPN

All of those previous options fell short, and I’ve moved on yet again…to ExpressVPN! Based on my own experience, the experiences of friends, and further research, I can say that it is currently the best option on the market for anyone considering a trip to China. Here’s why. 

1. Reliable, unrestricted Internet access

Especially for those who are traveling to China on business, you will need to be able to access Gmail and other apps for international communications (WhatsApp is also banned…). Pressing the massive “Connect” button on ExpressVPN’s very simple interface will ensure that you don’t miss a beat across time zones. 

However, a VPN is even more crucial to the mental stability of the expat living in China. I did a week without a VPN. No, it was not some monastic lifestyle experiment and it was not fun. If you are definitely coming to China and you want to watch Netflix or YouTube, use BBC iPlayer, or game in a region where features haven’t been neutered by the censors, get ExpressVPN now. 

2.  Several location and server options

One of ExpressVPN’s greatest strengths is its variety of server locations and VPN protocols. With over 160 server locations in 94 countries to choose from, almost anyone will be able to have a link back home. These servers also provide the user with multiple redundancies if their first choice goes down, which is prone to happen in China. There hasn’t been a day yet that I haven’t been able to connect to at least one server in China. 

Express also boasts four different protocols for connecting to a VPN server, which increases your chance of a connection when there are outside forces working against that. Here is a brief summary of these protocols and their strengths and weaknesses:

  • PPTP (Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol) is very fast, but does not encrypt your connection. 

  • L2TP/IPsec (Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol/Internet Protocol Security) is almost as fast as PPTP and slightly more secure, but it’s likely your ISP can still see your activity. 

  • OpenVPN UDP (User Datagram Protocol) is slower than the previous two but is highly secure through a strong encryption algorithm. 

  • OpenVPN TCP (Transmission Control Protocol) is a bit slower than UDP, but it has a greater chance of bypassing government firewalls while maintaining the same level of security. 

ExpressVPN automatically uses OpenVPN UDP across all of its apps to ensure their customers have secure connection. If you live in China and UDP happens to be blocked, the app will automatically switch to TCP. This means you don’t have to waste time messing around in the settings to try ever single protocol. 

3. You can actually use it to watch Netflix

Netflix is certainly aware of how VPNs allow their customers to view shows outside of their subscription’s region. They’ve also gotten rather good at detecting VPN use and scolding you like a naughty child with one hand in the cookie jar. Fortunately for us, the greatest minds at ExpressVPN have been working hard with the specific goal of thwarting the geoblocking technology that Netflix and other streaming services use. Technology, uh, finds a way. 

Netflix uses a database of known VPN IP addresses that are automatically compared to your IP. If there’s a match, you will be blocked, along with a good telling off. Netflix is constantly updating this list, but ExpressVPN is also constantly updating their servers. It is one of the best VPNs to connect to Netflix and also stream high-quality video. Trust me, when the air pollution is thick enough to poke with a chopstick, you’ll need that guaranteed Netflix connection. 

4. Browse the Internet securely

If you enjoy singing and dancing around your apartment in your underwear, you should be free to do so, and no one else needs to know about it. If you want to reenact Avengers: Endgame with spoons and forks, that’s an interesting use of your time, but I don’t care and don’t need to know about it. Same goes for your Internet activity. As we’re all well aware, there are some pretty strange rabbit holes you can fall into online. As long as no one is being harmed, there is no reason your ISP needs to know what you’re doing. 

ExpressVPN hides your IP address, mixes your traffic with other users, and encrypts your traffic with AES-256. This is short for Advanced Encryption Standard with 256-bit keys, which means there are 115,792,089,237,316,195,423,570,985,008,687,907,853,269,984,665,640,560,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible combinations. In other words, ain’t no one cracking it. 

5. Frequent updates for China customers

One of my biggest gripes with my previous service - VyprVPN - is that they were not very forthcoming about the ongoing VPN crackdown in China. No “we’re working on it”, no acknowledgement that their customers in China were not getting what they paid for. Compare this to ExpressVPN, who have information on the situation stickied to the footer of their application window. China customers may not be able to connect to every server, but there are always several available, and ExpressVPN does a great job of making us aware of the most reliable options at the time. There is an active blog that provides timely updates should there be any downtime, which users can usually access without a VPN connection.

Stay connected in China with ExpressVPN

If not for business, if not for contacting your loved ones, you will want a VPN in China to retreat to something familiar and comfortable. Don’t get me wrong, world travel is all about venturing out of your comfort zone and exploring other cultures, but everyone eventually seeks refuge in what they know when it all becomes too much. It definitely can in China, which can be as chaotic and frustrating a place to live as it is beautiful and interesting. 

Don’t procrastinate if you have a trip to the Middle Kingdom in the works. Get ExpressVPN today to maintain a seamless connection to the outside world in between your dumpling-filled adventures. 


Full Disclosure: My blog is now a part of ExpressVPN’s affiliate network. Using any of the links in this review will give me a kickback for general upkeep of the blog at no extra cost to you. While I do have some incentive, I meant every word in this review. ExpressVPN is truly one of the best options out there for open Internet access in China.