If you’re heading to China or just curious, you may want to know which sites are blocked by the Great Firewall and which are freely accessible. There are a few ways to do this, but none of them are perfect.
What you need to know
As a result, the only way to find out if a site is accessible from the People’s Republic is to look at it yourself.
Using blocked website lists
If you want to save yourself the expense of a plane ticket, the easiest way to find out whether or not a site you like is blocked in China is, of course, to compare it with a few lists. Our favorite is the one that has Wikipedia as it is updated often, but there are a few others as well.
This Chinese travel website also has one, for example. A quick check shows that it is regularly updated, although not as often as the Wikipedia version. In either case, these lists are a great way to get a general idea of which sites have been blocked and which are not, although they probably won’t keep up with every little change in the Communist Party’s digital whims.
What about “Checker” websites?
If you want an option that reflects real-time changes, a “checker” tool like the one from VPNMentor, or the one at chinafirewalltest.com, might be a good option. Even China’s best search engine, Baidu, has one, although there is no English version of it.
Whichever one you choose, all you have to do is enter the address of a site (like facebook.com, for example), and it will tell you whether or not it is accessible from the Middle Kingdom.
These site checkers seem to run your request through five different servers across China.
According to Lisa, a member of VPNMentor’s research team, sometimes a site is blocked by one server, but not the other. She and her team don’t know why this is, nor could we find a reason. One possibility is that server information is being updated irregularly across China, but that’s a gamble at best.
Overall, these checker sites provide pretty good information as they use real live servers in China to perform your search. However, we wouldn’t rely on it too much either: the rules for what’s allowed and what’s not changing much, so your results one day may not be valid the next.
Using a VPN server in China
A third option we looked at was using a VPN to pretend we were in China. A virtual private network can place you anywhere in the world where it has servers, allowing you to use the Internet as if you were in that country. They are used by people all over the world to circumvent censorship. Theoretically, there is nothing stopping us from tunneling in the Chinese internet.
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One problem, however, is that very few VPNs offer servers in China: a tightly regulated internet is not a big draw for most people on the internet, especially considering that most Chinese content is freely accessible everywhere. The Great Firewall keeps people in, not out.
The only big name VPN services currently offering Chinese IP addresses are HideMyAss and Hotspot Shield. Both are decent enough, but their Chinese servers disappointed a bit. For example, we connected to a server through Hotspot Shield that gave us a Chinese IP address, but when we tested whether we could access Netflix – which is banned in the People’s Republic – we got the page for Netflix Japan.
We suspect that Hotspot Shield was using a virtual server – spoofing an IP address without being there – but it was detected by the Chinese authorities. If so, we don’t recommend using a VPN to check whether or not a site is accessible in China.
Why check if a site is blocked?
Of course, you might wonder if it’s even necessary to check if a site in China is blocked: even if one site you like is freely accessible, chances are another isn’t. Therefore, if you are going to China, we recommend that you worry less about whether or not you can access your favorite sites and more about getting the right VPN so that you can use the internet without restrictions from China.
Our favorite VPN for China is ExpressVPN, although there are still several to choose from. In fact, you may want to install two VPNs before you go, in case one of them gets blocked. In China, it pays to stay safe.