Most of the time, when we’re talking about a VPN that’s best for a specific task, you can take one from the top of the list and be almost sure it will work. But when it comes to overcoming the Great Firewall, the odds worsen. According to a Freedom House report, for the third consecutive year China has been the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom.
So it should come as no surprise that a recently-functional VPN may suddenly be powerless against the barricade. And the situation shows no sign of changing in the foreseeable future, with online access becoming increasingly constricted. In August 2018, the BBC moved from HTTP to the secure HTTPS protocol, which resulted in another ban in China. As HTTPS becomes the standard protocol, we can expect to see these restrictive policies continue. The BBC itself recommends its readers to use a VPN – you believe the BBC, don’t you? Better get one if you want to stay online in China. But is using Astrill in China advised or ill-advised?
Sadly, there’s no way to test Astrill in China with a free trial which is not offered in this country. This means you will have to buy Astrill VPN without first checking if it works. We recommend getting it on your computer or smartphone before going to China because the access to its website is likely blocked.
4 points to consider when choosing a VPN in China
It’s important for every VPN to have top-level security, good speed, and an easy to use client. Ideally, all this should come for a price that’s not far from the industry’s average of $6.10/month for a one-year plan. Yet there are also 4 specific points to consider more carefully if you’re planning to use a VPN in China:
- The number of servers in Asia
- The number of servers on the US West Coast
- The protocols available for each platform
- The quality of customer support
Does Astrill meet all 4 criteria of a China-worthy VPN?
Astrill has 332 servers in 62 countries. While the servers are spread pretty widely, server count might give some doubts for the wannabe VPN user. Therefore we must point out that the total number of servers is by no means a good way to determine which services provides better connectivity. Most of the time it comes down to the server load and the more popular VPN, the more users will be squeezing in.
Last but not least, Astrill has the highest number of servers in Asia percentage-wise when compared to the top VPNs. Almost one quarter of Astrill VPN servers are in Asia, while NordVPN or CyberGhost have only 4% each, even though the latter has 30 more servers and the former outscores Astrill by more than a hundred.
To see if there’s a difference, we tested Astrill VPN vs NordVPN from another continent, connecting to three countries in Asia – Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea – to see which fares better. We used two speed test servers for each country, but one of them had to be “Taiwan Mobile”.
The VPN-less test showed 87 Mbps download and 92 Mbps upload (rounded up).
As predicted, NordVPN demonstrated very good results as well: 25-26 Mbps download in all 3 countries and 11-14 Mbps upload, save for Taiwan where the speed imploded and went down to less than 1 Mbps.
But when the time for Astrill VPN came, we wouldn’t have thought we would see something like this: 3 out of 6 tests showed download speeds of 70 Mbps or more, and 2 test results fell between 37 and 43 Mbps! Now image what would happen if you used Astrill’s VIP servers (read about them below) to enhance connectivity in Asia! Unfortunately, all upload numbers were disappointing, not reaching even 2 Mbps.
While such results are far from final, they seem logical – Astrill VPN, being a household name in China, shows stellar speeds.
Astrill VPN servers in Asia
Astrill VPN has 79 servers in 12 Asian countries. This might seem like a mis-representation, given the population of internet users in this continent and the fact that China likes to ban IP addresses used by VPN servers. But as we mentioned previously, 24% of Astrill’s servers are in Asia, which means they put serious effort in working in this continent, while industry leaders are still looking westward. In any case, the best thing any VPN service can do while China continues blocking IPs is adding more servers. As of now, here is what Astrill VPN has in Asia:
- Japan 34
- Taiwan 11
- Hong Kong 8
- Indonesia 1
- India 5
- Korea 5
- Malaysia 1
- Philippines 1
- Pakistan 1
- Singapore 9
- Thailand 1
- Vietnam 1
On the map above you can see two dots marking the territory of Astrill in China, yet these local servers are not in the list – those are the VIP dedicated servers you can order from Astrill (more that later).
Astrill VPN servers on the US West Coast
There are chances you will get the best speed using US West coast servers – Astrill has over 60 of them. And the best ones to choose are those conveniently named “China optimized”. The free Android version gives us 1, while the paid one gives 3.
As always, you should test which servers work best for you, as it can also depend on the date and time, and most importantly – on the takedown target chosen by the Great Firewall guardsmen on that day.
Astrill VPN protocols that work in China
While the servers and your ISP are the two main factors determining connection speed and stability, protocols are also important, especially when it comes to China. Astrill VPN offers a big protocol selection for desktop users – OpenVPN, StealthVPN, OpenWeb, L2TP/IPSec, IKEv2/IPsec, SSTP, and PPTP.
There have been multiple reports about China using Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) to block OpenVPN traffic. Astrill VPN has the aforementioned StealthVPN protocol, which allows to bypass DPI.
Android users have OpenWeb as the default protocol but it’s suited only for browsing. That’s probably the reason why Astrill doesn’t offer browser extensions for Chrome, Firefox, or Safari. So while OpenWeb works quite well in China (though its security has not been tested that well compared to OpenVPN), it’s not suitable for torrents and any other non-browser activities. Luckily, StealthVPN is also available on Android. Speaking of this OS, you should be aware that a DNS leak has been reported in Android version awhile ago, but our test hasn’t found anything.
Speed of Astrill-China tunnel
When using Astrill in China, expect good to very good speeds, which is in part due to the number of servers around and their longtime experience working in this region.
For even more speed, you can buy a VIP plan from Astrill for $10/month. This will allow you to access “exclusive VIP VPN dedicated servers”, which sounds cooler than passing the face-control at The Oscars after-party. It costs a pretty penny, but the speed you will get will probably be the best you can get in China. Why? Because these VIP servers were created specifically for users in Asia. Therefore, the majority of them are located in… Asia! Hong Kong, Taiwan, USA, Japan, Singapore, Korea, China – this all looks great and we already know that USA servers can also give good speeds when in China.
What is more, VIP servers offer advanced security with the Multi-Hop VPN feature. Find more about it on the main Astrill VPN page.
Talking about the connection reliability, we would say it’s OK but cannot be compared to Express or NordVPN, at least while you’re not in that VIP mode.
Support for those who use Astrill in China
So we know already about the servers and the protocols, now what about the support, which can quickly become invaluable in China?
Astrill VPN offers live chat which depends on US working hours. So this might not be the best thing when you’re in China, even though the staff itself was decent and used to dealing with customers from beyond the Great Firewall. Luckily, there’s also a phone number – not only in the US but in Hong Kong, so getting a quick response should be possible.
If all else fails, there’s your old email contact form, though you might get old while waiting for an answer. It would be better to check the comprehensive list of support manuals on Astrill’s website and try to solve things on your own.
Is Astrill-China a match, or a match between them?
While Astrill is certainly good enough to be mentioned in anyone’s TOP 10 VPNs list despite its price, it still has the reputation of a popular and efficient VPN to be used only in China. We believe this is about to change.
The fact that Astrill is a known Chinese VPN league player is a blessing and a curse. A curse, because the Chinese government targets them and tries to block them (they draw too much attention compared to a newcomer). There have been multiple attempts to block Astrill, which means the Chinese government is working to make sure this popular option is no longer popular. On the other hand, Astrill VPN has years of experience working in this tough market segment, so we are sure it will continue to be an option not only for the hardcore fans, but also for the newcomers willing to spend some money to access their VIP servers. Those who always remember to look at the price tag before buying might feel the urge to look elsewhere.
In conclusion, we do recommend Astrill for China, unless you already are a long-time subscriber of another VPN and have no issues with it. If not, you shouldn’t be against paying a bit extra to get the maximum possible speed and great security, which are two essential things to have when using the internet in this country. Astrills’ VIP dedicated servers can further increase connectivity and allow quality local connection due to the Chinese servers. Using any free VPN in China is ill-advised, with the exception of TunnelBear that unfortunately has a strict 500MB bandwidth limit.
Whatever you choose, make sure your decision is based on the latest information on VPNs in China. It’s one thing when you cannot check your Facebook feed while on a beach in Thailand, and quite another when you cannot get to important business information when in a Chinese metropolis. This is also about the connection speed – there’s not much use paying for some “Bang for the buck VPN 2018” winner, if the estimated time your torrent will download is in the Year of Porcupine, which is never.