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China’s Great Firewall can play havoc with internet access, including plenty of sites that people tend to rely on. From YouTube to Facebook, the People’s Republic makes it very hard to live a normal digital life. But does that obstruction extend to popular email providers like Gmail?
This article will assess whether China limits access to Google’s mail client, and if not, how to access Gmail in China. It can be done, despite what the government may say. And we can show you how.
Can I use Gmail in China? A quick guide to email access
Unfortunately for visitors, those moving to work in China and – most of all – Chinese nationals who want to use the world’s number one email client, the answer to can you use Gmail in China is no. At least on the surface of things.
In 2010, a row broke out between the search engine giant Google and the world’s most populous nation. Stung by rising dissent and the potential for Chinese people to access free information, Beijing sought to force Google to doctor its search results for those living on the Chinese mainland.
At the time, Google were militantly committed to spreading internet freedom, and they refused to back down, feeding searches from mainland China through servers in Hong Kong. In response, China steadily became frostier towards Google (you can see where this is heading, right?).
As the tensions rose, Gmail regularly suffered crippling outages for Chinese users, which had the effect of slowly eroding its user base in favor of more reliable services. For example, there was a massive breakdown in late December 2014 – not a great time for a messaging service to be out of action. But it took years for China to get round to actually banning the mail service.
For a while, there were simple workarounds such POP3 or SMTP forwarding, but these primitive countermeasures couldn’t last. Eventually, Gmail’s star flickered out across China – for the majority of users, but not for everyone. As we’ll see, the answer to does Gmail work in China has been transformed by some radical internet privacy tools.
How to access Gmail in China – reliable ways to beat the Great Firewall
At the moment, there’s only one real solution to the problem of how to use Gmail in China – using a high-quality Virtual Private Network (VPN) service.
VPNs are widely used across the world to ensure privacy when surfing the web, streaming movies or downloading files. They add a layer of encryption to everything users do online, and also hide the location and IP address of individuals, routing their traffic through servers that could be on the other side of the planet.
Choose the right VPN to access Gmail accounts in China
Not all VPNs are able to beat China’s censors. Over the past few years, Beijing has fought a running battle against VPNs, with very mixed results. Overall, the VPNs are winning, but only ones which understand how the China’s Great Firewall works.
We’ve created a run-down of the best VPNs for China, which you’re free to consult. But to put things briefly, reliable VPNs to use when asking can you use Gmail in China include ExpressVPN, NordVPN, VyprVPN, and TorGuard. All of them bypass the government’s filters, and should unlock Gmail without any issues.
When you come to choose, you may be tempted by one of the many free VPNs around. These services often pop up on Google searches (ironically), but tend not to be as sophisticated as paid-for VPNs.
Free VPNs invest less in finding workarounds for problems, making them less responsive to Chinese government actions.
And they are also associated with shady practices like logging and data selling. This makes them dubious protectors of your privacy when using any mail client in repressive countries.
However, you also don’t have to leap for the most expensive, high-end VPN package on your shortlist. Even the best services generally offer free trial periods, and it’s always good to try before you buy. Check reviews from people who have used the VPN recently in China as well. Gmail access changes from VPN to VPN, sometimes on a daily basis and you don’t want to pay for a service that flat-out doesn’t work, right?
Best practices to remember when using a VPN to access Gmail in China
When you’re wondering can I use Gmail in China, and you’ve found a VPN you trust, that’s only half the story. You’ll have to master how to use your chosen VPN before unlocking Gmail on a regular basis. So here are some tips to remember to help guide you.
- Have a couple of VPN options at your disposal – As I mentioned above, access to Gmail fluctuates. Even the best VPNs can go down for technical reasons, putting Gmail out of reach. So it’s a good idea to have a backup VPN that you can try if your main option fails.
- Pick VPNs with money back guarantees – Another good idea is to choose VPNs which allow customers to claim their money back if the service doesn’t measure up. A few VPNs offer this, and they tend to be the elite. So you probably won’t need the guarantee, but it’s nice to have anyhow.
- Be patient and don’t panic – If you struggle to access Gmail at first or it runs a little slower than you are accustomed to, don’t immediately assume that the Great Firewall has repelled your attack. Sometimes VPNs can be slowed down by government obstructions, sometimes the servers used are simply a little slow. But with reputable VPNs, you will get through, so don’t give up.
- Be realistic about the content you send and receive – When you use Gmail in China, don’t expect to send huge volumes of travel videos. Budget for slowish speeds and stick to text and you’ll almost certainly be fine.
- Sort out your VPN well before arrival – One of the key mistakes made by people who visit China and want to use Gmail is failing to purchase a VPN before touching down. China makes it tough to access VPN sites from within the country’s borders, but if you set it up back home or somewhere like Hong Kong, there shouldn’t be a problem.
What about choosing a different email provider?
If you can’t face up to the hassle of accessing Gmail in China, there are alternatives to think about using. For example, Tencent’s QQ offers an instant messaging function which is handy for communicating with people in China. Then there are Chinese email providers like Mail35, but some basic Mandarin might help if you fancy using them.
However, there’s a more familiar option: Yahoo Mail. Yahoo’s mail client isn’t blocked (as of late 2018) in China, so you might want to set up a Gmail forwarding service to a Yahoo account. Then again, Yahoo’s search has recently been blocked, so their email could follow. Nothing is guaranteed when using websites in China, unfortunately.
Use a VPN to access Gmail wherever you roam
China’s censorship is among the most sophisticated in the world, and it does a pretty good job of walling locals off from YouTube and Google. But with a good VPN, almost anyone can answer the question how to use Gmail in China. So if you’re visiting soon, you know what to do.
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Mikaela is an investigative journalist that likes to cover the ever-changing world of technology. She tries to keep her finger on the pulse of digital trends and share her insights on the most relevant topics, including big tech, security, privacy, and data breaches.