Why You're Using VPN All Wrong and How to Fix it.
27 Nov 2017
With China blocking many popular foreign websites, VPN software has become an almost essential tool for foreigners wishing to enjoy life and conduct international business in the country. Constant crackdowns on VPN providers, moments of internet tightening, and bad connections; mean that even while using VPN, the Internet can still seem unbearably slow and difficult to use.
We've asked various VPN providers for suggestions and have been testing a popular solution, including during the week of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China; and we've found a solution that has kept us happily surfing the web; even during the crackdowns.
NOTE: This article is intended for non-Chinese nationals in China. If you are a Chinese national in China, this article is not for you and we in no way encourage your use of VPN to access websites blocked in China.
Let's face it, if you're a foreigner in China, you're just not going to be able to enjoy a very well-informed life here unless you've come to China specifically to escape the outside world. Keeping in touch with friends and family and using the tools we need for international business are major challenges here and using a VPN has become the number one way we go about dealing with those challenges. However, with China's crackdown on VPNs, even using those services has been difficult. Here's a quick look at some difficulties we often encounter when using a VPN service in China:
- Frequent loss of data transfer speed/ability. Meaning that one minute we're surfing the web and the next minute everything just stops and nothing seems to want to load.
- Slow Internet. Meaning that although I am able to access websites, things seem to load very slowly.
- Interrupted Connections. Meaning that some websites, inside or outside of China, just won't load at all. Many people have even reported trouble using APPs like WeChat while connected to a VPN.
When these things happen the common solution many of us turn to is to disconnect the VPN and re-connect in hopes of finding a server that works better. Some people just live with it and or assume it's the VPN that isn't working properly. However, we've been testing another solution for weeks, including during a period where many people were complaining of tightened Internet restrictions and security, and it has been working beautifully. In fact, the number of times any of the above problems occurred while testing was miniscule.
The method we've used involves something referred to as "Split Tunneling". When you use a VPN service, the provider's software establishes a secure link between your computer and a VPN server; which acts as a proxy, forwarding your requests for internet traffic, and the responses to those requests, back through their server. The secure link created is referred to as “tunnel.” With split tunneling, the VPN service providers software directs only some traffic through the secure link and the rest through your regular connection with your Internet Service Provider; who in turn, routes your internet requests as normal traffic.
Image Source: How to Configure Split-Tunneling on a Cisco ASA VPN
By simply taking advantage of this "split tunneling" feature available with some VPN providers, we've seen a noticeable improvement in the speed and accessibility of Internet browsing to sites both inside and outside of China. Companies can also use this technique to not allow access to websites they don't want their staff using. For example, with some of these providers below, you can specify certain IP addresses, or enter the name of apps, in case you don't want your staff to use the VPN to access them.
Our favorite VPN provider so far for using split tunneling is Astrill, simply because they've made it so easy to use with Windows, Android and iOS systems. All you need to do is select the "Smart Mode" option in their Settings tab and you're good to go. Here's how they describe it:
"Smart Mode (a.k.a. GFW Mode) is made specifically for customers in China with a goal to accelerate web surfing. When Smart Mode is enabled (in the Settings Menu), only blocked sites will be opened through Astrill servers, while all other sites (local sites) will be loaded directly."
Below is a list of some other VPN service providers that also offer split tunneling. These offer money-back guarantees, or free-to-cheap trial periods, as well so you can try them out with minimal risk.
- Express VPN (NOTE: tunneling is currently only available for iOS users)
- Ivacy VPN
- Invisible Browsing VPN
If you're using VPN at work, ask your IT team about it. For those using VPN routers, check with your router provider as some offer this as well.
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