Most people have heard of the Great Wall of China, but China also has a modern-day virtual wall, frequently referred to as the Great Firewall of China and officially known as the Golden Shield Project. The Chinese government uses the Great Firewall to censor the Internet: Facebook, Twitter, and other sites are blocked. For tourists or expatriates in China, having no access to Facebook or Twitter can be vexing, since they may normally rely on those social networks to keep in touch with the happenings back home or to document a visit.
But there are ways around the Great Firewall. The method most commonly used by visitors and Chinese citizens alike is to use a virtual private network (VPN): You simply connect, over an encrypted connection, to a server outside the firewall. During my recent visit to Beijing, I thought I'd see whether I could use such an approach to get around the Great Firewall. Not only was I successful, but it's a lot easier than it sounds. If you're the type of person whose eyes gloss over when you hear terms like VPN and IP address, rest assured that it's not at all difficult to do.
In this article, I'll go over the steps of how I used an iPhone and a VPN to access the Internet in Beijing, China.
Before I get started, it's worth asking: Is it legal to use a VPN in China? An online report at VPN Instructions says "there are no laws...that prohibit any user in China from connecting to a VPN outside of mainland China." But the Chinese government has passed a law requiring telecommunications companies to obtain detailed information on new customers for the purposes of tracing account activity. And though a VPN prevents anyone from knowing what you're doing on the Internet, the fact that you're using a VPN in the first place raises red flags (in a bad way) with the Chinese government about your online activity. So try this at your own risk.
Prepare the device
Before my trip, I needed to find a GSM phone that would let me use a China-specific SIM card. (GSM is the radio system used by AT&T and T-Mobile in the United States, and by most mobile phones outside the United States.) Specifically, I needed an unlocked GSM phone—one not tied to any particular carrier—and a SIM card bought in China.
Most GSM iPhones sold in the United States are locked to AT&T's network. To use a non-AT&T SIM card, you have to unlock your phone, which allows you to use it on a network other than AT&T's. Fortunately, I had an old, AT&T iPhone 3GS that I wouldn't miss if it were lost. Unlocking my iPhone 3GS was easy: AT&T lets you request a device unlock online, as long as you meet the company's requirements. (AT&T's primary requirement is that the phone is no longer under contract. Other carriers have different requirements for unlocking a device.)
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