The Guiyang, China skyline at Jiaxiu Pavilion on the Nanming River.
Sean Pavone/Shutterstock.com

If you are on your way to China or are just the curious kind, 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 so, but none of them are perfect.

What You Need to Know

So what’s the problem with using these tools? Well, there are a few problems, but the most important one is that the sites that are and aren’t blocked are constantly changing. Whether this is because some official has changed their mind about what’s allowed, or because some shadowy algorithm has given the green light on a web page, is unclear.

The upshot is that the only way to find out for sure whether a site is accessible from the People’s Republic is to go there and check for yourself.

Using Blocked Website Lists

Of course, if you want to save yourself the cost of a plane ticket, the easiest way to find out whether or not a site you like is blocked in China is by checking it against a few lists. Our favorite is the one that Wikipedia has, since it’s updated often, but there are also a few others.

This Chinese travel website has one as well, for instance. A quick check shows that it gets regular updates, although not quite as often as the Wikipedia one. In both cases, these lists are a great way to get a general idea of which sites are blocked and which aren’t, although they probably don’t keep track of every little change to the Communist Party’s digital whims.

What About “Checker” Websites?

If you’d like to have an option that reflects real-time changes, then a “checker” tool like the one that VPNMentor has, or the one at chinafirewalltest.com, might be a good option. Even China’s top search engine, Baidu, has one, although there’s no English version of it.

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Whichever one you choose, you can just input the address of a site (like, say, facebook.com), and it will tell you whether or not it can be accessed from the Middle Kingdom.

Result from VPNMentor's China test

These site checkers seem to run your request through five different servers scattered throughout China.

According to Lisa, a member of VPNMentor’s research team, sometimes a site will be blocked by one server but not by the others. She and her team are stumped on why this is, and we couldn’t find a reason, either. One possibility is that server information updates irregularly across China, but that’s a guess, at best.

Overall, these checker sites offer pretty good information, seeing as how they use actual live servers in China to run your query. However, we wouldn’t bank too much on them, either: The rules for what’s allowed and what’s not change a lot, so your results on 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 like we were in China. A virtual private network is able to place you anywhere in the world where it has servers, allowing you to use the internet as if you were in that country. They’re used by people all over the world to circumvent censorship. Theoretically, there’s nothing preventing us from tunneling into the Chinese internet.

RELATED: What Is a VPN, and Why Would I Need One?

However, one problem is that very few VPNs offer servers in China: A tightly regulated internet isn’t a big draw for most people on the web, especially considering that most Chinese content is freely accessible from everywhere else. The Great Firewall keeps people in, not out.

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The only big-name VPN services that currently offer Chinese IP addresses are HideMyAss and Hotspot Shield. Both are decent enough services, but their Chinese servers disappointed a little. For example, we connected with Hotspot Shield to a server 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—which spoofs an IP address without being there—but it was detected by the Chinese authorities. Such being the case, we recommend against using a VPN to check whether or not a site is accessible in China.

Why Check Whether a Site Is Blocked?

Of course, you might wonder whether it’s even necessary to check whether a site is blocked in China: Even if one site that you like is freely accessible, chances are that another isn’t. Therefore, if you’re 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 from China free of restrictions.

Our favorite VPN for China is ExpressVPN, although there are several others to choose from. In fact, you may want to install two VPNs before you go, just in case one of them gets blocked. In China, it pays to stay safe.

Our Favorite VPN

ExpressVPN

ExpressVPN is our top VPN pick in general thanks to features like its large number of servers, speed, and no-logging policy. We’ve heard it works well to get around the Great Firewall in China, too.

Fergus O'Sullivan Fergus O'Sullivan
Fergus is a freelance writer for How-To Geek. He has seven years of tech reporting and reviewing under his belt for a number of publications, including GameCrate and Cloudwards. He's written more articles and reviews about cybersecurity and cloud-based software than he can keep track of---and knows his way around Linux and hardware, too.
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