Digital connections across a representation of the globe.

Shadowsocks is a powerful tool that can help you escape censorship, in particular the Great Firewall of China. As much as we like it, though, setting it up can be a bit tricky, which is why we’ve put together this guide on how to install Shadowsocks using an open-source program called Outline.

What Is Shadowsocks?

Shadowsocks is a tool that uses the SOCKS5 proxy to reroute and disguise internet traffic and thus get past censorship blocks. It was developed initially by a Chinese programmer and is thus particularly useful in getting past the Great Firewall of China, though we’ve received reports you can use it for bypassing other regimes’ blocks, too.

However, if you’re looking to change your Netflix region or use BitTorrent, you’re much better off using a VPN. That’s something we explain in detail in our article comparing Shadowsocks vs. VPNs.

The problem with Shadowsocks, though, is that it’s a bit tricky to set up, something we can hopefully help you with. There are several ways in which you can install Shadowsocks, but as many of them involve scripts cobbled together by enthusiasts, we like to use a program called Outline, which comes with a nice GUI and takes just a few minutes to set up.

What Is Outline?

Outline is a simple, open-source program that lets you set up your own proxy using the Shadowsocks protocol and run it through your own server—it has built-in functionality with VPS provider DigitalOcean, but you can use another provider or even set up your own server. We’ve tested it on Windows 10 and Linux, though it should also work fine on Mac, iPhone, iPad, and Android.

RELATED: What Is VPS? What a Virtual Private Server Can Do for You

Though it likes to refer to itself as a VPN, it very much is not one as it doesn’t use a VPN protocol. As a result, we recommend you use it for dodging censorship blocks and not for torrenting or bypassing Netflix’s regional restrictions—though you can certainly try.

What we like about Outline is that you can install the main program—called Manager—on a desktop device and then run the client program on any other device. You’re more or less running your own private network and you can share keys with your family and friends.

If you use DigitalOcean, you can run as much as 1TB of bandwidth through your server for just $5 per month, which is a lot cheaper than any commercial VPN—though again without the versatility. To raise that limit, you can always just pay a little extra.

Outline has been audited and tested by two digital security organizations, Radically Open Security and Cure53, and as far as we can tell it’s a solid option for anybody looking to get past censorship blocks. If you’re looking for a more tried-and-true solution, though, and you don’t mind spending a bit of money, you may want to check out our selection of the best VPNs instead.

How to Set Up Shadowsocks the Easy Way

Assuming you want to give Outline a shot, though, let’s get started with downloading the program. For this. For this, go to the Outline website and click on “get Outline.” The next page will show you download links for both the Manager and the Client, for now just install the Manager.

Outline Manager and Client

Once downloaded, open the program (for Linux you need to open the .AppImage file) and you’ll be met with a screen where you can choose the cloud service or server you’re using to route your traffic through. We’re using DigitalOcean for ours, but there are plenty of other options. DigitalOcean is the easiest option by far, though; you don’t even need to have a server ready.

Outline server options

In most cases, you’d have to set up your server beforehand, but using DigitalOcean all you need to do is link Outline to your account and the hard work is done for you. Just follow the on-screen prompts to authorize Outline to access your hosting account, all you need to do is choose a server location.

Server locations for Outline

If you’re in China, Singapore is probably your best bet, though Bengaluru in India is a good alternative; we went with Amsterdam. Whichever location you go with, just click “set up Outline” in the top right when you’re done and the program will get started. The setup process will take a few minutes.

Outline install screen

Once it’s done setting up, you’ll be greeted by Outline’s connection center, where you can set up connections—both your own as well as those of whomever you want to share the connection with—and track data usage. In the top right, you can also go to the settings screen to find information about the server as well as tweak functions to your liking. In our case, though, we want to hook up a device to the server, so we need to click on the icon next to “my access key.”

Outline's configuration screen

You’ll get a pop-up, just click “connect this device” and then make sure to copy the secure key in the next screen. After that, you’ll go to a third screen where you need to install the Outline Client. Just click “install outline” and the download will automatically start.

Outline Client installation

Once it’s downloaded, go to your downloads folder and open up the installer for the client. If it’s on the same device as the Outline Manager, the key will be automatically detected. Otherwise, you can enter it manually (in the image below, we’ve blanked part of the secure key.) Then hit “Add Server.”

Outline enter secure key

Then all you need to do to connect to your new Shadowsocks server is to hit “Connect.”

Outline client

You should now be able to access the internet through your new server. If you want to connect any other devices—including mobile devices, as Outline will work on Android and iOS as well—you should install the Outline Client on that device and enter the secure key. You can also create new secure keys if you want to spread security credentials around among friends and family, it’s up to you. Either way, you should now be able to browse the free internet.

Profile Photo for 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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