What Is Shadowsocks Proxy? An Alternative When VPNs Aren’t Viable

If you live somewhere with severe internet censorship, you might not be able to use a VPN to bypass restrictions, as VPNs may be blocked in your country. If this is the case but you still want to access the internet freely, you can try an alternative called a Shadowsocks proxy.

What Is Shadowsocks?

Shadowsocks is a special type of proxy (What is a proxy?) that can bypass internet censorship.

Specifically, Shadowsocks in an implementation of the SOCKS5 protocol, using encryption, in a free and open-source software format. Its technology allows it to bypass the DNS blocking used by repressive governments, such as China’s ban on VPNs. (Are VPNs legal or illegal?)

Shadowsocks is commonly used in China, particularly among political activists such as those involved in the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests.

There have been multiple attempts by governments and law enforcement to prevent Shadowsocks from being used, such as police threats and an enforced takedown of the project from GitHub in 2015. There was even a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack against GitHub in the days following the takedown order which some speculated could be related to Shadowsocks.

Still, as free and open-source software, Shadowsocks continues to be made available in a variety of implementations, with developers continuing to work on the project.

Why Use Shadowsocks?

One of the primary reason that people choose to use Shadowsocks or SOCKS proxies is to get around restrictive firewalls. For example, in China, large amounts of the internet are blocked including popular sites like YouTube, Google, Facebook, Wikipedia, Netflix, Reddit, and Instagram. Not to mention news sites or political sites providing unflattering coverage of the government which are swiftly blocked as well.

The way country-wide firewalls like China’s, known as the Great Firewall of China, work is by the government obliging ISPs within the country to block access to a list of forbidden websites. So the sites are blocked from every internet connection, whether it’s a personal network at home, a public WiFi network in a cafe, or a 4G mobile phone network.

To get around such firewalls, you can use a Shadowsocks proxy. Another option is to use a VPN, but VPNs are banned in China and in recent years there has been a serious crackdown against their use. So many of the more technically-minded people in China who want to access the internet freely use Shadowsocks instead.

Shadowsocks vs. VPN: The Difference

From this, it might sound like Shadowsocks is the same thing as a VPN. And the two are in fact very similar. But there are some key differences between them.

The biggest difference when it comes to getting around firewalls is that VPN providers are often big, well-known companies. Governments that want to restrict internet access, like China, know the names of large VPN providers and so can easily block traffic coming from VPN servers.

Shadowsocks users, on the other hand, essentially create their own individual proxy connection, making it much more difficult for the government to identify when a person is using Shadowsocks. That makes it hard to block these connections, so Shadowsocks will often work even when a VPN is blocked.

How to Implement Shadowsocks

If you want to have access to Shadowsocks to protect your privacy, get around firewalls, and browse freely, there are two main methods. The first is to configure your own server on the Linux operating system. The second is to use a VPN service that supports Shadowsocks technology.

Method 1: Configure Your Own Server Using Linux

If you want absolute protection using Shadowsocks which you control, then you can set up your own Shadowsocks server using Linux. If you are familiar with Python and Linux then you can use the Shadowsocks implementation to set up your own server, then configure your server to the exact specifications you want.

The advantage of this method is that you maintain total control over your data and how it is routed. The disadvantage is that it requires you to run your own server, and it requires a reasonably high level of technical knowledge to set up.

Method 2: Get a VPN That Supports Shadowsocks

The easier way to use Shadowsocks, if you’re not up for setting up your own server, is to find a VPN which supports Shadowsocks. A VPN offers improved security and privacy by encrypting all of the data which you device is sending over the internet. You’ll have to pay a monthly or yearly fee for a reputable paid VPN service, but they are usually inexpensive and a good way to generally improve your security.

A number of VPNs also come with support for Shadowsocks. Shadowsocks essentially acts as a proxy, hiding your real location by routing your data via a server in another country. When this is used in addition to the encryption offered by a VPN, you can get an even higher level of security.

Our recommended course of action for the best security and privacy protections is to use a Shadowsocks proxy in addition to a trustworthy VPN service. This way, if your VPN server should go down or you should be disconnected from the VPN for some reason, the Shadowsocks proxy will continue to protect you.

How to Use Shadowsocks With a VPN

Although the way Shadowsocks works can sound technical, it’s actually very easy to use if your VPN supports it.

The setup may differ slightly depending on your VPN provider. As an example, let’s consider Mullvad VPN (read our review). To use Shadowsocks, you open up the Mullvad app and go to Settings. Then under the Advanced tab look for the configuration option Bridge mode, which is the app’s name for Shadowsocks implementation.

By default, the Bridge mode is set to automatic, so Shadowsocks is only enabled when a connected is blocked. But you can set the mode to On if you want to use Shadowsocks all the time.

Other VPNs require a little more wrangling to set up Shadowsocks. For example, here is Surfshark’s guide to setting up Shadowsocks on Android. This makes use of a Shadowsocks app for Android which is available in the Play Store.

Which VPNs Support Shadowsocks?

Not many VPN providers support Shadowsocks. But there are some smaller providers which do. If you’re looking for a reputable VPN with Shadowsocks support, we can recommend either Mullvad or Surfshark.

There are also other VPN providers who offer Shadowsocks, but make your own decision as to whether they are trustworthy:

Use Shadowsocks to Get Around Internet Censorship

Using a Shadowsocks proxy can help you access content which would otherwise be restricted behind a firewall. For the best security, we recommend using both Shadowsocks and a VPN in combination. That way, you’re protected in case your VPN fails.

Not using a VPN yet? Think again. See our reasons why you should be using a VPN.

Image credit: Funtap/Depositphotos

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