TikTok is becoming inaccessible in more markets. Tech-savvy users are finding workarounds

July 13, 2020, 9:29 AM UTC

Hong Kong’s small community of TikTok users were thrown last week when the short video platform announced it was withdrawing from the region amid concerns over a new national security law that grants authorities significant power over user data and prompted several U.S. tech companies to temporarily suspend data-sharing processes.

In the three days between the announcement that TikTok was leaving Hong Kong and its disappearance from app stores, Hong Kong users flooded the platform with videos expressing their shock and exhorting their followers to add them on other social media. Since then though, existing TikTok users in Hong Kong have discovered a workaround that enables them to circumvent the platform’s location-based restriction and access the app.

TikTok is owned by a Chinese tech company, Beijing-based ByteDance. Its ownership, and the numerous claims of political censorship and data sharing with the Chinese government—charges the app denies—have made TikTok a flashpoint for tensions between China and other countries. India, TikTok’s largest market, banned the app in June, and now the U.S. and Australia are considering similar measures.

TikTok’s voluntary withdrawal from Hong Kong in the wake of the national security law is seen by many as part of an effort by TikTok to distance itself from ByteDance and assuage concerns that it shares user data with the Chinese government.

Hong Kong is an unprofitable market for TikTok with relatively few users—150,000 as of last August, compared with 30 million users in the U.S. and at least 81 million in India.

On July 9, users in Hong Kong who had previously downloaded the app opened it to find a pop-up message bidding them farewell.

“Thank you for the time you’ve spent on TikTok and giving us the opportunity to bring a little bit of joy into your life! We regret to inform you that we have discontinued operating TikTok in Hong Kong,” the message read.

The TikTok app now displays this pop-up notification when users in Hong Kong open it.
Naomi Xu Elegant

According to TikTok’s privacy policy for regions outside the U.S. and Europe, the app collects information that includes a user’s IP address, mobile carrier, time zone settings, and either the “region” selected in the app’s settings or, if the user opts in, GPS data.

TikTok seems to restrict access to the app based on a user’s phone SIM card and IP address. Virtual private networks (VPNs), which reroute a user’s Internet activity to other locations, circumvent the latter by giving users an IP address outside Hong Kong. Hong Kong carrier SIM cards also appear to preclude access to TikTok. Users hoping to access the app in Hong Kong must remove their Hong Kong SIM cards, turn on a VPN, and then connect to Wi-Fi.

Hong Kong users have also discovered that inserting a non–Hong Kong SIM card skirts the restrictions, even without a VPN.

TikTok representatives did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

One user in mainland China, where TikTok is also unavailable, told Fortune they can access the app in mainland China using the same method of SIM card removal and VPN activation. The person asked not to be identified because they did not want to be publicly known to be circumventing Internet restrictions.

TikTok users in India, where use of the app is also restricted, have also managed to gain access by removing their local SIM card and turning on a VPN, according to Reddit users discussing the subject.

The workarounds shed light on how TikTok is carrying out its withdrawal from Hong Kong and the shortcomings of government efforts to ban the app.

TikTok announced it was leaving Hong Kong on July 6. By July 9, it was gone from Apple and Android app stores, and the “user notice” farewell message was popping up on Hong Kong users’ screens. In the days since, Hong Kong–based users continue to post videos on the app, though it’s not clear by what means. Some dance in the city’s parks, Hong Kong’s distinctive skyline behind them; others upload lip-synch videos and ask viewers to follow them for more.

More must-read international coverage from Fortune: