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Tor vs. VPN: What’s the Difference?

Callum Tennent oversees how we test and review VPN services. He's a member of the IAPP, and his VPN advice has featured in Forbes and the Internet Society.

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Our Verdict

Tor is a free browser that provides maximum anonymity through a decentralized server network. It is best for transmitting highly-sensitive information, but it’s extremely slow, complex, and can be dangerous. By contrast, VPN software provides online privacy through a single centralized VPN server. It is fast, encrypts all your web traffic, and lets you easily change your IP address location.

An illustration of two characters choosing between a VPN shield and a Tor onion.

Tor and VPN software both encrypt your internet activity, hide your IP address, and improve online security, but they also have many differences.

This guide will explore the key differences between Tor and VPNs. We’ll explain which one is better and how you can safely use them together.

SUMMARY: Key Differences Between Tor and VPN

  • VPN software reroutes your data through a single, privately-owned server of your choice. The Tor network relies on a random, decentralized network of nodes (servers) to transfer data.
  • Tor’s decentralized server network provides complete anonymity, while VPN services could technically have access to your IP address and online activity.
  • A VPN encrypts and protects all web traffic leaving your device. Tor only encrypts traffic from within the Tor browser itself.
  • VPN connections are significantly faster. Your encrypted data goes directly to one VPN server in a controlled location and then to its destination. With Tor, it travels between three servers spread randomly across the world.
  • A VPN lets you change your IP address to a specific country/city and bypass geo-restrictions. Tor assigns a random IP location depending on where the exit node is located.

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What’s the Difference Between Tor and a VPN?

Tor is designed to achieve complete anonymity at the cost of speed, compatibility, and convenience.

On the other hand, VPNs are faster, more widely-compatible, and better for location spoofing, unblocking, and P2P file-sharing. However, they don’t offer the same level of anonymity as Tor.

The table below compares the main differences between the Tor browser and VPN software:

Criteria Tor VPN
Speed Slow Fast
IP Address Randomly assigns an IP address location Manually choose an IP address location
Compatibility Poorly compatible Widely compatible
Anonymity Complete anonymity VPN service can access web activity
Network Type Decentralized Centralized
Price Free Subscription fee
Encryption Cipher Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) Advanced Encryption Standard (AES)
Dark Web Access Permits access Not supported
P2P File Sharing Slow and unsecure Secure
Streaming Not suitable Suitable
Customer Support Not provided Provided

Alternatively, use the chart below to find out the difference between VPN and the Tor browser.

Points closer to the edge indicate better VPN performance in that category.

Radar chart showing performance of Tor and VPN: Tor excels in anonymity; VPN in speed and streaming.

A VPN routes your connection through a single, privately-owned VPN server, whereas Tor bounces your connection through a number of volunteer-run, randomly-assigned servers. You don’t need to place your trust in anyone when you use Tor. When you use a VPN, you need to trust the VPN service provider.

Because each Tor node only knows the identity of the server before it, it is impossible for anyone to reverse engineer your connection’s route through the Onion network. Tor also lets you access a number of unlisted websites with .onion domain names — part of the so-called Dark Web.

However, the trade-off for this large network is an unreliable connection and extremely slow speeds.

The Tor network is only designed to handle traffic using TCP protocol too, which means voice and video traffic using UDP has to travel outside the encrypted connection.

Tor is free, but it puts you at risk of exposing your true IP address or being identified as suspicious if you don’t know what you’re doing.

VPN software lets you manually select a secure server in a location of your choice. This makes VPNs excellent for unblocking geo-restricted websites and bypassing censorship. However, the company behind the VPN owns the software installed on your device and the servers you connect to.

This means your VPN service provider has the potential to observe, monitor, and record your activity. You are therefore entirely reliant on the VPN’s minimal logging policy and track record for maintaining the security of its network.

Tor vs. VPN: Which Is Better?

Tor and VPN software have a lot in common. The right choice for you will depend on your needs. Tor should be used when online anonymity is of the utmost importance, while VPNs are better suited to users who want sufficient privacy and security without compromising on performance or functionality.

Tor is better than VPN software if you are:

  • Transmitting sensitive information
  • Accessing the dark web
  • Unable to afford a trustworthy VPN
  • Concerned primarily with complete anonymity
  • Seeking to release sensitive information e.g. you are an activist or whistleblower

VPN software is better than Tor if you are:

  • Bypassing geo-restrictions
  • Concerned primarily about your privacy
  • Streaming or torrenting media
  • Traveling to a heavily-censored country
  • Connecting to a public WiFi network
  • Making purchases online

Tor’s lack of security and very slow speeds make it a poor choice for popular activities, such as file-sharing, streaming, and shopping transactions. For these tasks, we recommend using a VPN.

VPNs don’t require the same level of technical proficiency as using Tor does. However, you should still make sure to pick a trustworthy, zero-logs VPN provider that does not to leak user data.

If you’re short on time, here are some quick answers to common questions asked about Tor vs. VPNs:

Which Is Safer, Tor or a VPN?

VPN software is much easier to use than Tor and is therefore generally safer. Malicious Tor exit nodes have been used for surveillance and man-in-the-middle attacks in the past, and the use of Tor alone can be enough to mark you for surveillance. VPN software is simple, commonplace, and will protect you on unsafe public WiFi networks, but you are placing your trust in your chosen VPN provider.

Is Tor or a VPN more secure?

Both tools use the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) cipher to encrypt your web traffic and secure your data. However, a VPN will encrypt all web traffic leaving your device, giving you network-wide protection. The Tor Network only encrypts the data sent through the Tor Browser.

Which is cheaper?

The Tor Network is most commonly used through the Tor Browser. This is a free, Firefox-based application that you download and install onto your computer. By contrast, most secure VPN services charge a monthly subscription fee. There are free VPNs available, but they often pose significant security risks.

Which is faster?

Using a VPN is almost always faster than Tor. A VPN encrypts your data and routes it directly to one VPN server and then to your destination. Data in the Tor network is routed through multiple widely-dispersed nodes and encrypted and decrypted multiple times, which means it takes much longer to reach the final web server.

Which is more anonymous?

Tor is better than VPN software for anonymity, but worse for privacy. Tor’s routing method prevents any association being drawn between your true IP address and your online activity. Its decentralized network means that no individual has access to both who you are and what you are doing. In short, your activity is open for others to see, but impossible to trace back to you.

By contrast, the private and centralized nature of a VPN connection means your VPN service provider has the technical capacity to observe and record your activity. This makes it much easier to trace your traffic back to your real identity, especially if your VPN keeps activity logs.

Which is better for location spoofing?

You can hide your public IP address with both a VPN and The Onion Network. However, Tor nodes are randomly allocated, which means choosing a server location is very difficult. VPN services provide servers in dozens of locations worldwide, allowing you to manually select your preferred server location. This makes VPNs the preferred method of bypassing geo-restrictions.

Which is better for accessing the Dark Web?

The Dark Web (.onion websites) are only accessible through the Tor browser. However, users can opt to use a VPN with Tor for an extra layer of security.

What Is Tor and How Does it Work?

Pros Cons
Uses a decentralized network Almost always slower than a VPN
Offers complete anonymity Potential for malicious exit nodes
Bypasses regional restrictions No geographical precision
Free to use Can attract unwanted attention or surveillance
Poor compatibility with other devices
Complex to set up
Customer support is not provided

The Tor network, also known as ‘The Onion Router’, is a free, open-source system designed to enable anonymous communication on the web.

Tor is most commonly used through the Tor browser. This is a free, Firefox-based application that you download and install onto your computer. The Tor browser uses the Tor network to conceal your identity, location, and online activity from tracking or surveillance.

Tor allows you to:

  • Hide your IP address from the websites you visit
  • Hide your identity from the nodes in the network
  • Access ‘hidden’ .onion domains
  • Anonymize your online activity
  • Communicate confidentially
  • Access censored content

Tor is not a VPN however, like VPN software, the Tor network encrypts and anonymizes your online activity. When using Tor, your traffic is randomly sent through a global network of access points or ‘nodes’, which are all maintained by volunteers.

For added security, your data is assigned a new set of servers to bounce between every ten minutes. Because each node only knows the identity of the server directly next to it in the chain, it is impossible for someone to reverse engineer your data’s route through the onion network.

The process is designed to be fully anonymous, but it isn’t fully private. The final node – or ‘exit node’ – has no way of knowing who you are, but it can theoretically observe what you are doing.

The trade-off for this level of anonymity is an unreliable connection and very slow speeds. Unlike choosing a VPN server, the route your data takes through the Tor network is completely random, which means you cannot manually choose an IP address location.

You can only access the onion network using the Tor browser or an application with Tor compatibility built-in. If you use another browser or application, your activity will no longer be anonymous.

Unlike a VPN, you can’t just ‘turn on’ the Tor browser and hide your IP address either. If you don’t configure your browser properly and modify your browsing habits, it’s incredibly easy to reveal your true IP and your identity.

The combination of technical complexity and slow speeds makes Tor worse than a VPN for streaming geo-blocked videos, P2P file-sharing, or anything else that requires a high speed connection. Torrenting in particular is not recommended as it risks exposing your true IP address and puts a lot of strain on the network.

Unsurprisingly, Tor has a reputation for attracting those who are very keen on avoiding detection. This includes journalists and whistleblowers – but also criminals.

The Dark Web is also only accessible through the Tor browser. This is a dangerous place to be. We do not condone using Tor (or VPNs) for anything illegal, and recommend you stay away from the Dark Web as a general precaution.

Your ISP can see that you are using Tor even if they don’t know what you’re doing. For this reason, frequent use of Tor could potentially mark you for surveillance.

Tor is free and excellent for anonymity, but there are risks inherent to using it. You are at risk of exposing your true IP address or other personally identifiable information if you’re not experienced.

How Tor Works

data passing through the Tor network

How your data passes through the Tor network.

Here’s how the Tor network encrypts and anonymizes your internet traffic:

  1. Before connecting to the network, Tor selects three or more random servers (nodes) to connect to.
  2. The Tor software encrypts your traffic in such a way that only the exit node can decrypt it.
  3. An additional layer of encryption is added for each of the nodes your traffic will pass through, ending at the last node you will connect to (the exit node). At this beginning point in the process, at least three layers of encryption protect your traffic.
  4. When your computer contacts the guard node, the guard node knows your IP address but cannot see anything about your traffic (its content or destination).
  5. The guard node decrypts the first layer of encryption to discover the address of the next node in the chain. It then sends your traffic onward — still protected by at least two layers of encryption.
  6. The next node in the chain receives your encrypted traffic. It knows the IP address of the previous server in the chain but does not know your true IP address or how many steps have occurred in the chain up until this point. This node removes a layer of encryption to reveal the identity of the next server in the chain. It then sends your data forwards.
  7. This process is repeated until your traffic reaches the exit node. The exit node decrypts the final layer of encryption. This reveals your traffic but the exit node has no way of knowing who you are.
  8. Your traffic completes its journey to the internet.

At no stage in this process does any node know both who you are and what you are doing.

What Is a VPN and How Does it Work?

Pros Cons
Almost always faster than Tor Some providers keep logs of your activity or connection data
Easy to change your IP address Premium VPNs have subscription fees
Widely compatible with other devices Risks of data leaks
Provides network-wide protection VPNs vary in quality
Easy to use
Customer support available

A virtual private network (VPN) is an application installed on your device that hides your IP address and encrypts your web traffic.

When you use a VPN, your traffic requests are encrypted and sent to a remote VPN server. At the server, the requests are decrypted and passed onto the internet.

When the website sends information back to your device, it is again routed via the VPN server. Here, it is encrypted before being transmitted to your device, where it is then decrypted.

This creates a secure communication channel between your device and the VPN server — often referred to as the “VPN tunnel”.

Diagram explaining how VPN services work to encrypt and reroute web traffic.

Using a VPN has two main effects:

  1. The websites you visit see the VPN server’s IP address, and not your real one. This allows you to spoof your location in order to hide your identity and access geographically-restricted content or streaming services.
  2. ISPs, governments, and other third parties are unable to track your online activity. Because your connection is encrypted, all they see is that you are connecting to the VPN server’s IP address. They can no longer observe the exact details of your browsing activity.

Like Tor, VPN services tend to have servers located in many countries across the globe. However, unlike Tor, specifying which VPN server location you would like to use is easy.

This makes VPNs a great tool for bypassing government censorship and accessing content previously restricted in your location. A user in the US, for example, can access the UK Netflix library by simply connecting to a VPN server located in the UK.

Using Tor and VPN Together

It is sometimes even more secure to use both a VPN and Tor at the same time.

There are two ways to use these tools together: Tor over VPN or VPN over Tor. Both setups have unique outcomes but some pretty major drawbacks, which we will cover in this section.

Tor over a VPN

Diagram showing Tor running over a VPN .

‘Tor over VPN’, also known as Onion over VPN, is when you connect to your VPN before you run the Tor Browser. This is the most common way of combining Tor with a VPN.

It’s easy to do: just connect to your VPN then launch the Tor browser from your desktop or smartphone.

If you want to use Tor over a VPN, it’s important to choose a VPN that’s been optimized for Tor, meaning it has a private logging policy, no leaks, fast speeds, and anonymous payment options.

When you combine the two tools in this way:

  1. Your ISP and network operator will not know you are connected to the Tor network.
  2. The Tor network entry node will not see your true IP address.
  3. Your VPN provider will be unable to see your traffic.

This is particularly useful if you do not want a network administrator to know you are connecting to Tor, or if your VPN provider has an invasive or vague logging policy.

However, it should be noted that:

  1. Your VPN provider will see your true IP address.
  2. Your VPN provider will also be able to see that you are connected to the Tor network.
  3. Tor exit nodes – including malicious exit nodes – will still be able to view your traffic.

VPN over Tor

A diagram showing running a VPN over Tor.

‘VPN Over Tor’ is when you connect to the Tor network before using your VPN.

This is technically possible, but not easy. Currently, very few VPNs offer support for running via Tor in this manner.

When you combine the two tools in this way:

  1. All of your VPN traffic goes through the Tor network, not just your web browsing.
  2. Alongside the benefits of Tor, you also get the advanced features of your VPN. This includes the ability to switch servers for better speeds or use the kill switch to prevent unwanted IP address leaks.
  3. If you need to use .onion resources you can get to them via an alternative browser (not just the Tor browser) through your VPN.
  4. Tor exit nodes will no longer be able to view your traffic.

However, using a VPN over Tor allows your provider access to the same information as using the VPN alone, just with the added slowness and inconvenience of the Tor network.

There are a few other key downsides worth mentioning when you use a VPN provider that offers a specific Tor option:

  1. Your choice of VPN provider will be restricted.
  2. You will experience a huge hit to your connection speeds. Using a VPN over Tor could make a sluggish VPN even more of a chore to use.
  3. Encrypting data with a VPN and then encrypting it again with Tor is overkill that will not improve your privacy significantly.
  4. Using a VPN through Tor will usually require extra configuration. You may have to install a specific client, download a specific connection file, or change your settings — all of which require time, technical knowledge, and patience.

VPNs and the Tor browser both enhance your privacy independently of each other. You can connect to your VPN and then use the Tor Browser if you’re really concerned, but combining the two is overkill for most people.

You’re better off using Tor if you need complete anonymity in extreme circumstances. If it’s just all-round internet privacy you’re looking for, choose a VPN.