The Essentials

VPN vs Tor

Rebecca Duff
Rebecca DuffUpdated

If you want privacy as you browse, Tor and VPNs both provide that. But there are clear use cases for both. This guide explains when to use a VPN, and when to use Tor.

Illustration of a VPN server connected to a Tor server

The Tor browser uses a global network of access points, or nodes, that ensure privacy as you browse the web. The technology was originally designed for the US military and is increasingly used by political activists and privacy enthusiasts. It lets you get around content blocks imposed by your government or ISP, and hides your identity from both the end website and the network itself.

The infrastructure behind Tor, and the lack of one controlling authority or provider, has moved it into the mainstream over the last couple of years. It’s very popular in countries where online communication is monitored or censored, and when a lack of privacy could result in jail time, Tor is probably the safest and cheapest tool there is.

In theory, the Tor network supports a variety of protocols and operating systems, but most people use it on a desktop computer via the Tor browser. It’s a modified version of Firefox, so it’s easy to use, although it’s incredibly easy to accidentally reveal your IP unless you modify your browsing habits. In addition, the trade-off for its complex infrastructure is often very slow speed.

How Does Tor Work?

When you request a service or website through the Tor browser, your request is wrapped in multiple layers of encryption. It’s then bounced through three or more randomly selected nodes on the Tor network.

Each node decrypts and forwards the request to the next server in the chain. The last node – known as the exit node – performs the final decryption, reads the content of the transmission (for example, the URL you originally requested), and sends it to the destination server.

This system of bouncing and decrypting ensures that only the exit node is able to read the content of the transmission. But t cannot see the IP address that the request originally came from. The exit node only knows the IP of the server behind it in the chain. The same is true for all nodes involved in the transaction; they can only see their immediate neighbours. The sequence of servers is also randomized to ensure that the process can’t be traced back.

Tor also provides access to hidden services that aren’t available via any other browser or network. These services function like websites, and collectively, they’re often known as the ‘dark web’; the system uses .onion addresses instead of URLs. Many dark web resources are illegal, unpleasant, and downright dangerous, but you won’t find these unless you actively seek them out. So it is perfectly possible to use the Tor browser for normal web use; you won’t stray onto the dark web unless you actively seek it out.

How to Install Tor

The Tor browser can be used on any Mac, Windows, or Linux computer. Obtain the file from the Tor Project website.

(Tip: your ISP is almost certainly logging your browsing habits. If you’re concerned about being singled out, make sure your VPN’s connected before you click that link.)

When using the Tor browser on a desktop or laptop, you don’t need to install anything, so you don’t need administrator rights. It’s self-contained, so you could save it to a removable drive and run it from there if you wanted to.

Tor-based solutions also exist for other platforms, like Android. These are detailed on its website. It isn’t available for iOS.

Risks While Browsing With Tor

Once Tor is installed, you can browse the web normally — more or less. But some activities can reveal your real IP, including:

  • Using browser extensions
  • Downloading and opening files
  • Using non-HTTPS websites
  • Downloading torrent files.

Also, only your web traffic is protected when using the Tor browser. Other applications, like email, aren’t funneled through its network.

It’s a good idea to review the list of Tor Warnings before you use the browser for the first time.

Tor vs VPN

If you want to ensure your privacy online, either a VPN or the Tor browser will achieve that.

However, a good quality VPN is generally more convenient and versatile than Tor, making it better for all-round internet use.

When to Use a VPN

With a VPN, you tunnel all of the internet traffic flowing to and from your computer; once your VPN is connected, every application will use one encrypted tunnel. If you use the Tor browser, only your web traffic gets that key privacy protection. You can get around this on some operating systems, but it isn’t a simple process, and it’s more technical than just hitting the VPN button on your screen and getting on with whatever you need to do.

Another big difference is speed. VPNs are slightly slower than an unprotected ISP connection, but you can mitigate the risk by choosing a good provider with servers geographically close to you. Tor is different; because it passes your request through lots of different servers, it is noticeably more sluggish. With regular use, you may find this so frustrating that you abandon Tor altogether.

The final downside is, unfortunately, the poor reputation Tor has among other web users. Occasionally, you may find that the destination website has blocked all requests from Tor exit nodes. That’s not to say all Tor users are bad actors, or that you’re being tracked in some way. Some websites just prefer to block Tor requests, and if that happens, you’ll need another way to connect.

When to Use Tor

There are limited situations where Tor is a better choice than a VPN. If you can’t install software or change settings on the computer you use, running Tor from a USB stick is the perfect solution. It also lets you quickly get to the site or resource you need without leaving a trail of evidence behind you.

Tor is also the only way to access hidden .onion websites. The majority of these are inevitably legally dubious, there are some legitimate sites. For example, DuckDuckGo, SecureDrop, the Intercept and Wikipedia all have a presence on the dark web, and you may well have good reasons to access them. (We recommend that you exercise caution and install a good virus and malware scanner before trying them out.)

Finally, Tor is free. If you really can’t afford to pay for a VPN, occasional use of Tor is likely to be safer than a free VPN that has a dodgy reputation.

Using a VPN with Tor

Some VPN providers support Tor through their VPN connection, allowing you to layer one on top of the other in the VPN’s settings.

In theory, this has three key advantages over using the Tor browser by itself:

  1. If your provider offers a specific VPN/ Tor combination, all of your VPN traffic goes through the Tor network, not just your web browsing. That gives you double-strength privacy protection, no matter what you’re doing online.
  2. Alongside the benefits of Tor, you also get the benefits of your VPN on top, like the ability to switch servers for better speeds, or the killswitch to prevent your true IP address being exposed in the case of accidental disconnection
  3. If you need to use .onion resources, you can get to them via an alternative browser, not just the Tor browser, via your VPN — but this is a pretty niche benefit.

Here’s the big downside of picking a provider that routes their VPN through Tor: if your VPN provider keeps logs, then using Tor and their servers together is actually reducing your privacy, not enhancing it. It is often very difficult to know whether a provider is keeping logs, and their website may not tell the whole truth.

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

  • Your choice of provider is going to be restricted — this is a relatively unusual feature
  • You may experience a pretty considerable hit on your connection speed; Tor could makes a sluggish VPN a real chore to use
  • Encrypting data with a VPN, and then encrypting it again through Tor, isn’t really going to improve your privacy
  • Using Tor through a VPN will usually require extra configuration; you may have to install a specific client, download a specific connection file, or fiddle with settings, all of which require time and patience.

Ultimately, VPNs and the Tor browser will both enhance your privacy independently of each other. You could connect to a VPN and then use the Tor browser if you’re really worried. But combining them is overkill for most people. You could be better off using Tor for specific reasons, like private browsing on a public computer, and a VPN for general all-round internet use.