A VPN and the Tor network share a lot in common, but they have different uses.
Both use proxies that act as relays through which internet connections are redirected. This hides the user’s real IP address and location from third parties, making users difficult to track.
They also both use encryption, which scrambles the contents of data sent to and from the internet so no third parties can decipher data that they happen to intercept.
So what’s the difference between Tor and a VPN, and which should you use?
In principle, VPNs emphasize privacy, and Tor emphasizes anonymity. While there’s some overlap between these two concepts, think of it this way: anonymity hides who you are, and privacy hides what you do.
A VPN encrypts your connection and routes it through an intermediary server in another location of the user’s choosing. This server is operated by the VPN provider.
Tor encrypts your internet connection and routes it through a random sequence of servers run by volunteers.
But let’s get down to brass tacks. What are Tor and VPNs best suited for?
When should you use Tor?
Tor is better than a VPN for the following:
- Anonymously accessing the web – It’s almost impossible to trace a Tor connection back to the original user. You can safely visit a website without leaving any identifying evidence behind, both on your device and on the website’s server.
- Accessing the dark web – Tor can be used to access the dark web (a.k.a. the darknet). Most of the dark web is made up of websites only accessible through a Tor connection and not found on Google. It’s often associated with criminal activity, such as black markets, but it’s used for a wealth of legal reasons as well.
- Untraceable communication – Journalists and their sources, whistleblowers, activists, dissidents, and victims of crime who wish to remain anonymous can use Tor to securely communicate without being tracked or leaving behind a trail of evidence.
Tor by default does not let you choose the location from which you access the web. In addition, most websites can recognize traffic coming from a Tor exit relay, which they can then block accordingly.
Although Tor is very secure, connections have to pass through Tor entry and exit relays. These relays are public, so your ISP and other third parties can know when you’re using Tor. Even if they can’t tell what you’re doing or who you are online, simply using Tor at all could raise suspicions because many people associate it with criminal activity. It’s possible to get around this with a Tor feature called bridges, but that’s a discussion for another article.
When should you use a VPN?
A VPN is better than Tor for these purposes:
- Unblocking region-locked content – Many streaming services, for example, only allow access to viewers from certain countries. A VPN lets a user “spoof” their location by changing it to any country where the VPN provider operates servers, thereby bypassing region restrictions.
- Torrenting – VPNs tend to be much faster than Tor, allowing far more bandwidth for downloads.
- Securing public wifi – If you’re on the go and need to connect to public wifi, a VPN is a more convenient solution. The VPN’s encryption will prevent hackers from snooping and launching man-in-the-middle attacks, but won’t otherwise hamper your browsing experience.
- Bypassing censorship – If you’re in a country like China where much of the web is blocked by authorities, a VPN lets you access censored content as if you were in another country.
- Prevent ISP throttling – If your internet service provider is throttling certain types of internet traffic, such as torrents or video streams, then a VPN can hide this activity so it can’t be discriminated against.
- Accessing blocked content at work or school — If you work or study in a place that restricts access to the web, a VPN can bypass these blocks.
A VPN can hide your IP address, but the VPN provider can still see connection data and traffic passing through its servers. Although most VPN providers say they don’t keep logs of this information, using them for anonymity still requires trusting the VPN provider, whereas Tor uses a trustless system (more on that later).
A VPN won’t get you into the dark web (although their use is still popular). A Tor connection is required to access .onion websites.
What’s the difference between Tor and a VPN?
A standard internet connection is not encrypted by default, and it goes directly from your device to the destination website, app, or service.
Both Tor and a VPN encrypt data before it leaves your device, then route it through proxy servers to mask your IP address and location. Incoming data goes through the same process in reverse.
Centralized vs decentralized
The biggest difference is that a VPN is a centralized service. That means a central authority controls and manages connections. In this case, that’s the VPN provider, which is usually a private company. A VPN company might own and operate thousands of servers across the world for its users to connect to. While VPNs offer decent privacy and fast connections, they do require users to trust the VPN provider to some extent.
Tor is decentralized. No one owns or manages it. The proxy servers, dubbed “nodes” or “relays,” are operated by thousands of volunteers all over the world. When you connect to Tor, your connection is routed through a random sequence of these servers each time you visit a different website. It’s possible that an exit relay—the last relay in the sequence—could read unencrypted traffic passing through it, but it cannot determine the source of that data.
Single hop VPN vs Tor onion routing
Most VPNs only use a single proxy server. Outgoing data is encrypted on your device, sent to the VPN server, decrypted, then sent to the destination website, app, or service. A few VPNs offer multi-hop setups, but these are the exception to the rule.
Tor sends your data through no less than three relays at random. Your data is encrypted once for each relay, including the IP address of the next relay in the sequence. A layer of encryption is removed at each relay, revealing the next relay in the sequence while hiding it from previous relays in the chain. No one relay can see the contents, source, and destination of internet traffic, making it extremely difficult to trace. This process is called onion routing, named so because the layers of encryption are removed like the layers of an onion. Tor is actually an acronym for “The Onion Router.”
VPN apps vs Tor browser
Devices and applications can be set up to use Tor in a number of ways, but most users access the Tor network through the Tor browser. This is a Firefox-based web browser built with security and anonymity in mind. The Tor browser directs all web traffic through the Tor network. It doesn’t store your web history, doesn’t run scripts, and won’t keep cookies after you close it.
Tor can be used in several other ways, ranging from entire operating systems like TAILS to communication apps like SecureDrop and Ricochet.
Devices and apps connect to VPNs through either a VPN app or using built-in clients on computers, smartphones, and wifi routers. Most commercial VPN services make their own apps, which come preconfigured with all of the VPN provider’s servers. Good VPN apps can greatly improve the privacy and security of connections with features like leak protection, kill switches, obfuscation, split tunneling, and modulating IP addresses.
Rudimentary VPN clients are built into most major operating systems including Windows, MacOS, iOS, and Android, but each VPN server must be individually configured to use these.
Can I use Tor and a VPN at the same time?
Yes! It will definitely have a negative impact on your internet speed, but it’s certainly possible.
The easiest way is to simply connect your device to a VPN and then launch the Tor browser. This will route outgoing traffic through the VPN first, and then through the Tor network.
This setup will make it more difficult for third parties to track you. If your internet service provider frowns upon Tor connections, then the VPN will hide the fact that you’re using Tor.
Tor vs VPN: Which should I use?
Both Tor and VPNs have their uses, but which you use depends on what you want to do.
A good rule of thumb is to use a VPN all the time and use Tor when you need it. A VPN improves your privacy without interfering with day-to-day web browsing and internet usage. Launch Tor when anonymity is critical or you want to access the dark web.