VPN vs Tor: Which One Is the Better Choice for You?
The Tor vs VPN debate is a tough one. Since the underlying tech is similar, we must consider their differences carefully. But how exactly do Tor and VPN vary?
The main difference between a VPN and Tor is how they hide your traffic. While a VPN uses a proprietary server to mask your IP address, Tor uses a decentralized relay network (called onion router). Tor is free, independent, and open-source, whereas a VPN is a commercial software. You should ideally choose the one that fits your needs and budget.
Of course, there are a lot of moving parts in this comparison. And that is what this short guide is about. Let’s settle the Tor versus VPN debate once and for all.
What is Tor?
Tor is a free and open-source software founded in 2002 designed to help browse the web anonymously. Officially known as the Tor Project, it utilizes the onion routing technology to encrypt and conceal your traffic. Tor is short for The Onion Router.
Tor works using relays (or nodes) managed by volunteers spread across the globe. When you use Tor, your web traffic moves through these independent nodes. Such a decentralized network tunnels and encrypts your traffic, detaching you from your web activities. Anyone who might want to track you cannot link back the activities to you. Neither can they see or analyze the content of the traffic.
This decentralized network is called onion routing because of its multi-layered infrastructure. Your traffic is encrypted over and over again, thus mimicking the construction of the vegetable. While Tor has its shortcomings, you should know that its main aim is to prevent traffic analysis. Criminals may still use sophisticated methods to hack the Tor network for traffic surveillance.
Is Tor a VPN?
No, Tor is not a VPN but it works like one and has similar operations and applications. Because of its multi-layered encryption, Tor is wrongly considered a free VPN.
Then What About Tor Browser?
Tor Browser is the project’s flagship product. You can use the browser to surf the web privately. Your connection is automatically routed through the Tor network, thus hiding your IP address and traffic.
Tor Browser was launched in 2008 and has been synonymous with Tor since then. Today, when we talk about Tor, we mean the browser. It’s a direct competitor to mainstream browsers like Google Chrome, Safari, Opera, and Firefox.
What is a VPN?
A VPN or virtual private network is a software that encrypts your traffic and routes it through a random server. This action is called tunneling, which hides your traffic from interceptors such as your ISP or the government. In other words, it creates a private network within the larger world wide web. Communicating over this private network helps you isolate your online activities and avoid interception.
While a VPN does not provide 100% anonymity, it does switch your IP address. This helps protect your identity online and lets you bypass geoblocks. VPN servers are typically spread across the globe, so you can change your location to virtually any city in any country.
VPNs majorly use tunneling protocols and encryption standards to give protection. While many of these protocols and standards are open-source, VPNs are generally built and offered by private companies.
Differences Between Tor and VPNs
The key difference between Tor and a VPN lies in the tunneling and encryption operations. While Tor uses a decentralized relay network to encrypt and hide your traffic, a VPN provider uses its proprietary software and servers to do so. Moreover, Tor is a free and open-source browser. A VPN will cost you money but it encrypts your communication across applications.
However, the underlying theory behind both Tor and VPNs remains the same. Both depend on bit-based encryption and server-hopping to ensure forward secrecy (anonymous communication). And both have evolved from the central idea of maintaining user privacy while browsing the web. While Tor uses a community-powered relay network, a VPN provider uses its R&D power to facilitate private communication.
However, a VPN provider is still a for-profit company and has to follow government guidelines. Subscribing to a VPN involves a money trail and some providers may also engage in data logging. None of these are relevant to Tor, which makes it a better choice for tech entrepreneurs, security professionals, and hackers.
There is another difference: Tor Browser is a recent invention while VPNs have existed since the internet boom of the late 1990s.
Tor vs VPN Comparison Points for Individual Users
Now that you know the major differences between Tor and virtual private networks, let’s look at their differentiating factors. These will help you decide which one to choose.
- Privacy – Tor’s robust relay network provides excellent privacy protection to individual users like you and me. However, its open-source infrastructure makes it vulnerable to hacking. In comparison, a paid VPN gives you better protection and accountability.
- Safety – Both Tor and VPNs offer an almost similar type of anonymity and online safety. However, some VPNs like NordVPN use military-grade encryption that will be crucial for applications like torrenting.
- Speed – Premium VPNs like NordVPN and ExpressVPN offer better speeds compared to Tor Browser. Also, there is no way to optimize your internet speed when using Tor.
- Cost – Tor is free to use as long as you choose 3-relay hopping. It has a premium plan but it’s not worth the money. For a similar price, VPNs offer near-100% anonymity and excellent features like a kill switch and port forwarding.
- Utility – Both Tor and VPNs can be used for anonymous browsing and censorship bypassing. Tor also allows accessing the dark web and *.onion sites, which is not possible using a general-purpose VPN.
- Variety – There are dozens of VPN providers to choose from. Whereas Tor is in itself an independent project.
In some cases, VPNs and Tor are similar to each other:
- Web Freedom – Tor and VPNs facilitate the free web equally. You can use either if your main goal is to access geoblocked websites. However, dedicated VPN servers have an edge when it comes to unblocking streaming sites.
- Malware Prevention – You can use Tor Browser or a VPN to stay away from spyware, hacking, phishing, and malware.
VPN or Tor: How Do They Compete?
The major differences between a VPN and Tor are as follows:
|The Tor Project||Virtual Private Networks|
|Uses an open-source relay network||Uses proprietary server network|
|Open-source and free||Private and paid|
|Single, independent provider||Choose from multiple providers|
|No manual server selection||Manual server/location|
|Vulnerable to attacks||Less vulnerable to attacks|
|Not accountable to users||Accountable to paying users|
|Allows dark web access||Only some VPNs allow dark web access|
|Only browser-based protection||All applications can be protected|
|No data logging||Some VPNs may log your data|
|Not connected to the government||Answerable to the government|
Benefits of Using Tor Browser
- Tor is an independent project. On one hand, it is free and an easy way to communicate privately over the web. On the other, its open-source infrastructure and historical breaches make it a less reliable system.
- Tor is the most recommended privacy browser in the world. It doesn’t collect your data.
- Tor can be used to access the dark web, the mysterious section of the internet that is known to house some of the most bizarre content in the world, also known as the Darknet. It is a collection of things that otherwise may be forbidden or illegal on the regular web. This involves everything from drugs to obscure cryptocurrencies to piracy to money laundering.
- Tor can be used to access onion services such as *.onion addresses. Onion addresses are mostly used for secretive communication and are preferred by journalists.
Dark web access is why Tor is popular among a certain section of web users such as hacktivists. Although it opens up a whole new world to you, the dark web also does bring problems with it that even Tor legally can’t prevent. This is one area where Tor’s competitor – the good old VPN – fares better.
Bottom line: Prefer Tor if you want to enjoy the free web, hide your traffic, and access the darknet. It’s free to use and has no disadvantages. If you’re new to private communication, try Tor Browser first.
Benefits of Using a VPN
- Choose a premium VPN over Tor if your main aim is to bypass geoblocks and censorship. In most cases, both free VPNs and open-source privacy tools do not score well in such applications. Either their server IPs are blacklisted or they break down in the middle. A VPN works because it provides accountability.
- VPN has active customer support. If you use a premium VPN, the provider will try to resolve your issue. In the Tor Project, this privilege is in the form of a community and you may not get a satisfactory resolution.
- VPN provides all-around protection. When you install a VPN on a device, it can hide your traffic across applications such as your browser, media player, operating system updater. In Tor Browser, only your browser-based communication is hidden.
- VPN providers offer additional functions and features. Some of these are manual server selection, kill switch, split tunneling, and better encryption. Do note that the Tor Project makes you anonymous but you cannot choose a specific location. This is not an ideal situation, say, if you want to unblock Netflix UK while streaming from the United States.
A VPN’s all-around protection is arguably its biggest benefit. I can simply install NordVPN on my Windows computer and stop worrying about privacy invasion across applications.
Bottom line: Prefer a premium VPN if you plan to torrent, bypass censorship, and stream global content. The military-grade encryption standards of a private company will serve you better.
Can Tor Be Used With a VPN?
Yes, Tor can be used along with a VPN to get a stronger level of privacy and security. Generally speaking, the Tor + VPN combination looks great on paper too as you assumedly get double protection. You install a VPN and use Tor Browser over it. This makes Tor route over the VPN tunnel, making you safer and “more anonymous”.
In effect, a “Tor over VPN” connection will nullify the disadvantages of the Tor network. Even if a hacker is able to cut through the Tor network, they cannot see your traffic or web location. Your VPN will conceal you.
However, setting it up will require some advanced technical know-how. The Tor Project discourages using Tor with a VPN due to several reasons. One of them involves making you look suspicious. If you are in a country with internet restrictions, using Tor over VPN may put you under higher scrutiny.
A thumb rule for the VPN + Tor combination is that if you know how to set it up well, go right ahead. Otherwise, you are better off with either. For most cases, use Tor without VPN or just stick to VPN.
VPN vs Tor – Which Is Better?
A VPN provides better privacy protection and safety on the web than the Tor network. A simple reason is how a VPN handles encryption and tunneling compared to Tor’s open-source infrastructure. If you value your privacy, you are better off paying for a premium VPN like NordVPN or AtlasVPN.
Tor is better for users who just want to hide their routine web traffic. If you only use the internet to surf, stream music and videos, use social media, Tor is the best and cheapest option. If you anticipate doing some borderline questionable activities, paying for a VPN might well be worth it.
After all, both tools are meant to protect your privacy, prevent snooping, and avoid legal conawe. If you think your web activities might give you trouble, buy a VPN.