VPN vs Tor: What’s the Difference?

James Milin-Ashmore

James Milin-Ashmore Last updated: November 11, 2021

VPN vs Tor: What’s the Difference?

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For anyone looking for tools to provide enhanced online anonymity, VPNs and the Tor browser are potential solutions that you may have already heard of.

In a nutshell, Tor (The Onion Router) is a cost-effective browser option released by a nonprofit organization, and a virtual private network (VPN) is a commercial solution that offers more flexibility. That’s a simple rundown for a topic that needs a more in-depth explanation in order to be understood properly.

This guide will take you through everything there is to know about VPNs and Tor. This includes pros and cons, main feature differences, and what to expect while using a combination of the duo.  

What is Tor?

As far as secure web browsers go, Tor is arguably the best solution for privacy-focused users. Tor (The Onion Router) is completely free to use and is run by a non-profit organization based in Massachusetts. It’s a browser that is used to prevent anyone from knowing about the websites you visit, by sending your web traffic through three random relays (or servers) contained in the network. There’s a total of roughly 7,000 of these relays, often provided by volunteers. The first two simply receive the traffic and pass it along. The last is an exit relay, so their IP address is seen as the source of any traffic.

As your traffic is being routed and rerouted through the network, not even Tor can tell where you’ve visited or what you’ve been up to. As such, it’s one of the safest ways to access the dark web. This can also lead to complaints, such as copyright takedown notices or issues if an exit node has been used inappropriately. (Of course, this will only affect the volunteer providing the exit node.)

They source funding from larger corporations, including the U.S. government, which was heavily involved during the 2010s. As recently as 2015, U.S. government sources; ‘accounted for 80-90 percent of its financial backing’, although that figure dropped to just over 50 percent by 2017. They have switched to a model of support thanks to users and smaller companies in the present, aiming to lessen their reliance on Uncle Sam.

The use of a layered approach is how Tor earned its name, while you’ll also be able to access onion sites that are only available via the browser. However, your ISP will still be able to see that you’re accessing Tor, even if they can’t see the final destination point. 

pros

We’ve listed some of the main pros associated with the use of Tor below:

  • Free to use, with no technical know-how needed   
  • Hides the users IP address 
  • Can access geo-restricted sites with ease 
  • Simple to download and use 
  • The Tor browser is more secure than alternative browsers 
  • You’ll be able to access The Dark Web  
  • Free and open-source software

cons

Nothing in life is perfect, so here are the main cons associated with Tor

  • As your data is being sent to and from multiple relay servers, there is likely to be a delay in terms of connection speeds 
  • Your ISP will see that you’re using the Tor browser – even if they can’t tell exactly what you’re up to 
  • If your connection is used as an exit node, others could take advantage of your IP address  
  • Exit nodes are a vulnerability, especially if communication between the node and the server is compromised 
  • Some scripts are blocked, leading to less functionality  
  • Tor doesn’t encrypt your data, so it works to provide anonymity rather than privacy 

What is a VPN?

VPN diagram graphic

A virtual private network (VPN) is used to send data to and from your device via an encrypted tunnel. This gives the user improved anonymity while keeping your data safe from the likes of your ISP or hackers. Both free and premium VPN options exist, although we’d strongly advocate for the use of the latter if privacy is your main aim. After all, free providers have been caught out in the past.

VPNs need to be trusted to get rid of any personal data collected on their servers, while many commit to a no-logs policy which means they keep nothing whatsoever. (We’d stick with an audited service to be sure.)

A VPN works by connecting the user to a server that is owned or rented by the provider. It can be found in many locations around the world. It’ll trick websites into thinking that the new IP address you’ve been assigned is real, which is how VPNs are used to unblock internationally blocked sites and services like US Netflix. 

pros

Here are some of the main benefits you’ll find while using a VPN:

  • A VPN will be especially helpful if you can’t access .onion content in the first place, as some ISPs block the Tor browser 
  • Many services have native applications for all major platforms 
  • You’ll benefit from dedicated servers and blistering speeds
  • The majority are simple to use, as you can click and connect to the best server  
  • Solid encryption, while you’ll have a choice of protocols to choose from, including WireGuard  
  • You’ll be able to connect with an IP based in different regions, which is great for accessing restricted content 

cons

VPNs also have a number of cons to consider:

  • Premium VPNs charge a monthly fee, while we wouldn’t trust free providers with personal data  
  • On that note, there are some premium providers that we would also avoid – just because they charge a fee, it doesn’t mean that they’re keeping your data safe
  • Connection speeds will vary depending on the VPN selected, as well as other factors (This can include their average speeds or the current server load for the location you’ve selected)
  • You’ll have to pay for a monthly subscription, so it’s not great if your use is going to be limited 

Differences Between VPN vs Tor

The differences may be more subtle than you might have expected. However, we’d almost always opt for the use of a VPN instead of Tor for improved online security. 

Of course, this depends on the service you’ve selected. I’d rather suffer from slower speeds and a service I can trust with the Tor browser, as opposed to a free VPN which might be leaking or giving away my data in the meantime. 

Remember, if you need to connect to a .onion site, a VPN will be useless without the Tor browser.

The Best VPNs to Use with Tor 

If you’re thinking about using either Tor, a secure VPN, or a combination of the two, we’ve listed a trio of providers which will have you covered. 

NordVPN

NordVPN is great if you’re looking for an alternative to Tor as it can be used to bypass geographical restrictions easily. They have over 5200+ servers in 60 countries, and the app automatically chooses the fastest server in a selected country. Another solid security feature is found in the form of their WireGuard-based protocol called NordLynx

As a twice audited no-logs service, it ticks all of the boxes. 

CyberGhost

If you’re looking for a large list of server locations and dedicated streaming support, CyberGhost has you covered. They allow for up to seven simultaneous connections. Not to mention, additional security features include ad and malware blocking and automatic redirection to the most secure version of any website you visit.

Private Internet Access 

Private Internet Access (PIA) is one of the most secure and affordable VPNs on the market. You can protect up to 10 devices at once with a single PIA subscription for under $3 per month. With it, you’ll receive military-grade AES 256-bit encryption and multiple protocols such as IKEv2, IPSec, and OpenVPN (TCP/UDP).

VPN Over Tor/Tor Over VPN

Rather than Tor vs VPNs, the combined power of a VPN and Tor is another method to increase online privacy and security. However, it’s not necessarily a good idea, as Tor notes:

‘A VPN/SSH acts either as a permanent entry or as a permanent exit node. This can introduce new risks while solving others.’

“​​If the VPN/SSH server is adversary controlled you weaken the protection provided by Tor. If the server is trustworthy you can increase the anonymity and/or privacy (depending on set up) provided by Tor.”

Tor over VPN 

User>VPN>Tor>Internet

Tor over VPN means you first connect to the VPN, before loading up Tor to access the website of your choice. It’s also known as ‘Onion over VPN’. 

VPN encryption prevents the Tor entry node from seeing your IP address, which closes off one potential vulnerability while accessing .onion sites. In other words, you’ll never directly connect to Tor with your internet connection, as you’ll be using the VPN as a tunnel to access the browser.

As we’ve mentioned above, this is a potential vulnerability, especially if the server you’re connecting to is untrustworthy. Issues could appear in the form of being identified by the service or having your data sold on to interested parties. 

Of course, a trustworthy, audited VPN service will be helpful in this regard. It will offer increased security compared to solely using the Tor browser. However, this does have an impact on speeds. 

VPN over Tor 

User>Tor>VPN>Internet

VPN over Tor involves connecting to Tor first, so the VPN IP will be used as an exit node. This allows for more privacy from a VPN provider, while your ISP will only be able to see that you’ve connected to Tor. 

This means that users are limited by the slow speeds of the Tor network. So, it’s not recommended unless you don’t trust the VPN provider. 

Final Thoughts

Both VPNs and Tor are great ways to provide online anonymity, although they’re different in many respects. 

Tor is a browser that can be used to access restricted content, and the service is completely free of charge. This can lead to a notable slowdown, especially when there are lots of users hogging the service. 

A VPN uses tunneling to keep the data sent to and from your device encrypted. This includes all traffic, including data transmitted outside of the browser. We’d advise you to stick with a premium provider to ensure that you’ll have no issues relating to privacy. 

Essentially, a VPN is helpful in terms of both privacy and anonymity, while Tor provides no encryption. The latter still helps to provide anonymity online, although it is much slower. They can also be used together, with Tor over VPN the preferred method to do so.