a magnifying glass looking at Tor vs. VPN

If internet freedom and privacy are important to you, then you’ve probably heard of Tor (The Onion Router) and VPNs (Virtual Private Networks). Both are great online privacy and security tools that allow you to skid by censorship and restrictions and stay unseen online. While similar in function, they’re actually quite different.

Table of contents

    The main difference between Tor and VPNs

    The main difference between Tor and VPNs is what you should use them for. VPNs are faster and more suited than Tor for everyday tasks like browsing and streaming. Tor is slow and privacy-oriented. It’s better for sending sensitive information that might put your freedom or life at risk.

    Here’s a brief rundown of Tor vs. VPN differences:

    Bypassing censorship
    Geoblocked content access
    Low to high (depends on the provider)
    Chance of subversion
    Low to high (depends on the provider)

    What is Tor (browser)?

    A Tor user looking closer at the tor network with entry, middle, and exit nodes

    The name “Tor” can mean many things, but it mainly refers to the Tor Network, Tor Browser, or the Tor Project.

    The creators describe Tor as software that helps protect you online. It’s a free tool that many privacy nuts use. 

    Tor redirects your connection through a worldwide network of volunteers. Doing so, meshes the users’ data together, making it too difficult to identify anyone in the network.

    Tor’s users range from truthseekers like journalists, investigators, and whistleblowers, to online criminals, hackers, and drug dealers that use the dark web for shadier purposes. 

    But this is not the rule. Most people simply use Tor to improve their privacy.

    What is a VPN (provider)?

    A VPN user looking closer at the VPN connection, indicating the traffic VPN encrypts

    A Virtual Private Network is a privacy tool that does a similar job as Tor but does it differently.

    A VPN sets up a private network over a public one using servers rather than volunteers. The server acts almost like a blanket for your real connection.

    This makes a VPN faster than Tor, but it also makes it more expensive to maintain.

    A VPN creates an encrypted tunnel that secures your internet traffic. When you connect to a VPN, you establish a connection between your device and the server. This allows you to change your real IP (Internet Protocol) address and location using a VPN.

    Tor: pros and cons

    Both Tor and VPNs come with their own advantages and disadvantages. Here are Tor’s pros and cons to give you a better picture:

    Cheap and easy to use
    Hard to shut down
    Unsuited for file downloads
    Offers the closest thing to anonymity
    Node vulnerability
    Helps bypass geoblocking and censorship
    Bad for accessing specific geoblocked content
    Restricted accessibility to websites

    Tor pros explained: 

    1. Cheap and easy to use: you can download Tor from the project’s website for free. It works on all major operating systems. The onion router browser is no more difficult to use than any other browser. 
    2. Hard to shut down: Tor network is maintained by volunteers running nearly 7,000 relays worldwide. As such, the network is one tough nut to crack.  
    3. Offers the closest thing to anonymity: only the entry node knows your IP – but it doesn’t know what data you’re sending, only that you’re using Tor. The exit node can inspect the information you’re sending but cannot see who’s sending it. 
    4. Helps bypass geoblocking and censorship: if some website is blocked in your country, Tor can allow you to access it. 

    Tor cons explained:

    1. Slow: your data gets bounced via three random relays. Therefore, your connection can only be as fast as that of the slowest node. That’s why many .onion websites look so barebone compared to regular websites. 
    2. Unsuited for file downloads: Tor network is already slow. Using it to download files slows down your internet connection even more. So many Tor users would have to wait three times as long to download something.
    3. Node vulnerability: if you’re not using an HTTPS connection, your data is visible on the exit node. As Tor operates on a volunteer network, you can’t know if your data isn’t being intercepted. On the other hand, Google reports that 90% of Chrome browsing is done via an HTTPS connection, so this issue is not as relevant these days. 
    4. Bad for accessing specific geoblocked content: it’s not easy to access geoblocked content that is only available in a single country. Random node selection means you can’t really control the country where your exit node – and the IP service reads – will be.
    5. Restricted accessibility to websites: some everyday websites block Tor network connections. Reportedly, some ISPs have threatened to cut their services to Tor users in the past. On top of that, security agencies are more likely to track them. 

    VPN: pros and cons

    In contrast, here’s a summary of the VPN pros and cons:

    Good internet speed
    Not free
    Blanket protection
    Presumably can know your IP
    Easier to compromise
    Ultimate solution to geoblocking
    No particular website limitations

    VPN pros explained:

    1. Good internet speed: since VPNs only bounce your signal via a single server, your connection is much faster.
    2. Blanket protection: a VPN service secures and encrypts all connections on your device. This includes browsing, gaming, streaming, downloading files, etc.
    3. Adaptability: while Tor mainly secures the Tor Browser, a VPN provider can secure any brower and device it supports. You can also secure an entire Wi-Fi network by installing a VPN on a router.
    4. The ultimate solution to geoblocking: a VPN allows you to see content that’s barred in your country. You can also reach content available only in a specific country by connecting to a VPN server located there.
    5. No particular website limitations: some streaming services like Crunchyroll are fighting VPN users. But the overwhelming majority of websites aren’t.

    VPN cons explained:

    1. Not free: free VPNs do exist, but you shouldn’t trust them. Only paid VPNs can offer reliable services that pose no risk to your data.
    2. Presumably can know your IP: your data might be in danger if your VPN service provider has a bad no-logs policy. That’s why it’s essential to check you’re choosing a no-logs VPN.
    3. All eggs in one basket: with a VPN, you’re only connecting to a single server. In theory, that’s easier to compromise than Tor’s three-node system.

    Tor vs. VPN: which is better to use?

    Tor and VPNs are both privacy tools. 

    Tor is better for more extreme cases and sharing sensitive information. A VPN is much more reliable for everyday use, like casual browsing or streaming content.

    So, use whichever one suits your needs! If you want, you can use both at the same time.

    Tor together with a VPN

    Tor together with a VPN

    It is possible to use a VPN with Tor for additional security. In fact, you should do so if you’re accessing .onion websites.

    What’s the benefit? If your internet traffic connects to the VPN server before the Tor network, the VPN server spoofs your IP. That means that even if the Tor entry node is compromised, the interested party will not be able to get your IP address. 

    This strategy will slow your connection down even more. But if you’re using Tor, you’re not doing so for speed. As long as you have a trusted VPN provider, using the Tor browser with a VPN may be a worthy trade-off. 

    Are Tor and VPNs illegal?

    Tor and VPNs are legal in most places around the world. Some countries prohibit the use of VPNs to control freedom of speech. Sadly, these places would benefit the most from Tor and VPNs.

    Tor vs. VPN: the bottom line

    Tor and VPNs are privacy tools with similar purposes. However, they work very differently, and have unique pros and cons.

    For privacy reasons, you can use either of them.

    Tor is safer for sharing sensitive information or anything else that might put you at risk. But overall, it’s mostly for browsing – it’s slow and not suited for downloading files or streaming.

    A VPN, on the other hand, is much faster. It can also offer the same levels of security and privacy if you have a good and trusted provider. Though, of course, a reliable VPN is a paid service. 

    Disclaimer: Surfshark does not encourage using a VPN in any way that would potentially violate the Terms of Service of other service providers.

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    Do I need Tor and a VPN?

    Not necessarily. Additional encryption will never make it worse, but using a VPN is enough for everyday home use, and you might be happier without having to deal with Tor’s speed. 

    Does Tor act as a VPN?

    No. As Tor is a browser, it only encrypts the traffic going through itself. Meanwhile, a VPN will encrypt your entire device. For example, Tor will encrypt the Spotify website but not the app, while a VPN will encrypt both. 

    Is Tor more anonymous than a VPN?

    Kind of. Tor runs your data through several layers of encryption at once, while VPN providers usually only use one layer. Still, Tor only encrypts the traffic that goes through the browser itself. This means it is only more anonymous with browser queries while any apps on your device are left exposed. 

    Does the Tor browser hide your IP?

    Yes. Tor hides your IP when you are looking for something on Tor. It’s important to note, though, that this only applies to the browser itself. Any traffic that does not go through Tor will be exposed.