Tor vs. VPN as compared in a single browser window

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

    What is Tor (browser)

    An illustration explaining the intricacies of Tor network makeup

    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. 

    When you use the Tor Browser, it redirects your internet traffic through the Tor network of volunteer servers scattered around the world. Each connection bounces through three servers before reaching the intended destination. This, alongside three layers of encryption, makes the user very hard to track down. 

    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.

    Tor pros 

    Cheap and easy to use: you can download Tor from the project’s website for free. It works on all major operating systems. Tor browser is no more difficult to use than any other browser. 

    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.  

    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. 

    Helps bypass geoblocking and censorship: if some website is blocked in your country, Tor can allow you to access it.

    Tor cons 

    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. 

    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.

    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. 

    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.

    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.

    When should you use the Tor browser?

    You should use the Tor browser when secrecy is the most important factor. Everything it does is built around the idea of keeping the user as private as possible, speed or usability be damned. 

    Therefore, Tor is useful for:

    • Accessing banned news sites; 
    • Whistleblower communication;
    • Anonymous email accounts.

    What is a VPN (provider)? 

    a brief explanation of how a VPN works

    On the surface, what Tor does is quite similar to what VPNs do, but it all works a bit differently.

    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.

    A VPN provider like Surfshark uses their own servers to route your data — Tor uses volunteers. VPN services only encrypt your data once, and the VPN server knows who’s connecting to it and where they want to go online.

    Being able to choose what server you’ll connect to, only routing data via a single server, and having the company take care of the servers ensures that the VPN connection is almost as fast as using unprotected internet. However, this method is more expensive to maintain.

    VPN pros 

    Good internet speed: since VPNs only bounce your signal via a single server, your connection is much faster.

    Blanket protection: a VPN service secures and encrypts all connections on your device. This includes browsing, gaming, streaming, downloading files, etc.

    Adaptability: while Tor mainly secures the Tor Browser, a VPN provider can secure any browser and device it supports. You can also secure an entire Wi-Fi network by installing a VPN on a router.

    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.

    No particular website limitations: some streaming services like Crunchyroll are fighting VPN users. But the overwhelming majority of websites aren’t.

    VPN cons

    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.

    Can presumably store 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.

    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.

    When should you use a VPN?

    You should use a VPN for increased privacy and security for everyday online activities. Here’s why:

    • Its speed means you can use it for downloads and streaming;
    • It secures all online activities on the device: the browser, gaming apps, messaging apps, etc.;
    • It lets you choose which server to connect to based on your needs. 

    The main difference between Tor and VPNs

    The main difference between Tor and VPNs is that Tor routes data via three random servers maintained by volunteers, while a VPN routes data via a single user-selected server maintained by the VPN provider

    This allows Tor to ensure that none of the servers know both the sender of the data and its destination, while a VPN guarantees better speed and an actual choice of server

    Notably, a VPN can provide a multiple-server feature. For example, Dynamic MultiHop allows Surfshark VPN users to choose two servers to route their data through. 

    Using VPN with Tor

    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.

    In conclusion: Tor and VPN are different

    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: We prohibit using Surfshark services for any unlawful purposes as it is against our Terms of Service. Please be sure to act in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations of streaming service providers.

    Obtain the most protection you can


    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. 

    Is Tor a VPN?

    No, Tor is not a VPN, but it functions in similar ways. 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. 

    Why shouldn’t you use a VPN with Tor?

    Using a VPN with Tor can result in internet speed slowdowns:

    • You are routing data via four servers;
    • The VPN server and the Tor entry server may be located far apart. 

    Is Tor better than a VPN?

    Tor is better than a VPN if you value privacy more than anything else, including browsing speed. VPN is better for streaming, downloading, and other daily uses. 

    What’s the difference between Tor vs. VPN vs. Proxy?

    In short, the difference is that Tor routes your internet traffic via three random servers and encrypts it three times, VPN routes it via a single server of your choice and encrypts it once, and a proxy just routes your traffic via a single server.