Tor vs. VPN - what’s the difference?

If internet freedom and privacy are important to you, then you’ve probably heard about Tor (The Onion Router) and VPNs (Virtual Private Network).

The two are quite similar.

The Tor browser and VPNs are online privacy and security tools. They both allow you to skid by censorship, restrictions and stay unseen online.

But they are also very different.

The main differences between Tor and VPNs are their use cases. VPNs are faster and more suited than Tor for everyday tasks like casual 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.

Tor vs. VPN differences summarized

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

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

What is Tor (browser)?

What is Tor (browser)?

The name “Tor” can mean many things. It usually means either 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. By doing so, it meshes its users’ data together. This makes it too difficult to identify anyone on 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. Many people simply use Tor to improve their privacy.

What is a VPN (provider)?

What is a VPN (provider)?

A Virtual Private Network is a privacy tool that does a similar (not the same) job as Tor but differently.

A VPN sets up a private network over a public one using servers rather than volunteers. The server almost acts as 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 address and location using a VPN.

Tor: pros and cons

As I mentioned above, Tor and VPNs are different. Each 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 geo-blocking and censorship
Bad for accessing specific geo-blocked 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 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 around the world. 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 geo-blocking 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 it down even more.
  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 geo-blocked content: it’s not easy to access geo-blocked 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 connections via the Tor network. There had also been reports that some ISPs threatened to cut the service to Tor users and that security agencies are more likely to track them. 

VPN: pros and cons

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

Good internet speed
Not free
Blanket protection
Presumably can know your IP
Easier to compromise
Ultimate solution to geo-blocking
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 secures and encrypts all of your connections on the device. This means not only browsing but also gaming, streaming, downloading files, etc.
  3. Adaptability: while Tor mostly works via the Tor Browser, a VPN can secure any device it supports. Or you can just secure an entire Wi-Fi network by installing a VPN on a router.
  4. Ultimate solution to geo-blocking: a VPN allows you to see content that’s barred in your country. You can also reach content available to 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 cannot trust them. The only reliable service that poses no risk to your data comes from paid VPNs.
  2. Presumably can know your IP: your data might be in danger if your VPN provider has a bad no-logs policy. That’s why it’s important to use 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. 

However, this strategy slows your connection down even more. But if you’re using Tor, you’re not using it for speed. In the end, this may be a worthy trade-off as long as you have a trusted VPN provider. 

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. Ironically, these are the places where Tor and VPNs are most needed.

Tor vs. VPN: the bottom line

Tor and VPNs are both privacy tools with similar purposes. However, they work very differently. As it is, these differences carry their own 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. At the same time, it’s slow and not suited for downloading files or streaming. Overall, it’s mostly for browsing.

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.

Note: 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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