Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and the Tor network are two very different technologies created to fulfill the same purpose: keeping a user’s online privacy safe. However, their characteristics make their use cases different, even if they supposedly perform the same essential task.
Of course, VPNs and Tor also have a few things in common. For example, both redirect internet traffic through proxies. This masks a user’s actual IP address (and hence, their location) from any third parties, thus preventing external tracking. Likewise, encryption is also a common feature. It scrambles every piece of data coming in and out of a user’s device so that any external observer sees nothing but white noise and cannot figure out what the user is doing online.
These two features (IP hiding and encryption) are the most basic functions that every VPN must perform. While any other feature is a plus, you can’t call it a VPN if it fails at these two. Yet, Tor performs these two functionalities equally well.
So what is the difference? Which one should you use? This guide answers this question by comparing VPN vs Tor in detail.
Related read: What is Onion over VPN
Tor: When and why use it?
The following tasks are better done when using Tor than a VPN:
- Anonymous web access: A Tor connection is practically impossible to trace back to its originating user. Therefore, when you connect to any website through Tor, no evidence of your visit will remain behind, neither in the server you visited nor on your device. It will be like you never did it.
- Finding the dark web: The dark web or darknet is a subset of the internet composed of websites you can only access through Tor or Freenet and that are not indexed or available through Google’s links and searches. The reputation of the darknet websites is terrible, often associated with digital criminal activities such as illegal black markets. However, there are good reasons to use it too. Wealth is one. Another one is the protection of online anonymity and privacy.
- For untraceable communication: There are a few situations in which standard private communication methods do not suffice. For instance, investigative journalists talking to their sources, whistleblowers, dissidents, and activists need to use Tor to communicate without leaving any evidence trail behind, which is a necessity when your foes are mighty, ruthless, and dominate the standard internet communication channels.
Tor won’t allow you to choose the location for the web to see as yours – at least, not by default. Additionally, it’s not hard for a website to tell if an incoming connection comes from the Tor network so that it can block it.
Tor is a thoroughly secure protocol indeed. But every connection has to go through Tor’s entrance and exit relays. Moreover, those nodes in the network are public (and rather known if not famous). So, any external observer interested in your online activities can know that you’re using Tor.
Of course, once your traffic is bouncing within the Tor network, those same observers (which could include your ISP) won’t be able to figure out what you’re doing exactly. But they will know for sure that you’re on Tor and that in itself could raise suspicions.
The Tor network, in itself, is merely a neutral technical resource. But do not forget that Tor use is often associated with criminal activities. Of course, you can avoid these pitfalls with Tor bridges, but that’s a bit complicated.
VPN: When and why use it?
VPNs are better than Tor if you intend to perform the following tasks:
- Unblocking region-locked content: Many video streaming sites will let you see a portion of their catalog, depending on the country from which your connection is coming. VPNs will give you an IP address from one of their servers that will make it look as if you’re a resident elsewhere in the world. Additionally, while not all VPNs in the market offer high connection speeds, plenty of them do. Many are fast enough to support an HD video stream, something you will never find in Tor because Tor’s connections are very safe but also painfully slow, utterly useless for multimedia applications.
- BitTorrent: These days, even the Piratebay and its alternatives urge you for torrenting through a VPN – not Tor. Because of Tor’s inherent slow speeds and tunnels usually limited to web traffic, even if you manage to channel your torrenting traffic through a Tor relay, speeds will be sluggish.
- When using public WiFi hotspots: Do you love free public WiFi hotspots, like the one at your nearest Starbucks? Well, hackers love them as much as you! It’s because of all that unencrypted information floating around on the air, giving access to so much cool stuff from the unsuspecting users! Indeed, hackers know their trade and where to find new victims, and public WiFi hotspots are among their favorite spots. However, if you’re traveling for any reason, you’ll need to use a public WiFi service sooner or later. And when you do, your only chance to remain safe against digital snoopers is to have a VPN service available. A VPN’s encrypted traffic will prevent any third party from tracking or collecting your browsing activities. Consequently, your browsing experience won’t suffer regarding speed in any noticeable way.
- Circumventing censorship: Some countries employ heavy internet censorship. China is the most notorious example, followed by Russia, Vietnam, and more. Since a VPN makes you look like you were somewhere else, your local censorship won’t affect what you can access on the internet.
- Preclude ISP throttling: Some providers will curtail your bandwidth upon noticing intensive activities, such as streaming and torrenting. However, if your ISP can’t tell precisely what you’re doing with your connection, it won’t be able to throttle it. That’s where a VPN’s encryption helps you by hiding your activities.
But are VPNs the magic bullet compared with Tor? Not really. Your VPN provider still knows everything you do online because all your traffic goes through its servers. So the question is: can you trust your VPN provider will all that information?
This issue is irrelevant within the Tor network because the system is trustless (keep on reading for that). But when it comes to your VPN, you will need to trust that your VPN does not keep logs on you. The best VPNs in the industry protect your privacy and anonymity by adhering to a strict zero-log VPN policy. But trust is still the heart of the matter.
Another thing that a VPN won’t do is take you into the dark web. That’s because the .onion sites constituting this network need Tor. Some VPNs, however, will allow you to run a Tor session over the VPN network. But that’s still because of Tor and not the VPN network.