VPN vs Tor: What’s the difference and which one to use?

Last updated by   Ruheni Mathenge
Disclosure
VPNs and Tor are complementary privacy tools that every privacy enthusiast must know. Each has its strengths, and in this article, we tell you all about them. That being said, VPNs are much more general and versatile than Tor, so they should do a better job in keeping you safe if you use them properly. Tor is safe, free, and gets you darknet access, but it's exceedingly slow and can get you in trouble. VPNs come in all shapes and sizes.

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’re supposed to perform the same essential task.

Of course, they also have 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. This prevents external tracking.

Encryption is also a common feature. This feature 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.

Those two features (IP hiding and encryption) are the most basic functions that every VPN must perform. Any other feature is a plus, but you can’t call it a VPN if it fails at those too. Yet, Tor does those two things as well. So what is the difference? Which is the one you should be using?

It’s all about priorities. Both technologies are all about securing your online privacy and anonymity. But each puts its focus on one. Thus, VPNs are built to protect your privacy, while Tor is made to protect your anonymity.

And what is the difference between privacy and anonymity? Don’t you have one if you have the other? No, you don’t. Not really. Distinguishing those two notions is a subtle but essential thing. You can think about it like this: anonymity hides who you are. Privacy hides what you’re doing online. So one is about protecting your identity, the other one about protecting your activities.

When you compare VPN and Tor, the basic mechanics in each technology are also similar but not quite the same. For example, a VPN encrypts all your traffic, then sends it to the Internet through a node in the network, the VPN server, which shows the world an IP address in the network as yours too. Tor will also encrypt your data, but it’s not as centralized. Instead, it will send your encrypted traffic through a random sequence of servers in its network, which volunteers maintain.

The mechanics in each tool make it suited for a set of tasks. So what are VPNs and Tor’s best uses?

Tor: When and why use it?

The following tasks are better 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 in the server you visited nor on your device. It will be like if 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.
  • Untraceable communication: There are a few situations in which standard private communications are not enough. Investigative journalists talking to their sources, whistleblowers, dissidents, and activists can 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 that the web will see as yours – at least, not by default. Additionally, it’s not too 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 itself is nothing but a technical resource and, as such, is neutral. But do not forget that Tor use is closely associated in many people’s minds with criminal activity. You can avoid these pitfalls with Tor bridges, but that’s a bit complicated, and it would need an entire article on its own.

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 apparent 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 connections 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 insist that you should be torrenting through a VPN – not Tor. As noted in the previous paragraph, Tor’s speeds are notoriously slow, and the tunnels are usually limited to web traffic. So even if you can manage to channel your torrenting traffic through a Tor relay, speeds will be too slow.
  • Remaining safe at public WiFi hotspots: Do you love free public WiFi hotspots, like the one at your nearest Starbucks? Well, hackers love them every bit as much as you! All that unencrypted information floating around on the air, giving you access to so much cool stuff from the unsuspecting users! It’s not a joke, 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; all they will see is something akin to white noise, which is what good encryption is supposed to look like. As a result, your browsing experience won’t suffer in terms of speed in any noticeable way.
  • Circumventing censorship: There are some countries in the world in which the Internet is heavily censored. China is the most notorious example, but other jurisdictions have similar policies. Because a VPN will make you look like you were somewhere else, your local censorship won’t affect what you can or can’t see or do on the Internet.
  • Preclude ISP throttling: Some providers will curtail your bandwidth if they notice you’re using a certain kind of service too much (steaming and torrenting come to mind, but there could be others). However, if your ISP can’t tell precisely what you’re doing with your connection, it won’t be able to throttle it. And that’s what a VPN’s encryption does for you, among many other things.

But are VPNs the magic bullet compared with Tor? Not really. Your VPN provider still knows everything you do online because all of 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 is not keeping 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 for you is getting you into the dark web. Again, this is because the .onion sites that compose this network need Tor. Some VPNs, however, will allow you to run a Tor session over the VPN network, and in that case, you’d be killing two birds with a single throw. But that’s still because of Tor and not because of the VPN network.

Tor vs. VPN: What is the key difference?

VPN vs Tor

Your regular internet connections broadcast your traffic to the world unencrypted, reporting an IP address that your ISP gives to you.

A VPN can have many features in this day and age, but only two are essential for the service to be called a VPN indeed: encrypt all your incoming and outgoing traffic and assign you a new IP address from the VPN network. But those two tricks, encryption and IP masking are also performed by Tor. So what is the difference between a VPN and a Tor connection? We’re glad you asked; keep reading.

Centralization

A VPN is centralized. That is one of the main differences it has from Tor. Centralization means that a central authority is in control of all the traffic at all times. In this case, your VPN provider is the authority, a private corporation, most of the time. The company owns and operates (in many cases, it rents) hundreds or thousands of servers scattered around the globe.

As a user, you connect to one of those nodes in the network to join the VPN and have your traffic protected. Thus, the VPN model can give its users a good level of privacy and high-speed connections. These advantages, however, come at a price.

You need to trust your VPN provider’s behavior and policies to protect you because the privacy is not hardwired into the process; it must be implemented through zero-log keeping and other measures.

On the other hand, Tor is decentralized. Nobody owns Tor, and nobody can manage it. Instead, the nodes in the network acting as relays are owned and operated by volunteers around the globe. When you connect to Tor, your data is routed through a random path using different relays in the network each time you visit a website. So there’s a chance to read the data at the final point of the way, known as the exit relay. But there’s no way to know where it came from initially.

Tor onion routing and single hop VPM routing

In most VPNs, you’ll use a single VPN server. The process starts in your own device, where your outgoing data gets encrypted, then sent to the VPN server. Finally, the server decrypts it and sends it to its final destination on the Internet.

A handful of VPN providers offer the possibility of multi-hope connections in which two or more servers participate in the process, each adding a new level of encryption. But these are not the industry standard, and they’re costly in terms of speeds and performance.

Yes, the multi-hop setup certainly adds to a connection’s privacy, but it’s overkill as a single server’s encryption is already enough for all types of users.

Tor stands for “the onion router.” The name comes from the onion routing process characteristic of this protocol. Here’s how it works: when your data reaches Tor, the network will send it through three random relays at least. Each relay encrypts your data once and includes the IP address of the next relay in the chain.

Then, the next relay removes the previous encryption layer, revealing the next relay in the chain while it hides it from the previous one and adds an encryption layer of its own. In this way, no relay in the process can know the whole story about your data. That makes tracing exceedingly difficult to achieve in onion routing.

The Tor browser vs. VPN apps

You can set up a variety of devices and applications to take advantage of Tor. However, the most common Tor implementation is the Tor browser. That’s what most users mean by “Tor,” and versions that support other apps or devices are on the rare side of things.

The Tor browser

The Tor Browser, which is Tor’s primary implementation and tool, is essentially a fork of Mozilla Firefox with Tor’s navigation specifications built-in to ensure security and anonymity. On the surface, the Tor Browser is precisely the same as Firefox, but all the web traffic it creates is tunneled through the Tor network. It doesn’t store cookies or web histories or run scripts, so privacy is the top priority here. 

Tor is available in other implementations as well. So, for instance, there’s TAILS, which is a whole operating system tailored for Tor. But then, you also have SecureDrop and Ricochet, which are communication apps.

VPNs are different in that they usually protect all the traffic originating in a device, not just the browsing data. Connecting to a VPN means connecting to a server in the network, and you achieve that in several ways.

You can use a VPN app or a built-in client on any device of your choice. In some cases, the most versatile VPNs allow you to configure your home WiFi router so that all the traffic going through the router goes through the VPN without installing any apps or configuring each individual device for that purpose. 

Most commercial VPN providers save you some time and effort by providing their own apps. These apps come preconfigured and include the network’s server list. The best VPN apps in the market will enhance your security significantly. They will protect your data against IP leaks; they will include kill switches, traffic obfuscations, split tunneling, and many other features.

You don’t even need the apps to make the VPN work. The most used operating systems include support for VPN servers in a rudimentary way. Of course, you need some expertise to configure the individual VPN server you want to use, but the logic infrastructure is there in Android, iOS, Windows, macOS, and Linux for you to use if you so choose.

VPNs and Tor: Can I use them concurrently?

Yes.

You can indeed use Tor and VPNs at the same time. There’s nothing to prevent you from doing that. But your internet speeds could suffer from it.

So how do you do this? The most straightforward way is to launch your Tor browser while your system is within your VPN network. In this way, the Tor network will do its homework through the VPN servers.

The advantage of this approach is that if your ISP is unfriendly towards Tor connections, your VPN will hide them from it.

So which option should I be using, Tor or VPN?

Tor and VPNs are different tools designed to perform different tasks. So which one you use depends on the thing you want to do. However, they are not in direct competition because while their tasks seem similar, they’re not equivalent at all.

So here’s a good rule to keep in mind. First, have your VPN active and use it all the time on all your devices, especially if you’re on public WiFi hotspots. Then, launch your Tor browser and use it when you need it only – for example, if you need to browse around the dark web.

Paid services vs. free ones

The Tor network is free. All you need to use it is to download and install the Tor browser, and that’s it. No need for subscription fees or accounts of any kind. This is like this because Tor runs on a network maintained by volunteers and privacy enthusiasts.

VPNs are another thing entirely. Free VPNs are out there on the Internet – and you should never use them.

There are many reasons for users to adopt a VPN service. Of course, privacy and anonymity are usually the top reason to join, but VPNs have other uses (unblocking content, bypassing censorship, and other use cases) besides privacy, strictly speaking.

Consequently, different VPN networks are focused on various aspects of the service. Some put privacy at the top of the list, but speeds suffer. Others will focus on keeping your privacy secured but emphasize speed connections so that you can use the network for video streaming.

Free VPNs will do the two things you expect the most from a VPN: encryption and IP masking. But most will cap your data usage and not provide you with speeds that support multimedia streams. So even if you could get a stream going, the data cap will prevent you from watching more than a few minutes of content.

But the lack of speed is not the only reason to avoid Free VPNs.

Here’s a bit of digital economics you should always keep in mind: if in any context you’re not being charged for the use of a product of any kind, then you are the project on offer. Of course, this applies to free VPNs as well.

Running a VPN network is an expensive proposition. First, you need to have at least tens of servers available all around the globe — though some VPNs boast thousands of nodes in their network.

In addition, each server needs administration, electricity, maintenance, etc. Finally, bills must be paid, and ends have to meet. So how does an organization that doesn’t charge you for its service get the money to keep online? This is where it all gets tricky.

We’ve mentioned how, in VPNs, there is always an element of trust involved with the provider you choose. And that’s the problem. The business model in most VPNs consists of the network logging your activities within the VPN, then selling them to their commercial partners.

That’s how they pay their bills. So most free VPNs will keep you safe from real-time third parties and external observers, but, in the end, your data ends up scrutinized by a corporation that knows how to monetize it. So you can’t trust free VPNs to protect your privacy. They can’t. That’s now how they make their money. As far as they are concerned, you and your activities are the product of this transaction.

So you should always stay away from free VPNs. It’s not only that they’re limited in resources, data, or bandwidth. But, more importantly, using this service beats the purpose of a VPN. So even if it charges you no fee at all, it ends up being too expensive anyway.

Consider this: an excellent VPN membership, such as NordVPN, will set you back by about 10 USD monthly. That’s not much money by any meaningful standard, and the rewards in terms of safety are enormous.

Just think about being able to be online at your favorite Starbucks WiFi hotspot without running any risk of getting hacked. The chances are that you will be spending more money on the coffee and cookies you’ll have there than on your monthly VPN fee.

Final thoughts: Which one among Tor and VPN is better?

If you want your privacy protected, both Tor and VPNs will do the trick for you. But what is the best choice?

You should probably try not to think about this issue in terms of “best” or “worse.” Both technologies are different tools designed for different tasks, so each is best at its own job.

VPNs come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but good ones are fast, encrypt everything you do or see, put you in control of your public location, and can get you access to any website in the world.

So while both tech platforms are inherently different, there’s no doubt that VPNs are the more powerful option.

Of course, if privacy is important to you, you need to make sure that your VPN provider keeps no logs at all. If you’re going to trust a service, choose one worth it. A couple of VPNs that we can recommend here are ExpressVPN and NordVPN.

Above all, stay safe!

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About the author

Ruheni Mathenge
Ruheni Mathenge

Tech researcher and writer with a passion for cybersecurity. Alex is a strong advocate of digital freedom and online privacy.

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