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

Ruheni Mathenge Last updated: February 7, 2023 Read time: 22 minutes Disclosure

VPNs and Tor are complementary privacy tools that every privacy enthusiast must know. Each has its strengths, and this VPN vs. Tor comparison tells you all about them in detail.

Sneak peek at VPN vs. Tor

VPN and Tor network are two different technologies that protect the users’ online presence. Apparently, both services perform similar tasks. For example, both VPN and Tor redirect the online traffic through servers that hide the users’ physical IPs and locations. Furthermore, they both are capable of encrypting your data. However, there are some key features that actually create major differences between these two services. In short, VPNs are much more general and versatile than Tor, so they should do a better job of keeping you safe if used properly. Tor is safe, free, and gets you darknet access, but it’s exceedingly slow and can get you in trouble.

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

VPN vs. TOR: Quick comparison table

The table below shows the differences between VPN  and Tor Browser

Criteria VPN Tor
Speed Fast Slow
IP Address Manually choose an IP address location Randomly assigns an IP address location
Network Type Centralized Decentralized
Speed Fast Slow
P2P File Sharing Secure Slow and unsecure
Compatibility Widely compatible Poorly compatible
Anonymity VPN Service can access web activity Complete anonymity
Price Subscription fee Free
Encryption Cipher Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) Advanced Encryption Standard (AES)
Dark Web Access Not supported Permits access
Streaming Suitable Not suitable
Customer Support Provided Not provided
Criteria VPN Tor

What is Tor, and how it works?

The Onion Router, mostly known as TOR, is an open-source network that allows users to communicate anonymously online for free. It can be accessed via a browser known as Tor browser, a free application based on Firefox that can be downloaded and installed on a computer.

When using the browser, The Onion Router Network (TOR) is used to protect a user’s location and identity when online.

Here are some of the things that Tor does when you are online.

  • Hides your unique address from the sites you visit
  • Mask your identity on the network
  • Explore “hidden”. onion domains
  • Make your activities when online untraceable
  • Keep your communications private
  • Unblock censored content

While Tor is different from a VPN, it offers similar benefits by encrypting and hiding your online activities. It routes your traffic through a series of nodes, or access points, that are managed by volunteers all over the world.

This random routing helps to obscure your identity and location while you are online.

The anonymity provided by Tor comes at the cost of slower speeds and weak connections. Additionally, your data has to go through random routes so you can’t select an IP address on a specific location like you can with a VPN.

Unlike a VPN, simply using the Tor browser does not automatically protect your address and identity. If you do not properly configure the browser and change your browsing habits, it could easily show your real unique address and identity.

Even if your internet service provider (ISP) cannot see the specific actions you are taking while using Tor, they will be able to see that you are using the network. As a result, regularly using Tor may make you more susceptible to surveillance.

Here is an explanation of how the Tor network encrypts and hides your internet activity:

  1. Before establishing a connection to the network, Tor chooses at least three random servers, also known as nodes, to route your traffic.
  2. Tor then conceals your traffic in such a way that only the final destination node in the Tor network can decypher it.
  3. A new dimension of protection is added to every node that your traffic passes through, culminating at the final node. At the start of this process, your traffic is protected by three layers of protection or more.
  4. While online, your device communicates with the entry node, the entry node is aware of your unique address, but it cannot see the content or destination of your traffic.
  5. The entry node deciphers the first dimension of protection to find the address of the next server. It then forwards your traffic, which is still protected by two or more layers of protection.
  6. Upon receiving your encrypted traffic, the next server removes the protection layer to reveal the identity of the next server in the chain. It then forwards your data. This node is aware of the address of the previous server, but it does not have any information about your real unique address or the number of routes that have occurred until this point.
  7. Your traffic undergoes this process repeatedly until it reaches the last node. At this point, the last node decyphers the last dimension of protection, revealing your traffic. However, the last node cannot identify who you are.
  8. At this point, routing is complete