VPN vs Tor: The Differences, Which One is Better?

Ruheni Mathenge  - Streaming Expert
Last updated: October 28, 2023
Read time: 22 minutes
Share

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.

THE TAKEAWAYS

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 very different technologies created to fulfil the same purpose: keeping a user’s online privacy safe. However, their characteristics make VPN vs Tor 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 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

CriteriaVPNTor
SpeedFastSlow
IP AddressManually choose an IP address locationRandomly assigns an IP address location
Network TypeCentralizedDecentralized
SpeedFastSlow
P2P File SharingSecureSlow and unsecured
CompatibilityWidely compatiblePoorly compatible
AnonymityVPN Service can access web activityComplete anonymity
PriceSubscription feeFree
Encryption CipherAdvanced Encryption Standard (AES)Advanced Encryption Standard (AES)
Dark Web AccessNot supportedPermits access
StreamingSuitableNot suitable
Customer SupportProvidedNot provided
CriteriaVPNTor

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 the 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.

  • It 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 differs 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 volunteers manage worldwide.

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, using the Tor browser does not automatically protect your address and identity. If you do not correctly configure the browser and change your browsing habits, it could easily show your actual unique address and identity.

Even if your internet service provider (ISP) cannot see the specific actions you are taking while using Tor, they can 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 so that only the final destination node in the Tor network can decipher 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 cannot see the content or destination of your traffic.
  5. The entry node deciphers the first protection dimension to find the next server’s address. 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 protective 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 actual 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.

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 that are not indexed or available through Google’s links and searches. The reputation of 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 where 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 necessary 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 bounces within the Tor network, those same observers (including your ISP) won’t be able to figure out precisely what you’re doing. 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.

What is VPN, and how does it work?

A VPN is a tool that you can use to hide your location and encrypt your online activity.

When Accessing the internet with a VPN, your unique address and requests are concealed and routed through an intermediary server of your choice. The inclusion of encryption creates a secure connection, known as a ‘VPN tunnel.’ 

Using a VPN has two significant effects:

  1. When using a VPN, the server’s IP address is visible at the endpoints instead of your unique address. Therefore, you can pretend to be in a different location and access content restricted to specific regions.
  2. VPNs can prevent governments, internet service providers(ISPs), and other third parties from tracking your online activities. When your connection is concealed, these entities can only see the VPN server’s unique address.

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 catalogue, depending on the country from which your connection is coming. VPNs will give you an IP address from one of their servers, making it look like you’re a resident elsewhere. Additionally, while not all VPNs 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 to torrent through a VPN – not Tor. Because Tor’s inherent slow speeds and tunnels are 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 ones like those at your nearest Starbucks? Well, hackers love them as much as you! It’s because of all that unencrypted information floating around in the air, giving access to so much cool stuff from unsuspecting users! Indeed, hackers know their trade and where to find new victims, and public WiFi hotspots are among their favourite spots. However, if travelling 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 are 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, can you trust your VPN provider will provide 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 must trust that it 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.

Tor vs. VPN: What is the key difference?

VPN vs Tor

A VPN can have many features today, but only two are essential for the service to be considered a VPN: encrypting all your incoming and outgoing traffic and assigning you a new IP address from the VPN network. Interestingly, Tor also serves both of these purposes. So how do these two differ?

Comparing VPN vs. Tor reveals that the differences don’t exist in what they do but in how they do it. Here are the key factors differentiating Tor and VPN services.

Centralization

A VPN is centralized, unlike Tor.

Centralization means that a central authority controls all the traffic at all times. In this case, your VPN provider is the authority, usually a private corporation. The company owns (or rents) and operates hundreds or thousands of global servers.

As a user, you connect to one of those servers in the network to join the VPN and protect your traffic. Thus, the VPN model can give users good privacy and high-speed connections.

These advantages, however, come at a price. Specifically, you need to trust your VPN provider’s behaviour and policies to protect you. That’s because 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 and manages Tor in its entirety. Instead, the nodes in the network acting as relays are owned and operated by volunteers worldwide. When you connect to Tor vs VPN, your data gets routed through a random path using different relays in the network each time you visit a website. So it’s possible to read the data at the final point of the way, known as the exit relay or node. But there’s no way to know where it came from initially.


Use case specificity

The second difference between the two is about your priorities when using them.

Both technologies secure your online privacy and anonymity. But each puts its focus on one aspect at a time. Thus, VPNs are built to protect your privacy, while Tor is made to protect your anonymity.

Now, what is the difference between privacy and anonymity? Don’t you have one if you have the other? We hear you ask.

Well, the answer is these two aren’t the same.

In simple words, anonymity hides who you are, whereas privacy hides what you do online. So, one is about protecting your identity, while the other is protecting your activities.

That’s how the two tools, VPN and Tor, differ. VPN is a tool for activities where you need privacy, whereas Tor promotes activities requiring anonymity, such as whistleblowing, sharing news, etc.


Tech mechanics

When you compare VPN vs Tor, you’ll notice that the basic mechanics of each technology are also similar but not quite the same.

For example, a VPN encrypts all your traffic and then sends it to the internet through a node in the network – the VPN server. The same server also shows the world an IP address in the network as yours.

In contrast, Tor will also encrypt your data, but it’s not as centralized. Instead, it sends your encrypted traffic through a random sequence of servers in its network, which volunteers maintain.

These mechanics in each tool also make it suited for a set of tasks.


Key benefits of using VPNs and Tor

Given that both technologies have different purposes, mechanics, and functionality, you can’t compare VPN vs. Tor to know which one has more benefits. Both tools have various benefits depending on why and how you use them.

Advantages of VPN

  • Hide your location online. A VPN masks your IP address and location with the one from your chosen server. That’s how your actual coordinates remain hidden.
  • Access content from other regions. Most VPNs offer multiple server locations to choose from. Hence, you can easily access content from any desired region if your VPN provider offers a server.
  • Bypass content blocking. As you change your online location by connecting to a virtual network, you no more remain bound to the local content restrictions. Hence, you can access all those sites that you previously could use.
  • Ensure online security on public WiFi. The VPN encrypts your internet traffic, protecting you from network snoopers, even if you use public WiFi.
  • Easily install on any device. Most VPN services support multiple devices. So you can easily install them on any device you want.

Advantages of Tor

  • Inclusive anonymity. You can trust the level of anonymity Tor gives you because most power users dealing with sensitive stuff, such as journalists, activists, whistleblowers (and also, cybercriminals – though we don’t encourage such malicious uses), use Tor for confidential exchange of information.
  • Identity protection. When using Tor, no one can see your actual IP address and/or your device data, thereby becoming unable to identify you online. Of course, this doesn’t include situations where you intentionally share your information with the other parties. But what Tor ensures is preventing data snooping. Thus, all others online must trust the details you share intentionally – they can’t spy on you.
  • Multi-layer traffic encryption. It redirects your traffic through multiple nodes before forwarding it to the internet. During this process, it encrypts your data multiple times, ensuring total anonymity.
  • Prevent spying. The robust technology and encryption behind the Tor network ensure no one can spy on you online.
  • Unrestricted access to the internet. Since your actual IP address and location remain hidden online, you can easily access the geo-restricted content on your device.

Tor onion routing and single-hop VPN routing

In most VPNs, you’ll use a single VPN server. The process starts in your device, where your outgoing data gets encrypted and 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-hop 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 are costly regarding 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 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 sends 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 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 various 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 rare.

The Tor Browser, 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 appears the same as Firefox, but it tunnels all the web traffic it creates through the Tor network. Privacy is the top priority because it doesn’t store cookies, web histories or run scripts. 

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

VPNs are different because 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. Sometimes, the most versatile VPNs allow you to configure your home WiFi router. Then all the traffic passing through the router goes through the VPN without separately installing any apps on your respective devices.

Most commercial VPN providers save time and effort by providing their 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, including a kill switch, traffic obfuscations, split tunnelling, 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. Then, of course, you need some expertise to configure the individual VPN server you want to use. But you can use the logic infrastructure in Android, iOS, Windows, macOS, and Linux.

VPNs and Tor: Can I use them concurrently?

Using a VPN and the Tor network together is possible, but this combination can significantly reduce your internet speed. Some people may still choose to use a VPN with the Tor browser. Here is how to do it.

  1. “VPN then Tor” or “Tor over VPN” is a method where you establish a connection to a VPN and then use the Onion browser. This provides you with the privacy benefits of the Tor network and additional IP address protection from the VPN, hiding your use of Tor from your Internet Service Provider and protecting your IP address from being seen by any Tor node.
  2. “Tor then VPN,” or using the Tor network before connecting to a VPN, may not be supported by all VPN providers. One advantage of this method is that your internet traffic is encrypted when it enters and leaves the Tor network. 

However, this method may not provide as much anonymity because your ISP will know you are using Tor. On the other hand, it protects your internet traffic from vulnerabilities at the exit node.

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

Comparing VPN vs. Tor explains that the two are different tools designed to perform various tasks. Thus, which one you use depends on what you want to do. However, they are not in direct competition because they’re not equivalent while their tasks seem similar.

So here’s a good rule to keep in mind. First, have your VPN active on all your devices, especially 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 is to download and install the Tor browser, and that’s it. No need for subscription fees or accounts of any kind. It’s free 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 – but 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.

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 most things you expect 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 using 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., alongside the providers paying bills and meeting ends meet. So how does an organization that doesn’t charge you for its service get the money to keep online? That 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 free VPNs involves logging your activities within the VPN and 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 your data eventually becomes scrutinized by a corporation that knows how to monetize it. So you can’t trust free VPNs to protect your privacy because you and your activities are the product of this transaction.

So you should always stay away from free VPNs. They’re not only 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 favourite 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.

Conclusion

Tor and VPNs will do the trick if you want your privacy protected. 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 tools designed for different tasks, so when considering VPN vs Tor use cases, each is best at its own job.

VPNs come in various shapes and sizes, but good ones are fast, encrypting everything you do or see, putting you in control of your public location, and can get you access to any website.

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

Of course, if privacy is important to you, you must ensure 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!

FAQs

It depends on your VPN for a start. It depends even more on the online activity you intend to perform. Tor browsing is perfect for bypassing censorship, ensuring anonymity, and enhancing privacy. But browsing on Tor is very slow, so its helpfulness is very limited if you have multimedia on your mind.

Yes, it is. The Tor browser will keep you safe if you don’t have a VPN service.

It depends on your jurisdiction. Some authoritarian governments like Iran or China have made Tor illegal indeed. In the rest of the world, Tor is not forbidden in any way. But it’s somewhat frowned upon because it’s related to the dark web, which has a notoriously bad reputation.

It depends. Free VPNs can increase your security risks instead of lowering them for the above reasons. However, the best providers in the VPN industry are very safe at all times.

You can use both tools simultaneously, but it’s beside the point. First, you don’t need the additional security you’ll have in that scenario. Secondly, your Tor browsing will be so slow that you soon wish you didn’t.

Tor is recommended for people who need to transmit sensitive information, while a VPN is a better choice for everyday use. It offers a good balance of connection speed, convenience, and privacy.

While a VPN is unnecessary if you have Tor, it can help encrypt your internet traffic and hide it from your Internet Service Provider (ISP). Remember that not all VPNs offer support for Tor, so choosing a VPN that specifically offers this feature is crucial if you plan to use Tor with a VPN.

Using the Tor browser itself is not illegal, and you are unlikely to get in trouble simply for using it. However, it is essential to note that Tor is not a lawless domain, and engaging in illegal activities through the Tor network can lead to legal consequences.

While using Tor can help to encrypt your internet traffic and protect your privacy, your Internet Service Provider (ISP) will still be able to see that you are connected to the Tor network. Additionally, the entry and exit nodes of the Tor network are not fully protected against tracking, so it is possible for someone who owns and operates these nodes to see your real IP address.

Share this article

About the Author

Ruheni Mathenge

Ruheni Mathenge

Streaming Expert
201 Posts

Tech researcher and writer with a passion for cybersecurity. Ruheni Mathenge specializes in writing long-form content dedicated to helping individuals and businesses navigate and understand the constantly evolving online security and web freedom worlds. He specializes in VPNs, online anonymity, and encryption. His articles have appeared in many respected technology publications. Ruheni explains complicated technical concepts clearly and simply. He advocates digital freedom and online privacy at every level.

More from Ruheni Mathenge

Comments

No comments.