Tor vs. VPN: Which One To Choose?

Last Updated: July 24, 2021

In the world today, cybersecurity is becoming more critical than it was a couple of years back. No matter what you do online, your security and privacy are things you should not take for granted.

Many people online turn to a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or Tor browser to stay secure and anonymous. They are two of the most widely-used tools. But if you had to choose between the two, which one would it be?

A VPN offers an efficient way to use the internet daily, as it protects your data traffic and privacy while it provides other valuable features like speed. Tor is excellent for browsing incognito and transmitting sensitive information. 

However, we understand that people’s needs online vary, so this article will help you decide which of them you should use.

What Is Tor?

Tor or the Tor browser refers to a free, open-source network that allows you to surf the internet or communicate anonymously. Tor is an acronym of the phrase “the onion router.”

It is made up of servers in different locations across the world that Tor users run. Tor connections are difficult to monitor because a company or organization does not maintain them. It is also known as a secure means of accessing the dark web.

Here’s a simple breakdown of how the Tor browser works:

  1. Any request you make is encrypted three times by the Tor software for three nodes- a guard node, a middle server, and an exit node;
  2. The Tor software first sends your request to the guard node. This node removes a layer of encryption before sending your request to the next server. Although the guard node can see your actual IP address, it doesn’t have access to your encrypted message;
  3. The middle node removes a second layer and sends the message with the last encryption layer to the exit node;
  4. When your request reaches the exit node, it strips off the final layer and has access to your message, but it can’t trace the sender. The node then sends the message to the intended recipient.

What Is a VPN?

A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, encrypts your data traffic, creates a secure tunnel, and sends it to a secure VPN server. It helps maintain your privacy online through a secure connection to any server or network.

VPN services use many servers in various locations, and they offer diverse VPN protocols and features. They also encrypt your data to make it hard to be intercepted by hackers and other third parties. The best VPNs use military-grade 256-bit encryption, which so far has been impossible to breach.

The way a VPN work is like this:

  1. From your end, VPN software encrypts your traffic and sends it to a secure virtual server that switches your IP address for a new one;
  2. The server decrypts your data before it is sent to your intended destination;
  3. Also, incoming data on your device follow the same process.

Unlike the Tor network, it is easy to figure out who operates VPN servers, so there’s some transparency to the process. A company or organization can be held accountable, and they typically have customer service. This is why it is more reliable than Tor.

Difference Between Tor and a VPN

The significant difference between Tor and a VPN is that there are several VPN service providers, offering various features, but Tor has a single browser network. Tor also functions through a decentralized network of volunteers to transfer data securely, but VPN software uses secure servers to create a VPN tunnel.

Additionally, if your online activity involves sensitive data or you are in a country with censorship laws, Tor is the best way to stay anonymous. With VPNs, however, some countries could sanction VPN providers to divulge users’ information, and if your service operates in such countries, your privacy isn’t guaranteed.

A VPN is your best bet if you just want to ensure your privacy and security when connecting from your home network or a public network.

Can You Use Tor and a VPN Simultaneously?

You can use both technologies simultaneously if you’re interested in extra security and privacy. This mix is often referred to as ‘Onion over VPN.’ However, using the two technologies is only advised if you’re familiar with how they work. There are two methods to use Tor and a VPN together.

The first method is to connect to a VPN server before you access the Tor network. In this process, it will conceal your IP address from the Tor entry node operator, and your ISP will have no idea that you’re using Tor. However, you won’t be protected from risky exit nodes because Tor won’t encrypt your traffic by the time it reaches them.

The other method is to access the Tor network before connecting to a VPN. This way, it will encrypt your traffic throughout its transmission on the Tor network. However, you won’t be totally anonymous. Although your VPN will protect you from malicious exit nodes, your ISP will be able to tell that you’re on the Tor network.

The downside to using a VPN and Tor together is that you’ll experience slower speeds than you typically would when you use them alone.

Advantages and disadvantages of using Tor

Here is some major advantages and disadvantages of using Tor:

Advantages of Using Tor

Like we’ve pointed out, the Tor network has several uses. Now let’s take a look at some of the benefits of using Tor:

It Hides Your Online Activity: With Tor, you can rest assured that your browsing history and cookies are not saved because it resets when you log off the network.

Anonymity: On the Tor network, every user has a similar identity to make it difficult for you to be singled out based on the information about your browser or devices. It also prevents third parties from spying on your browsing sessions.

Stability: The Tor network is difficult to shut down or intercept because of its decentralized nature.

Free Access The Tor browser allows you to access geo-blocked content and websites blocked by your Internet Service Provider (ISP).

Complex Encryption: Tor uses a complicated process of redirecting and encrypting your traffic multiple times to ensure that you stay anonymous online.

Disadvantages of Using Tor

Some of the drawbacks to Tor include:

Multi-Platform Support: Tor is available on select operating systems only. 

Malicious Exit Nodes: As your data passes through the exit nodes unencrypted, anyone could easily intercept the content of your request.

Slow Connection: Tor implements various layers of encryption that, in effect, slows down your connection.

Complex Configuration: To use an IP address associated with a specific location, you will need to configure your connection or reconnect severally until you connect to the node you need.

Lack of Accountability: The decentralized nature of the Tor network means that there’s minimal transparency and accountability for the volunteers.

Advantages and disadvantages of using a VPN

Here is some major advantages and disadvantages of using a VPN:

Advantages of Using a VPN

A VPN is an essential tool for security and privacy that has several advantages such as:

Ease of Use: Using a VPN is very straightforward and doesn’t require much experience.

Anonymous Web Surfing: When you connect to a VPN server, it encrypts your data and conceals your ISP-provided IP address to get your privacy secured and have you browsing anonymously.

Top-Tier Encryption: Premium VPNs use some of the most advanced encryption technology available such as 256-bit encryption.

Server Selection: VPN services offer a list of all their server locations that you can easily choose from, unlike Tor.

High-Speed Connection: A VPN allows you to connect to websites and other services faster than you’ll connect through Tor nodes.

Useful Features: VPN services usually offer extra features to enhance your internet experience, such as Obfuscated servers, kill switches, P2P servers, Smart DNS services, and DNS leak protection.

Bypassing Censorship and Restriction: VPN services operate servers located around the world. These servers can help you access geo-restricted websites and content easily by just connecting to a server in a location you prefer. Similarly, you can bypass censorship by using servers located outside the area censored by your ISP or government.

Disadvantages of Using a VPN

Let’s point out the downsides to using a VPN service:

Firewall Blocks: Your connection could be blocked depending on the VPN protocol and ports the VPN company uses.

Cost: The best VPN services require you to purchase a subscription plan. The prices of these paid plans are high in a lot of cases.

Data Retention: Some VPN providers don’t have a no-log policy. This means that the company will collect your personal information and connection history. This defeats the purpose of using a VPN to ensure your privacy.

When Should You Use Tor?

Tor is an excellent tool for protecting your privacy while you try to access geo-restricted content. You can also use it if you’re trying to avoid censorship in countries with strict internet laws like China, Russia, and more.

Tor is the only way you can access the dark web. With its Hidden Services, you can access many websites that you can’t find through popular search engines like Google. However, the dark web is illegal in some countries because of criminal activities on the web.

Furthermore, the Tor browser is the way to go if you don’t want to leave any digital footprint. It is almost impossible for browser trackers and other third parties to follow your connection, so it is ideal for whistleblowers, activists, and others who want to communicate anonymously.

When Should You Use a VPN?

You should use a VPN if you want access to geo-blocked content. Many websites and streaming services restrict certain content or services to specific locations. However, a VPN offers servers that you could connect to unblock such content.

Additionally, VPNs are better for torrenting than Tor because they are much faster and offer more bandwidth. Also, internet service providers throttle torrents and video streams, but a VPN lets you hide your traffic so your ISP can’t manipulate it. 

A VPN is also excellent for keeping your internet connection private. Premium VPNs use military-grade encryption to protect your data. They also make sure that the websites you visit and services you use can’t tell exactly where the connection is coming from.

Another scenario where you could use a VPN is when you connect to public WiFi. Without a VPN, you could expose your sensitive data to theft, and your devices are also exposed to other malicious threats like malware.

You should also use a VPN service if internet access is restricted at work or work. With the right VPN, you will easily bypass these blocks.

A VPN is the best way to stay protected online, especially if you are not familiar with how tools like Tor works. VPN apps are usually easy to use and don’t require much technical knowledge to get started.

Which Should You Choose Between Tor and a VPN?

VPNs and Tor are excellent technologies that you can use for different purposes. But then again, which should you use?

Tor and VPN services are more different than they are alike. VPN services are very reliable and transparent. They provide very efficient security and privacy features. On the other hand, Tor is less trustworthy because of its decentralized nature and has very few features.

You should choose to use a VPN for all your internet activities and use the Tor browser only when necessary.  A VPN connection enhances your security and privacy without affecting the way you’ll typically use the internet. Use Tor for anonymous communications or accessing the dark web.

Generally, you wouldn’t be missing out on a lot of features with a VPN apart from access to the dark web. You stand to benefit a lot more in terms of security and privacy.

Conclusion

In searching for the best form of protection and privacy online, you’ll come across VPNs and Tor. As we’ve pointed out in this article, both tools are highly remarkable and fit into different aspects of our online activities. However, if you had to choose between a VPN and Tor, we recommend using a VPN because it has top-standard encryption, high-speed connections, transparency, and more features. It will protect you better than Tor.