When seeking privacy for your browsing experience and other internet activities, you will be presented with choices like Virtual Private Networking (VPN) or The Onion Router (Tor).

Both allow for safe use of the internet, but there is a difference between Tor and VPN service. The choice will largely depend on the case. There are situations when Tor may be appropriate for you, and there are other times when a VPN becomes more useful.

Understanding the difference between them can allow you to make an informed decision. When looking at the Tor browser vs VPN question, you may want to know how each works, the pros and cons, and the right way to choose. Since they tend to serve more or less the same purpose, people may begin to think they can be substituted for each other. It’s important to examine the advantages and disadvantages inherent in each of these systems. Read on to learn more!

What is Tor?

Tor is an acronym for The Onion Router and it’s a decentralized system whereby users are able to connect to servers through a network of relays (aka ‘nodes’ or ‘servers’) instead of connecting directly.

It’s a free system that allows users to access the internet without revealing their identity. When using Tor, traffic is routed through a series of random servers or nodes. Each node can only know the IP address that is behind it or in front. What this means is that none of the nodes can track the entire path between the origin (the user’s device or computer) and the destination. Also, you’ll find that with Tor, data encryption is layered and re-encrypted as it goes through the nodes.

With Tor, the user’s signal gets passed through various servers to conceal the user’s location and identity, while with VPNs, the service provider is able to know your real IP and can see the traffic at the point of exit. To allow for efficiency, the relay circuits are reset randomly every 10 minutes, meaning that the user’s actions cannot be linked to his/her earlier actions.

The more volunteers there are in the Tor community, the more secure the entire network is.

Because Tor network works through volunteer nodes, it means the more volunteers there are in the Tor community, the more secure the entire Tor network is. A problem with running exit nodes is that users’ activity on Tor, including even illegal activity, will seem to originate from the volunteer node’s IP address. On the flipside:

The person running an exit node to your traffic may be able to spy on you unless there is additional encryption at that point.

This is something that could lead to trouble. If you are going to use Tor, you ought to understand the possible threats. Malicious exit nodes can subject users to internet threats.

How to install and use Tor

It’s not difficult to install Tor and the network is available on various operating systems, including Windows, Linux-Unix, OSX (Mac), and Android.

If you are using Windows, you need to download your Tor package and run it. It will extract itself into the chosen directory. So no more installation files are added to the computer. When you double-click “Start Browser.exe”, you will see a connection dialogue appearing. After you are connected, you will see the Tor client start a customized Firefox Portable version. This portable browser is lightweight and you can carry it on your USB stick for use on any PC.

You can customize Tor using a drop-down menu or turn it on and off using the Onion icon. Another thing is that Tor offers a customized Trails Live CD or USB Linux-based distribution that allows a user to directly boot into a secure operating system.

Government involvement in Tor?

While you may want to use Tor, you need to understand that your anonymity isn’t guaranteed. Tor has been known as an effective tool for accessing websites not indexed by the largest search engine Google as well as other engines. This is done through what is referred to as the Dark Web.

Security agencies have an interest in overseeing and monitoring the activities of users that utilize Tor. This is a tool that has many controversies over the involvement of government agencies and it is thus important for Tor users to be cautious.

Those that host exit relays are likely to get the attention of law enforcement agencies.

When running an exit relay or node, you risk getting your computer seized by law enforcement, although this has (apparently) never happened to anyone.

The pros and cons of Tor

There are many advantages of using Tor and they often revolve around the level of security, unblocking ability, and other aspects of the way it works.

  • Firstly, Tor is a free network. Anyone can use it though it may not be suitable for every activity.
  • It is almost impossible to track users because Tor hides their IPs and internet activities.
  • Tor allows complete anonymity and it is easy to start using.
  • It’s a distributed network, which means that it can’t be destroyed if there is an attack on a single node – it will route around the broken node and use another one.
  • It comes with a portable version that you can store on your USB device and use wherever you go.

Yet, there are some downsides to using Tor:

  • If you are visiting or browsing a website that does not support SSL, you’re giving a lot of information to the last node.
  • Some governments will try to monitor Tor users because the network has been associated with illegal activities.
  • It won’t protect you when engaging in online activities that don’t involve web browsers. For example, it won’t help you when torrenting.
  • Tor is quite slow, using it to stream geo-restricted content may seem unfeasible.

What is a VPN?

The initials “VPN” denote Virtual Private Networking. It allows users to safely connect to the web by routing the connection through a single VPN server. When the connection is established, the VPN server does all the browsing or other online activities on behalf of the user’s machine.

The traffic will appear to be originally coming from the VPN server and not from the user’s computer. This way nobody knows what you are doing on the internet and the websites you’re visiting. What the internet service provider (ISP) and other people will see is just a stream of encrypted data, and they won’t know where that data is going.

How a VPN Works

A VPN makes a virtual point-to-point internet connection within a particular gateway using tunneling protocols, dedicated server connection, and user traffic encryption.

The network that appears beyond the gateway sees that the user is accessing the internet from one of the gateway’s IP addresses. Here a gateway refers to the VPN server. So, when a user has connected to the VPN server, their IP address becomes replaced with that of the server. This allows the real IP address of the user to remain anonymous as they browse the internet. Even the internet service provider does not know the user’s real IP address. Besides making a user completely anonymous, a VPN can also allow you to access geo-restricted sites.

It may sound as though VPN is complicated technology but when it comes to installing and using it, the process is pretty simple. A VPN works like an app and you can install right onto your smartphone or computer the way you would an app.

  • Download and launch your preferred VPN app and then click the “Connect now” icon or button.
  • Choose the server location that you want to use from the options available (if you don’t want to use the default server location). The VPN service secures your browsing activity on autopilot.

Different VPNs can have varying security levels, therefore, make sure you have one that has strong encryption, like AES-256, and a strong tunneling protocol, like OpenVPN.

The pros and cons of a VPN

Using a VPN service comes with many benefits:

  • It is much faster compared to Tor.
  • A VPN encrypts all your traffic (not just browser traffic) so that no one is able to peep around and see what you are doing or where you are from.
  • A user can unblock geographically-restricted sites through geo-spoofing.
  • It allows users to keep their connections shielded when using Wi-Fi hotspots in airports or cafés.
  • A VPN also takes care of activities like torrenting or unblocking Netflix. But remember that not all VPNs can unblock Netflix.

The disadvantages of VPN services:

  • Even though it provides anonymity while browsing, the VPN service provider still knows your identity.
  • If it’s situated in a 14-eyes country, your details could be shared with intelligence agencies.
  • There is a saying that goes, “If you aren’t paying to get a product, it’s likely you are the product,” and this applies to free VPNs. Your data could be collected and shared with other parties, for example, those involved in strategic marketing activities.
  • Connection speeds depend on server quality offered by the VPN service. When choosing a VPN to use, you should look for one that has built trust with users.

Combining Tor and VPN

While VPN and Tor can be used separately, they can also be combined. When used together, they offer an additional security layer and try to solve the issues that come up when either technology is used exclusively or independently.

The problem with combining the VPN and Tor is that the speed will be lower. There are two ways to combine Tor and VPN:

  1. One is “Tor through VPN”. In this configuration, a user first connects to the VPN server and then to the Tor network to access the internet.
  2. The other configuration is that of “VPN through Tor” and it involves users connecting to Tor before they connect to a VPN. In this setup, you will have to configure the VPN client so that it works with Tor.

VPN through Tor is considered more secure than Tor through VPN.

Tor vs VPN: comparing the two

When you look at the two (Tor browser vs VPN) you find that there are differences you should be aware of.

  • In terms of uses, Tor protects what the user is doing while inside the custom Tor browser and not activities outside it.
  • On the flip side, a VPN service protects all of the user’s online activities, including their standard web browser as well as other apps.
  • When it comes to price, Tor is available free of charge, while VPNs come in free versions and paid versions.
  • VPN and Tor work under different circumstances. For example, only government approved VPNs can work in China. So, not all VPNs will be able to be used by users in China. China also blocks Tor relays meaning that users won’t necessarily be able to use Tor in the country either.

A VPN service protects all user’s web activities including standard web browser as well as activities in other apps.

  • If you are transmitting ultra-sensitive data, Tor in conjunction with a good VPN is the best choice. It is an option for those willing to sacrifice internet speed for data security.
  • When it comes to just the VPN, it offers a balance between privacy, ease of use, and speed.
  • Tor is often blocked by websites so it is not appropriate for peer-to-peer web browsing and file sharing.

Bottom line

Deciding whether to use a Tor or VPN is basically a personal choice and it will depend on what you want from these tools. If you’re dealing with important business data, some sort of scientific or national information, it’s best to use both. For those who just want everyday privacy, security or anonymity when browsing the internet, a VPN could just be enough. There are good VPNs out there, so you just have to choose the right one.