Tor vs. VPN: Explanation, Differences & Comparison

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Two of the most popular methods of browsing anonymously is using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or The Onion Router (TOR). Both have their advantages and disadvantages, but which is better for you?

In this article, I’ll explain the critical differences between VPNs and TOR.

At the same time, I’ll look at the similarities between the two and how they work.

By the end, you’ll be able to tell them apart and choose the one that’s right for your needs.

What Is TOR?

tor browser browse privately

Tor is a free and open-source software for enabling anonymous communication. The name derives from an acronym for the original software project name, “The Onion Router.”

It directs internet traffic through a free, worldwide volunteer overlay network. These networks consist of thousands of relays. They conceal a user’s location and usage from others, especially anyone conducting network surveillance or traffic analysis.

TOR’s intended use is to protect the privacy of its users.

It also shields the freedom and ability to conduct confidential communication.

It achieves this by keeping the Internet activities of TOR users unmonitored.

The Tor software is available for multiple computing platforms, allowing for both local and bridge relays. This is why it’s popular among journalists, human rights activists, and ordinary citizens. It’s the perfect tool for securely communicating sensitive information.

How Does Tor Work?

When data is sent through TOR, it’s encrypted multiple times.

Each time it’s encrypted, a layer is added to the data, like an onion.

This makes it very difficult to decrypt the data. It also ensures that no one can see what is inside the data unless they have the key to unlock all of the layers.

TOR is a very useful tool for people who want to keep their online activity private. It can be used to access censored websites or communicate without fear of surveillance.

Benefits of Using Tor

The following are benefits of using TOR for browsing the internet:

  • TOR is free and open-source software. Anyone can verify its security, and there are no hidden costs or agendas.
  • TOR protects your privacy by routing your traffic through a network of volunteers. These are spread worldwide, making it difficult for anyone to track your online activity.
  • TOR can be used to access censored information or bypass geographic restrictions.
  • TOR is fast and easy to use. You can download the TOR Browser Bundle for Windows, Mac, Linux, and Android from the TOR Project website.
  • TOR is supported by a large and active community. If you have questions or need help, there are many resources available.
  • Tor can be used to improve your security and privacy on other applications as well.

Disadvantages of Using Tor

For all the amazing things you can do with Tor, there are some drawbacks to using it:

  • Tor is slow because of the way it routes traffic. You can’t use it for bandwidth-heavy tasks like streaming or torrenting.
  • Some websites and ISPs block access to Tor, as it’s synonymous with illegal activity. This can make it difficult or impossible to use Tor in some situations.
  • While it does a good job of protecting your identity, it’s not perfect. There are ways for someone to deanonymize and identify TOR users if they have the resources.

What Is a VPN?

user using laptop with nordvpn logo

A VPN is an encrypted connection over the internet that allows users to create a secure link to another network. They were first developed in the 1990s to provide businesses with a secure way to connect remote employees to their corporate network. Since then, they have become increasingly popular for keeping online activities private and secure, among other functions.

How Does a VPN Work?

VPNs work by creating a secure tunnel between your computer and the VPN server. All your traffic is encrypted as it travels through this tunnel, so no one can see what you’re doing online. This makes it impossible for someone to track your activities or steal your data.

VPNs can also be used to bypass internet censorship.

If you live in a country with heavy internet restrictions, you can use a VPN to access websites and services that would otherwise be blocked through the regular networks.

Benefits of Using a VPN

The following are some of the benefits users get when using VPNs.

  • Increased security. A VPN encrypts your internet traffic, making it more difficult for hackers to intercept your data. Encrypted VPN traffic helps protect your confidential information from being stolen.
  • Improved privacy. When you use VPN software, your IP address is hidden from the sites you visit. This prevents people from tracking your online activity or collecting your data.
  • Bypass Geo-Restrictions. Some websites and content are blocked in certain countries due to geo-restrictions. You can bypass these restrictions by connecting to VPN servers in another country.
  • Better Streaming Experience. Streaming services like Hulu use geo-restrictions. This is to control which countries can access their content. However, you can use a VPN to connect to a server in a country where the service is available. That way, you get to enjoy an uninterrupted streaming experience.
  • Reduced Ads. When you browse the internet with a VPN client, your IP address is hidden from advertising networks. This prevents them from targeting you with personalized ads based on your online activity. Some, like NordVPN and Surfshark, even come with in-built adblockers.

Disadvantages of Using a VPN

The following are some of the limitations of using a VPN.

  • Slower Speeds. Some VPNs can severely limit your connection speeds, as your data has to travel through an extra server before reaching its destination.
  • Limited Bandwidth. Some VPN providers offer plans with limited bandwidth. If you use too much data while connected to the VPN, your connection may be throttled or temporarily disconnected. This is common with freemium VPNs.
  • Connection Drops. Another potential problem with VPNs is that the connection may drop occasionally. Although most have kill switches for these situations, it can be frustrating.
  • Compatibility Issues. Some devices and major operating systems aren’t compatible with VPNs. This is common for devices running on older firmware. This can include older gaming consoles, streaming devices, and routers.
  • Security Risks. While VPNs can improve your online security via an encrypted connection, they can also create new risks. Even a good VPN service isn’t foolproof. For instance, the 2018 breach of NordVPN that created panic among users. So hacking even the most secure VPNs isn’t that far-fetched.
  • Premium VPN providers charge monthly fees. You can’t use their full features without purchasing a subscription. Free Virtual Private Networks aren’t good options either, as they’re a huge security risk.

Differences Between Tor and VPNs

Differentiating TOR and VPNs is tricky since they both provide anonymity and privacy, albeit in different ways. But here are 6 ways they differ:

  • TOR is free, while most VPNs aren’t. This is a big advantage for TOR, as it means anyone can use onion routing without paying.
  • VPNs are centralized and can be controlled and managed from one place. TOR, on the other hand, isn’t managed by any single entity. Its nodes and relays are in the hands of thousands of volunteers.
  • VPNs encrypt your traffic, while TOR doesn’t. The furthest a TOR connection goes is encrypting requests within the browser.
  • TOR is slower than VPNs because of the way it routes your traffic through multiple TOR nodes. This impacts your internet speed.
  • A VPN service can be blocked by some ISPs, while Tor is more difficult to block. If you’re trying to access a website blocked by your ISP, you’re more likely to be successful with TOR.

Just to recap:

TOR VPN
Free Most are premium
Decentralized Centralized
Only encrypts requests Encrypts all your traffic
Slow Fast
Hard to get blocked Can be blocked
A little hard to use Straightforward and simple

Similarities Between TOR and VPNs

People use TOR and VPN for different reasons, but there are some similarities between the two services. They include the following.

  • Both services are used to conceal identities.
  • Both services can be used to circumvent censorship.
  • Both services offer a high level of security.
  • Using either Tor or VPN can potentially slow down your internet connection speed.

When Should You Use Tor?

tor browser on tablet

When you want a free tool that hides your online activities without paying premium rates, then TOR fits your needs. Here are instances when you need to use TOR:

  • When you want to keep advertisers and other trackers from your online activity.
  • When you want a free anonymous tool. Unlike VPNs, TOR is completely free yet effective at keeping your online activities anonymous.
  • When you want to unblock a website. Tor can bypass most blocked websites, especially platforms with copyrighted materials that you may want to access without getting in trouble.
  • When you want to access the dark web. There are websites that regular browsers like Chrome and Firefox can’t access. If you need to get into the dark web, TOR is one of the few tools that can get you in.

When Should You Use VPN?

vpn connecting quick connect

Using a VPN is a great way to maintain online privacy and keep your data secure. But when should you use one? Here are four situations where VPNs come in handy:

  • When you’re connecting to public Wi-Fi. If you’re using public Wi-Fi, your data is vulnerable to attack. Hackers can set up fake Wi-Fi networks that look legitimate but are actually designed to steal your data.
  • When you’re working remotely. If you work remotely, a VPN can help keep the network channels between your remote location and the company safe.
  • When you’re accessing sensitive information. If you’re handling sensitive information, such as financial data or medical records, a VPN can help keep it secure.
  • When you want to bypass censorship: In some countries, the government censors certain websites. A VPN can help you bypass these censorship restrictions and access the internet freely.

TOR Over VPN vs. VPN Over TOR

using tor over vpn or vpn over tor chart

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TOR over VPN is a setup where you first link your device with a VPN.

This encrypts the traffic before passing it through TOR.

On the other hand, VPN over TOR gives precedence to TOR before rerouting that traffic through a VPN.

Of these two, TOR over VPN is better than VPN over TOR.

The latter decreases your anonymity despite taking your traffic through many hoops.

Is Tor or a VPN Better?

Whether Tor or a VPN is better depends on your needs.

A VPN is the better choice if you’re looking for speed, security, and convenience. A VPN packs more servers, which gives you better speeds and security.

Additionally, there’s the convenience of choosing from several protocols to suit your needs.

But if you’re concerned about online privacy and security, TOR is a good option. It’s free and routes your traffic through several servers, making it hard for anyone to keep track of your online activities.

FAQs

A VPN is safer than TOR. VPNs offer privacy and security and usually have a number of features designed specifically for this. However, if you’re looking for a tool that focuses more on anonymity, TOR is the better option.

Ultimately, both are good for your online activities, so it’s better to use either than browse without.

Yes, using TOR is legal. However, some countries have restrictions on its use based on copyright issues. Additionally, while TOR is legal, some of the things you can do with it might be illegal in your country.

For example, using TOR to access certain types of content or websites through the dark web may be against the law in your country.

Use TOR at your own risk.

Using your VPN with TOR can add an extra layer of security and privacy to your connection. For example, if you’re using a public Wi-Fi network, your traffic could be intercepted by someone else on the network.

Using a VPN will encrypt your traffic, making it more difficult for someone to snoop on what you’re doing. TOR will also help to conceal your identity and location from anyone who might be trying to track you.

TOR is unlikely to be safe without a VPN.  While TOR makes it difficult for anyone to track your online activity, your traffic is still susceptible to snooping by your ISP or other third parties without a VPN.

Additionally, TOR doesn’t prevent someone from determining your real IP address if they control the exit node that your traffic passes through.

A VPN is better for torrenting. TOR offers much-needed privacy if that’s your main concern. However, the many exit nodes tend to block P2P traffic.

This makes TOR a bad fit for torrenting. On the other hand, a VPN gives you better speeds, a high level of security and privacy, and they’re easy to use.

TOR is a better choice for anonymity than a VPN. If you’re looking to hide your identity and activity online, a VPN will serve you well.

However, if you need true anonymity and are willing to put in a little more effort, TOR is the better choice.

TOR bounces your traffic through multiple servers worldwide, making it extremely difficult to track. You just have to sacrifice speed to achieve this, though.

Conclusion

So what would you go for? TOR or a VPN? The choice you make should reflect your needs. These two may seem different, but they can be used for the same functions. However, if you choose to go with a VPN, ensure it’s a reliable and premium option. Try clients like NordVPN, ExpressVPN, Surfshark or CyberGhost.

They may cost you a significant amount of money but what you get in return is worth it.

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