Tor vs VPN: Which is Best for Your Online PrivacyUpdated: January 20, 2019
Do you want to keep yourself anonymous online but you're not sure which method to choose between Tor vs VPN? We'll go through the advantages and disadvantages of each so you know what's the best choice for your needs.
The time we spend on our devices is constantly increasing. We use the internet to browse, shop, and even work. Because of this, we should be more concerned about the privacy and security of our online activities.
When you use a normal internet connection, all of your online activity, including your personal data, IP, and location, can be tracked down by third parties. They are usually called hackers. And no one is immune to their attacks unless using at least one method for keeping online anonymity.
VPN and Tor are the most popular tools for online security. While both do their job at providing online anonymity and security, there’s also a huge difference between Tor vs VPN that you should know about before deciding which one you should use.
Both Tor and VPN have their strengths and downsides. In this post, you’ll find how both Tor and VPN work, what’s the difference between Tor vs VPN, and when you should use one over another.
Tor is the abbreviation for The Onion Router. It got its name from the way the data is encrypted in multiple layers. Tor is the most popular software that allows you to surf the internet anonymously. You can also find it referred to as the onion browser because it comes in the form of a browser you install on your device (as you do with Google Chrome). It is an open source run by volunteers all around the globe.
The Tor browser makes your IP and location invisible, creating a secure way to access the internet if you want to keep your privacy safe.
Tor is very popular among those who live in repressive regimes because it gives them the opportunity to freely express their views without being tracked down by the government. Because Tor offers an anonymous connection, it also makes it easy for criminals to handle their trades online.
As stated above, Tor encrypts the data in multiple layers. When you send an online request, it will pass through at least three nodes (servers) before it reaches its destination. The nodes are chosen randomly so the path followed by the data is never the same.
Each node is run by a volunteer, so the number of available nodes is dependent on the number of volunteers. The more people chose to involve themselves into the projects, the more secure the Tor onion browser is.
The whole route your data takes until it reaches the target destination is not visible to any of the nodes it passes through. One node can only see where the request is coming from, and where it’s going. The first node (also known as the guard node) can see your IP address, but it can’t decipher the data because it’s already encrypted in multiple layers. It can only see the message was sent from your computer and it has to be sent to the next node. Further, the middle node won't see neither your IP nor the message. It will know the request came from the guard node and has to be sent forward. The last node decrypts the last layer of encryption and reads the message, but it has no idea that the request originated from your computer.
For even more security, the circuits are reset every 10 minutes, so the actions you take now, cannot be traced back to what you did 10 minutes ago.
Tor hides your real IP and location, making you anonymous online.
The Tor browser is available on various operating systems like Windows, Mac OS, and Linux, and there’s also an experimental Tor Browser available for Android. Unfortunately, there’s no software for iOS devices yet.
To use the Tor browser, all you have to do is download the file from their website, run it, chose the destination folder, and click on install. Once the installation is complete, you’re set up to surf the internet with the Tor browser.
- Your IP can’t be traced - No one can trace back your real IP because of all the encryption layers.
- Hard to hack - Because the Tor browser is run by people all around the world, it’s nearly impossible to be hacked or shut down, contrary to a centralized software.
- Slow internet connection - Because the data is transmitted through multiple nodes that are located all across the world, the internet connection using Tor can be extremely slow. Moreover, because it is run by volunteers, there’s no guarantee for maintenance, which means some servers are old and with a bad internet connection.
- Not great for file sharing - Even though you can use BitTorrent over Tor to download torrents, it’s not even close to the ideal approach. Not only the download will take a long time to finish, but the whole internet connection will be highly slowed down.
- Hard to get an IP from a specific country - If you want to access a website only available in a certain country, you can refresh the connection until your data is transmitted through a node in that country. This is easy to do if you want an IP from a country like the USA, but it poses some problems if you aim for a country where there are not many volunteers.
- Not good for streaming - If you want to stream, especially geo-restricted videos, using Tor is inefficient because of the speed.
A VPN (Virtual Private Network) is a type of technology that encrypts your online communication and allows you to browse the internet in a private and secure manner.
A VPN represents a network of multiple servers located in various countries around the world. The data that’s sent from your computer, is first sent to a VPN server before it reaches its destination. Same happens when information is sent from the internet to your computer, it first passes through a VPN server then it’s transmitted to your device.
When you make an online request (accessing a webpage, downloading) using a VPN, the VPN client encrypts the data and makes your real IP invisible. When you’ll connect to a website, it won’t show your real IP and location but the IP and location of the VPN server your data is transited through.
If you want to learn in more detail about how a VPN works, we have a handy guide right here:
The VPN client encrypts the data that’s sent from your computer before it reaches its destination. This means your IP won’t be visible to your ISP (Internet Provider), the website you’re accessing, or anyone else that could be trying to track your moves.
The only thing your ISP can see is that you’re connected to a VPN, but it has no idea on the activity you’re doing online.
The level of protection a VPN service provides relies on various factors like the VPN protocol that’s being used and if the VPN provider keeps logs of your activity.
There are various VPN providers out there, including free options. I won’t advise you to use a free VPN service as it's not reliable, it’s slow, and you don’t know what information they log about you.
After you decide on the VPN service you want, you have to install the VPN client that the service provides on their website. In the installed app, you’ll provide the login information which will be either the username and password you chose when you signed up for the service or some special credentials, depending on the service.
You can take a look at our VPN software. It's reliable, secure and affordable.
- Fast internet connection - Using a reliable VPN service will only slow down your internet connection a bit, or not at all.
- Easy to choose your desired location - VPN providers usually have servers in multiple countries so you can choose your desired virtual location.
- Great for streaming - Because the internet connection through a VPN server is fast, this is the ideal approach to streaming, even geo-restricted videos.
- Great for torrenting - It’s ideal to use a VPN service for torrenting. Mind that some VPN providers are restricting torrenting, but most of them allow and optimize their services for it.
- Compatible with all devices - VPN services have a wider range of available devices, including iOS. Tor cannot be used on iPhones and iPads.
- The whole internet connection is secure - While Tor only provides privacy on the connections design to use Tor, a VPN service encrypts your internet connection overall.
We have an article that talks more about the benefits of VPN services you should check out.
- The VPN provider can log your activity - VPN providers sometimes keep logs of their users’ activity. In some countries, they are required by law to do so and they are obligated to hand them over to the authorities if they ask for it. Still, there are VPN providers who don’t keep any logs and this is an important aspect to check before choosing a VPN service.
- It’s a paid solution - Still, the investment can be as small as $4.99 per month, which is a small price to pay for your online security and a fast internet connection.
Now to the big question: Is Tor or VPN better?
As you’ve seen above, there’s a notable difference between Tor and VPN. The advantage of Tor is that it gives you complete online anonymity without having to trust a service to keep no logs.
Even so, if you want to use Tor for file sharing, for torrenting, or streaming, it’s not a great choice as the internet connection is highly slowed down when using Tor.
A VPN service is way better for all the above tasks. It’s faster, more flexible, and offers overall better performance. The only thing you must keep your eye on is that the VPN provider doesn’t keep logs of your activity.
Tor is better than VPN mostly for journalists and activists that want to write articles on government atrocities or to organize protests in repressive countries. In these situations, Tor is better than a VPN because it’s nearly impossible for someone to track you down using Tor. With a VPN, there are higher chances that if you put a target on your back from a big organization, they might have the means to persuade the VPN provider to get information on you.