Tor vs VPN—Why Not Use Both for Complete Security?

It’s no surprise that internet users are increasingly turning to Tor and VPNs today to guard their privacy and security.

General awareness surrounding all things privacy has grown alongside major data breaches impacting millions of people that have made personal data more valuable than ever.

Image courtesy of Electronic Frontier Foundation

In this precarious climate, Tor and VPN have become two of the best and most powerful tools that are widely accessible and provide unbeatable levels of protection when used properly.

Although there are some similarities between Tor and VPN, they are two very different tools that have applications to different situations.

We’re going to look at Tor vs VPN and consider when you would use one, the other, or both together.

What is Tor?

Tor—The Onion Router—is a non-profit service run and maintained by volunteers. It was created to facilitate safe, anonymous browsing. It is used by journalists, human rights groups, and government agencies for intelligence gathering and safe communications with sources.

Of course, it’s also highly popular with normal, average people who simply want to remain private online.

Tor operates as a decentralized system where internet traffic is routed and relayed through a series of different network layers–servers run by volunteers–rather than going directly to its destination.

This hides both your identity and location so no single server can know how and why you’re accessing the web. Usually, identifying the server will reveal everything about you from timestamps to location. But Tor makes that impossible since you’re not using a single server to go online, but a minimum of three to establish a connection.

If you think of a server as a digital footprint, you can see why this would be so hard to trace. Imagine you’re tracking an animal in the forest, but all around you, you see different sets of footprints bouncing from one place to the next. Who is this creature, where did it come from, and where is it going?

You simply won’t be able to tell.

Image courtesy of Hotspot Shield

Accessing the Tor network is easy. It’s a piece of software you can install and use through a web browser. It’s like Google Chrome… only not as fast!

Pros and Cons of Using Tor

The most obvious benefit of using Tor is that it hides your IP address from any sites you visit. The Tor Project is also active and regularly updated with safety features—it is by far one of the best tools for achieving anonymity online.

The distributed network also makes it harder for hackers to take down the network. It’s not the same as attacking a centralized network where there’s a single location source.

On the other hand, Tor can be quite slow, and it is notorious for compromising users who are visiting sites that don’t use SSL even though data is encrypted as it passes through each relay node. And because it’s run by volunteers, servers can be unreliable and outdated.

Using Tor is limited to a select few devices. You won’t be able to use it on your router or iOS, for instance.

Pros Cons
Free and easy to use Notoriously slow
Provides the best level of anonymity Volunteer-based
Harder to attack Not compatible with all devices

How to use Tor

It’s very easy, just like installing a web browser such as Google Chrome.

  1. Head to the Tor Project website and select the download that applies to you.
  2. Install it using the installation wizard.
  3. Launch it and begin browsing.

That’s it! Make sure you read the best practices and usage advice for Tor, especially if you are privacy-minded.

What is a VPN?

A VPN—Virtual Private Network—also protects your privacy and identity when you use the internet. It does this by routing your traffic through a secure and encrypted server of your choosing. This causes your IP address to change and encrypts any information and data you’re sending or receiving.

VPN servers can be located anywhere in the world. With the best VPNs, you can choose a server to connect to through an intuitive user interface. Once you’re connected to a VPN and start using the internet, your traffic is sent from your computer to the selected VPN server through a secure tunnel and then from the VPN server to its destination. When receiving your traffic, the same happens but in reverse.

Basically, what you’re getting is a middleman, but you’re also taking on the identity and IP address of the middleman instead of using your own. Want to fool websites into thinking you’re a user from France? Just choose a server in France, even though you’re actually in England–and voila!

Image courtesy of Emsisoft

Using a VPN allows you to use the internet normally without revealing your IP address, physical location, or any information about what you are using the internet for. In addition to this, VPNs can also be used for—

  • Bypassing censored internet content (e.g. YouTube in China)
  • Accessing region-locked content on Netflix
  • Staying safe from hackers on public networks
  • Avoiding ISP throttling
  • Safe torrenting

We highly recommend using a VPN even for general day-to-day browsing. In a world where your data is a valuable asset, you should do everything you can to protect it.

Pros and Cons of Using a VPN

Generally speaking, quality VPNs are a one-stop-shop for all your privacy needs.

They anonymize you by hiding your IP address, encrypting your traffic, and operating a no logging policy. Additionally, VPNs are so much faster than Tor and, in many cases, you get the same upload and download speeds when connected to a VPN as you would when you are not connected.

On the other hand, some VPN providers offer slow services, don’t use the best encryption methods, have frequent software failings, and do log your information. This is why it’s important to keep track of your VPN’s Privacy Policy and jurisdiction to avoid any meddling by the 14 Eyes Alliance.

The biggest drawback when comparing a VPN to Tor is the need to carry out research before settling on a VPN service so that you know it’s the right one for what you need. Although there are free VPN providers they are shady and full of viruses.

Pros Cons
Faster than Tor Good VPNs aren’t free
Everything is handled in one place Not all VPN providers are equal
Cross-device compatibility Potential for bad VPNs to compromise you

VPN vs Tor: How the Two Differ

The primary difference between a VPN and Tor is the way that they handle your traffic.

With a VPN, you choose a premium server to connect to and remain on it until you either finish your VPN session or choose another one. When traffic is sent using a VPN, it is encrypted once before it leaves your computer through a secure tunnel to the VPN server where it is decrypted and sent to its final destination.

In contrast, Tor uses a process known as ‘onion routing‘ that selects at least three random volunteer servers and bounces your traffic between them. Just like with a VPN, your traffic is encrypted several times before it leaves your computer and into the network—hence the name onion, because there are multiple encryption layers—headed for its destination. As your traffic reaches each server, one layer of encryption is removed.

With Tor, you are relatively safe and anonymous within the Tor network. Anything that takes place outside of it, e.g. through IM apps, is not protected.

Unlike a VPN, you don’t need to configure Tor in order to begin using it. There is no manual setup involved like there is with some VPN services.

The major areas where VPNs trump Tor are device compatability and speeds–Tor can only be used on desktop devices or Android whereas many good VPNs can be used on other devices like games consoles and routers.

VPN Tor
Fast speeds Slow speeds
Wide range of compatible devices Only on desktop or Android
Ease of use depends on service Easy to install and use
Protects all apps on device Only protects activities on the browser
Anonymity depends on logging policy Anonymity depends on network itself

Using Tor and a VPN Together to Maximize Security

While you can use a Tor and VPN together to maximize security, consider whether you really need to do this.

If you do decide to use them together, you will sacrifice overall speed and performance. It does not matter how fast your download speeds are, Tor is inherently slow and randomly bounces your connection through many servers located across the world. There is no way to speed it up, even with the fastest of VPNs.

Using a good VPN service and using it properly is almost always going to be a high enough level of protection. There isn’t really a need for you to use one alongside Tor unless you are browsing the ‘dark web’ and want an added layer of protection should Tor fail. While it is a safe and secure network, it is not fast enough to be used as a matter of course for day-to-day browsing, streaming, or torrenting.

It’s true that using both Tor and VPN together will boost your security, but is it worth the slow speeds? That depends on what you want to do with Tor.

Which VPN is Best for Use With Tor?

We think that NordVPN is your best choice. By combining both Tor and NordVPN, you ensure that–

  1. Your ISP and government agencies do not know you are using Tor.
  2. Your IP address is protected when your traffic is decrypted.

We chose NordVPN because not only do they provide a fast and reliable VPN service that won’t further slow down what is an already slow service (Tor), but they also have specialized Onion Over VPN servers that you can connect to when using Tor. These servers are optimized for Tor but you’re not required to use them. You can use any server you want with Tor.

Of course, it’s best to test out NordVPN with Tor yourself rather than taking our word for it. Take advantage of their 30-day money-back guarantee or start your 7-day free trial!

Try NordVPN

5 Ways to Hide Your IP Address That Really Work

Now… we’re not going to ask why you want to hide your IP address or why you want to know how to hide an IP address. Although most people have a legitimate reason for doing so, not everybody does. We’re big privacy advocates–we leave you to do your business!

When you know what you are doing and which tools to use, hiding your IP address is very simple. That is exactly what we are going to teach you how to do here.

Below are 5 simple methods for hiding your IP address that are guaranteed to work.

What Is an IP Address?

An IP address is a string of numbers unique to your network. They are separated by dots and are used to identify each and every computer or device that is using the Internet Protocol (hence the name IP address) to communicate over a network.

Simply put, it enables a system to be identified and recognized by other systems.

It is not just other systems that can see your IP address, though. Your ISP, government agencies, innocent third-parties, and even hackers can all come across it when it is exposed and there are many ways this can happen.

When the right person gets ahold of your IP address, what they can find out about you is virtually limitless depending on how extensively you use the internet. Your identification, location, what you do on the internet, banking information, and even browsing habits can all be exposed.

Therefore, it makes sense to hide your IP address when using the internet.

How to Check Your Current IP Address

This guide wouldn’t be much use if you had no way of checking if your IP address has changed. Luckily, this can easily be done by performing a quick Google search.

Open Google and type in “What is my IP” and make note of the information that comes up.

Here’s an example of the result you will be shown. You will need to know what your public or unmasked IP address is later so you can check to see if you have done everything right and that it has changed.

But First—Why Should I Hide My IP Address?

Just because somebody wants to hide their IP address doesn’t mean that they are up to no good. In fact, an increasing number of people are turning to IP-hiding tools simply to protect their privacy while they are online or to access geo-blocked content, among other innocent activities such as–

  • Hiding their location from prying eyes,
  • Accessing region-locked content on Netflix or BBC iPlayer,
  • Protecting from attacks,
  • Accessing censored content in countries such as China, and
  • Stopping the collection of data by third-party advertisers.

The thing is, when your IP address is not hidden from prying eyes, there is the potential for your privacy and data to be infringed by a motivated hacker or agency that has an end goal.

By masking or hiding your IP address, particularly when you mask it often with an IP that is always changing, you eliminate the chance of being identified and having your internet activities monitored by third parties.

5 Quick and Simple Ways to Hide Your IP Address

These are 5 methods that anybody can use. Each one is different and has its own pros and cons.

1. Use a VPN service—the best way

The easiest, best, and most consistently reliable way to change an IP address is to subscribe to a good VPN service.

A VPN service not only hides your IP address but also encrypts your traffic and sending it through a secure tunnel. When your traffic ‘leaves’ the tunnel on the other side, it gets decrypted.

To do this, you use your VPN client to connect to one of the VPN’s servers, often located in another country, with its own IP address. This will mask your own IP address by assigning the VPN’s IP to you.

This spoofs your location and anybody watching your traffic will not be able to see what you are doing, and anybody looking at your IP will see the VPN’s IP.

Setting up a VPN client takes but a matter of minutes. In fact, it is choosing one that is often the hardest part.

Luckily, we have you covered with our VPN top list—we have spent lots of time comprehensively reviewing over 100 different providers so that you don’t have to. Many of the best VPNs offer 7 to 30-day money-back guarantees and free trials, too!

Curious? Here is our guide on how to set up & use a VPN.

2. Use public Wi-Fi—there’s risk here

Your IP address doesn’t travel with you, it is unique to your home network.

When you connect to public Wi-Fi, therefore, you are assigned a new, public IP that cannot be traced back to you or your browsing habits. If you spend a lot of time using Wi-Fi in coffee shops and other public places, this is worth knowing.

Image courtesy of Amvia

Be careful, though—public Wi-Fi networks are inherently insecure, and we absolutely do not recommend using them for anything that is private or sensitive.

In fact, we recommend using a VPN whenever you are connected to a public network. Still, this is one of the methods you can use to temporarily have a different IP address.

3. Use the Tor Network—you can even go to the dark web

TOR—The Onion Router—is a free internet browsing client that, when used properly, connects you to a network of servers that anonymizes your web traffic.

So long as Tor is used in line with best usage practices, you can remain anonymous most of the time without having to worry about being spied on or having your information compromised.

Tor is sometimes referred to as the “dark web” (as a misnomer) because it is probably the default go-to browser for illicit activities, but let’s not forget all the people fighting oppression from government censorship. And you can also use the regular “surface web” with it, too.

Image courtesy of Tor

Some people may want to avoid using it because it comes off a bit intimidating.

Using Tor is perfectly legal, and many privacy-conscious users opt for the browser to keep their information out of the hands of marketers. In fact, Tor was launched under U.S. military supervision and still receives government grants today.

For more information about Tor, check out the links below:

4. Use a proxy—relatively slow

Most people are probably familiar with proxies from their days at high school when they were a popular choice for getting around website blocks to access sites such as YouTube.

Although they are not so widely used today, they are still decent tools that can act as an intermediary between your internet traffic and its destination by changing their appearance as they travel through the proxy server.

When visiting a website through a proxy, the proxy server intercepts your traffic and handles your connection to whichever site you are visiting by mirroring your behavior.

So, if you want to visit, say, an American news site in China (something that would probably be blocked by the Chinese government), the proxy server would manipulate your traffic and access the website for you, mirroring all the information from the page back to you.

While proxies are useful, the way they operate—as we just said, by mirroring traffic—makes them quite slow and, in some cases, virtually unusable.

You may think this sounds quite similar to what a VPN does, but proxies lack many of the features that make up a good VPN—

  • Speed
  • Security and encryption
  • Access to certain geo-blocked content such as Netflix
  • Free choice of servers

They don’t even come close to a VPN and we always recommend using one for virtually any situation where you want to hide an IP address, among other things.

5. Tether your computer to your phone’s hotspot—a bandaid solution

This is something you could do as a last resort or if you need to change your IP quickly but only temporarily, particularly if you think you may have been compromised.

Your phone’s IP address will be different from the IP address for your home network. Most smartphones now allow other devices to be “tethered” to them. This creates a mobile hotspot on your phone that allows nearby devices to share the data connection on your phone.

Note: If you do this, though, make sure that you are using your phone’s mobile data and aren’t connected to your Wi-Fi network!

Tethering your laptop or computer to your mobile data is only really useful in an emergency situation. It is definitely not a long-term solution.

Not only are mobile data networks unencrypted (your mobile data provider can see everything you are doing!) but it is very easy to rack up expensive bills if you don’t have an unlimited plan. Data-intensive processes can very quickly eat through gigabytes of mobile data.

Hiding IP Addresses is Simple

All the above solutions will hide an IP address when implemented properly. Remember to always, always double check that your IP address has changed when you try out one of the above solutions just in case. You don’t want to compromise yourself.

Our top recommendation is using a VPN. It is by far the simplest, easiest, and most reliable way to not only change your IP address but encrypt all your internet traffic so that it cannot be collected, spied on, or intercepted by third-parties.

That is, of course, if you use a good VPN.

A good VPN will always do all these things without logging any of your data or usage information (this is known as a “zero-logging policy”). Best of all, they are available at budget-friendly price points.

If you are interested in checking out some great VPNs, these are our top three picks—

  1. ExpressVPNthe best all-around VPN service
  2. NordVPNover 5,000 different servers worldwide
  3. Private Internet Accessvery cheap and has won court cases

All of these can either be tried out for free with a dedicated free trial or by taking advantage of their money-back guarantees.

What is TOR?

TOR, short for The Onion Router, was initially developed by the U.S. Navy as a means to facilitate anonymous internet browsing by using a worldwide network of servers.

Today, TOR is run as a non-profit company whose main objective is the research and development of online privacy tools.

The TOR network helps to hide your identity by moving your traffic across the many different TOR servers (“nodes”) on its network and encrypt this traffic so that it cannot be traced back to you.

If any person or organization were to try and trace your TOR traffic back to you, all they would see are random nodes from within the TOR network rather than your computer.

What is TOR Used For?

Today, TOR is used by a vast range of people for several different reasons.

Usage of TOR isn’t only restricted to private individuals – government organizations, police, journalists, whistleblowers and high-profile people all use TOR for their day-to-day browsing.

Imagine that you want to be anonymous because – say, because you live in a country run by a dictator or you are a journalist currently working within an oppressive country, or you are a hacker who wants to stay hidden from the government – then TOR is by far one of the easiest ways to protect yourself when browsing the internet.

Although it’s great for people with an agenda or something to hide, it is also infinitely useful for any normal person who just wants to keep their internet activities away from the prying eyes of companies, ISPs, advertisers and other websites.

If you don’t want your browsing habits linked to you for whatever reason, then you should be using TOR.

Although it is far from being perfect, it is completely free.

And by being aware of how to use TOR properly, you won’t ever run into any problems.

What is an Onion Browser?

An “Onion Browser” on Windows, Mac or Linux is simply another term for the TOR browser.

Using TOR’s browser gives you access to special .onion websites which are only available through the TOR network. Although you can only access .onion websites through TOR, you can still access regular websites on the “surface web” by using the TOR browser.

.onion is a special top-level domain suffix which denotes a service which is hidden and only reachable by accessing the TOR network.

The collective term for .onion websites is “the dark web” because these .onion sites cannot be accessed using a normal browser such as Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox.

In other words, websites ending in .onion are not reachable by normal means and is accessible only through the TOR network.

Onion Browser on Mobile

On iOS devices, the Onion Browser can be found under a free app called Onion Browser which can be downloaded from the App Store or from the official website.

On Android devices, the Onion browser is called Orbot it can be downloaded from Google Play or from the official website.

These are specially-made Onion browsers for smartphones and work in similar ways as TOR on desktop.

What Exactly is the TOR Network?

The TOR network is a global network of servers.

These servers work together to provide impenetrable layers of privacy, thus making it more difficult for third-parties to monitor and track your online activities.

TOR has gone on record to say that the TOR project uses a “twisty, hard-to-follow route in order to throw somebody off who is tailing you – and then periodically erasing your footprints.”

Doing this, the TOR network merges your traffic together with that of other TOR users, so as more and more people use it then it gets much harder for your traffic to be traced as this “twisty” route gets a lot more entangled.

Using multiple layers of encryption – hence the name “The Onion Router”, because an onion has multiple layers – it is relayed through a series of nodes.

Each time data hits a relay, one layer of encryption is removed so that each relay node can determine where your data should be sent next.

Doing this, your data’s path can’t be determined with ease. And this process makes it difficult to figure out which websites a person is visiting.

TOR Encryption and Security Explained

TOR is a great tool, but it is far from being perfect.

Just because you are using TOR does not mean that you are 100% anonymous and free from prying eyes.

Even though your browsing cannot be spied on, agencies such as the NSA or your ISP can see that you are using a TOR browser, and this makes you a higher target.

With enough work put into you, government agencies can figure out who you are and what you might be doing.

It is important to remember that anonymity is not the same as security.

Sure, it is hard for the TOR network to be hacked into, however, it’s a different story when it comes to the TOR browser.

In case of you having a trojan virus, a third-party can see everything that is going on regardless of whether you’re using TOR or not.

If a third-party can access your data before it’s encrypted & routed through the Onion network, they can see everything that is going on. One of the ways this could happen is by a “man in the middle” attack, and this is done, for example, with the cooperation of a user’s ISP.

Network Security

The mere use of TOR is not enough to fully secure you.

Large-scale surveillance by government agencies, browser bugs and exploits, and general security on the user-end are all potential security flaws.

You can protect yourself from these “man in the middle” attacks and browser exploits by using HTTPS whenever you can, too.

Whilst TOR isn’t a 100% foolproof solution on its own, it can be when used in conjunction with a VPN – more on this later – and security agencies are not going to start targeting every user of TOR with browser exploits.

If they did, people would certainly notice; this would discredit agencies such as the NSA, and they are well aware of this.

TOR is, to an extent, untraceable and anonymous, however, this can be further improved by using a VPN.

When you use the TOR browser in conjunction with a VPN, you are making it 99.9% safe, secure and anonymous.

TOR Browser and VPNs

This is what the TOR browser looks like in 2019. They recommend you change the browser size around so people can’t keep track of your resolution!

TOR itself is not a VPN. The nature of TOR and VPNs are entirely different things, but they can be used together – this is always recommended – to provide a completely safe, secure, untraceable and anonymous internet browsing environment.

By routing your VPN traffic through TOR there are major benefits.

However there are disadvantages as well and if you don’t do it properly, then it can be quite dangerous.

You can either route your traffic from your VPN to TOR or from TOR through your VPN.

We recommend researching on this topic and decide on which option suits your risk appetite.

TOR Over VPN

By routing your traffic from TOR to VPN then you have the added benefit of traffic being hidden from malicious TOR exit nodes.

By using this configuration, your web traffic is encrypted when it enters the TOR network by your VPN and is then decrypted by your VPN when it leaves, so any compromised exit nodes which are looking at your traffic won’t be able to see anything.

One could argue that TOR over VPN is better for security.

VPN Over TOR

By routing your traffic from VPN to TOR, you are protected by the VPN service and your IP is hidden from your ISP.

By using this configuration, however, leaves you more vulnerable to attacks such as end-to-end timing attacks.

One could argue that VPN over TOR is better for anonymity.

The Best VPN for TOR

There are several VPNs which do a fantastic job when coupled with TOR browser.

By using any of these three VPN solutions alongside the TOR browser, you can be safe in the knowledge that, when properly configured, all your traffic is safe from third-parties.

Your data, identity and browsing habits will be protected.

NordVPN

Panama-based NordVPN provides its users with access to pre-configured servers specially designed for TOR over VPN use. This eliminates the need for the end-user to configure anything and you can dive straight into TOR when it’s installed. NordVPN also has a zero-logging policy and top-level encryption for further security, plus it has apps available for iOS and Android.

ExpressVPN

With a dedicated .onion version of its website, ExpressVPN is a great VPN solution for TOR browsing. It’s got a zero-logging policy and you can use BTC to pay for it. In terms of speed, it is slightly faster than NordVPN. It uses industry-leading encryption and can be used with the TOR network out of the box.

AirVPN

Whilst AirVPN is not super-fast or as intuitive as Express and NordVPN, it has VPN over TOR built into its apps. It first routes traffic through TOR, like we discussed above, then through the VPN so it is double-encrypted before it leaves your device. It also has no logging and accepts BTC.

If you are looking for a robust VPN to use with the TOR network, these three are stellar choices along with the rest listed on the best VPNs page.

Is TOR Safe? Should I Use It?

In short, absolutely.

When used properly and in conjunction with a VPN, TOR is a completely safe, secure and anonymous browser.

If you want to hide your browsing habits from third-parties for whatever reason, it’s the only thing you can use to ensure your privacy.

While you can use TOR without a VPN, it is simply not as secure.

TOR works right out of the box with no configuration required, and if you use one of the above-suggested VPNs alongside TOR then you won’t have to configure your VPN for TOR use, either.

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