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Tor vs. VPN: what’s the difference?

If you refuse to be monitored and want reliable online protection, you might consider using Tor or VPN services. But their functions often overlap, creating some big differences. Read on to discover the best option for you.

Paulius Ilevičius

Paulius Ilevičius

Tor vs. VPN: what’s the difference?

What is Tor?

Tor (short for “The onion router'') is a network used for anonymous communication. It has lots of servers scattered around the globe that are maintained by individual volunteers. This makes Tor connections difficult to intercept as they do not rely on a single company or organization. How does Tor work?

  1. When you enter a request, Tor software encrypts it three times for three different nodes – a guard node, a middle server and an exit node;
  2. The Tor software then sends it to the guard node. It removes one layer of encryption and passes it to the next server. The guard node can see your IP address, but it cannot read the encrypted message;
  3. The middle node peels the second layer off and passes the message and its final encryption layer to the exit node;
  4. The exit node removes the final layer and can see your decrypted message, but it cannot identify the sender. This node passes the message on to the recipient.
how Tor works

Is Tor safe?

The fourth step is the most sensitive one as the message could be visible to the person or organization operating the exit node. Anyone can set up a node, so its security depends on the owner. The only solution here is using an HTTPS connection, which is itself encrypted by transport layer security protocol (TLS), or an Onion Over VPN feature.

Is Tor safe? By operating both guard and exit nodes, someone could identify Tor users and their messages. An organization operating a large amount of Tor servers could intercept users, but it is unlikely that a single individual could do this. Organizations like the National Security Agency (NSA), however, could have the resources and desire to monitor the Tor network in this way.

Tor pros:

  • Its complex encryption process virtually guarantees full anonymity for Tor users;
  • Free, easy-to-use software;
  • Difficult to shut down or intercept as the traffic is spread among a large number of servers maintained by individual volunteers;

Tor cons:

  • Using different layers of encryption slows down your connection speed;
  • Exit nodes may intercept message content;
  • Poor accountability and transparency for the volunteers maintaining the nodes;
  • To assume the IP address of a specific country, you will need to configure your connection or reconnect multiple times until you connect to a node in the country you need;
  • Not available for all operating systems.

Check out our video on VPN vs. Tor below.

Is Tor a VPN?

No, it isn’t. The key difference between a VPN and Tor are their operation methods. While a VPN encrypts and routes your traffic using a network of servers maintained by a centralized entity, Tor is a decentralized network operated by volunteers. It is less user-friendly, transparent, and is much slower and more complex. However, it is still a powerful tool. If you need accountability, safety and privacy, you should definitely use a reliable VPN provider while using the Tor browser.

Is Tor illegal?

Using the Tor browser for anonymous communication and browsing online is legal in most countries and you don’t need to worry about getting in trouble. As long as you're not involved in criminal activities, you can freely use the Tor browser.

Is Tor illegal anywhere? There are a handful of suppressive governments like China that restrict the use of the Tor browser and limit the freedom of speech. Using a VPN or Tor is often the only way for the locals to communicate with the outside world.

What is VPN software?

A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, encrypts your data and sends it to an intermediary server. VPN service providers operate many servers in different locations and offer different VPN protocols and features, giving you plenty of choices.

VPNs also encrypt your internet traffic, making it invisible to hackers and snoopers. Premium VPNs use top-grade 256-bit encryption systems, which are impossible to brute-force using any currently known and available device. With a VPN enabled on your gadget, you can hide your IP address and enhance your online privacy.

Protect your online identity with a VPN.

VPNs work like this:

  1. VPN software encrypts your internet traffic and sends it to a remote server that changes your IP address (check out our article on the IP location changer);
  2. A VPN server decrypts your data before delivering it to your end goal;
  3. Data arriving at your device from the network undergoes the same process.
how VPN works

As you can see, it requires way fewer steps than Tor to ensure security and privacy.

VPNs also encrypt your data, and hide your IP address. It’s easy to tell who runs the servers when it comes to reputable VPN providers, so the whole procedure is more transparent. There is always somebody accountable for the service, and they usually provide customer service. This makes it more stable and reliable than the Tor browser.

VPN pros:

  • Accountability because it’s easy to tell who owns the server;
  • Easy to use, especially when provided by a VPN service;
  • Provides online privacy as your data gets encrypted and you get a new IP address;
  • Premium VPNs use advanced next-generation encryption;
  • Faster than Tor due to a simpler routing scheme;
  • Premium VPNs offer features like specialized P2P servers, double VPN, Kill Switch, and Smart DNS services. NordVPN also offers the Threat Protection feature that helps you identify malware-ridden files, stops you from landing on malicious websites, and blocks trackers and intrusive ads on the spot;
  • You can easily choose the specialized server of your VPN provider or the country you need most.

VPN cons:

  • The system relies on a single provider and your information passes through fewer VPN servers, so it's important to trust your provider;
  • Premium VPNs are more expensive;
  • Some VPNs collect user and connection logs (make sure your provider has a no-logs policy).
VPNTOR
A wide choice of providersyesno
Centralized service provideryesno
Extra features to boost securityyesno
Easy to set up and accessyesno
Offers both privacy AND securityyesno

VPN and Tor: can they be used simultaneously?

You can use both Tor and VPN at the same time. The first method is accessing the Tor network by connecting to a VPN server beforehand. In this case, the Tor entry node operator will not see your IP and your ISP won’t know you’re using Tor. This also lets you bypass restrictions preventing you from accessing the Tor network. However, this method won’t protect you from malicious exit nodes as your traffic will be unencrypted when it reaches them.

If you go Tor -> VPN, your traffic will be encrypted when it enters and exits the Tor network. You will need a special VPN provider that supports such a connection. While the VPN encryption protects you from malicious exit nodes, your ISP will be able to see that you are using Tor. However, you get less anonymity. Also be aware that both methods slow down your internet more than Tor already does.

If you wish to use the first method, check out NordVPN’s specialized and integrated Onion Over VPN feature.

Onion over VPN

Tor vs VPN: which is better?

Tor and VPN are two different tools serving different purposes. While there are multiple VPN providers, there is only one Tor network. When you connect to a VPN, your internet traffic is encapsulated in an encrypted tunnel, while Tor uses several layers of independent nodes.

Even though Tor and VPN applications overlap, there are more differences than similarities. VPN services provide you with transparent service and privacy protection, while Tor has less accountability and can be a potential target of security agencies.

We recommend using a VPN as it has way more features, more transparency, and high-end encryption mechanisms. Moreover, it won't slow down your internet connection. VPN can protect your traffic in a more transparent way than Tor.

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Paulius Ilevičius
Paulius Ilevičius Paulius Ilevičius
Paulius Ilevičius is a technology and art enthusiast who is always eager to explore the most up-to-date issues in cybersec and internet freedom. He is always in search for new and unexplored angles to share with his readers.