If you care about your privacy on the web then the “Tor vs VPN” question is something you’ll likely come across relatively quickly. While both Tor and VPN can make it safer for you to interact with the internet, they work quite differently under the hood. And based on your specific needs, one of these solutions is going to be more suitable for you.
This is where this comparison guide comes into play! Today, we’re looking into the differences between Tor vs VPN:
- we explain the inner workings of each,
- list the pros and cons,
- tell you which option to go for as a responsible web user.
Your in-the-nutshell summary
I really do value your time, so if you just need a recommendation without wanting to go into the specifics of what’s sitting under the hood with both Tor and VPN, check out the table below:
|Core difference:||A distributed network of nodes that routes your internet connection randomly, encrypting it at every node.||A server that acts as a middleman between yourself and your destination on the web; it also encrypts your connection when passing it through.|
|Use it to:||Protect what you’re doing inside the custom Tor web browser.||Protect your whole activity on the web – including your standard web browser and activity in other apps.|
|Devices:||The main Tor browser is available for Microsoft Windows, MacOS, GNU/Linux and Android.||VPN apps by different providers are available for all popular platforms and devices.|
|Price:||Free||The good ones are paid. Still very affordable.|
|Makes you anonymous:||Yes||Only partly (the VPN firm knows who you are)|
|Provides security on the web:||No||Yes|
|Makes it impossible to trace you:||Yes||Nearly|
|Full data encryption:||Yes||Yes|
|Easy to set up and use:||Yes||Yes|
Tor vs VPN in detail
Let’s discuss Tor and VPN one by one:
What is Tor?
Tor stands for “The Onion Router” and it’s a service that allows people to browse the web anonymously by routing their connection through a number of nodes.
In other words, rather than being just one thing that you need to connect to in order to use the service, Tor is a decentralized system that puts your connection through a whole network of random nodes on your way from point A to B.
For example, if you’re on your standard internet connection (no Tor or VPN), this is what your path looks like from A – your computer, to B – a website on the web that you want to visit:
(And please excuse this simplified illustration; there’s actually a lot more complexity involved in the inner workings of the web.)
In the scenario above, the destination place knows your IP address and has logs on when you visited, how long you stayed, what data you sent/requested, what machine you used, plus myriads of other details.
With Tor, it’s more like this:
Now, where the privacy component comes into play is that each Tor node only knows the IP address that comes immediately before and after that node. This means that the path of the information (or the information itself) is never known in full.
But that’s not all. Apart from those nodes sending your data back and forth, there’s also another layer of encryption added on top. Everything you’re sending/receiving is actually being encrypted multiple times as it’s being transferred between the nodes.
At the end of the day, the anonymity + the encryption is what gives you extreme privacy with basically no way to determine what you’re doing on the web. Not your ISP, nor any government, nor anyone else has the power to check your activity and use that information for whatever purpose.
How easy is it to get started with Tor?
In a word, very, very easy.
All you need in order to access the web via the Tor network is get the official Tor web browser and install it on your computer.
You can get that browser from the official website of the Tor project. There are versions available for Windows, MacOS, GNU/Linux and Android.
The installation is simple and it’s no different than how you’d install any other piece of software. After it completes, you can start the browser and connect with Tor via a single click.
At this point, your connection is protected and you can browse whatever website you wish anonymously.
What is VPN?
VPN stands for “Virtual Private Network” and it’s a service that allows you to connect to the web safely by routing your connection through one VPN server.
Going back to our simple illustration; this, again, is what your connection looks like if you’re not using Tor nor VPN:
Now with a VPN (again, this is a very simplified illustration):
As you can see, there’s another player in the game – the VPN server. It’s basically a middleman that makes it appear as if you’re attempting to connect from a completely different location than where you actually are.
Though, to be a bit more specific, what a VPN actually does is it enables you to establish a safe, encrypted connection between your machine/computer and the VPN server. Then, the server does all the browsing and web consuming on your behalf. In other words, it appears as if the traffic is all originating from the VPN server itself and not from you.
With a VPN enabled, no one knows what you’re doing on the web nor what websites you’re visiting. All that your ISP or anyone else sees is a stream of encrypted data, not being aware of where it’s going or what it is.
Among other things, this makes it possible for you to use services that require their users to be residents of particular countries. In plain English, if Netflix hasn’t yet come to your country, a VPN will let you use it regardless.
How easy is it to get started with VPN?
Even though VPN sounds like a fairly sophisticated piece of technology – and it is – it’s also remarkably easy to use and get started with.
The most popular VPN solutions these days works as apps that you can install on your computer or smartphone normally, and begin using right away.
Literally, all you have to do is launch your VPN app of choice, click some form of a “connect now” button (you can also pick a VPN server location that you want to use), and, at this point, the app will begin securing your web presence on autopilot.
Just as an example, here’s what the process looks for Private Internet Access – one of our top recommended VPN services:
Overall, the ease of use department is where Tor vs VPN provide similar experiences.
Pros and cons of Tor
- Free to use.
- Makes your IP and activity on the web impossible to trace.
- Makes you completely anonymous.
- Easy to get started with.
- It’s a distributed network – meaning that it cannot be destroyed by attacking a single node (Tor would just route around that one broken node).
- Full data encryption done multiple times as your connection goes through individual nodes.
- Portable. You can carry a “version of Tor” on a USB stick and use it at an internet cafe even.
- Can be slow due to all the jumps between different nodes as your data is being sent from and to the websites you’re visiting.
- If the website you’re browsing doesn’t support SSL, that last node can be compromised (although highly unlikely, and not if you’re just using Tor for personal privacy and anonymity on the web).
- Some governments around the world monitor uses of Tor due to its reputation and the fact that it’s often being utilized for nefarious purposes. The reasoning, “good honest people don’t need Tor.”
- Tor only works as a custom web browser (at least if you don’t want to get into any complicated technical setups). This means that while it is great for protecting you browsing various websites, it doesn’t do anything to protect your other activity on the web that doesn’t involve a web browser. For instance, your Dropbox connections, your Netflix, your Torrents, other P2Ps, etc.
Pros and cons of VPN
- Much faster than Tor, due to the fact that you can always connect to a server that’s in an optimal location.
- Encrypts all your internet activity and hides it from whoever might be trying to take a peek (your ISP, government, etc.).
- Protects your IP and makes it impossible to identify you.
- Great if you just want to access Netflix, Torrent, or any other P2P.
- You can unblock most (if not all) geographically restricted websites (all you need to do is pick a VPN server in a country that’s allowed to access) – commonly referred to as “geo-spoofing.”
- Allows you to keep your connection protected when in a cafe or using any other WiFi hotspot.
- Easy to set up on nearly all modern devices and all types of internet connections.
- Protects your whole web activity, not only your website browsing behavior. Meaning that it will take care of all your interactions with web browsers, all Netflix activity, Torrents, Dropbox, all other apps, etc.
- The VPN still knows who you are, so you’re not totally anonymous.
- While there are free VPNs, you shouldn’t actually use them. Something you always have to remember when signing up for anything on the web is that, “if you’re not paying for the product, you’re the product.” For that reason, quality VPNs are paid services. Not expensive at all, though. You can get a good option for as low as ~$3 a month.
- Some VPNs store logs, which kind of defeats the whole “web anonymity” purpose. Those logs can end up being handed over to the authorities in certain circumstances.
- Some VPNs limit your bandwidth, which can stop your Netflix session mid-stream, for example.
- Connection speed depends highly on the quality of the servers that your VPN offers in your country.
- You need to pick a VPN that has a good reputation and that you can trust.
About that last point, it’s actually more than crucial!
At the end of the day, your level of privacy protection and security depends on the specific VPN’s standards and ways of conduct. With Tor, things are distributed – there are multiple nodes – so there’s no such problem per se. With a VPN, though, the quality of the VPN itself means the world.
In a nutshell, and I couldn’t stress this enough(!), make sure to choose a VPN that’s reputable, that has a good track record, that has good reviews on the web. Again, this is paramount!
If you want some suggestions, we have an in-depth VPN comparison – it looks into the popular VPN solutions in the market and points out their pros and cons.
In conclusion – Tor or VPN?
We’ve covered a lot of ground in this Tor vs VPN comparison, and I hope you will be able to make your own educated decision at this point based on all the data.
However, if you still don’t see much of a difference between Tor vs VPN from a user’s point of view – which, I agree, might be the case – here’s what I can say:
- If you’re Edward Snowden, use Tor. (Meaning, use Tor if you’re dealing with uber-important business, scientific, or national information, and you have to do everything in your power to keep it confidential.)
- If you just care for your everyday web privacy, security, and general anonymity, use a good VPN. It’s going to be more than enough.
Is there anything else you’d like us to cover in relation to the topic of Tor vs VPN? Don’t be shy to let us know!