Privacy-minded people use both Tor Browser and VPN to keep their online activities personal and out of reach of others. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we have something to hide or that we’re doing something illegal. It simply means that we’re against surveillance, censorship, and tracking by advertisers.
If you had to choose from Tor Browser or VPN, which one would you choose? What are the differences? Here’s a summary before we dive in deeper.
Tor Browser is best suited for highly-specialized people like journos, activists, researchers, criminals, and law enforcers. On the other hand, the general public can greatly improve their privacy and security by using a VPN, no matter who they are or what they do.
Keep reading to find out more about the differences between the Tor Browser and VPN, and what are their pros and cons.
What is Tor Browser?
The Tor Project is an open-source, non-profit organization that seeks to protect human rights and freedoms with its privacy-focused applications and support.
Apart from the Tor Browser, the Tor Project’s flagship creation, the organization also released the Tor Messenger. It was, unfortunately, short-lived.
The Tor Browser is based on a modified Mozilla Firefox ESR web browser, the TorButton, TorLauncher, NoScript, and HTTPS Everywhere Firefox extensions and, of course, the Tor proxy. You can run the Tor Browser from removable media (like USB) on MS Windows, macOS, or Linux. It’s also available as an app for Android.
What is VPN?
If you don’t know exactly what a VPN is, it’s, simply put, a network of private servers operated by a VPN provider that enables you to access the internet privately and securely with all your internet activity and data being encrypted.
In short, a VPN obscures your identity by masking your IP address while you’re online. By masking your IP, not only is it harder for third parties to discern your identity, but you can also access geo-blocked content, avoid censorship, and even bypass the Great Firewall of China.
The 5 Advantages of Tor Browser
1. Tor Browser is free
Yes, the Tor Browser is open-source and completely free to use as you wish. If you have the coding know-how, you can also add some changes to the code to make it better for everyone.
If you’re satisfied with the service, why not donate a few dollars to help keep it up and running?
Although other browsers are typically free as well, they don’t offer nearly as much privacy and security. With the exception of the DuckDuckGo browser, of course.
2. Tor Browser is familiar
Tor Browser looks similar to other browsers on the market. It is thus familiar to anyone who has already browsed the internet. It doesn’t have a futuristic interface or some complicated browsing process.
It’s extremely easy to use, and you can download it for Windows, Linux, Android, and macOS.
3. Tor Browser blocks ads and trackers
The Tor Browser stops advertisers in their tracks and blocks all ads from following you around the internet. You know, those pesky ads that keep showing until you’re sick to the stomach of seeing those damn ebikes (I bought one already. Stop showing me ebikes!!!).
Also, all cookies and browsing history are automatically cleared when you’re done browsing. Tor makes all of its users look the same so no one can pinpoint or fingerprint you based on your browser and device information.
4. Tor Browser encrypts your traffic
The Tor network is made of thousands of servers that are run by volunteers. Your traffic is relayed and encrypted three times as it passes over the Tor network. This effectively encrypts all your Tor browsing and thwarts anyone watching your connection from knowing what websites you visit.
READ ALSO: Torrenting over Tor
5. Access the deep web
I’ve always thought that airports are like separate worlds with their own rules and a different day-to-day life. The deep web is similar. And you can access it via the Tor Browser.
The whole hidden side of the internet is open to you, including the dark web.
The 4 Advantages of VPN
1. VPNs effectively bypass online censorship
A VPN can easily bypass all online censorship efforts in countries like China or Iran and let you browse the internet in all its glory. This is extremely useful if you live in such a country or when you’re traveling there.
If a government agency is spying on you, they will be left in the dark about what websites you’re visiting and what your real location is. All they can catch is that you’re connected to a VPN server somewhere.
RELATED: Does NordVPN Work In China?
2. VPNs greatly improve your privacy and shield you from cyber attacks
As we already know, a VPN encrypts, masks, and reroutes your online traffic via remote servers in the country of your choice, even if it’s on the other side of the world.
Your internet service provider, or any other third party for that matter, won’t know your real IP address or what apps, platforms, or services you’re really using. All of this sensitive data will stay private, which greatly improves your privacy and security.
You are super-exposed and vulnerable to cyber-attacks if you’re often connecting to public WiFi. By using a VPN, even if someone were to hack or hijack the public hotspot, your data will stay secure because the encryption will make the data non-sensical.
The best VPNs also come with many safety features that deter or block malware, trackers, adware, and even pesky ads.
3. ISPs can’t slow down your connection
VPN hides your IP address, and no one can see what you’re doing online. This also stops ISPs from slowing down your bandwidth because you’re downloading a lot of data or are playing online video games that are bandwidth-hungry.
4. Gone are the geo-restrictions
Geo-restrictions are unfortunately here to stay, and many websites and services implement them for one reason or another. Netflix is known for having considerably different libraries in different countries. Some with extensively more content than others.
One of the main reasons for VPNs’ popularity is to unblock streaming platforms and websites from the US.
The 3 Disadvantages of Tor
1. Slower speeds
When you browse the internet via the Tor Browser, your data gets relayed and encrypted three times as it goes through the Tor network. This will naturally slow down your internet connection and make your browsing experience a bit less enjoyable but considerably safer.
2. Shields only browser traffic
Unlike a VPN, the Tor Browser will only protect your Tor Browser traffic leaving anything else unprotected. That means none of your programs or applications are private, and there’s no router setup to blanket protect all of your household devices, for example (as you can with a VPN).
3. Bad reputation
Tor Browser and its users have a bad reputation with governments and its agencies, as well as web-based services.
The 4 Disadvantages of VPN
1. Your data is in the hands of VPN providers
When you connect to a VPN, you’re moving all the information about your internet usage from the hands of ISPs and into the hands of VPN providers. This doesn’t necessarily have to be bad. You just have to choose a reputable VPN with a strict no-logs policy that is audited by a third party.
If you don’t pick the right VPN, or you pick a free VPN service, your data could be exposed or sold by fishy VPN providers that keep logs of your internet activity (your browsing, buying, reading, watching history) and sell it to third parties.
Be sure to select a VPN that’s audited by an auditing company like PWC that will keep honest VPNs honest. A VPN’s website can say that they enforce a strict no-logs policy, but that is often not the case.
Free VPNs are simply not to be trusted. They can often be unscrupulous, as we’ve already seen.
They also keep logs (although they say that they don’t) and sell them to third parties for presumably a lot of money.
READ ALSO: Why Do VPNs Cost Money (Explained)
3. They can be blocked
With so many VPNs on the market, sometimes it can be hard to tell which one is a good choice that won’t screw you over. I do wonder why so many people choose dodgy, no-name VPNs when even the most well-known ones are dirt cheap (with multi-year contracts).
It’s best to simply stick to well-known VPNs with tens of thousands of reviews from people that use them and from credible outlets.
Popular VPNs also have infinitely more resources to fight the war against governments, especially streaming services trying to block VPN access to their websites or services. We’re looking at you, Netflix.
4. VPNs might slow down your internet connection
It’s true that a VPN connection can slow down your internet connection. That’s why it’s important to choose a VPN with the fastest servers that will slow down your speed by a much smaller margin.
When to use Tor?
Because the Tor Browser gives you complete anonymity as the traffic bounces through multiple users, you’re best of using it if you’re someone who really needs it. Think, journalists, activists, researchers, and yes, criminals and of course law enforcers trying to catch them.
If you aren’t in one of these highly specialized groups of people, you’re far better of using a VPN that will give you privacy and security, but not complete anonymity.
When to use VPN?
VPNs have many use cases, and people from all walks of life around the world are using them.
For instance, arguably the largest group are users that use VPNs to access streaming content from other countries. And although Netflix is now available in more and more countries, its library isn’t the same everywhere, and the difference in the number of titles can go into thousands.
Some platforms like Hulu aren’t available anywhere outside the US, and people from around the world are using VPN to access them. Then there are services like NBA League Pass that cost considerably less outside the US, and so Americans are using a VPN to set their country to India to get a subscription for a fraction of the usual cost.
Then there are people that live in restrictive countries such as China, Iran, and the UAE that have heavily censored the internet and restricted access to western websites. VPNs themselves get regularly blocked there, so you need to have a VPN like Surfshark that has obfuscated servers that hide the very fact that you’re using a VPN.
China is one of the biggest markets for VPN providers because tens of millions of Chinese residents are relying on VPNs to access the web.
People who love torrenting and others who simply value their privacy and security are also among the many users of VPNs. Because your internet traffic is encrypted, no one will be able to tell who or where you are and what you’re doing online.
Can you use both of them at the same time?
You certainly can use both Tor and VPN at the same time. The practice is known as Onion over VPN or Tor over VPN.
This system multiples your privacy and security and is better than using any of these two tools alone. Setting them up in unison can be tricky and take out a lot of your time if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Read more about how to use the two together in our article Onion over VPN: A Complete Guide.
Why use Tor and VPN simultaneously?
Using a Tor browser and a VPN in tandem allows you to encrypt ALL your data communication and is nearly impossible to breach. This will keep notorious threats such as scammers, hackers, and cybercriminals at bay.
For the average user, using both Tor and VPN might be overkill but for people like political activists, researchers, journalists, people in territories with serious internet restrictions, and people working with sensitive data that is certainly the way to use the internet.
It’s important to note that if you’re using the internet on the Tor browser without connecting to a VPN, you won’t be able to encrypt your internet traffic completely. Moreover, you also won’t be able to use various privacy and security features of a VPN mentioned above. That’s why for maximum security, it’s always safer to use the internet on a Tor network in conjunction with a Tor browser.
Summary of Tor vs. VPN
Both Tor and VPN work hard to make your internet connection as private and as safe as it can be. There are, however, stark differences that make a VPN more suitable to the general public and the Tor Browser only to certain aspects of the public.
For maximum protection, you can always use both services together but that would be overkill for most people and slow down their connection considerably.