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Tor Browser vs. VPN: How to make the right choice

Tor Browser and VPN are seemingly similar online security tools. You can use them both to protect yourself on the Internet and bypass censorship, geo-restrictions, and surveillance. But they are used in different cases. The main point is that Tor focuses more on anonymity, on concealing your identity. A VPN focuses on privacy and masking what you do online. Let's take a closer look and decide when Tor and VPNs are more beneficial.

What is Tor Browser and how does it work?

Tor, also known as The Onion Router, is a free open-source browser for Windows, macOS, and Linux operating systems. Android users can also download the official version of the Tor Browser. Tor for iOS is still not available.

Tor encrypts your data and transmits it via onion routing, effectively protecting your online privacy and anonymity. Let’s see what happens when you browse with Tor:

  1. You connect to Tor and the browser starts routing your traffic over a decentralized Tor network with hundreds of proxy servers all over the world. These proxy servers are also called relays, nodes, or routers.
  2. You enter a search request and the Tor Browser encrypts it three times. Each layer of encryption is designed particularly for one of three relays. For additional security, Tor changes relays every ten minutes.
  3. The first proxy server is called guard or entry. It gets your request and sees your IP address. The guard relay removes one layer of encryption and transmits the request to the next proxy server.
  4. The middle relay can see the IP addresses of the previous and next relays. It removes the second layer of encryption and sends the message to the final exit relay.
  5. The exit relay sees only an IP address of the middle relay and a destination IP address. Your request goes to the required website or service, which identifies the exit relay’s IP address as your IP.

Can I trust the Tor Browser?

The non-profit Tor project aims to give users maximum privacy while browsing online. But it is still possible to identify you if someone has access to guard and exit relays. Generally, this is an impossible task for a single individual. However, it’s within the power of an organization to serve many Tor servers. Also, it can make any other company with enough resources to monitor the Tor network.

Is it illegal to use Tor?

If you just want to communicate anonymously, browse safely, and don’t plan to do illegal activities online, you can freely use the Tor Browser. Tor is legal in most countries but there are some exceptions. China and Venezuela totally block Tor traffic. Governments in Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Iran are taking steps to prevent citizens from using Tor.

Tor Browser vs. VPN: when is it necessary to use Tor?

Tor Browser can give you more benefits than using a VPN if you want:

  • To protect your online activity from browser trackers. Browsers collect a large amount of information about how you behave online, what ads you click on and what websites you visit. Also, browsers store your personal data, your location, information about your device, etc. Using Tor Browser is the most effective solution if you want to stop leaving your digital footprint and protect your privacy.

  • To get access to the dark web. Tor Browser is only one way you can connect to the dark web. Due to this, using Tor is often associated with something illegal and suspicious. And it’s true that the dark web is often used by criminals. However, in countries where freedom of speech is restricted or prohibited, dark web domains can be significantly valuable.

What are the Tor Browser's pros and cons?

Like any cybersecurity solution, Tor Browser is not perfect. Let’s see which pros and cons it has.

Tor Browser pros

  1. Tor Browser is free and user-friendly. If you want, you can donate to Tor project development, but you don’t need to pay for downloading and using Tor. Also, it’s easy to navigate Tor because it is almost identical to most browsers.
  2. Multi-layer encryption. Tor Browser encrypts your request three times before it is sent.
  3. Decentralized network. It’s almost impossible to shut down the Tor network which contains thousands of nodes, run by volunteers all over the world.
  4. High anonymity. The first entry node sees only your IP address. It can't expose your request and final destination point. The exit node can review the information but can’t know who is sending it.
  5. Automatically reset cookies and browsing history. You don’t need to make additional settings, the Tor Browser does it by default.

Tor Browser cons

  1. Slow Internet connection speed. Multi-layers of encryption and rerouting through several proxy servers dramatically slow down Internet connection speed. Due to this, using Tor is especially unsuitable for gaming, watching streaming services, and downloading files.
  2. Difficult to assign the final relay to the required country. You need to make an additional setting for your connection if you want to get an IP address of a specific country. This requires knowledge and time, while VPN users connect to the preferred server in one click.
  3. Blocked access. Some web services and websites block access to their content for connections via the Tor network. Depending on the country, ISP might cut the service to Tor users.
  4. There is no official version of the Tor Browser for iOS. Users can download only the Onion browser, which doesn't guarantee security and just provides some options that may improve anonymity.
  5. Legal problems. The government of some countries might view Tor users as prone to illegal or extremist activities.

VPN service: what is it and how does it work?

Virtual Private Network or shortly VPN is built to enhance privacy and online security for internet users worldwide. A VPN creates a private network for all your Internet traffic, encrypts your requests, and sends them to the Internet through the VPN server. The last one masks your IP address and shows websites the VPN server’s IP address instead of your own one. When the response comes back to the VPN server, it becomes encrypted again before you get it. In this case, your ISP can’t track what you are doing online and websites can’t identify you by knowing your real IP address.

Is it safe to use VPN?

Using VPN might not always be safe. To understand whether a chosen VPN is secure, examine its logging policy. VPN services often tout a no-logging or zero-logging policy as a key marketing point. In reality, VPN services rarely provide a totally no-logging policy and still make some records. To protect your online activity, you need to know exactly what data might be recorded, how it might be used, and how long a VPN service stores logs.

Trustworthy premium VPNs might collect diagnostic logs, for example, timestamps or amount of bandwidth. As a rule, a VPN provider aggregates this data and uses it to improve the service. A collection of this type doesn't pose a serious risk to personal data. But the situation changes dramatically if VPN providers log users’ IP addresses or traffic. This data can be potentially stolen, leaked, or most often sold. The latter is typical for free VPN service providers which want to cover expenses and make a profit without charging customers.

The other thing to consider is how long VPN providers store logs. The shorter this period is the better. Most providers automatically delete this information after 24 hours. Other providers might keep it longer, from several months to several years.

So, all VPNs have different logging policies. To find the right VPN, you need to read its policy carefully. The general rule of security is not to use free VPN services, because they tend to absorb costs by selling logged users' data.

Is it legal to use VPN?

In reality, the answer to this question varies from country to country. In most countries using VPN is completely legal for activities that don’t break the countries' laws. But in others, using VPN is banned or heavily restricted. To stay safe, you have to check the laws in your host country before turning on a VPN.

VPN vs. Tor: when is it necessary to use VPN?

There are some situations that you can’t handle without a VPN:

  1. You want to connect to public Wi-Fi. Public networks are extremely vulnerable and often become the target of hacker attacks. In this case, it is essential to turn on a VPN app to secure your personal information, passwords, and bank accounts while using public Wi-Fi.
  2. You need to bypass geo-restriction. When you use a VPN, it takes several seconds to connect to the VPN server in the required country and get access to geo-restricted websites, web services, or applications.
  3. You want to add to your Internet connection more privacy. Advanced VPN encryption effectively protects your data and the VPN server masks your real IP address behind another one.

Pros and cons of VPNs

VPN is an effective and popular solution for online privacy. It provides many benefits, but it’s still not ideal. Let’s review the main pros and cons of using a VPN.

The pros of using a VPN

  1. Good connection speed. Due to encryption VPNs might affect Internet speed, but this impact is almost unnoticeable. Especially for users with high-quality premium VPN.
  2. Strong data encryption. Like the Tor Browser, a good VPN encrypts all traffic from your device and provides high security online.
  3. Access to geo-restricted content. You can choose the VPN server from the required country and connect to it in one click.
  4. Transparent connection system. If you use VPN you know your VPN provider, and you see which VPN server reroutes your traffic. Using Tor, you don't know anything about the exit node or the previous nodes.
  5. Essential for using public networks. Free public Wi-Fi spots are vulnerable. With a VPN you can protect your privacy and anonymity while connected to public Wi-Fi.
  6. Easy to use. Premium VPNs have a user-friendly interface and 24/7 customer support.

The cons of using a VPN

  1. Paid subscription. You can easily find a VPN without charges, but a trustworthy VPN can’t be free.
  2. VPN server knows your IP address. To reduce privacy risks, you need to know the logging policy of the chosen VPN. There you can find information about what data exactly is logged by your VPN, how it will be used, and how long it will be stored.
  3. Centralized system. You have to trust your VPN provider which alone operates thousands of servers across the world.

Tor Browser vs. VPN

Here is a summary of the main differences between Tor Browser and VPN.

Tor VPN
Type Browser Application or browser extension
Connection speed Slows down dramatically Might slow down connection speed; depends on a VPN provider
Encryption Three layers of encryption One layer with modern encryption protocols
Cost Free Low; free VPNs are not safe
Availability Available except iOS Available except iOS
Anonymity High From low to high; depends on a VPN provider
Gaming No Yes
Video streaming No Yes
Downloading No Yes
Bypassing geo-blocking Additional settings In one click
Securing public Wi-Fi Yes Yes
Quantity of servers in connection No less than three One proxy server
Probability of hacking Low From low to high; depends on a VPN provider

Why AdGuard

AdGuard VPN is a popular privacy tool based on an in-house developed unique VPN protocol. AdGuard VPN users can benefit from the following features:

  1. Fastest VPN server locations. AdGuard VPN users can choose the most suitable VPN server by knowing its ping. Ping is how long it takes a data packet to transfer from your device to a server and back again.
  2. Exclusions lists. There are two modes in AdGuard VPN. General mode means that VPN works on websites not added to exclusions. Selective mode means that VPN works on sites that are on the exclusion list. You can easily customize them in any way you like.
  3. DNS server of your choice. You can change the DNS server provided by your ISP to any other DNS server. Tech-savvy users can configure to use their own DNS server.
  4. AdGuard VPN is compatible with AdGuard Ad Blocker. This solves a common problem where VPN-based apps don't work together. And you can use both applications without the necessity to choose between them.
  5. Well-distributed VPN servers network in more than 40 countries.
  6. Clear logging policy. As we already know, all VPN services keep some logs. AdGuard VPN cares about your safety and stores a minimum of your information, which is required for a fully functional service.

FAQ

Is Tor safer with VPN?

Tor network is a decentralized system and theoretically, it’s safer, because it’s harder to shut it down than a centralized VPN connection.

Is Tor more anonymous than VPN?

Yes, Tor is more anonymous than VPN. It is better if you intend to share sensitive information or anything else that might compromise your security.

Can police track the Tor Browser?

Yes, police can track that you are using the Tor Browser. Even more, the policy might start to monitor you just because you are a Tor user.

Does Tor hide your IP?

Yes, the Tor Browser hides your IP address. When you use Tor, the entire Internet identifies the IP address of the final relay as yours.

Is it worth using a VPN with Tor?

You can use VPN and Tor Browser together. Be ready that your Internet connection speed will be very slow. Probably it makes sense only if your ISP blocks Tor traffic. In that case, The VPN hides that you’re using Tor.

Can you be tracked on Tor with VPN?

It's harder to track you if you use Tor with VPN. But probably you won’t use them both for casual browsing due to dramatically slowed down speed.

Can police track VPN?

Police can’t track a VPN in real-time. But they can request information from the VPN provider. The VPN logging policy determines what information police will receive.

Lena Ter-Mikaelyan on AdGuard VPN
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