If you’re curious about Tor browser, then you already know how important your privacy and anonymity online can be. And yes, Tor browser is a great tool that can help keep you safe. But there’s a lot of confusion about its pros and cons, and especially, about how it relates to VPNs.
This guide will answer those questions and more. We’re going to explain how this powerful tool works and what to consider when deciding if it’s right for you.
What Is Tor Browser?
Tor browser is similar to a normal web browser in many ways. It’s no more difficult to use than Google Chrome or Microsoft Edge. The difference is that Tor browser connects you to the internet through the Tor network.
Tor is free, open-source software that helps you stay anonymous online. When you browse the internet using Tor browser, your traffic is randomly directed through a network of servers before you reach your final destination, in order to protect your location and identity.
The name “Tor” is short for The Onion Router. This refers to the way that Tor protects your data by wrapping it in multiple layers of encryption like an onion.
Is Tor Browser a VPN?
Tor browser and VPNs are both tools for protecting your privacy online. They are not the same thing, however. They are two very different technologies that protect you in different ways.
When you use a VPN, all of your data is secured with end-to-end encryption. It’s then directed through a safe channel to a remote server that connects you to the website you are trying to visit.
Tor browser protects your privacy in a different way, which we explain below.
The important thing is that Tor browser is not a VPN, but you can use the two tools together to maximize your security and privacy.
How Does Tor Browser Work?
Despite the browser’s complex system behind the scenes, it is actually very easy to use. You simply download and install Tor browser, then connect to the internet just like you would with any other browser.
Tor uses a unique system that was developed by the US Navy to protect government intelligence communications.
Your data is bundled into layers of encrypted packets before it enters the Tor network. It is then routed through a series of volunteer-operated servers called nodes or relays.
Each time your data passes through one of these relays, a layer of encryption is removed to reveal the location of the next relay. When you reach the final relay on your path, known as the exit node, the last layer of encryption is removed and your data is sent to its final destination.
Each relay only decrypts enough data to know the location of the previous and next relays. Since each path is randomly generated and none of the relays keep records, it’s nearly impossible for your activity to be traced back to you through Tor’s complex network.
How Secure Is Tor Browser?
Tor browser is very effective at hiding your location and preventing your traffic from being tracked. It’s almost impossible for your online activity to be traced through Tor’s network back to you.
However, Tor browser is not entirely secure. The system has a few weaknesses. Since each server in the Tor network is volunteer-operated, you never know who’s behind the relays your data travels through.
Generally, this isn’t an issue because each relay can only access the location of the previous and next relays—except for the exit node.
The exit node removes the final layer of encryption on your data. It can’t access your original location or IP address, but it is possible for an exit node to spy on your activity if you visit an unsecured HTTP website.
Tor browser is also vulnerable to the same attacks that other browsers are. It’s a good idea to turn off the browser’s plugins and scripts if you are trying to stay anonymous, because these can be exploited to reveal information like your IP address.
What Are the Disadvantages of Tor Browser?
The biggest drawback to using Tor browser is speed. Because your data has to travel through multiple relays before reaching your final destination, browsing can be very slow.
Tor browser is not the best choice for streaming and downloading, and its creators strongly discourage torrenting as well. Not only is torrenting painfully slow, but your torrent traffic will not be protected and can expose your IP address.
If you’re looking for a way to stream or torrent, a VPN is much better protection.
Another disadvantage of using Tor browser is that it can draw attention to you. Your ISP can’t see what you’re doing, but it can see that you’re connected to Tor. This by itself can be enough to raise suspicion about what you’re doing.
Even if you’re only using Tor browserto legally browse the internet, the fact that you are connected to Tor can potentially turn you into a target for government surveillance. US government agencies like the NSA and FBI are very invested in trying to find ways to track Tor users’ activity.
Using Tor Browser with a VPN
Tor browser is an effective tool, but it doesn’t offer the same level of security and safety that a VPN does. Luckily, you don’t have to choose between the two. You can use Tor browser and a VPN together to combine their powers and maximize your privacy.
There are two main ways to combine Tor browser and a VPN. We’re going to walk you through both methods and explain the pros and cons of each.
Tor over VPN
With this method, you connect to your VPN first and then access the Tor network. There are a few advantages to this method, starting with the fact that it’s very easy. You simply connect to your VPN and then open Tor browser.
In most cases, this configuration provides more than enough security and privacy to protect you.
Some VPNs make it even easier by offering a built-in Tor service.
Instead, NordVPN can route your traffic through one of its secure VPN servers and then directly to the Tor network. The NordVPN service can protect all of the traffic on your device, not just your browser activity.
Another benefit of Tor over VPN is that all of your data is securely encrypted by your VPN before entering the Tor network. This means that Tor’s volunteer-operated servers cannot access your real IP address.
Since VPNs hide your activity from your ISP, connecting to a VPN before accessing Tor also prevents your ISP from detecting your use of Tor.
Tor over VPN also gives you a measure of privacy from your VPN provider, since they are unable to see what you are doing within the Tor network. On the other hand, if your VPN provider keeps logs of your activity, Tor over VPN doesn’t hide your real IP address or the fact that you’re using Tor.
The other downside of this method is that it doesn’t protect you from malicious exit nodes, since your traffic is unencrypted by the time it reaches your final destination.
VPN over Tor
With this method, you connect to the Tor network first and then go through your VPN. This method is more complicated than Tor over VPN because in most cases, you have to manually configure your VPN to work with Tor in this way.
The biggest benefit of VPN over Tor is that you are protected from the Tor exit nodes. Your traffic doesn’t go directly from an exit node to your final destination, but rather is routed from the exit node to a secure VPN server.
That’s why this configuration is ideal for communicating sensitive information.
The downside is that your ISP—and therefore government agencies as well—will be able to see that you are using Tor, although your activity will be hidden.
This method also keeps your true IP address hidden from your VPN provider.But with a transparent, no-logs VPN, you shouldn’t have to.