What’s The Difference Between Tor and a VPN?
Tor is designed to achieve complete anonymity at the cost of speed, compatibility, and convenience. VPNs are faster, more widely-compatible, and better for location spoofing, streaming, and P2P file sharing, but they do not offer the same level of anonymity as Tor.
Use the table below to compare the main differences between the Tor browser and VPN software:
|IP Address||Randomly assigns an IP address location||Manually choose an IP address location|
|Compatibility||Poorly compatible||Widely compatible|
|Anonymity||Complete anonymity||VPN Service can access web activity|
|Encryption Cipher||Advanced Encryption Standard (AES)||Advanced Encryption Standard (AES)|
|Dark Web Access||Permits access||Not supported|
|P2P File Sharing||Slow and unsecure||Secure|
|Customer Support||Not provided||Provided|
A VPN routes your connection through a single, privately-owned VPN server, whereas Tor bounces your connection through a number of volunteer-run, randomly-assigned servers. You don’t need to place your trust in anyone when you use Tor. When you use a VPN, you need to trust the VPN service provider.
Because each Tor node only knows the identity of the server before it, it is impossible for anyone to reverse engineer your connection’s route through the Onion network. Tor also lets you access a number of unlisted websites with the .onion domain name — part of the so-called ‘Dark Web’.
However, the trade-off for this large network is an unreliable connection and extremely slow speeds.
The Tor network is only designed to handle traffic using TCP protocol too, which means voice and video traffic using UDP has to travel outside the encrypted connection.
Tor is cheap, but it puts you at risk of exposing your true IP address or being identified as suspicious if you don’t know what you’re doing.
VPN software lets you manually select a secure server in a location of your choice. This makes VPNs excellent for unblocking geo-restricted websites and bypassing censorship. However, the company behind the VPN owns the software installed on your device and the servers you connect to.
This means your VPN service provider has the potential to observe, monitor, and record your activity. You are therefore entirely reliant on the VPN’s minimal logging policy and track record for maintaining the security of its network.
Tor vs. VPN: Which Is Better?
Tor and VPN software have a lot in common. The right choice for you will depend on your needs. Tor should be used when online anonymity is of the utmost importance, while VPNs are better suited to users who want sufficient privacy and security without compromising on performance or functionality.
Tor is better if you are:
- Transmitting sensitive information
- Accessing the dark web
- Unable to afford a trustworthy VPN
- Concerned primarily with complete anonymity
- Seeking to release sensitive information e.g. you are an activist or whistleblower
VPN software is better if you are:
- Bypassing geo-restrictions
- Concerned primarily about your privacy
- Streaming or torrenting media
- Traveling to a heavily-censored country
- Connecting to a public WiFi network
- Making purchases online
Tor’s two biggest weaknesses — a lack of security and very slow speeds — make it a poor choice for popular activities, such as file-sharing, streaming, and shopping transactions. For these tasks, we recommend using a VPN. To learn more about Tor’s vulnerabilities, read our guide Is Tor Safe?
VPNs don’t require the same level of technical proficiency as using Tor does. However, you should still make sure to pick a trustworthy, zero-logs VPN provider that does not to leak user data.
If you’re short on time, here are some quick answers to common questions asked about Tor vs. VPNs:
Which Is Safer, Tor or a VPN?
VPN software is much easier to use than Tor and is therefore generally safer. Malicious Tor exit nodes have been used for surveillance and man-in-the-middle attacks in the past, and the use of Tor alone can be enough to mark you for surveillance. VPN software is simple, commonplace, and will protect you on unsafe public WiFi networks, but you are placing your trust in your chosen VPN provider.
Is Tor or a VPN more secure?
Both tools use the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) cipher to encrypt your web traffic and secure your data. However, a VPN will encrypt all web traffic leaving your device, giving you network-wide protection. The Tor Network only encrypts the data sent through the Tor Browser.
Which is cheaper?
The Tor Network is most commonly used through the Tor Browser. This is a free, Firefox-based application that you download and install onto your computer. By contrast, most secure VPN services charge a monthly subscription fee. There are free VPNs available, but they often pose significant security risks.
Which is faster?
Using a VPN is almost always faster than Tor. A VPN encrypts your data and routes it directly to one VPN server and then to your destination. Data in the Tor network is routed through multiple widely-dispersed nodes and encrypted and decrypted multiple times, which means it takes much longer to reach the final web server.
Which is more anonymous?
Tor is better than VPN software for anonymity, but worse for privacy. Tor’s routing method prevents any association being drawn between your true IP address and your online activity. Its decentralized network means that no individual has access to both who you are and what you are doing. In short, your activity is open for others to see, but impossible to trace back to you.
By contrast, the private and centralized nature of a VPN connection means your VPN service provider has the technical capacity to observe and record your activity. This makes it much easier to trace your traffic back to your real identity, especially if your VPN keeps activity logs.
Which is better for location spoofing?
You can hide your public IP address with both a VPN and The Onion Network. However, Tor nodes are randomly allocated which means choosing a server location is very difficult. VPN services provide servers in dozens of locations worldwide, allowing you to manually choose your preferred server location. This makes VPNs the preferred method of bypassing geo-restrictions.
Which is better for accessing the Dark Web?
The Dark Web (.onion websites) are only accessible through the Tor browser. However, users can opt to use a VPN with Tor for an extra layer of security.