Tor vs VPN – Key Difference Between Them

Tor vs VPN

The best privacy tools for strengthening your online security are VPNs and Tor. Read on to learn about the key difference between Tor vs VPN and how they compare.

Key Difference between Tor and VPN

Tor uses layered data encryption to secure your online activity through volunteer-run nodes. A VPN service connects your device to one server run by a commercial provider.

The Tor browser disguises your online identity by routing traffic through multiple Tor servers. A VPN encrypts your internet traffic by changing the IP address so you appear like you are in a different country or city.

Tor does not support peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing. VPNs allow users to access media files such as games, movies, and books using P2P software that looks for other connected devices on the same network.

Tor does not offer customer support. VPN service providers provide their users with customer support over multiple channels.

This VPN vs Tor tutorial examines the differences between both services in depth.

What is Tor?

The Onion Router (Tor) is open-source, free software that uses a network of servers to encrypt and route traffic. The technology encrypts the traffic multiple times and routes it via several nodes.

Tor is a creation of the U.S. Navy to protect their communication. Today, a non-profit organization, The TOR Project, has been developing the software.

Using Tor offers the anonymity whistleblowers, activists, and journalists require to protect their identities and communicate securely. The service also lets you access services and websites that an ISP or government blocks.

What is a VPN?

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a tool that helps protect your internet privacy and security. It does a similar job as Tor but works differently. Using a VPN means using a private network over a public one via servers instead of volunteers.

A VPN creates an encrypted, secure link between your device and a remote service, usually in a different country. The connection aids in masking your IP address while encrypting all traffic traveling to and from your device.

VPNs protect your online activity from the government or your ISP. The tools also help you access geo-restricted content by connecting to a server in another country.

How Tor Works

You can access the Tor network by downloading its free browser. The browser disguises your online identity by routing internet traffic through multiple Tor servers.

The anonymous Tor browsing network features multiple relays. After establishing a connection, your data passes through at least three relays in the network.

The relays are:

  • Entry guard – The entry point to the Tor network
  • Middle relay – A network of relays that pass encrypted data from the entry guard to the exit relay
  • Exit relay – Nodes that send data to the destination after decryption

The exit relay will appear as the point where your data originates from.

The steps for installing and using Tor are:

  1. Download the Tor browser for your Windows, macOS, Linux, or Android device
  2. Run the installation
  3. Open the browser and click the Onion icon at the top
  4. The icon turns on the connection, and clicking again turns it off

How a VPN Works

Users install software on their computer or device to use a VPN service. The software encrypts all the data coming in and going out. Open the app and choose a server in an area you want to appear like you are at. The VPN will assign you an IP address of the geographic location.

The data travels through a secure connection via encrypted channels that use 256-bit encryption. A VPN server decrypts the encrypted data from your device and sends it to the internet. It receives a reply from the same server and sends the message back to your device via an encrypted connection.

The VPN software on your computer decrypts the message so you can access it.

The steps for installing and configuring a VPN are:

  1. Subscribe to a good VPN service provider
  2. Download and install the application for your device
  3. Open the application
  4. Enter the username and password you chose while subscribing
  5. Connect to another country’s server
  6. You get a new IP address upon connection

When Should You Use Tor?

Tor is a better option when you want to:

  • Stay safe and access geo-restricted content – Choose Tor to protect your privacy and access content restricted in your country. The browser also helps avoid censorship issues in countries like China and Iran.
  • Access the dark web – Tor’s hidden services within the network let you access websites and resources not found via search engines such as Google.
  • Avoid browser trackers – The browser makes it hard to find a connection to a user, which helps you surf the web without leaving digital footprints behind.

When Should You Use a VPN?

A VPN is most suitable when you need to:

  • View geo-locked content – The services let you bypass viewership restrictions even in locations where your preferred streaming channels or programs are unavailable.
  • Ensure security while using public Wi-Fi – The service will help protect your sensitive information when a device connects to a public Wi-Fi network.
  • Keep the connection private – VPNs employ advanced encryption so websites do not see where your data comes from for increased anonymity.
  • Access blocked content – Work and study places sometimes restrict web access, but a VPN can help bypass them.

What’s the Difference Between Tor and VPN?

A VPN vs Tor tutorial would not be complete without a look at the major differences.

Speed

A VPN can offer you between 300 and 400 Mbps because your traffic goes through only a single, privately owned server.

Tor speeds are faster compared to a few years ago but cannot match VPNs. Users often complain that the network speed is slow or inconsistent.

In terms of browsing, expect the following:

  • Streaming: Tor has high latency, making high-definition viewing impractical and speeds generally slow. In contrast, VPNs typically perform well on platforms like Netflix and Disney+.
  • Torrents: VPNs can sometimes be sluggish when torrenting but accommodate more bandwidth than Tor. Indeed, Tor is entirely unsuitable due to very slow average speeds.
  • Browsing: Due to Tor’s three layers of encryption, browsing is often noticeably slow. As with streaming, a good VPN will have the best performance, and you’ll see little-to-no difference compared to not using any privacy option.

Encryption and Security

While most VPNs only use one “hop” of encryption, they are the clear winner in this category. These applications use protocols such as OpenVPN, IPSec, SSTP, and PPTP that only authorized devices can decipher.

VPNs also apply multiple security protocols compared to Tor. Examples include:

  • Kill switch: This ensures you won’t use your standard internet connection if there’s a sudden drop in your WiFi.
  • DNS leak protection: Unlike Tor, several VPNs safeguard against this serious security flaw that can reveal your private online activity.
  • Multi-factor authentication: Many VPNs use a password and a second security option (like a code sent to your phone) to minimize the risk of your credentials being compromised by hackers.
  • No-logging policy: Some VPNs do not maintain user logs, meaning your data (such as passwords, browsing activity, and downloads) isn’t collected or stored.

In comparison, Tor encryption routes traffic through three encryption hops — or layers — to protect anonymity.

  • Onion routing: While most VPNs only use one proxy server, Tor uses three encrypted relays (“Guard,” Middle,” and “Exit”) to hide data.
  • Decentralization: Tor is highly decentralized compared to VPNs, as it uses relays (or nodes) run by volunteers. That allows you to route your connection through random sequences every time you access a website.

However, Tor only works through a browser, meaning the rest of your operating system is exposed and may reveal your IP address and location.

Anonymity

A VPN provider is centralized and usually run as a business. Compared to Tor, that has the following implications:

  • Personal details are often required: While some providers accept cryptocurrency or cash, most VPNs need credit or debit cards to access their premium features
  • Public security: VPNs are more effective at guarding against man-in-the-middle attacks and unwanted invasions of your privacy while using public WiFi.

In contrast, Tor has no owner, meaning:

  • No information sharing: Access to the dark web without having to share personal information or payment details.
  • Secure communication: Tor’s onion routing makes communication virtually untraceable.

Nevertheless, Tor has had several exploits that exposed user information.

Versatility

VPNs are more versatile compared to Tor, thanks to the following features:

  • Works across operating systems: Many VPN providers have desktop integration thanks to WireGuard protocols, no matter what operating system you have.
  • App support: VPNs often have separate apps that work with Android and iOS mobile devices.
  • Extra functionality: Unlike Tor, several VPNs incorporate tools like ad blocking and dark web monitoring.

Tor lacks the versatility of VPNs, as it does not have integrations with desktop or mobile operating systems.

Trustworthiness

Trust is critical when choosing a privacy tool for your online activity. Again, VPNs are the trust winners, thanks to several features they incorporate.

Factors that make a VPN more trustworthy include:

  • The company: Reliable companies are transparent and have a long history of offering high-quality VPN services with minimal scandals.
  • Jurisdiction: Many providers set up bases in countries with fewer data collection laws to cater to the needs of their clients.
  • External security audits: Reputable companies hire specialized external firms for security audits. These audits usually involve inspecting the databases, website, code, and servers for red flags.
  • Advanced security measures: These features let you customize your experience. Some measures include an anti-tracking module and a double VPN.
  • Money-back guarantee: Trustworthy companies sell their services at a premium. A clear money-back policy covers most situations requiring a refund, including dissatisfaction with the VPN’s ability to unblock certain content.
  • Live chat: A customer support team means you get answers to queries promptly and clearly.

Tor implements a multi-layered security system to boost its trustworthiness, including:

  • IP masking: Tor will hide your IP address, so third parties do not see what you are doing or your identity.
  • Blocks digital fingerprinting: The browser makes your digital fingerprint look the same as any other on the network.
  • Blocking trackers: Each website you visit is isolated, so third-party trackers and ads do not follow you.
  • Deleting your history: Your history, cookies, and form data records are deleted immediately after Tor is closed.

Pros and Cons of VPN

Using a VPN has its perks, but there are some drawbacks you should consider. Read on to learn more about the pros and cons of subscribing to VPN services.

Pros:

  • Blanket protection – A VPN encrypts and secures all connections on your device, including downloads, streams, games, and browsing. This means you can leave the service on without worrying about the software you are using.
  • Helps you overcome ISP throttling – Internet service providers can throttle specific internet traffic types, including video streams and torrents. A VPN can hide the activity to prevent discrimination.
  • Supports remote access – VPNs allow remote workers to access their company networks and resources securely from anywhere. This is especially useful for businesses with employees or teams in different locations.
  • Compliance with regulations – VPN accountability ensures service providers comply with local and international laws and regulations. A provider must not violate user privacy laws or engage in illegal activities.

Cons:

  • Premium features can be costly – Free VPN options are available, but many come with limited features. The premium packages require a subscription, which can be expensive.
  • Can be blocked – Some websites are implementing VPN blocking technology, which restricts you from accessing their content.

Pros and Cons of Tor

Using Tor’s browser over traditional offerings, such as Google Chrome or Safari, has benefits. However, it also has its downsides.

Pros:

  • Free and easy to download – Numerous volunteers make it easy to download and use the free browser. Advanced users can download the browser’s open-source project and create customized products.
  • A user-friendly browser – The browser looks like most on the market.
  • Difficult to shut down – Thousands of volunteers support and run the network, which makes it difficult for a single individual to shut it down.
  • No advertising tracking – The browser blocks advertising tracking, which prevents companies from collecting your online usage data for advertising purposes. This ensures you are not the target of unwanted and intrusive ads.

Cons:

  • Can be used for illegal activity – Many people are using Tor’s anonymity to carry out criminal acts online, ranging from drug trafficking to running cryptocurrency scams.
  • Nodes are vulnerable – The Tor browser focuses on ensuring your identity is anonymous and does not encrypt data leaving your device. This makes it possible for anyone monitoring your connections to view the traffic, even without knowing who it belongs to.

Tor vs VPN: Which Is Better?

Understanding the difference between Tor and VPN will help you choose the right privacy tool for your needs.

Tor is suitable for online anonymity, while a VPN is better for users looking for privacy and security without compromising speed and functionality.

Using a virtual private network and Tor simultaneously (Tor-over-VPN) will help strengthen your security by adding an extra encryption layer to the connection. This setup is your best option if your privacy is a priority.