When should you use Tor and when should you use VPN?

Tor browser is the only way to access onion sites. Although it can make your browsing anonymous, it's slower than VPNs, so we don't recommend it unless you need to visit an onion site.

If you've looked up the various ways to browse anonymously, two terms will come up regularly: VPN and Tor. However, when you compare the two, you'll quickly see that they have very different use cases.

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How VPN and Tor work

To understand when you should use Tor instead of a VPN, let's first look at how they both work. VPNs are privacy tools that allow you to connect to servers owned and operated by your ISP. In this way, your connection is encrypted in a so-called VPN tunnel.

Hiding your location in this way gives you more flexibility when accessing sites across the internet: you can unblock regions of Netflix outside of your country, bypass internet censorship imposed by countries like China or Russia or even access online banking while on vacation. All this is achieved while securing your connection.

Tor works a little differently. Instead of being a standalone tool that encrypts your entire connection, it's a browser that redirects your traffic. However, it does not do this through VPN servers, but through so-called nodes. Nodes can be any device connected to the internet – laptops, smartphones, even IoT devices – and are points within the network through which traffic is routed.

These hubs are owned and operated by volunteers, who provide free use of their devices for the purpose of online anonymity. As a result, Tor is completely free to use and therefore very popular among people in developing countries who want a way to browse the web anonymously.

If you look at how Tor and VPNs work, that's the big difference. VPNs use centralized servers, which are owned and operated by profit-motivated companies. Tor, on the other hand, is decentralized and not run for profit. Lately, though, there's a third option gaining ground, decentralized networks that let users pay each other to use the nodes.

Problems with Tor

Because they work differently, Tor and VPNs are best used for different things. VPNs are all-in-one solutions: they offer total protection thanks to their encryption, although you shouldn't assume everything is right. For true anonymity you should use VPNs and incognito mode at least in combination.

Tor isn't that simple, as it doesn't encrypt your connection. For Tor to be anonymous and secure, it relies on the inability of nodes to see beyond those they are connected to. For example, if you connect to one node and then to another node, the first node can see where you are connecting from and which node it is going to. However, anything after the second node is a mystery to him.

As a result, to use Tor effectively, you need to create a chain of nodes, at least three, to keep your browsing private. However, all this bouncing between nodes slows down your connection badly, making Tor unattractive for anything that requires high speeds, such as downloading large files. VPNs have the same problem, but since you're only rerouting once, so the problem isn't as bad.

However, there is some debate about how private Tor really is: technically, someone could trace you via the daisy chain (although it's unclear how practical that would be). If privacy is your main concern, a no-logging VPN can be more secure than using Tor, provided you use a reliable VPN.

When should you use Tor instead of a VPN?

Of course, if Tor is so slow, you might wonder why anyone would use it as a browser. The main advantage of Tor, apart from being free, is that it is the only browser that can access onion sites. These are websites that, for whatever reason, want their visitors to be anonymous while browsing.

Other browsers cannot do this. VPNs can't either, simply because they aren't browsers. As a result, the main reason to use Tor is to access the so-called dark web (not to be confused with the deep web), where you can find things being bought and sold under the cloak of anonymity.

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Written by Anastasis Vasileiadis

Translations are like women. When they are beautiful they are not faithful and when they are faithful they are not beautiful.

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