Some VPN providers offer a VPN + Tor feature. In this article, I discuss how such features work and what the implications of using them are.
Looking for an extra layer of security when using Tor? In theory, a VPN could help. But, only certain providers support Tor connections. In the table below you can compare the best VPNs that support Tor.
Want more information? You can dive into the detail of all the Tor VPNs featured on this page with our in-depth list below.
What is Tor?
The name Tor originated as an acronym for The Onion and refers to the way in which data encryption is layered. When using Tor:
- Your internet connection is routed through at least 3 random “nodes” (volunteer run servers)
- These nodes can be located anywhere in the world
- The data is re-encrypted multiple times (each time it passes through a node)
- Each node is only aware of the IP addresses “in front” of it, and the IP address of the node “behind” it
- This should mean that at no point can anyone know the whole path between your computer and the website you are trying to connect to (even if some nodes along the path nodes are controlled by malicious entities)
The real beauty of the Tor system is that you do not have to trust anyone. It is designed so that no-one can discover your true identity, and (if you connect to a secure website) no-one can access your data. For a detailed look at Tor, please check out our full Tor Review.
What are the main differences between Tor and VPNs?
Tor provides a very high degree of true anonymity, but at the cost of day-to-day internet usability. Using a VPN can provide a high degree of privacy, but should never be regarded as anonymous because your VPN provider will always know your true IP address.
A VPN does, however, provide a much better day-to-day internet experience than Tor, and because of this, is a much more flexible general-purpose privacy tool.
Tor, on the other hand, is a vital tool for that tiny subset of internet users who really require the maximum possible anonymity. Thanks to being free, Tor can also make quite a handy anti-censorship tool. The only problem being that many repressive governments go to great lengths to counter this by blocking access to the network (to varying degrees of success).
- VPNs are faster than and are suitable for P2P downloading. The major downside (and reason VPNs are said to provide privacy rather than anonymity) is that it requires you trust your VPN provider. This is because, should it wish to (or is compelled to), your VPN provider can “see” what you get up to on the internet. a VPN also allows you to easily spoof your geographic location.
- Tor is much slower, is often blocked by websites, and is not suitable for P2P. But it does not require that you trust anybody, and is therefore much more truly anonymous than a VPN. Malicious exit nodes present a real threat when using Tor.
Using Tor and a VPN Together
VPNs and Tor can be used together. In theory, this can provide an extra layer of security and privacy, but this is a hotly debated point – especially when it comes to Tor though VPN setups.
The Tor network is designed from the to provide security and anonymity. there is a very strong argument that adding a VPN to the equation actually weakens the setup.
That said, there are also good arguments that using Tor and a VPN together is beneficial, and that it mitigates some of the drawbacks of using either technology exclusively.
One thing that is certain is that using Tor and a VPN together is slow. You will suffer the combined speed hit of using both Tor and a VPN.
There are two basic ways that Tor and a VPN can be combined. You can connect to your VPN then route the connection through the Tor network (Tor through VPN), or you can connect to the Tor network before routing your connection through your VPN…
Tor through VPN
In this configuration you connect first to your VPN server, and then to the Tor network before accessing the internet:
Your computer -> VPN -> Tor -> internet
Although some of the providers listed above offer to make such a setup easy, this is happens when you use the Tor Browser or Whonix (for maximum security) while connected to a VPN server, and means that your apparent IP on the internet is that of the Tor exit node.
- Your ISP will not know that you are using Tor (although it can know that you are using VPN)
- The Tor entry node will not see your true IP address, but the IP address of the VPN server. If you use a good no-logs provider this can provide a meaningful additional layer of security
- Allows access to Tor hidden services (.onion websites.)
- Your VPN provider knows your real IP address
- No protection from malicious Tor exit nodes. Non-SSL traffic entering and leaving Tor exit nodes unencrypted and could be monitored
- Tor exit nodes are often blocked.
We should note that using a Tor bridge such as Obfsproxy can also be effective at hiding Tor use from your ISP (although a determined ISP could use deep packet inspection to detect Tor traffic.)
Important note: NordVPN, and TorVPN offer VPN through Tor via an OpenVPN configuration file (which transparently routes your data from OpenVPN to the Tor network.) This means that your entire internet connection benefits from VPN through Tor.
Please be aware, however, that this is nowhere near as secure as using the Tor browser, as Tor encryption is performed by the Tor servers and not on your desktop (as is the case when using the Tor browser.) It is also possible that under this configuration your provider could intercept traffic before it is encrypted by the Tor servers.
For maximum security when using Tor through VPN you should always use the Tor browser.
VPN through Tor
This involves connecting first to Tor, and then through a VPN server to the internet:
Your computer -> encrypt with VPN -> Tor -> VPN -> internet
This setup requires you to configure your VPN client to work with Tor, and the only VPN providers we know of to support this are AirVPN and BolehVPN. Your apparent IP on the internet is that of the VPN server.
Because you connect to the VPN server through Tor, the VPN provider cannot ‘see’ your real IP address – only that of the Tor exit node. When combined with an anonymous payment method (such as properly mixed Bitcoins) made anonymously over Tor, this means the VPN provider has no way of identifying you, even if it did keep logs
Protection from malicious Tor exit nodes, as data is encrypted by the VPN client before entering (and exiting) the Tor network (although the data is encrypted, your ISP will be able to see that it is heading towards a Tor node)
- Bypasses any blocks on Tor exit nodes
- Allows you to choose server location (great for geo-spoofing)
- All internet traffic is routed through Tor (even by programs that do not usually support it.)
- Your VPN provider can see your internet traffic (but has no way to connect it to you.)
- Slightly more vulnerable to global end-to-end timing attack as a fixed point in the chain exists (the VPN provider)
This configuration is usually regarded as more secure since it allows you to maintain complete (and true) anonymity. Remember that to maintain anonymity it is vital to always connect to the VPN through Tor (if using AirVPN or BolehVPN this is performed automatically once the client has been correctly configured). The same holds true when making payments or logging into a web-based user account.
Is Tor + VPN worth doing?
As already mentioned, this is a hotly debated subject. Using a good no-logs VPN with Tor (in both Tor through VPN and VPN through Tor setups) provides an additional obstacle that an adversary must overcome. As discussed above, each setup also provides other perks.
On the other hand, it introduces a potentially unreliable third party into a setup that is the most secure and anonymous way to access the internet yet devised.
My personal feeling is that VPN through Tor of the kind offered by AirVPN is a much more interesting proposition than Tor through VPN. It allows for complete anonymity while using a VPN, and will protect you from malicious Tor exit nodes.
Tor through VPN means that your VPN provider knows who you are, although as with VPN through Tor, using a trustworthy provider who keeps no logs will provide a great deal of retrospective protection.
Is it worth the hassle over just using Tor on its own? That is for you to decide. One thing that using Tor + VPN is not useful for, though, is providing of the extra layer of encryption. Both Tor and good OpenVPN encryption are very strong on their own, so “doubling up” provides no meaningful additional benefit.
How to Choose a VPN for Tor
If you want service that supports VPN through Tor then you have no choice but AirVPN or PrivateVPN. Luckily, they are both great providers if you are more technically inclined. The other services on the list above are featured in this article because they support Tor through VPN using transparent routing.
Many may like this feature as it can be convenient and allows you to access .onion sites using your regular browser. Do remember, however, that this is not very secure. It is much more secure and private to use any secure VPN and no-logs VPN with the Tor Browser. Just run the Tor Browser after a VPN connection has been established.
Free VPN for Tor?
Any free VPN service can be used in Tor though VPN mode simply by connecting to the VPN service and surfing the internet inside Browser. You will, of course, still have any bandwidth limitations placed on the free service, and any speed limitations will be compounded by the Tor network.
If you don't trust your free VPN service, then surfing the internet inside Tor Browser will hide what you get up to from the VPN provider. But this begs the question: why not use just use vanilla Tor instead?