Tor vs. VPN - What are the differences between the two

Tor and VPNs are both proxy-based technologies that are designed to increase user privacy when using the internet. They are, however, very different beasts that rarely crossover on a real-life practical level. Fortunately, ProPrivacy is here to walk you through the differences and help you to understand which of the two technologies is right for protecting your privacy.

Tor or VPN - What should you use?

There's a particularly easy way to decide whether Tor is right for you, or whether you should use a VPN instead:

Going into more detail, Tor is completely free and provides true anonymity on the internet, but it isn't without its caveats. Tor is the slower of the two options, so much so that it is a poor choice for day-to-day internet use and makes ordinary activities such as watching YouTube videos all but impossible. It is also not suitable for protecting yourself when torrenting, which we will discuss later in the article.

Conversely, VPNs do not provide true anonymity and are unlikely to protect you if you are doing something highly illegal or if your name is Edward Snowden. They do, however, provide real privacy benefits when surfing the internet with minimal cost to the experience, and can even unblock streaming catalogs from Netflix or BBC iPlayer outside of their target countries - for a price. 

What is Tor?

The name Tor originated as an acronym for The Onion Router and refers to the way in which data encryption is layered. Tor passes data between a number of randomly selected Tor nodes run by volunteers, encrypting it each time. 

Each node knows where the connection comes from and the node it is going to, but cannot see the whole route (circuit). This is the beauty of Tor, in that no trust is required as no-one should be able to connect a user with their activity on the internet. 

The entry node can see who you are, but not what you do on the internet, while the exit node can see what you do, but does not know who you are. As a result, Tor affords users a level of true anonymity when using the internet. 

Each node is run by a volunteer. It goes without saying, then, that the more volunteers there are, the safer Tor is for all its users. For a more detailed look at Tor, including at its potential vulnerabilities, please see our full Tor Review

Tor pros

Tor is required in order to access the dark web (Tor Hidden Services). But since this comparison article only really compares Tor with VPNs for accessing the open internet, we won’t list this important feature as a “pro” here. 

Tor cons

  • Very slow – your data is randomly bounced through a number of nodes, each of which could be anywhere in the world and, therefore, painfully slow your experience. If your internet connection is fast enough, then Tor may suffice for casual web browsing, but severe buffering issues always make streaming video content wildly impractical
  • Not suitable for P2P filesharing – there is no way to stop you from using BitTorrent over Tor (and people do it),  but its diabolically poor speed can have a domino-effect by slowing the entire torrenting network for every other user. Worse yet, if copyrighted material is involved, Tor node volunteers can get in trouble for the actions of others - which could be critical and possibly life-threatening for some
  • It's easily blocked - the list of Tor exit nodes is published openly, meaning providers can easily restrict access. This problem can be mitigated, though, through the use of Tor bridges
  • Captchas - CloudFlare takes an aggressive stance towards Tor users. And because CloudFlare hosts a very large percentage of the world’s websites, Tor users are likely to find themselves repeatedly challenged by CAPTCHAs and other similar security measures.

What is a VPN?

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) connects your device to a VPN server, usually operated by a commercial VPN provider. This VPN server acts as an intermediary between your device and the internet.

  • Websites and anyone else on the internet can’t see who you are (i.e. you’re real IP internet address). All they see is the IP address of the VPN server.

  • Your internet provider (ISP) can’t see what you get up to on the internet. It can see that you have connected to the VPN server’s IP address, but nothing else.

  • Your ISP also can’t see the content of your internet data because the connection between your device and the VPN server is securely encrypted. 

Naturally, what your ISP can’t see, your government won’t see unless it has singled you out for targeted surveillance. For a detailed look at what VPNs are and what they do (and can’t do), please see what is a VPN and how does it work?

VPN pros

VPN cons

  • VPNs do not provide true anonymity - depending on your threat model they can provide a high level of privacy when surfing the internet, but the VPN provider always knows your real IP address and can tie this to your internet history.

    Using a good no logs VPN mitigates against this problem but this only protects historical activity and still requires you to trust that the VPN is doing what it says it is doing implicitly. A VPN provider can always start logging when pressured to do so, and no VPN staff will ever be willing to go to prison in order to protect you.

  • They do cost - Most reliable VPN services are priced at a few dollars per month (although exceptions to this rule do now exist).

Final thoughts

If you are a whistleblower, political dissident, or might otherwise get into serious trouble for your activities on the internet, then use Tor. Nothing is guaranteed in this world, but Tor provides the highest level of anonymity possible on the internet. 

Everyone else, however, should use a VPN. A good no logs VPN protects you from blanket surveillance by your government and ISP, prevents websites and suchlike from seeing your real IP address, and is effective at combating many forms of internet censorship. 

VPNs are also great for fun stuff like watching the full US Netflix catalog and torrenting. And unlike Tor, they do these things with a negligible impact on your day-to-day internet experience.

Written by: Douglas Crawford

Has worked for almost six years as senior staff writer and resident tech and VPN industry expert at ProPrivacy.com. Widely quoted on issues relating cybersecurity and digital privacy in the UK national press (The Independent & Daily Mail Online) and international technology publications such as Ars Technica.

25 Comments

Ross Alisha
on October 26, 2018
Reply
Voted up. For a "newblette" you explain things very well for others to be able to follow you to the "Darknet". I am glad that you caution others as to the unsavory elements and to procede with caution. I will be following, great work!
Lou Glandfield
on March 24, 2018
Reply
Thanks for the very useful and informative site. As to signing in with HMRC and the like, I'm still running Mac OS 10.9.5 - I like its stability and it still does everything I require from a desktop computer. Consequently, I have to run an earlier version of TorBrowser (4.5.1). I don't find it noticably slow but, if I try to sign in to anything like Gmail, online banking, PayPal &c, I'm often blocked and may subsequently receive cautionary emails telling me that someone (me, happily) has tried to access my information from an unrecognised location. I imagine that this would still be the case with more recent versions of Tor. So, while Tor is excellent for general browsing, I revert to Safari for admin stuff. On both browsers I use the DuckDuckGo search engine rather than Google as it does not track users, thus providing a further buffer between me and the ungodly.
https://cdn.proprivacy.com/storage/images/2020/02/member-dougjpg-avatar-image-default-1png-avatar-image-default-minpng-avatar_image-default.png
Douglas Crawford replied to Lou Glandfield
on March 26, 2018
Reply
Hi Lou, Yes. Tor openly publishes the addresses of all its public exit nodes, which makes the very easy to blacklist them. Using a Tor bridge might help overcome this, but as you are not trying to conceal your identity from the HMRC (I presume!), your approach is sensible. The only think I will note is that running an older version of Tor is not usually recommenced, as it will not be patched against the latest vulnerabilities that have been discovered. Of course, after assessing your own threat model you may decide the convenience/security trade-off worth it, but you should be aware of this point.
Jeremy
on December 10, 2017
Reply
If tor entrance and exit nodes are run on a volunteer basis, then what would keep "bad" people from volunteering for these services? I mean the entrance node you connect to would have to have the keys to encrypt incoming traffic, and the exit nodes would have keys to decrypt it before sending it out to the Internet right? So if the wrong people volunteered for this, then they could decrypt your traffic and potentially track you.
https://cdn.proprivacy.com/storage/images/2020/02/member-dougjpg-avatar-image-default-1png-avatar-image-default-minpng-avatar_image-default.png
Douglas Crawford replied to Jeremy
on December 12, 2017
Reply
Hi Jeremy, Indeed. Please see the Malicious exit nodes section of Tor Review for a discussion on this. It is precisely why Tor Hidden Services (aka the dark web) was invented - to avoid the need for dangerous Tor exit nodes. Visiting only HTTPS websites mitigates the problem, as does using VPN over Tor (not Tor over VPN).
John Atkinson
on August 30, 2017
Reply
Hi Douglas, I am based in the UK and as an accountant I have to visit Her Majesty Customs and Revenue sites to obtain data of taxes due for payment etc, I also have to pay these taxes via online banking through our companies bank. Would these two bodies reject my requests and block me from entering their sites if I use the VPN or Tor method to disguise my IP address. Regards John
https://cdn.proprivacy.com/storage/images/2020/02/member-dougjpg-avatar-image-default-1png-avatar-image-default-minpng-avatar_image-default.png
Douglas Crawford replied to John Atkinson
on August 30, 2017
Reply
Hi John, I also live in the UK and have a VPN running all the time. I have zero problems signing into my two bank's online web portals or the HMRC Gateway website. I don't know about Tor. Why not give it a try to find out?

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