Using Tor vs. VPN for Anonymous Browsing
You may want to stay incognito online for a variety of reasons, from ensuring your privacy to accessing geo-restricted content.
The two most popular services to ensure online anonymity are the Tor browser and VPN (Virtual Private Network).
In this article, we’ll answer the following::
- When do you need the Tor browser?
- Why do you need to use a VPN?
- What are the pros and cons of using Tor vs. a VPN?
Let’s start with some definitions and explanations.
What is Tor browser?
The Tor browser is a free, open-source project that allows you to surf the web anonymously. The title is an acronym originating from the phrase “the onion router.” Yes, the name sounds silly, but the idea behind it is brilliant: the Tor browser network is built of layers upon layers of independent nodes run by Tor users.
Why would you need Tor browser?
Each node encrypts the incoming and outgoing traffic, and after several random jumps, it becomes impossible to trace your request. The first node you contact identifies who you are, but not where you are going; the intermediaries know nothing and the final node knows where you are going, but not who you are.
Using Tor is a good way to protect your privacy when you’re trying to access content that’s prohibited in your country. This includes geographical limitations (accessing US-only content from Europe or Australia for example), avoiding censorship in countries like Iran and China, and much more.
However, Tor Hidden Services is also the gateway to the dark web, which is why it's illegal in some countries.
Pros and cons of Tor
Over two million people use the Tor browser daily, which isn’t surprising. The benefits of using Tor are:
✅ It’s free
✅ It offers powerful encryption
✅ It’s the ultimate anti-censorship tool
✅ It can’t be targeted by a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack or otherwise shut down since it’s a distributed network of independent nodes
But don’t rush to delete Safari just yet, there are some strong disadvantages of using Tor:
❌ It’s frustratingly slow. The hops between nodes are random; some of them are located halfway across the globe, so each query takes time to execute. Using Tor won't be as slow with a broadband connection, but watching videos is literally impossible.
❌ Your access may be blocked. The list of Tor exit nodes is public, and many Internet Service Providers block them.
❌ More captchas. Tor is not favored by major tech industry players as it deprives them of user data, directly damaging their bottom line. In fact, Cloudflare, the world’s largest content delivery network (CDN), hosting a huge chunk of the world’s websites, is well-known for being anti-Tor. When accessing websites on Cloudflare through the Tor browser, you will face endless captchas and security checks.
Still, Tor is a useful tool if you want to ensure absolute anonymity and online safety.
If you’ve read our article on how to stay safe online, you’ve probably noticed that the Tor browser isn’t on the list. That’s because there are much more simple and frictionless ways to stay safe - like using a VPN.
Find out how to learn more about Clario VPN offering or continue reading for the pros and cons of VPN services.
What is a VPN service?
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network - a way of protecting your online privacy by creating a secure connection to any network or server over the internet. VPNs are widely used to avoid geolocation restrictions, prevent traffic sniffing, and ensure secure interaction with your shopping and banking apps.
This is done by connecting your device to a VPN server, which acts as a forefront between your device and public networks. Such servers are usually maintained by VPN service providers, some of which charge subscription fees, while others are free.
Some browsers (like Opera) provide an out-of-the-box VPN or support multiple VPN plug-ins in their libraries and marketplaces. If yours doesn’t, you can follow our instructions on how to set up a VPN on Mac.
Pros and cons of VPN
Using a VPN is not a silver bullet, so you should weigh up its advantages and disadvantages first. Let’s start with the pros.
✅ A VPN hides your traffic from your Internet Service Provider (ISP). VPNs are immensely useful for avoiding the prying eyes of your ISP (and the government, for that matter). ISPs can only see that your VPN tunnel is connected to a VPN server - nothing more. But most importantly, your ISP won’t know your search history, what data you've downloaded or uploaded, and won’t be able to check your banking transaction data either.
✅ A VPN removes regional restrictions. VPN servers are located across the globe, so you can overcome regional limitations and access any website you want using a VPN.
✅ A VPN surpasses censorship. Just like Tor, a VPN helps you avoid censorship limitations imposed by certain governments by connecting users to servers outside of their country's jurisdictions and ISPs.
You may want to start using a VPN right away (BTW, you are more than welcome to try Clario VPN), but you should probably get familiar with the cons of VPNs first.
❌ A VPN isn’t truly anonymous. Your ISP provider may not know what you are doing on the internet, but your VPN provider does. They know your real IP address and can log your browser activity. That is, unless you use a paid no-log VPN service from a reputed provider that won’t track your activity online as promised.
❌ A VPN may slow things down. The speed with which you can view content through a VPN depends on how far the VPN server is from your location and how quickly your hardware can encrypt and decrypt packages. Yes, you might not be able to stream videos via a VPN, but if you’re just using it for regular online activity, you might not even notice the delays.
❌ The best VPNs are paid. We’ve already covered why you should never use free VPNs. But fear not, the prices are usually quite reasonable for the safety you get with a VPN.
If you want to ensure online privacy and security of your sensitive information (personally identifiable information, banking transaction details, etc.), we strongly advise you to use a VPN.
Tor vs. VPN comparison
The key difference between Tor and VPN is that there are multiple VPN tools and service providers but only one Tor browser network. Tor relies on a decentralized layer of independent nodes to transfer data securely, while VPN software connects to a central server to provide a secure VPN tunnel.
If you’re still unsure whether you should choose a VPN or the Tor browser, think of the ways you use the web. If what you’re doing is deemed illegal in countries with strict censorship laws, Tor is a better option since VPN providers still have to be registered, pay taxes, and comply with legislation. But if you simply want to ensure your anonymity and secure access when traveling or working from home, VPN is your choice.
Interesting fact: when companies had to transition to working remotely due to COVID-19, using VPN tools helped their employees ensure smooth and safe remote access to mission-critical systems from their homes.
Tor and VPN FAQ
We frequently get asked questions about Tor and VPN here at Clario, so here’s a handy FAQ guide to help you.
Q: Is Tor a VPN service?
A: No. Tor is a browser that allows surfing the net anonymously.
Q: Does the Tor browser hide your IP?
A: Yes. The exit node of the Tor browser does not know the IP address of your machine, only the destination of your request.
Q: Is Tor as good as a VPN?
A: It depends on your online activity. It is the best way to avoid censorship and ensure security but provides quite limited video viewing and web browsing experience.
Q: Can I use Tor instead of VPN?
A: Yes, you can but bear in mind that the connection speed will drop.
Q: What is Tor over VPN?
A: It means using both the Tor browser and a VPN. This combines the benefits of both: the entrance Tor node won’t know your IP address, and the VPN provider won’t know what you’re doing online. However, it also combines the downsides, such as slow browsing speed.
Q: Is Tor illegal?
A: While not strictly prohibited in most Western countries, Tor browser usage is not encouraged by major tech industry players. However, the Tor browser is illegal in some authoritarian countries.
Q: Does Clario offer a VPN?
A: As a matter of fact, we do! You can try out a VPN from Clario here.
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