VPN vs. Tor: learn which to choose and when

Anton P. | September 29, 2023

VPN vs. Tor is a showdown between two security and privacy-oriented solutions. While they carry similar goals, their paths to achieving them differ. 

For one, Tor is a browser mainly focusing on your web activities. A VPN can also have browser extensions for guarding web activities. However, most VPNs have VPN clients dedicated to specific operating systems. 

You can settle the VPN vs. Tor dilemma by determining how both options work. Then, you will know which solution to choose for which occasion! 

Learn how to settle the VPN vs. Tor question.

What Tor browser is 

Tor (short for The Onion Router) is a browser that provides more security and privacy. It blocks ads and resists popular online practices like browser fingerprinting

Of course, the Tor browser is also notorious as a tool for accessing the dark web. However, such assumptions can diminish its potential to protect your online activities. 

How Tor routing works 

Tor connections and their flows present a few technical processes. Here, we divide each component into convenient points: 

  • The Tor network consists of thousands of Tor nodes run by volunteers. You can imagine nodes as VPN servers scattered in different parts of the world. 
  • When you access websites via the Tor browser, your traffic passes through random nodes. 
  • Additionally, the onion routing applies multiple layers of encryption and bouncing between nodes to offer more anonymity. 
  • Tor hides your IP address, but the IP address you get is random. However, it is possible to have more control over the IP address. It requires adding custom entry and exit nodes to configuration files.

What do onions have to do with Tor? 

Onion routing is a technique Tor uses to support more anonymous activities. It means that Tor hides your accurate information between multiple layers, hence the onion metaphor. 

The encrypted traffic goes through multiple nodes, each lifting away one layer. The revealed data shows the next data destination. 

When the information reaches the exit node, you get its IP address, and your request travels to its destination (say, website). 

Onion routing manages to conceal your information, with nodes only knowing the location of preceding and following nodes. 

When to use Tor 

The general use case of the Tor browser is more private and anonymous browsing. Here are the occasions when you can rely on Tor: 

  • Journalists and other privacy-seekers can use it to access the internet. 
  • Tor is an excellent help to people seeking to escape repression or censorship. 
  • When you want to be more private online, possibly slower browsing is not an issue. 
  • When looking for a browser that likely offers the best conditions for private browsing (despite slowdowns).
  • When you need to access .onion websites

What a VPN is 

A VPN (Virtual Private Network) is an application working on the operating system level. Thus, all the protection applies to all internet traffic, not just web traffic (unless you use VPN browser extensions). 

It encrypts and reroutes traffic through a VPN server in a user’s selected location. Thus, you have complete control over what country/city your IP address indicates. 

Private Christmas & a safe New Year!


How a VPN works 

We can divide VPN processes into several steps: 

  • Users download and install VPN clients on their devices, like Windows or Android.
  • They connect to preferred VPN servers, in full control over the location of their new IP address. 
  • A VPN adds a layer of encryption and security to all activities, including browsers and other apps. 
  • Private companies usually own VPNs and manage all offered remote servers. 

When to use a VPN

A VPN can assist you in various situations, improving your experience in multiple ways: 

  • Use a VPN when changing your IP address to a particular location. 
  • It lets you access local content back home when abroad. 
  • A VPN can prevent type-based throttling from your Internet Service Providers.
  • Modern VPNs also provide better connection speeds and minimal or no slowdowns. 

VPN vs. Tor: main differences and comparison

Here are the main differences between a VPN and Tor browser: 

  • Tor is a browser, while a VPN works on the operating system level. Thus, a VPN reroutes all internet traffic, while Tor focuses on web traffic.
  • Tor has a decentralized network of nodes, which means it does not have a central power overseeing everything. VPNs usually belong to private companies, and they manage all VPN servers.
  • Tor reroutes traffic through multiple nodes, while a VPN usually traverses data through one server. 

The following table contains a comparison of a VPN and Tor:

Criteria VPN Tor browser
Security Secure. Modern VPNs follow advanced encryption and rerouting strategies. Secure. Tor browser is secure thanks to onion routing.
Centralized/decentralizedMost VPNs are centralized, managing all servers.Tor uses a decentralized network of nodes from volunteers.
FlexibilityVPNs can make some limited changes to their connections, like VPN protocols.Tor has multiple configuration possibilities.
LogsTrusted VPNs follow no-logs policies.Tor states not to keep any logs that could identify users.
SpeedVPNs are usually faster as traffic passes through one server. Tor is slower due to traversing traffic through multiple nodes.
Traffic protectionVPNs can protect the entire internet traffic.Tor protects web traffic and can protect other configured apps.
Support The VPN compatibility depends on which devices a VPN service supports.Tor works as a browser for desktop and mobile devices.
Suitability for daily useA VPN can support daily activities without diminishing speed.Tor can slow down daily activities.
PriceMost VPNs work on subscription models.Tor is free to download.
User-friendlinessVPNs offer easy-to-use applications. Tor is easy to use unless users want to perform additional configurations.
IP changeUsers can choose the location for their IP address.IP change with Tor is random unless configured differently.

Decentralized VPNs

Decentralized VPNs do not have a single entity governing their server networks. Contributors offer their IP addresses and bandwidth to users connecting to their VPN servers. 

Thus, decentralized VPNs resemble the node system offered by Tor. However, such VPN services have their risks. 

Tor-like features on VPNs 

Some VPNs offer Tor-like features of rerouting traffic through multiple servers. For instance, Atlas VPN offers two features for this purpose: 

  • SafeSwap performs IP address rotation, meaning your IP changes as you browse. The IP automatically changes as you move between online sessions. This frequent rotation makes it even more difficult for online entities to track users. 
  • MultiHop+ chooses a random exit server from a pool of VPN servers in different locations. The IP addresses rotate as you browse. The feature also performs double encryption, ensuring even more robust security.

Premium Atlas VPN users can enjoy SafeSwap and MultiHop+ features on Atlas VPN apps for Windows, Android, iOS, macOS, and Linux.

Can you use Tor and VPN at the same time? 

It is possible to use a VPN and Tor at the same time. Some experts name it as a way of concealing your real IP address from the first node. However, others warn users that using this double protection could interfere with the received security. 

Thus, it is best to know how to configure a VPN and Tor to work in your favor. In general, we recommend using one solution at a time. 

Concluding VPN vs. Tor discussion 

The VPN vs. Tor debate does not end with favoring one option over the other fully. We believe Tor to be a useful way for users to get more privacy online. However, slower internet speeds might interfere with Tor’s potential for daily use. 

Thus, Tor might be more suitable for times when it is highly important to preserve your privacy. The multiple relays in different countries are excellent for this purpose. 

On the other hand, a VPN is more suitable for daily or more frequent usage in general. It reroutes traffic through the server unless special features are available. Thus, it offers more security while also preserving your browsing speed.

Anton P.

Anton P.

Former chef and the head of Atlas VPN blog team. He's an experienced cybersecurity expert with a background of technical content writing.



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