Using either the Tor network or a Virtual Private Network (VPN) as a standalone service will have its benefits and drawbacks. Both encrypt your internet traffic, but due to the way they work, they each fall short of providing complete privacy.
A solution is to combine forces and use a VPN alongside Tor. This gives you double encryption and solves some of the privacy issues inherent in the standalone tools.
In this post, I discuss the benefits of using a VPN and Tor together and reveal the different ways you can set them up.
Why use a VPN with Tor?
When you connect to the internet via the Tor network, you can browse anonymously and gain access to sites that are not available via the clear web. Often called “Tor” for short, the Tor network encrypts your internet traffic, which means that if anyone intercepts it, they won’t be able to decipher its contents. Tor traffic travels through at least three random nodes (which are actually volunteer computers and may also be called relays) before reaching the destination website.
When you use Tor alone, your Internet Service Provider (ISP) and any snoopers such as government agencies can detect that you’re using Tor. Utilizing Tor itself isn’t illegal and the network has many legitimate uses, such as providing an anonymous forum for journalists, whistleblowers, law enforcement and military agencies, victims of crime, and anyone else who can benefit from a high level of privacy.
That said, there are many illegitimate uses for Tor and the network has a bad reputation. So much so that just connecting to the Tor network may raise a flag with law enforcement or government agencies. Governments in some countries go as far as to have ISPs block Tor traffic entirely.
This is where a VPN comes in handy as it will mask your internet traffic, hiding the fact it’s going through the Tor network. This means that only your VPN provider will be able to see you’re using Tor. A VPN routes your traffic through a secondary server in a location of your choice and your real IP address is replaced with one from that server. The VPN also adds an extra layer of encryption, further securing your traffic.
How to use a VPN with Tor
When setting up a VPN with Tor, there are two possible configurations:
- Tor over VPN: Connect to the VPN and then open Tor
- VPN over Tor: Open Tor and then connect to the VPN
While VPN over Tor sounds simple enough, it’s actually far from straightforward. You will need to check with your VPN provider to see if this setup is possible and if so, exactly how to set it up. Here I’ll focus on the more popular setup of Tor over VPN.
Here’s how to set up Tor over VPN:
- Subscribe to a reputable VPN service. I recommend NordVPN.
- Select a server and wait for a connection to be established.
- Open the Tor browser.
- You can now browse the web privately.
Because Tor tends to drastically slow down your internet speeds, ideally, you should choose the fastest VPN server available. If your VPN doesn’t provide server speed information, then your best bet is to go with a geographically close server.
Note that with this setup, only your Tor browser traffic will be routed through the Tor network, although there are ways to configure other individual applications to work with Tor.
How to decide which Tor and VPN setup to use
To understand which option is best for your situation, let’s look at each in more detail. Note that in both cases, your traffic is encrypted by both the VPN and Tor.
Tor over VPN
When you connect to the VPN first, once traffic is encrypted, it goes to the VPN server and then through the Tor network. Tor over VPN is preferable if you’re looking to access .onion sites and/or want to hide the fact you’re using Tor.
Here are the main pros and cons of this setup:
- Your ISP can’t see you’re using Tor
- The Tor entry node can’t see your real IP address
- You can access .onion sites
- Neither your ISP or the VPN can see your traffic
- Setup is simple
- You can choose what traffic goes through the Tor network
- Destination websites can see you’re using Tor
- Your VPN can see your real IP address
- You can’t access sites that block Tor traffic
- A compromised Tor exit node could see your traffic
Some VPNs offer Tor over VPN as a feature built into apps. NordVPN is one example. An advantage of using this built-in feature is that all traffic is routed through the Tor network, not just Tor browser traffic. A downside, however, is that it’s theoretically possible for your VPN provider to analyze your traffic, so you really need to have trust in your chosen provider.
VPN over Tor
When you connect to Tor first, after encryption, your traffic goes through the Tor network then the VPN server. This configuration can be useful if you want to anonymously access sites that block Tor traffic.
This setup comes with the following pros and cons:
- Websites can’t see you’re using Tor
- Your VPN can’t see your real IP address
- You can access sites that block Tor traffic
- Neither your ISP or the VPN can see your traffic
- Compromised Tor exit nodes can’t see your traffic
- Your ISP can see you’re using Tor
- The Tor entry node can see your real IP address
- You can’t access .onion sites
- It’s complex to set up
- You can’t choose which traffic goes through the Tor network
Should I use Tor bridges instead of a VPN?
Tor bridges are similar to relays (nodes) but they aren’t included in the Tor directory. Because bridges aren’t made public, traffic that goes through them is far less likely to be blocked. As such, a Tor bridge is useful for users who are unable to use the Tor network via regular relays.
While this sounds like a good solution, setting up a Tor bridge can be a pain. First, you need to find one that will work for your situation. Some bridges are made public which means there’s a higher chance that anyone censoring Tor traffic will have already blocked them. To find a bridge that’s more likely to work, you’ll need to request it by sending an email.
Bridges take several steps to configure and the setup is more complex than using a VPN. Plus, if a bridge doesn’t work, you’ll need to repeat the process until you find one that does.
Can I use a free VPN with Tor?
When looking for a VPN to use with Tor, you’ll undoubtedly come across many free offerings. I recommend that you opt for a paid, privacy focused VPN.
Free VPNs tend to lack the privacy and security standards that come with their paid counterparts. When you use a VPN with Tor, or at any time, in fact, you’re trusting that the VPN itself isn’t monitoring your traffic or keeping logs of personally identifiable information.
The problem is that the business models of free VPNs are often built on data harvesting (including user IP address and sites visited) meaning that they generally can’t be relied upon to protect your privacy. Free VPNs are also notoriously unsecure with many lacking strong encryption and some not providing any encryption at all.
Free services tend to perform poorly on the speed front too. They have a ton of users sharing a small selection of servers, resulting in very slow speeds. Your speeds will already be very slow, just from using the Tor browser itself, so you really need a fast VPN for browsing to be at all practical.
When you opt for a reliable paid VPN for Tor, you know you’ll be getting solid security and strong performance.