If you’ve looked into how you can browse anonymously, you may have come across the idea of combining a VPN with Tor. That involves choosing, though, between VPN over Tor and Tor over VPN. Let’s go over what these terms mean and which you should use.
VPN Over Tor vs. Tor Over VPN
While both approaches do very different things, the idea behind them is the same: you combine Tor and VPN to get the best of both worlds. As we explain in our article comparing VPN and Tor, both have their strengths and weaknesses, and combining them should erase many of their weaknesses and improve their strengths.
However, theory and reality collide a little here. Due to the way these technologies work, you can’t combine them directly; you have to choose one of two options. Either you connect first to your VPN and then to the Tor network—Tor over VPN—or first to Tor and then to the VPN—VPN over Tor.
Tor Over VPN
Tor over VPN—though it may help you keep things straight if you think of it as “Tor through a VPN”—is the way to go if you want the security of a VPN but still need to use Tor to access the dark web. Going this route means you can still get access to these sites but don’t have to worry about the security implications of using Tor.
What are those implications? As cool as Tor is, there are some lingering doubts about how anonymous and secure it really is. Even if you use multiple nodes to reroute your connection, there is a risk of data leakage, let alone if you connect to a malicious node. And your connection could be entirely kosher, but using multiple hops will reduce your internet speed to a crawl, making your sojourn to Tor’s hidden services a frustrating experience.
You can get around these issues by connecting to a VPN before using Tor. The way it works is relatively simple: you open up your VPN, access a local server and from there open up the Tor browser. By doing this, you will encrypt your connection up to a more reliable standard, but, since Tor is last in the chain, dark web sites will still recognize your connection as coming from Tor and thus let you in.
VPN Over Tor
Dark web sites won’t recognize your connection, though, when using a VPN over Tor, or connecting to Tor before engaging your VPN. When you do this, you lose the ability to connect to .onion sites, but you do gain a greater deal of anonymity as you’re effectively masking your location from your VPN.
Using VPN over Tor is useful if you don’t trust your VPN service, say in the case of using a dodgy free VPN, or to make sure your internet service provider (ISP) can’t see you’re using a VPN—useful in countries that forbid the use of VPNs, like Russia or China. That said, your ISP can still see you’re using Tor, which may still land you into hot water.
Another point is that this will likely slow down your connection severely, especially if you multi-hop with Tor before using the VPN. On top of that, while you are hiding your browsing from your VPN, unless you signed up anonymously, the service still knows who you are. If you, for example, used a credit card to sign up, it seems pointless to hide your browsing from your VPN: they know who you are and they could, if the situation arose, disclose your identity to the authorities.
Deciding Between VPN Over Tor and Tor Over VPN
While both VPN over Tor and Tor over VPN have their uses, Tor over VPN is going to be the better pick for most people. It solves some of Tor’s security issues while still letting you connect to Tor’s hidden services. It’s so useful, in fact, that some VPNs offer it as a built-in feature. The two best examples are NordVPN and ProtonVPN, but there are others, too.
VPN over Tor, though, is a little less useful. Its most important function is to shield you from your VPN’s view, which raises the question why you’re using a VPN you don’t trust in the first place. If privacy is a major concern for you, you’re much better off signing up to a privacy-conscious VPN like Mullvad or IVPN than messing around with Tor setups.