Today, people are looking for ways to improve their level of privacy on the Internet. There are a couple of reasons, like the cyber-criminals, government spies, certain websites that are doing everything to track your online activities, and so on. Whatever your reason is for wanting to be better protected online, you might have thought what it's like to use Tor and a VPN together. In this guide, you will learn everything you have to know about the VPN + Tor combination.

This article will first explain Tor and VPN separately, and then you’ll see how the two perform in a pair so you can surf the Internet safely and anonymously.

What is a VPN?

A VPN ( Virtual Private Network) connects your device to a server somewhere online, and it allows you to surf the Internet by using the Internet connection of that server. In most cases, that server is located in another country, which means that it would appear that you’re living in that country, and you would get access to a lot of things that were unavailable to you before you had a VPN connection.

The advantages of using a VPN is getting access to geo-restricted websites, protecting your privacy from unreliable, public Wi-fi connections, being anonymous by hiding your real physical location, etc.

What is Tor?

Tor is a browser that is much like the regular browsers. It is quite easy to use, just like Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Opera, and so on. What makes the Tor browser different from all other browsers is that with this browser, your Internet connection is established through the Tor network. You can use Tor for free, and like the VPN, it will also help you to surf the Internet anonymously. When you're online using this browser, your traffic is going to be directed in a random fashion through a network of a couple of servers before it gets to its last destination. That way, your IP address, and online activity will practically be untraceable.

Tor is the shortened term, while Tor over Onion is the full term. Tor over Onion protects your online privacy with multiple layers of encryption.

Also, with this browser, you can get access to websites that you wouldn't normally have. These websites are called onion sites.  

How does Tor work, and is it safe?

The Tor browser is quite easy to use. First, you have to download this browser and install it on your device, whether it’s a smartphone, laptop, PC, or tablet. When you’re done with that, connect to the Internet. Then you will be able to surf the Internet with the Tor browser.

Here’s how it works. Your data immediately becomes encrypted, and it's contained in multiple layers, even before you enter the Tor network, and it is routed via a couple of servers that are known as nodes. When your data passes through a node, one encrypted layer is cut off, and the location of the following node is known. The final encrypted node or the exit node is cut off, and your data has reached its destination. 

This browser is successful when it comes to hiding your IP address. It also makes your traffic practically untraceable. So, Tor is quite good at maintaining your safety on the Internet.

Are VPN and Tor Good Enough As Single Solutions?

On their own, VPN and Tor are good enough and effective, but the truth is, they’re not 100% effective when they are used as a single solution. So, should Tor and VPN both run at the same time? This question raises some controversy. Some people think they should both, while some think it the opposite.
Now, we will explain to you two ways to combine Tor and VPN and the pros and cons of both methods.

Tor over VPN

Here's how this works. First, you establish an Internet connection by using a Virtual Private Network, and after that, you access Tor. It's safe to say that there are a lot of benefits when using this method. One of the advantages is that is quite easy to do. Just like we said, just connect to a server with your VPN and then access Tor.

Tor over VPN will give you an additional layer of protection. Therefore, your privacy will not be endangered in any way, whether by some hackers or other third parties. You should know that there is a handful of VPNs that even offer the Tor browser as a part of their pricing plans. This means that you can access Tor without even having to use the Tor browser.

So, particular VPN brands like ExpressVPN that offer Tor service as a part of their packages will route your Internet traffic through their own server and then through the network of the Tor browser. VPNs like ExpressVPN can protect your entire Internet traffic on your computer, tablet, PC, or laptop. 

Another advantage which this method provides to the users is that your personal data is encrypted by whatever Virtual Private Network you're using before you even access Tor. This makes your IP address basically untraceable. 

The Tor over VPN gives you extra privacy from the VPN service that you're using since your provider isn't able to see your online activity when you’re using Tor.

This method also has some disadvantages. One of those disadvantages is if your VPN provider doesn’t have a no-logs policy, then your VPN will know your IP address. Another disadvantage is that you’re not protected from the malicious exit nodes. You should know that a Tor bridge could be quite helpful when it comes to hiding Tor network use from your Internet service provider. But, the downside is that certain ISPs can detect your Tor traffic.

Follow these steps, and you'll be able to successfully set up Tor through a VPN:

    • Open your VPN, and connect to a server
    • Open the Tor browser, and click connect
    • Wait for a connection to be established
    • Surf the web anonymously

VPN over Tor

With this method, it is the opposite. First, you establish a connection with the Tor, and then you connect to your VPN provider. VPN over Tor is not an easy method, because you have to configure your VPN service with Tor.

The main reason why people use this particular method is that they can be protected from the harmful exit nodes. Your traffic or data is going to be encrypted by your VPN before it even enters the Tor network. With this method, you can also select any server location of your liking, which is another major benefit for using the VPN over Tor method.

Also, your VPN can't see your real IP address, because it is scrambled through the Tor network. Combined with an alternative payment method, like any cryptocurrency, the users will have an extra level of privacy.

Even though the VPN over Tor offers anonymity to users, your Internet service provider is able to see what you're connecting to via the Tor network.

Another disadvantage that comes from using this method is that VPN over Tor requires that a certain VPN provider must have support for this method, and there aren't many VPN services that have that kind of support. The reason behind this, is that a VPN service must have an access to Tor browser control so this method could work in reality. One of the VPN providers that have support for VPN over Tor is AirVPN. 

Harmful exit nodes

When you use a Tor browser, your Internet traffic has to go through something that’s called an exit node. This node acts as a gateway where Tor traffic that is unencrypted hits the Internet. The thing about the exit node is that anyone who runs it can spy on your traffic, which is definitely not good.

But, this isn't such a big problem, mainly because your identity is hidden by a couple of extra nodes that Internet traffic passes on the way to and back from this exit node. If the traffic, in any case, contains your personal information, this can easily be spotted by anyone who runs the exit node. These are malicious or harmful exit nodes.

Here are some tips to avoid these harmful exit nodes:

    • Staying on the Darkweb- the best method for avoiding these harmful exit nodes would be to not use them. By using the Tor network, your online activity will be encrypted, and you don't have to go back to the public Internet). But, this might be not practical, and we'll explain why. The Tor network, also known as the dark web happens to be significantly smaller than the public Internet. This means that there's a large possibility that you will not find something that you want to look up to.
    • Using HTTPS is highly recommended- there are a lot of websites on the Internet that use HTTPS. By using HTTPS, you will be more secure on the Internet. HTTPS is a default option in the Tor browser, for the websites that use HTTPS. You should know that onion websites do not use HTTPS. The reason is that your traffic is already encrypted while you use the Tor browser.
    • Use services that are anonymous- another way to improve your safety while using the Tor network is visiting websites that do not report your online activities.
    • Don’t use your personal info- you should avoid using any personal info while you’re visiting sites with the Tor browser. If you get in a discussion on a forum, do not use any personal information as well.
    • Stay away from logins- it is highly recommended that you don’t visit websites where you have to log in. Because if you send your personal info via Tor exit node, it is going to leave a trace, and anyone would be able to track down your accounts.
    • Use a Virtual Private Network with Tor- by doing this, you will be safe from the harmful exit nodes. A VPN will give you an extra layer of protection, and the harmful exit node won’t be able to know your true identity.

End-to-end Timing attacks

This attack can happen when someone correlates the time when you've connected to the Tor network, and by doing that, your online anonymity will be lost.

An example of this attack was when a student made a bomb threat while using Tor, but he was eventually caught because he was the only person using Tor while being connected to the public Harvard Wi-fi. But, if he used a VPN when he sent that bomb threat than the authorities would have to check everyone who used a VPN while being connected to the Harvard network. This would take a great amount of time, and the perpetrator might not be caught.

Making a global end-to-end timing attack against someone who uses Tor would be very hard to do.

So, if someone uses this technique to attack, it would be best if you use Tor and VPN combined, because that way, you will be more secure.

Which method is more superior?

Both of these two methods have their own pros and cons. But, out of the two, which is better?

The VPN over Tor method is known to provide more security to the users because your privacy and anonymity won't be at risk. Even the VPN provider that you’re using is unable to determine your real IP address. This method is also going to provide you protection against the harmful exit nodes.
You should know that if someone compromises your VPN service, it would mean that you could be a victim of an end-to-end timing attack. This would be very hard to do and would be practically impossible if your VPN service keeps logs.
The Tor over VPN is great because your VPN provider won't be able to track your online activity while you're using the Tor browser. The downside of using this method is that you are vulnerable to malicious exit nodes.

Both methods are fantastic, and everyone who wants to be 100% safe on the Internet should use both the VPN and Tor network.