How To Use Tor Browser: Everything You MUST Know in 2021
If you’re thinking about using Tor Browser to protect your privacy online, there are some important things to keep in mind. Although this is one of the best ways to ensure digital anonymity, it’s not perfect – so before you connect, make sure you know what to expect.
For starters, if you want to browse the dark web with the highest possible level of safety and privacy, you’ll need to use Tor in combination with a VPN. While Tor does a lot to maintain your anonymity, some online threats can only be avoided by using a VPN.
My top choice for this purpose is ExpressVPN, which has features designed with Tor users in mind. Read more about why ExpressVPN is the top choice for Tor below.
What Is Tor Browser?
Tor is free, open-source software that helps you stay anonymous online. At first glance, it operates just like a normal web browser. But beneath the surface, there’s a lot more going on. Tor randomly directs all your traffic through a network of servers around the world, wrapping it in several layers of encryption to keep it safe from prying eyes.
You can think of this encryption like the layers of an onion; in fact, Tor actually stands for “The Onion Router.” Its network can be accessed through Tor Browser, which allows you to keep your activity, identity, and location hidden as you browse the web – with some caveats.
If you’re wondering how to use Tor Browser, you’ll be happy to know that it’s relatively simple. All you have to do is download and install the current version for your operating system, and then use it like any other web browser.
Do not download Tor Browser from any source other than the official Tor website.
To get Tor Browser, you’ll need to wait for the software to download, then save and set it up on your device. This process is just like installing any other software, so it shouldn’t present any issues. Once it’s installed, just open the browser and wait for it to connect to the network.
However, even Tor’s highest level of security can’t guard against every threat. In order to maximize your privacy and fully protect yourself from malicious attacks, you’ll need a reliable VPN. My personal recommendation is ExpressVPN, because it’s super fast and has its own.onion site in the Tor network.
If you want to use Tor Browser with a VPN, there are a few extra steps to get started, which I’ll explain below.
How To Use Tor Browser to Access the Dark Web
The dark web is a hidden part of the internet where you can access information anonymously. Tor allows you to browse the dark web, including sites created specifically for it. For example, The New York Times and the CIA now have “onion” versions of their sites that you can access through Tor.
The dark web is often thought of as a haven for illegal activity and shady transactions. And while there’s much more to it than that, the fact that nothing is tracked does make it easier for those with bad intentions to take advantage of unaware users. Other than exercising common sense, the best way to protect yourself from these dangers is by using Tor with a VPN.
To find the sites you’re looking for – and avoid falling into a scam – you’ll need to do some research. Onion sites aren’t indexed by Google, but you can find directories of them online. Just make sure that you double-check each URL before you visit it, and then check it again.
Once you’ve identified and verified the URLs of the sites you want to visit, using Tor Browser to access the dark web is easy. Think of it like any other browser – but remember to keep your guard up and never volunteer information that might compromise your privacy.
To learn more, check out our article on what the dark web is and how to access it.
Is Tor Browser a VPN?
No, Tor Browser is not a VPN. First of all, the main purpose of Tor is to maintain anonymity, while the main purpose of a VPN is to protect privacy. Those two things might sound similar, but they’re not the same. And although both Tor and VPNs are tools to maximize your security online, they accomplish this in different ways.
When you use a VPN, all of your data is secured with end-to-end encryption. It’s then directed through a safe channel to a remote server, which connects you to the website you’re trying to visit. (If you’re interested in learning more about VPNs and why we like them so much, see our ultimate beginner’s guide to VPNs.)
If you’re using a VPN in combination with Tor, this means that not even your ISP can see that you’re on the Tor network. This is incredibly important – especially in countries with strict online censorship. While Tor itself isn’t illegal, you could get flagged for suspicious activity if someone discovers that you’re using it.
Tor Browser operates on a totally different system from that of a VPN, and protects your privacy in a highly unique way.
How Does Tor Browser Work?
Tor Browser uses several complex steps to protect your data. First, the data is wrapped in layers of encryption. Then it’s routed through a random relay and encrypted again, and the process is repeated across a decentralized network of nodes.
Each time your data passes through one of the network’s nodes, a layer of encryption is removed to reveal the location of the next relay. When you reach the final relay, or exit node, the last layer of encryption is removed and your data is sent to its ultimate destination.
Each relay only decrypts enough data to reveal the location of the previous and following relays, every path is randomly generated, and none of the relays are recorded. Tor also deletes your browsing history and cookies for you after each session.
This makes it nearly impossible for your activity to be traced back to you – total anonymity achieved, right?
Well, almost. There are still a few points of vulnerability in the system, but you can cover many of them by using a VPN together with Tor.
How Secure Is Tor Browser?
While Tor provides a much higher level of anonymity than a regular web browser, it’s not 100% secure. Your location will be hidden and your traffic can’t be tracked, but certain people can still see your browsing activity – at least part of it.
The volunteers who operate each server that your data passes through are anonymous, so you never know who’s running things behind the scenes. This isn’t usually an issue, since each of them can only see the location of the preceding and following relays… except for the last one.
The final relay, called the exit node, removes the final layer of data encryption. It can’t access your original location or IP address, but the exit node can spy on your activity if you visit an unsecured website. One way to avoid this is by using the VPN over Tor method.
Remember: Even on Tor Browser, you have to be careful not to identify yourself or your location voluntarily (by releasing your name, email address, or other information).
What Are the Disadvantages of Tor Browser?
Apart from some security issues, the main disadvantage of Tor is that it’s super slow. This is a natural consequence of the fact that your data has to travel through several relays before reaching its destination. That’s the price you pay for anonymity.
Because of this, I don’t recommend that you use Tor Browser for streaming or downloading. Its founders also strongly discourage torrenting – not only because of speed, but also because it can expose your IP address and compromise your privacy.
If you really want to stream or torrent while maintaining privacy, I would recommend a VPN instead of Tor (see our best VPNs for torrenting anonymously here).
Another disadvantage of using the Tor network is that it can draw unwanted attention to you. Although your ISP can’t see your activity, it can see that you’re connected to Tor. This may be enough to raise suspicion, and could even turn you into a target for government surveillance.
In addition, it’s important to remember that Tor Browser is just that: a browser. It can’t encrypt any of your other activity, so if you’re using other apps you won’t have any extra protection. This is another reason why I suggest combining Tor with a VPN to cover all your bases.
Using Tor Browser with a VPN
Both Tor Browser and VPNs can help you stay anonymous and maintain privacy online – but nothing beats using them in combination. The main reason to do this is that the addition of a VPN can cover some of the vulnerabilities and security faults in the Tor system.
For example, if you don’t want your ISP to know you’re using Tor, or you don’t want the entry and exit nodes to be able to see your IP address, your best bet is to use a VPN at the same time.
There are two main ways to combine Tor with a VPN, each of which has its pros and cons. The method you choose will depend primarily on your security priorities. I’ll explain the arguments for each option below.
Tor over VPN
With this method – also called “Onion over VPN” – you connect to a VPN first and then access the Tor network through it. This is the easiest way to combine both tools; all you have to do is open Tor like you would any other browser. For most people, it will provide more than enough security and privacy.
When you use Tor over VPN, the VPN encrypts your data and hides your IP address, routing your traffic through one of its secure servers before connecting to the Tor network. This means that all of your traffic — not just your browser activity — is protected, and Tor’s volunteer-operated servers cannot access your IP address.
Another benefit is that your ISP won’t be able to see that you’re using Tor, since VPNs hide your activity from them. And on top of that, your VPN provider won’t be able to see your activity within the Tor network.
That said, if your VPN service keeps logs of your activity, they will be able to see your IP address and the fact that you’re using Tor. If you want to avoid this, be sure to choose a VPN that has a strict no-logs policy, like ExpressVPN.
There’s one other downside to Tor over VPN: it doesn’t protect you from malicious exit nodes, as your traffic is unencrypted by the time it reaches its destination.
VPN over Tor
The second method for combining Tor with a VPN is a bit more complicated. It involves connecting to the Tor network first, then going through your VPN. In order to do this, you’ll probably have to manually configure the VPN to allow it.
However, there’s one big advantage of this method: it protects you from malicious exit nodes. Instead of going directly from the exit node to the final destination, your data is routed from the exit node through a secure VPN server—so whoever is operating the node can’t see your IP address or any other information.
This makes the VPN over Tor method ideal for communicating sensitive information.
What’s more, it keeps your IP address hidden from your VPN provider, even if they log your activity (although with the best VPNs for Tor, this isn’t an issue anyway).
But there’s also a significant downside: your ISP – as well as outside parties such as government agencies – will still be able to see that you’re using Tor, even though your activity itself is hidden.
Note: Tor’s developers do not recommend the VPN over Tor method. If you can’t decide which one to use, I suggest going for Tor over VPN.
The Best VPN for Tor
If you decide to use a VPN in combination with Tor, it’s important to choose the right one. Not every VPN is designed for this purpose, but some have actually been built with Tor in mind.
I tested out all the major VPN providers that claim to work well with Tor, to see which ones actually live up to expectations. I looked for reliable and comprehensive security features, fast connection speeds, and wide networks of servers that let you browse with ease from anywhere in the world.
- Dedicated.onion site in the Tor network
- Military-grade encryption
- Never logs your activity
- Multiple security protocols, including OpenVPN
- More than 3,000 servers in 94 countries
- 30-day money-back guarantee
- Works with: Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, BBC iPlayer, HBO GO, Sling TV
- Compatible with: Tor Browser, Windows, macOS, Linux, iOS, Android, Chrome, Firefox, routers
ExpressVPN is another great service to use with Tor. The most obvious benefit is the fact that it has its own.onion site in the Tor network, which allows you to safely download the app even if you’re in a country where VPNs are banned.
The other advantage of ExpressVPN’s.onion site is that it removes the risk of malicious exit nodes, and makes it impossible for anyone to see your location.
ExpressVPN’s 256-bit encryption keeps you anonymous throughout the Tor network, including the entry and exit nodes. What’s more, its TrustedServer technology keeps every server’s software updated at all times. Each server deletes all stored data every time it reboots, so none of your information will ever be accessible to others.
You can choose from all kinds of security protocols, but I would recommend OpenVPN. ExpressVPN will never log your activity, and its kill switch will automatically disconnect you if the VPN server connection is compromised, preventing unexpected data leaks. For more details on this provider’s security features, check out our ExpressVPN review.
ExpressVPN is also lightning fast, especially if you choose a server that’s relatively close to your real location – and with over 3,000 options to choose from, you’ll never be too far from one.
You can connect up to 5 devices at once with a single subscription, and if anything goes wrong, you can always rely on the 24/7 live chat support.
The best part is that you can try out ExpressVPN risk-free (it’s backed by a 30-day money-back guarantee).
Is Tor Browser 100% safe?
While Tor does a lot to ensure your anonymity, it’s not 100% secure. There are a few faults in the system that could potentially expose your IP address or other information to unknown parties, and the fact that you’re using Tor won’t be hidden. You can avoid these security issues by using Tor in combination with a VPN. ExpressVPN is my top recommendation because it works smoothly with Tor and provides excellent connection speeds.
Is Tor Browser free?
Yes, Tor Browser is completely free to download and use. It’s also free to distribute without specific permission, as long as you follow the Tor Project’s license. Tor is partially funded by the US government, and its servers are entirely volunteer operated.
How do I install Tor?
To install Tor, all you have to do is go to the Tor project’s homepage and download the correct version for your operating system. It’s currently available for Windows, OS X, Linux, and Android. The installation process is just like that of any other software.
Can Tor activity be traced?
In most cases, Tor’s complex system of random relays makes it almost impossible for anyone to trace your activity. However, there are a few weak spots that may make you vulnerable by revealing your IP address or allowing other people to see that you’re using the Tor network. To guard against these threats, use a VPN in combination with Tor.
Can I use Tor Browser on my smartphone or tablet?
You can download Tor Browser for Android mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. If you have an iOS device, you’ll need to use the Onion Browser app instead, which works on a different system. It’s not exactly the same, but Tor’s developers recommend trying it out.
Why is Tor so slow?
When you use Tor, your traffic is sent through servers all over the world – so it’s no wonder that it takes a bit longer to browse. There are also other reasons why Tor is slow, like the fact that the network itself is small compared to the number of people who use it. Tor’s developers are working to address these issues and improve speed.
Should I use a VPN with Tor?
If you want to maximize your anonymity, privacy, and security, you should always use a VPN with Tor. This adds extra layers of protection and can reduce the risk of malicious exit nodes or other third parties tracking your location. It can also keep people from seeing that you’re using Tor. Check out our list of the best VPNs for Tor.
Is it safe to use Tor without a VPN?
Tor itself is very safe and provides a high level of anonymity. But it’s definitely not perfect, and can leave you vulnerable to a range of security threats if you’re not careful. In some cases, it may be possible for people to identify your IP address and to see that you’re using Tor (even if they can’t see what you’re doing on it). These dangers can easily be avoided with the addition of a VPN, which covers Tor’s main security faults. ExpressVPN offers solid security features and a strict no-logs policy.
What is the deep web?
The deep web refers to all the websites that can’t be reached through a search engine. It includes sites on the dark web, but it also includes everyday sites like business intranets, databases, online banking platforms, and more. Anything that requires authentication for access is part of the deep web.
What is the dark web?
The dark web is a specific part of the deep web that can’t be found on Google or accessed through a regular browser – to see it, you have to use Tor. It includes websites that don’t have normal URLs, often called “onion sites.” Many organizations and companies have their own onion sites to guarantee anonymity and circumvent censorship. Find out more about the dark web here.
Are there any alternatives to Tor?
There are a few alternatives to Tor Browser, such as Freenet and the Invisible Internet Project (I2P). They operate on similar principles in order to guarantee anonymity, but you can’t use them to access.onion sites. If you want to access the dark web securely and confidently, the combination of Tor and a VPN is definitely the best way to do so.
The Bottom Line
Despite its flaws, Tor Browser is a powerful and effective tool for protecting your privacy online. Combining the anonymity that Tor provides with the security guaranteed by a VPN gives you the best of both worlds when it comes to online security.
If you’re looking for a trustworthy and reliable VPN to increase your privacy online, my top pick is definitely ExpressVPN. It’s lightning-fast, incredibly secure, and even has a dedicated.onion site to simplify setup.
To explore all your options, check out our list of the top 8 VPNs for Tor Browser.
Here Is the Best VPN for Tor in 2021
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