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vpnMentor was established in 2014 to review VPN services and cover privacy-related stories. Today, our team of hundreds of cybersecurity researchers, writers, and editors continues to help readers fight for their online freedom in partnership with Kape Technologies PLC, which also owns the following products: ExpressVPN, CyberGhost, and Private Internet Access which may be ranked and reviewed on this website. The reviews published on vpnMentor are believed to be accurate as of the date of each article, and written according to our strict reviewing standards that prioritize professional and honest examination of the reviewer, taking into account the technical capabilities and qualities of the product together with its commercial value for users. The rankings and reviews we publish may also take into consideration the common ownership mentioned above, and affiliate commissions we earn for purchases through links on our website. We do not review all VPN providers and information is believed to be accurate as of the date of each article.
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vpnMentor was established in 2014 to review VPN services and cover privacy-related stories. Today, our team of hundreds of cybersecurity researchers, writers, and editors continues to help readers fight for their online freedom in partnership with Kape Technologies PLC, which also owns the following products: ExpressVPN, CyberGhost, and Private Internet Access which may be ranked and reviewed on this website. The reviews published on vpnMentor are believed to be accurate as of the date of each article, and written according to our strict reviewing standards that prioritize professional and honest examination of the reviewer, taking into account the technical capabilities and qualities of the product together with its commercial value for users. The rankings and reviews we publish may also take into consideration the common ownership mentioned above, and affiliate commissions we earn for purchases through links on our website. We do not review all VPN providers and information is believed to be accurate as of the date of each article.

How to Access the Dark Web Safely in 2024: An Easy Guide

Christine Johansen Updated on 29th November 2023 Fact-checked by Christine Johansen Senior Editor

The dark web is the most controversial part of the internet. It’s generally portrayed as an evil, hidden place where criminals communicate and engage in illegal activities away from the law. Although that’s partially true, there are plenty of good reasons to access the dark web, and a major benefit is anonymity.

You cannot access the dark web through conventional browsers and search engines — it’s only accessible with special browsers like Tor. This decentralized browser has unique configurations to mask your identity and make it harder for anyone to see your online activities.

Quick Guide: How to Access the Dark Web Safely in 3 Easy Steps

  1. Download the Tor browser. This specialized browser allows you to access dark websites, which can't be done with a standard browser. For safety purposes, only download the browser from Tor's official website.
  2. Set up the connection. Configure Tor based on your security preferences, then click on the connect button and wait for Tor to connect you to the node network. You can find the complete setup guide here.
  3. Access the dark web. Type in the onion address of your desired site, or use dark web search engines to find different sites on the dark web.

Pro Tip: Use a VPN With Tor

While Tor is designed to give you privacy while browsing the dark web, it’s not entirely safe. There might be malicious nodes with the Tor network, and there’s always the risk of your IP address leaking. Third parties like your ISP can also see when you access Tor and report it to the authorities, even if you’re not doing anything illegal. It’s essential to have additional security measures in place when using Tor.

The best way to stay anonymous on the dark web is to use a VPN with Tor. This easy-to-use app encrypts your internet traffic, rerouting it through its private servers and concealing your IP address. This hides your personal data from prying eyes, hackers, trackers, and other cyber threats associated with the dark web.

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Editors' Note: ExpressVPN and this site are in the same ownership group.

What is the Dark Web?

The dark web is the 3rd layer of the internet, after the surface web and deep web. Here’s a general explanation of what you can find on each layer:

The Surface Web

The surface web — or clean web — is the part of the internet you can access anytime using mainstream browsers (like Chrome, Firefox, Safari, etc.). It includes any page that you can find with a simple Google search. However, your access is limited to the information that the website's administrator permits you to see. You can't access the backend files, account pages, or archives.

Take online stores like eBay as an example. You can freely browse products on the surface web. But to see your personal account details or to make a purchase, you need to log in. Once you log in, you're moving beyond the surface web and into the deep web.

The Deep Web

The deep web is the private layer, and it’s often password-protected. It’s the biggest part of the web, taking up about 96% of the internet. Deep web pages can’t be accessed through a simple search, as search engines do not index them — it’s a layer of the internet only accessible to people with a specific link or login credentials.

This category includes cloud drives, account pages on different websites, medical records, credit card information, reports, etc. You often need a specific URL and a password to access pages on the deep web. For example, your company database would be on the deep web.

The dark web and the deep web are not the same, although people often use these two terms interchangeably.

The Dark Web

The dark web is the third layer of the internet and the hardest to find. It consists of websites that use the “.onion” top-level domain instead of “.com”, “.net”, etc. You can’t access “.onion” sites through regular browsers like Chrome and Firefox.

While the surface and deep web can be accessed this way, the dark web requires special software. Tor (The Onion Router) is the most commonly used browser for the dark web; however, it’s also accessible through networks like Freenet, Riffle, and I2P. You can find both legal and illegal websites/activities on the dark web, as it isn’t regulated in any way.

The Onion Router (Tor) and other dark web browsers offer some protection, but this is limited. Tor passes your traffic through a series of relays called “nodes” so that it’s harder to trace. So, even though your ISP can’t see your specific activity, they can see that you’re using the dark web. This might look suspicious, even if you’re using it for legal purposes. There are also plenty of cyber threats associated with the dark web — like hackers, viruses, and the potential of malicious parties operating certain nodes.

How to Access the Dark Web Safely

Accessing the dark web can be risky, but with the right tools and precautions, it is possible to navigate this part of the internet safely. Below, we list the 4 ways you can protect yourself when accessing the dark web:

Secure web browsers

You cannot access the dark web using regular browsers like Chrome, Edge, or Safari. You must use a secure web browser that prioritizes privacy and security and can access onion sites.

The best browser for accessing the dark web safely is the Tor browser. Tor is designed to anonymize your online activity by encrypting your data and bouncing it through a network of volunteer-operated nodes worldwide. This makes it difficult for anyone to track your internet connection or identify your location. Tor browser also blocks plugins, JavaScript, and other potentially harmful elements by default, enhancing your security while browsing the dark web.

Screenshot showing the Tor interface as it establishes a connection to the networkFor quick access to the dark web, you can configure Tor to connect automatically after launching it

Besides Tor, there are other browsers you can use to access the dark web, but they offer different levels of accessibility and security and have smaller node networks.

IP2 is faster than Tor and offers stronger peer-to-peer security, as it uses one-way tunnels to encrypt traffic — meaning, only inbound or outbound traffic could be intercepted, not both. In addition, it uses a distributed network database which is harder to attack than Tor’s fixed, trusted Directory servers.

However, you won’t be able to use I2P to access as many sites as Tor. You can only access its specific sites (called “eepsites”). In addition, it’s a bit more difficult to configure; after downloading and installing, you’ll also have to manually configure it through the router, individual applications, and/or browser proxy settings.

Freenet is another Tor alternative, but more of an anonymous place for peer-to-peer content sharing. Users can form their own private groups for content sharing, called darknet mode. Or, they can use opennet mode to be randomly assigned to other peers on the network. Like I2P, it uses a distributed network database for added assurance against cyber attacks.

Freenet is simple — you just download and install it. It runs automatically in your web browser when you open it, so I recommend using a different browser than you normally do to ensure privacy. You don’t need a server to upload content to Freenet, as long as your content is popular, it will remain. But, like I2P, Freenet won’t give you access to.onion links — only content uploaded to Freenet.

Use a VPN

Even with Tor, third parties can track your activities and uncover your identity and location. It would help to use a VPN alongside the Tor browser to add an extra layer of security and anonymity.

A VPN encrypts your internet traffic and masks your IP address, making it harder for anyone to trace your online activities. Even if someone uses malicious nodes on the Tor network to uncover your IP address, they'll only see the VPN IP instead of your real one.

A VPN also helps protect your privacy by preventing your ISP from monitoring your connection. I recommend choosing a premium VPN with a verified no-logs policy that's based in a privacy-friendly country and offers high-level encryption, IP/DNS leak protection, and a kill switch. Remember to connect to a VPN server before launching the Tor browser for maximum security.

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Dark web search engines

You cannot find dark websites by simply searching for them on Google or other conventional search engines. You need specialized search engines that index dark web content. The most popular search engine for the dark web is DuckDuckGo's "onion service." It allows users to search the dark web without compromising their anonymity. However, it’s only accessible via Tor.

Screenshot of the Tor browser homepage showing DuckDuckGo as the default search engineYou can change the default search engine in Tor’s browser settings

Other popular dark web engines include Ahmia, Torch, and Not Evil. When using dark web search engines, it’s important to exercise caution and refrain from clicking on suspicious links or accessing illegal content.

Dark websites

Dark websites, also known as.onion sites, are websites that are only accessible through the Tor network. These sites use a different addressing system that ensures the anonymity of both the website operators and visitors. Dark websites can host a wide range of content, including legal and illegal information, forums, marketplaces, and more.

Dangers of the Dark Web

Due to the lack of regulations on the dark web, you are vulnerable to cyber threats any time you visit. These risks can be avoided when you are well-informed and know how to protect yourself against them.

Below are some of the most frequently encountered risks and measures you can take to protect yourself from them:

Potential malware

Browsing the dark web puts you at risk of cyberattacks such as DDoS attacks, botnets, and other malware or viruses. By simply entering the wrong URL or accidentally downloading a malicious file, you could install infectious viruses or malware. This can have a detrimental impact on your device or, even worse, expose your personal information.

To prevent these types of dangers, I recommend browsing the dark web with a direct goal in mind — research specific sites ahead of time and keep a list of links that you can trust.

Dangerous activities

The dark web is the home of many criminal activities — from the use of stolen or fake documents to drug and weapon dealing. What’s more, it’s a network that includes assassins for hire, child pornography, and even live streams of murders. If you accidentally end up on one of those pages, you may face legal charges should someone find out.

To avoid encountering disturbing or illegal situations, I advise against entering darknet sites before thoroughly researching them. I also recommend that you browse the dark web with complete anonymity by using a VPN — just to be safe.

Fraudulent sites

Hackers on the dark web can easily access your personal data using trojans, phishing, and other types of fraudulent websites or programs. Sometimes all it takes is a simple misclick before all the information stored on your computer gets leaked. Even worse — cybercriminals have been known to activate computer cameras and microphones to get live streams from unsuspecting victims.

Most URLs on the dark web have unrecognizable names, so it’s easy to fall for this trap — putting your private files, financial data, keystrokes, and other personal information at risk. My recommendation is to always use a VPN as you browse so that, in any case, your real information isn’t leaked.

Surveillance

In an attempt to stop criminal organizations operating on the dark web, authorities are setting up fake websites to track possible criminal activity. By doing this, they get access to whoever is visiting the sites — including you if you accidentally end up there. In some parts of the world, simply using a browser like Tor can get you flagged by these agencies, even if you don’t partake in illegal activity.

While Tor is an open-source project, your activity can still be traced back to your IP address. The best way to prevent your browsing activity from alerting authorities is to avoid sites with illegal activity altogether — another reason to only visit sites you’ve researched and trust.

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Additional Tips to Stay Safe on the Dark Web

To boost your overall safety while navigating the dark web, it's important to adhere to certain protective measures. The following are some recommended precautions to take:

  • Use antivirus software. This will add a layer of protection to help keep you and your devices safe from cyberattacks. Keep up with the software updates — if a newer version comes out and you’re still running an old version, it won’t be equipped to block the latest cyber threats.
  • Use a different email. Instead of using your actual email address, sign up for a different one you can use solely for your dark web activity. You can even get an encrypted email address — for example, through ProtonMail.
  • Keep your identity private. Don’t use your real photo, phone number, or name. Don’t share any personally identifiable information or sensitive data while on the dark web.
  • Use Bitcoin. Instead of using your personal credit cards, use Bitcoin — this offers an extra layer of anonymity when you make purchases on the dark web and protects you from having your financial information stolen. Also, exercise caution with services that demand upfront payment.
  • Only shop on trusted sites. Research the sites you plan to make purchases through ahead of time. Research vendors thoroughly, read user reviews, and be skeptical of any too-good-to-be-true deals. Consider using escrow services to mitigate the risk of scams.
  • Avoid add-ons. Tor automatically blocks some plug-ins (like Flash, RealPlayer, and Quicktime) — hackers have manipulated these to get users’ real IP addresses in the past since they are out of Tor developers’ control. Add-ons and browser extensions can also lead to tracking through browser fingerprinting.
  • Cover your camera and your microphone. You can do this with a bit of opaque tape. This protects you from cybercriminals attempting to hijack your device to collect unsolicited recordings of you.
  • Research sites before visiting them. Verify the reputation of a website or forum before accessing it, and only access links and websites you can trust. Subreddit sites like r/darkweb, r/tor can be helpful for this. Avoid suspicious or untrusted links that may lead to phishing sites or malware downloads. Additionally, don’t click on pop-ups, ads, or any suspicious requests.
  • Open your downloads offline. If you download a file from the dark web, disable the internet before opening it. Opening it while you're connected could potentially leak your real IP address.
  • Use a security-focused OS. TAILS is one example — I recommend running it from a removable drive. This way, hackers will have a hard time identifying your computer on the Tor network.
  • Disable JavaScript on your Tor browser. In 2013, hackers found a way to track users by accessing their session details, which JavaScript provided.
  • Don’t change the size of your Tor window. This can lead to someone tracking you through browser fingerprinting.

Is the Dark Web Illegal?

The dark web is legal in most countries. As long as you don’t engage in illegal activities, you shouldn’t have any problems. However, in countries with high censorship (like China or the UAE), accessing the dark web is entirely illegal — I strongly advise that you abide by the law of your country to avoid facing legal consequences.

Even if the dark web is legal in your country, you may be put under surveillance for simply using a dark web browser like Tor. Authorities use the dark web as a tool to catch criminals participating in illegal activities such as human trafficking, drug or weapon deals, and more. Here are some infamous criminal cases involving the dark web:

  • The Silk Road Case. This site was like the Amazon of the dark web. It started with a good cause in mind but ended up being a host for the sale of illegal goods — such as drugs, weapons, and forged paperwork. The person behind the website got caught because he promoted his website on the surface web using his real email address.
  • AlphaBay Case. This website continued where the Silk Road stopped — it sold and traded drugs, weapons, and other illegal products. The owner ended up getting caught because he used weak passwords, his real email address, zero encryption, and more.
  • The Ashley Madison Case. This one went viral. Ashley Madison was a website for extramarital affairs. Hackers released the information of people using this website, ruining a lot of lives. The hackers were never caught.

While such stories can cast the dark web in a negative light, it's worth noting that there are numerous legal and beneficial activities accessible through it. I advise sticking to well-known, reliable sites and taking extra precautions to ensure your security.

What Can I Do on the Dark Web?

There are many beneficial activities and resources available on the dark web, but it’s important to keep your identity anonymous nonetheless. Using Tor without precautions can make you vulnerable to several cyber threats, such as hackers, trackers, and malware. However, when you practice safety while visiting the dark web, you can enjoy its many positives, such as:

  • Free speech. The dark web gives people living in countries under heavy censorship a chance to communicate openly without risk of exposure.
  • Exposing criminals or corrupt public figures. Journalists and whistleblowers turn to the dark web as a safe place to share/receive anonymous tips online or investigate controversial situations.
  • Buying products cheaper. Some products can be found on the dark web for less money, such as electronics or security software — making purchases on the dark web is risky, so you should always use Bitcoin and buy from credible sources.
  • Research material. You can find free resources such as digital books and research papers on the dark web.
  • Communicating anonymously. There are online communities and support websites available on the dark web where you can get tips and advice without revealing your identity.
  • Get medical advice. If you’re experiencing symptoms or have a health concern, there are doctors available on the dark web that can offer you their expertise. This is especially helpful for those who want to keep their health concerns personal or simply don’t have the funds to visit a clinic.

Before engaging in any dark web activities, I recommend researching sites ahead of time — use your regular browser to look online and see which sites are reputable. There’s tons of information provided online by security experts recommending trustworthy.onion links.

Here are some safe and useful links for the dark web:

  • Daniel — a one-stop site that you can use to find other dark web pages by category or keyword and also check if they work.
  • ProPublica — here you can find excellent pieces of investigative journalism.
  • Hidden Answers — this is a dark web version of Quora where you can ask any question anonymously.
  • Imperial Library — if you love reading, this dark website is great for you. You can find thousands of free books of any genre here.
  • Hidden Wiki — this is another library of dark web links, but it’s not as useful as Daniel since its links don’t work sometimes.
  • SecureDrop — if you have some information that you want to share with a journalist, this is the website to visit.

Best VPNs to Access the Dark Web Safely in 2024

  1. ExpressVPN — Follows a strict no-logs policy and uses RAM-based servers that erase all your data upon reboot. Plus, it routes all your dark web traffic safely through its encrypted DNS servers, so no one can intercept or see your activity on the dark web. You can try it risk-free as it's backed by a 30-day money-back guarantee.
  2. CyberGhost — State-of-the-art security features like AES 256-bit encryption, DNS/IP leak protection and a kill switch keep your dark web activity from being exposed.
  3. Private Internet Access — Built-in MACE feature that blocks ads, trackers, and malware while surfing the dark web.

Editors' Note: Intego, Private Internet Access, CyberGhost and ExpressVPN are owned by Kape Technologies, our parent company.

FAQs on Accessing the Dark Web Safely

How Big is The Dark Web?

The dark web is estimated to make up just a tiny fraction of the internet. However, it’s difficult to accurately tell its actual size due to its hidden, decentralized, and constantly evolving nature. Its hidden nature makes it a bit challenging to access the dark web, but there are a few trusted ways.

Why Was The Dark Web Created?

The US military created the dark web to protect US intelligence communications online. It was later released to the public, where its ability to offer a high level of anonymity has led to various use cases. While it has legitimate uses, the dark web's anonymity also makes it a hotbed for illicit activities, contributing to its infamous reputation.

Can I access websites on the dark web on my phone, iPad, or Chromebook?

You can access Tor on your phone or iPad (not advised) — but not on Chromebook. Tor offers apps for both Android and iOS. However, these devices do not keep your data secure. Should you decide to access the dark web from your mobile phone, I highly encourage you to protect yourself with a VPN.

Android users will need to download Orbot and Orfox to access the dark web with their phones. Orbot will connect you to the Tor network, and Orfox is the actual browser that you will use.

For iOS users, you’ll need the Onion Browser app. Just remember to cover your camera and your speaker when you download these apps.

For Chromebook users — unfortunately, there isn’t an official Tor app available for ChromeOS at this time.

Are there Tor alternatives?

There are ways to access the dark web without Tor, but they offer different levels of accessibility and security. However, with any browser you use, there are risks involved in using the dark web so I advise that you browse with the added security of a VPN.

One separate network from Tor is I2P, which only lets you access its specific sites (called “eepsites” — you won’t be able to use I2P to access as many sites as Tor. In addition, it’s a bit more difficult to configure. On the other hand, I2P is faster with stronger peer-to-peer security than Tor.

Another alternative is Freenet; like I2P, it won’t give you access to.onion links — only content that was uploaded to Freenet. It’s more of an anonymous place for peer-to-peer content sharing. Like I2P, it uses a distributed network database for added assurance against cyber attacks. Configuring Freenet is simple — you just download and install it. It runs automatically in your web browser, so I recommend using a different browser than you normally do to ensure privacy.

Is there a dark web search engine?

Yes, there are a few — however, visiting sites you find through search engines can be dangerous; some sites are set up by hackers to collect your data while some contain malicious files that are harmful to your device. My advice is to research before entering sites you find through search engines and protect your personal information with a highly secure VPN.

Dark web search engines don’t quite resemble the search engines you’re used to seeing, like Google. Plus, they’re not as efficient in helping you navigate to where you want to go. This is due to the ever-evolving nature of the dark web — search engines there simply can’t keep up with the changes, often providing irrelevant or repetitive results.

However, there are a few reputable search engines that may provide you with a bit of assistance, such as:

  • DuckDuckGo
  • SearX
  • Daniel

What's The Difference Between Tor Over VPN And VPN Over Tor?

The difference is the order in which your internet traffic travels. Tor over VPN directs your traffic through the VPN server before going through Tor’s network — while VPN over Tor directs your traffic through Tor’s browser first.

Both methods are better than the alternative of not using a VPN at all. In either case, I suggest that you use Tor with a VPN that doesn’t keep logs — this way, prying eyes won’t know that you’re on Tor; they’ll just know that you’re using a VPN.

Keep in mind, using VPN over Tor is not advised — even by the Tor browser itself. In this case, your traffic goes through Tor’s network first before going through a VPN. Your internet service provider still won’t see your IP address, but they will know that you are using Tor.

Can I access the dark web with a free VPN?

You can, but I strongly advise against it. To be sure your activity on the dark web is protected, using a reputable VPN that doesn't keep logs is recommended.

Free VPNs don’t offer the same security and reliability as premium ones. They have proven to expose users’ real IP addresses, which can lead to hackers and authorities intercepting your data. They also limit bandwidth and speeds and bombard you with annoying ads and popups. Using a free service is simply not worth the risk when you can get a high-quality VPN backed by a risk-free, money-back guarantee.

Conclusion

The dark web is undoubtedly dangerous, but it can also create a lot of good for the world. It’s useful for research, helping journalists shed light on injustice, communicating anonymously, and investigating criminal activity.

Despite its many benefits, it’s important to protect yourself when you visit the dark web. You should always research sites before entering them to be sure they’re not illegal or dangerous. In addition, using a trustworthy VPN like ExpressVPN helps keep you anonymous and protects your personal information.

Privacy Alert!

Your data is exposed to the websites you visit!

Your IP Address:

Your Location:

Your Internet Provider:

The information above can be used to track you, target you for ads, and monitor what you do online.

VPNs can help you hide this information from websites so that you are protected at all times. We recommend ExpressVPN — the #1 VPN out of over 350 providers we've tested. It has military-grade encryption and privacy features that will ensure your digital security, plus — it's currently offering 49% off.

Visit ExpressVPN

We review vendors based on rigorous testing and research but also take into account your feedback and our affiliate commission with providers. Some providers are owned by our parent company.
Learn more
vpnMentor was established in 2014 to review VPN services and cover privacy-related stories. Today, our team of hundreds of cybersecurity researchers, writers, and editors continues to help readers fight for their online freedom in partnership with Kape Technologies PLC, which also owns the following products: ExpressVPN, CyberGhost, and Private Internet Access which may be ranked and reviewed on this website. The reviews published on vpnMentor are believed to be accurate as of the date of each article, and written according to our strict reviewing standards that prioritize professional and honest examination of the reviewer, taking into account the technical capabilities and qualities of the product together with its commercial value for users. The rankings and reviews we publish may also take into consideration the common ownership mentioned above, and affiliate commissions we earn for purchases through links on our website. We do not review all VPN providers and information is believed to be accurate as of the date of each article.

About the Author

Christine is passionate about digital freedom and believes VPNs are an essential tool everyone should have access to.

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