What’s the Dark Web & How to Access It in 3 Easy Steps – 2021

The dark web (also known as darknet) is an encrypted network of websites you won’t find on an ordinary search engine like Google. The only way to access these hidden sites is through Tor, a free, private browser that anonymizes your traffic.

There are many different sites on the dark web — like blogs run by privacy-conscious individuals, press and whistleblower tip-off pages, forums for freedom fighters and protestors, and marketplaces selling both legal and illegal products. The dark web itself isn’t illegal, but it can be very dangerous to use if you don’t protect yourself.

The Dark Web vs. The Deep Web

While these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, this is a mistake — the two are not the same.

The deep web includes all the sites on the web that can’t be reached through a search engine. Although this includes sites on the dark web, it also includes sites we all use every day, such as business intranets, webmail platforms, databases, online banking platforms, and any other service that usually requires a password or other means of authentication. This means the deep web is actually far more vast than the regular, searchable internet (also known as the clear web).

Deep web sites can be accessed directly through a URL or IP address, and are hidden behind firewalls, paywalls, and HTML forms.

How to Access the Dark Web Safely in 3 Easy Steps

The sites on the dark web don’t have normal URLs, and you can’t access them through a regular browser. If you follow these steps, which are designed to keep you safe and anonymous at all times, you’ll be able to freely browse this hidden side of the internet.

  1. Get a trustworthy VPN that doesn’t keep any logs. I recommend ExpressVPN for its RAM-based servers that are wiped clean with every reboot. It also has a 30-day money-back guarantee, so you can try it out risk-free.
  2. Download Tor — but don’t connect yet! First, you need to set your VPN so your connection is 100% secure. Just launch the software and connect to a server. It’s best to choose one in your country (or nearby), for the best balance of speed and security.
  3. Open Tor and click “Connect.” This will link you to a Tor relay network. Now, you can browse the dark web safely, and rest assured that all your activity will be hidden.

Access the Dark Web with ExpressVPN Now!

How to Access the Dark Web Safely

The main gateway to the dark web is the Tor browser. This is an encrypted network of volunteer relays around the world through which users’ internet connections are routed.

Although the relays are an integral part of what makes Tor anonymous, they can also lead to slow connections. This is because rather than connecting directly to the server of the website you want to get to, you first have to go through the relays, which are often purposely scattered around the globe. Also, since the system is decentralized, not all the relays have the same CPU, meaning that while some are fast and powerful, others might operate at a snail’s pace.

The easiest way to browse web pages is to download and install the Tor browser bundle. Tor URLs end in the suffix.onion. Unlike.com websites, the URLs are usually complex and difficult to remember, and websites will often change their URLs in order to evade detection and DDoS attacks.

When you’re on the dark web, ISPs – and by extension, the government – might not be able to view your activity, but they will know you are on the Tor Network. This alone is enough to raise eyebrows in some countries.

That’s why we recommend accessing Tor using a VPN. That way, your internet traffic is routed through the VPN before going through the Tor Network and finally reaching its destination. With this method, your ISP only sees the encrypted VPN traffic, and won’t know you’re on the Tor network.

The major concern with using Tor over a VPN is that it requires you to trust your VPN provider, as the provider may see that you are using Tor. To mitigate this issue, use a VPN that does not log your activities, and connect to your VPN before opening the Tor browser.

Use These Steps as a Guide

Step 1. Get yourself a good VPN service

That means one that doesn’t keep logs, has no DNS leaks, is fast, is compatible with Tor, and which (preferably) accepts Bitcoin as payment. Here are some of the most trustworthy. If you’re new to VPNs, this handy tutorial will teach you everything you need to know.

For this example, I’m using CyberGhost VPN. Open the VPN and connect to a server in your chosen location. This will change your IP address, making it appear as if you’re connecting to the web from a different location than your real one.

A CyberGhost image of the USA and a button to start protection

CyberGhost’s easy interface makes it easy to connect

Step 2: Download and install the Tor browser bundle

Before you do though, check that your VPN is running. Also be sure to download Tor from the official Tor project website.

The Tor website Browser for Windows interface screen

You can quickly and easily download Tor Browser

Once it’s installed, look for the Tor Browser folder and click on the “Start Tor Browser” file inside it.

A folder showing the Start Tor Browser prompt

You just need to click to start the Tor Browser

A new window will open asking you to either click on the “Connect” or “Configure” button. Click on the “Connect” option to open the browser window.

A screen showing Tor browser choice to connect or configure

When you click “Connect” the browser will open in a new window

Step 3. Start browsing.onion websites

When you open Tor on your computer, you’ll automatically be directed to the search engine DuckDuckGo. While DuckDuckGo is designed to provide extra privacy and encryption while searching the web, you shouldn’t think of it as the dark web version of Google.

That’s because even in Tor, DuckDuckGo searches the clear web. That means if you do a keyword search, you’re results are going to be basically the same as what you would find on the regular internet.

Image showing the Tor Browser landing page and onion logo

The Tor browser will keep you safe and anonymous online

Fortunately, there are dark web search engines that will bring you to.onion sites. These include:

  • Welcome to Dark Web Links (http://bznjtqphs2lp4xdd.onion/)
  • Candle (http://gjobqjj7wyczbqie.onion/)
  • not Evil (http://hss3uro2hsxfogfq.onion/)

Just make sure to always turn on your VPN before opening Tor.

The Best VPNs to Protect You on the Dark Web in June 2021

The dark web contains worlds of information, from private social networks to investigative journalism — but it’s also home to many cybercriminals, making it the one place on the internet where you don’t want to be taking any risks.

Our cybersecurity researchers are constantly testing the major VPNs on the market for security vulnerabilities and data leaks. They found these VPNs to be the most secure, and I strongly recommend using one of them to maintain your anonymity.

1. ExpressVPN — Keeps Your Dark Web Activity Private at All Times

  • Fast speeds for browsing the dark web without lag
  • 3,000 servers so you can always find a local one to get the best speeds
  • RAM-based servers so your data is completely deleted
  • 5 simultaneous connections to protect every device you use at once
  • 30-day money-back guarantee to test it risk free
  • Also works with WhatsApp, Reddit, Discord, Signal, cryptocurrency platforms, and more
  • Compatible with Windows, Android, macOS, iOS, Linux, routers, and more

While I was doing my research for this article, I was worried I’d land myself on a government watchlist just for using Tor. I don’t need that kind of trouble, which is why I used ExpressVPN every time I accessed the dark web.

With ExpressVPN’s RAM-based servers and its strict no-logs policy, you never have to worry about your dark web activity being traced back to you. All the data on these servers is permanently deleted when they’re rebooted — which is especially important when you’re using the dark web. Even If the government asks ExpressVPN to release your browsing activity, it won’t have any information to hand over.

ExpressVPN masks your traffic with 256-bit encryption. This means no one can see you’re using Tor — not even your ISP. There’s also an automatic kill switch that instantly cuts your connection if the VPN server drops out so that your location and activity are never exposed, not even for a moment.

Normally, using a VPN combined with Tor would slow your connection down, because your traffic has to go through two sets of servers — but I didn’t have any issues. My connection was fast enough to browse the dark web without having to wait for pages to load.

I always recommend trying a VPN before you commit to a subscription, and I like that ExpressVPN gives you a money-back guarantee so you can try it out risk-free for 30 days. I requested my money back after I ran my tests and it was super-easy — it only took me 2 minutes over live chat to get a refund. In addition to the money-back guarantee, you can save up to 49% by taking advantage of ExpressVPN’s latest discount.

Access the Dark Web With ExpressVPN Now!

2. CyberGhost — Easy-To-Use App Gets You On The Dark Web Quickly

  • Fast enough to load dark web sites quickly
  • 7,400 servers with Best Location feature that automatically connects you to the fastest one
  • Straightforward apps that connect quickly to get you on the dark web sooner
  • Protect up to 7 devices at once
  • Use its 45-day money-back guarantee to try it risk-free
  • Also works with WhatsApp, Reddit, cryptocurrency platforms, and more
  • Compatible with Windows, Android, macOS, iOS and more

CyberGhost’s simple apps will have you set up and connected to the dark web fast (it only took me 3 minutes to download and install). Once you log in, you can use the Best Location feature to automatically connect to the fastest server. This saved me a lot of time because I didn’t have to test multiple servers to find one fast enough to use with Tor.

CyberGhost is secure — you’re protected by its no-logs policy and strong 256-bit encryption. It has something extra that’s pretty unique — I used the Smart Rules to set CyberGhost to start up and connect automatically whenever I opened Tor. If you’re as forgetful as me, these Smart Rules make sure you never accidentally access the dark web without protection.

Its money-back guarantee is an easy way that you can test it risk-free for 45 days. If it’s not the VPN for you, it’s easy to get a refund. The live chat agent processed my request right away, and the money was refunded to me within 5 business days. There’s also a sale on right now: you can save up to 85% on your new plan — but it changes regularly, so be sure to double-check it’s still active when you sign up.

Browse the Dark Web With CyberGhost Now!

Is the Dark Web Legal?

The anonymity provided by the dark web is certainly attractive to those looking to buy or sell illegal goods such as drugs, weapons, or stolen data.

But there are also legitimate reasons for using the dark web. In past years it has gained popularity as a safe haven for whistleblowers, activists, journalists, and others who need to share sensitive information, but can’t do so out in the open for fear of political persecution or retribution by their government or other powerful actors.

Police and intelligence agencies also use it to monitor terror groups and keep tabs on cybercriminals. Additionally, corporate IT departments frequently crawl the dark web in search of stolen data and compromised accounts, and individuals may use it to look for signs of identity theft.

In many circles, the dark web has become synonymous with internet freedom, especially as nation states continue to clamp down on it. It now plays host to a number of media organizations involved in investigative journalism, such as ProPublica and the Intercept. Most notably, WikiLeaks – the website that publishes classified official materials – also has a home on the dark web. Even Facebook maintains a presence there in order to make itself accessible in countries where it is censored by the government.

5 Interesting (and Perfectly Legal) Things to Do on the Dark Web

1. Exchange information in countries with internet censorship

Many countries, like China, Qatar, Cuba, Turkey, and Russia censor online content that promotes political dissidence or what they consider obscene (e.g. content relating to homosexuality). The dark web offers a forum where none of these restrictions exist.

2. Expose abuses of power

The dark web allows journalists and political activists to report on stories that could get them in trouble with dictatorial regimes or governments bent on infringing on an individual’s right to privacy.

As mentioned above, one popular way to share information WikiLeaks. If you have documents you’d like to upload, you can do so here: http://wlupld3ptjvsgwqw.onion/wlupload.en.html

3. Buy restricted goods

Although we at vpnMentor don’t condone buying illegal goods, we can’t help but acknowledge certain instances in which such purchases could be justifiable.

For instance, some painkillers and sleep aids that are common in Europe are illegal in many Middle Eastern and Asian countries. Plus, with an estimated 15.5% of Americans without health insurance (and many more with high deductible plans) many people have no access to the prescription medications they need.

That said, the lack of oversight on the dark web makes this extremely risky – though some in dire straits are likely to take that risk.

4. Buy legal goods anonymously

Life is a rich tapestry, and we don’t have to list the type of stuff people buy that they might want to keep private. Buying on dark web marketplaces can add a level of privacy to your shopping experience that you just won’t find on Amazon.

And for the particularly security conscious, the dark web can simply provide an extra layer of protection when buying anti-surveillance tools.

It should be noted, however, that while the products themselves may be legal, there are definitely instances in which sellers hawk merchandise that’s been illegally obtained or stolen.

5. Simply use the internet anonymously

You might be surprised to find out the dark web hosts a lot of websites similar to those you would find on the clear web. These include blogs, gaming sites, social media networks, and super-encrypted email platforms. Some popular email services are Proton Mail (https://protonirockerxow.onion/login) and MailtoTor (http://mail2tor2zyjdctd.onion/).

A diagram describing positive ways to use the dark web

You don’t need to use the dark web for dark deeds!

Surfing the Dark Web Isn’t Illegal, but It Can Be Dangerous

You can’t be charged with a criminal offense for simply searching the dark web, but you can get in trouble for using it to carry out illegal activity; headlines about police operations that involved the dark web and child pornography, drugs, or hackers dumping stolen data are not infrequent.

Moreover, the anonymity of the dark web also makes it notoriously risky. Since there’s no oversight, it’s teeming with scammers. That said, one can maintain one’s safety by simply following the same basic security rules that apply to the normal web: Always be careful about the links you click because some can be misleading, and avoid sites or links that advertise illegal, disturbing, or dangerous content you don’t want to see.

Is the Tor Browser Completely Anonymous?

In 2014 the FBI – with assistance from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University – developed an exploit based on a Firefox JavaScript flaw that successfully de-anonymized some Tor users, including the operators of the popular Silk Road website. Although the vulnerability that allowed those attacks was fixed within days of its discovery, the incident nonetheless created fear among Tor users that it may not be 100% secure after all.

Similarly, in October 2017 the security firm We Are Segment identified a vulnerability in Tor that was affecting some Mac and Linux users. This vulnerability, which became known as TorMoil, caused IP addresses to be leaked when users accessed URLs that began with file://, rather than http:// or https://. We Are Segment notified the Tor developers, who promptly fixed the error by updating to a new version of the web browser.

In order to address these issues, the Tor Project has recently improved security and privacy by strengthening its encryption. It also gives web developers the tools to build fully anonymous Darknet sites (known as hidden services, or rendezvous points) that can only be discovered by those who know the site’s URL.

Extra Precautions You Should Take to Maintain Your Anonymity

Although Tor is encrypted, and by using it with a VPN  the IP addresses of yourself and the websites you visit will be hidden, if you want to remain totally anonymous on the Dark Web, you should take the following extra security measures:

  • Never use your real name or photos
  • Never use an email address or even a password that you have used before
  • Instead, use an anonymous encrypted email account and aliases that you have never used before and that cannot be traced to you
  • Use an anonymous Bitcoin wallet to make purchases. If you’re new to Bitcoin, or just want to learn more about it, you can find everything you need to know here.
  • Disable Javascript and don’t install browser plugins, as they can be manipulated into revealing your IP address
  • Do not change the Tor browser window size to avoid browser fingerprinting
  • Don’t torrent over Tor, because even though your non-Tor IP address will be anonymized to the tracker, it could still be visible to the other peers in the network
  • Use HTTPS versions of websites. This is because once your web traffic goes through Tor’s encrypted network, it still has to go through an exit relay in order to reach the website you’re trying to get to. At this point your data could be exposed to a third party, which could even insert an exploit into your browser. URLs beginning with HTTPS prevent this.
  • Disconnect from the internet before opening documents downloaded through Tor, as opening them while online could be used to reveal your non-Tor IP address
  • Consider using the TAILS operating system (which is booted as a live DVD or live USB), as this leaves no digital footprint on the host machine

Criminal Cases Involving the Dark Web

Although we believe the Dark Web should be used for promoting free speech and bypassing censorship, there’s no denying that the press tends to focus on the more shady activity that goes on there. Here are some of the most high profile stories that have come out in recent years:

  1. Silk Road: Perhaps more than any other website, the Dark Web brings to mind Silk Road. Silk Road began as the invention of a libertarian idealist who wanted to sell home-grown mushrooms for Bitcoin, and ended up hosting 1.2 billion dollars worth of deals involving drugs, firearms, hits, counterfeit cash, and hacker tools. Five of the hits were commissioned by the site’s creator, Ross Ulbricht, known on Silk Road as the Dread Pirate Roberts. Ulricht was ultimately caught because of an old post to a regular website in which he promoted Silk Road in its early days. His mistake: using his real email address.
  2. AlphaBay: Following the shuttering of Silk Road, AlphaBay became the most prominent Dark Web marketplace. When AlphaBay went down in 2017, it was because of security missteps even more basic than those of the Dread Pirate Roberts. Among other blunders, founder Alexandre Cazes used his legitimate email address for communications on the site (pimp_alex_91@hotmail.com), kept several unencrypted cryptocurrency wallets constantly open, and re-used the same pseudonym on and off the Dark Web. And when the cops busted into his home in Thailand to arrest him, he was logged onto the AlphaBay server with the username “admin.” The computer was unlocked and unencrypted, and contained text files of passwords used on the site, as well as a document listing the type and location of all his financial holdings that was titled in bold “TOTAL NET WORTH.” Several days after his arrest, Alex Cazes was found dead in his prison cell, apparently having committed suicide.
  3. The Playpen Case: Although it only existed for seven months, the child pornography site Playpen managed to amass 215,000 users before the FBI gained access to its host server via information provided by a foreign law enforcement agency (which has not been publicly identified). Instead of just shutting the site down, the FBI continued to host it on its own servers for two weeks, during which it used a Flash app to capture 1,300 IP addresses belonging to site visitors. This led to the arrest of nearly 900 users around the globe, including Playpen’s creator, Steven Chase (may he burn in hell).
  4. The Ashley Madison Case: In 2015, the hacker group, the Impact Team, breached a dating site for extramarital affairs called Ashley Madison. The hackers threatened to release users’ personal information unless the website and its sister site, Established Men, were shut down. A month later, when their deadline wasn’t met, the Impact Team started publishing data on the Dark Web.
    Over the course of several dumps, information was revealed that included the email and IP addresses of 32 million members, the email correspondences of the CEO of Ashley Madison’s parent company, and the website’s source code. The hacker’s stated motivation was 1) an objection to the site’s primary purpose, and 2) the site’s practice of forcing users to pay to delete their accounts (which were even then not fully scrubbed from the servers).Because Ashley Madison didn’t require email verification to create a profile, it would have been easy to create accounts using someone else’s email address, and then use this to extort them. Although we still don’t know who was responsible for the attack, one can speculate that they were someone affected by these poor security practices.

On a final note, vpnMentor encourages everyone who uses the Dark Web to do so responsibly. Offensive material can sometimes be just a click away. Browse at your own risk, and never break the law.

Browse the Dark Web Safely with a VPN

The Tor browser can be a valuable tool if you want to encrypt your internet traffic and browse the dark web freely, even in censorship-heavy regions. But on its own, it’s not enough to keep you completely anonymous.

Using Tor in combination with a strong VPN is the perfect privacy solution. No one will be able to see you’re using Tor — not even your own ISP. I personally recommend ExpressVPN, which also happens to be running an excellent deal right now, but any of the VPNs on this list will keep you safe.

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.

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About the Author

Amakiri is a UK-trained technology consultant. He has over 10 years experience in managing IT services, computer networks, and information security. He is passionate about communicating cyber security awareness to the general public and frequently writes about security and technology.

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