Tor is one of the most popular tools for anonymous online browsing. While it is a great tool on its own, you can boost the privacy and protection it provides by using it with a virtual private network (VPN). Let’s see whether a free VPN for Tor would be suitable and find out how to set up and use the combination.
Why use a VPN with Tor?
Tor is a specialized network that will mask your Internet traffic from outside observers. It works by passing your traffic through several different servers in its network before delivering traffic to your destination. Each pass into a server changes your IP address into a different one, making it harder to trace back your traffic route and original IP address.
The limitations of Tor
A limitation of the Tor network is that it only masks your traffic once it has entered the network. This means that your original IP address is still visible to the initial Tor server that you connected to. If that particular server has been compromised, it can leak your IP address online, essentially disabling your anonymity. This video demonstrates how this issue is used to track down Tor users who are doing illegal activities.
Such methods can also potentially be used to survey other users like you.
Another problem is that your Internet service provider (ISP) will see you connecting to the Tor network. While using Tor itself is not illegal, ISPs are often wary of this because of Tor’s association with illegal activities. To discourage customers, ISPs might throttle the speeds down. There is also the risk of ISPs logging and potentially handing your traffic information over to authorities.
VPNs let you overcome these issues by encrypting your traffic before you connect to the Tor network. This hides the specific Tor server you are connecting to, making it difficult to be noticed by your ISP. Even if you end up connecting to a compromised server, the encryption ensures that no data leaks will happen.
VPNs also offer a host of other security features, including:
- IP address management: Many VPN services lets you quickly change your IP address to obfuscate your traffic further.
- SmartDNS: SmartDNS helps you maintain faster connections, which is useful for overcoming Tor’s naturally slow speeds.
- Secure servers: VPN providers often locate their servers in regions with strong privacy laws, giving you an additional safety net.
- Kill switch: This terminates your connection in case of disruptions, preventing data leaks.
All these features come together not just to boost your anonymity, but also give you more protection when using Tor.
Finding the right VPN to use with Tor
You might be tempted to go with a free VPN for Tor when you need one. They are easy to get and set up, letting you connect immediately. The best free VPN services also provide decent performance, making them viable for regular uses. The problem is that they all either have monthly data limits, or a speed limit when connected.
If you want to get a more reliable connection to Tor, you should invest in a provider that offers a dedicated service for it, like Strong VPN does.
Such services take into account the Tor network’s unique features and optimize their servers accordingly. This creates a more seamless integration between Tor and the VPN while providing better protection.
The features to look for
Since you are using a VPN primarily to boost the anonymity you get with Tor, you need to review the former’s security features closely. Some of the features you should consider are:
- Strong encryption protocols
- Support for onion sites
- Support for different protocols
- Public Wi-Fi protection
Think about how you would use each feature in conjunction with your use of Tor. For instance, onion site support is handy if you want to access the so-called “dark web.”
You also need to consider the speed of the VPN you are getting. Due to how it works, routing your traffic through Tor will significantly slow down your traffic. You would want to lessen that slowdown by getting a fast VPN.
Test the speed of your connection through Tor, and use it as a baseline for testing the combined connection speed with different VPN providers. Keep in mind that the speeds you will get are still less than that of a regular connection. Your choice will also depend on the purpose of your combined setup.
To get full anonymity when using Tor with a VPN, take the latter’s logging policies into account. A VPN provider that has a strict no-logs policy is your best option. Don’t just rely on the claims made on providers’ sites. You should instead look further into how they maintain that policy, such as how long they keep information about your sessions.
Location is also important when reviewing the logs policies of a VPN. This is because regions that have strict security policies might still compel providers to release user information. That issue can end up stripping you of online anonymity. Check out our list of the best no-log VPN providers to learn more about their logging policies and see how they will fit with your use of Tor.
Using Tor with a VPN
Once you have your VPN provider, you can use it with Tor in two different ways.
The first one is Tor over VPN, where you connect to your VPN provider first before entering the Tor network. This setup has several key advantages:
- Your ISP will not know that you are connecting to Tor.
- The Tor network will not see your original IP address.
- You will be able to access onion websites.
These benefits make the configuration ideal for increasing the privacy of your connection.
The other configuration is VPN over Tor. It reverses the connection setup above, with you connecting to Tor first before connecting to a VPN. This setup lets you:
- Bypass blocks by sites against Tor traffic.
- Choose a different server location.
- Route all Internet traffic through Tor.
With these advantages, the setup is considered more secure. It will even hide your traffic from your VPN service which is useful if the provider is known to keep logs. On the other hand, this is harder to set up since you need to configure your VPN to run through Tor, as shown here.
Some providers also do not support this function, and you’ll be required to look for other options.
Optimizing your VPN and Tor set up
To ensure that your Tor+VPN connection is performing as expected, you need to test it before actual use. Data leaks, such as IP address and DNS leaks, are some of the issues you want to spot early on. This will help you know whether the Tor node or VPN connection is compromised. The tests are easy to perform, and you can do them as a routine procedure when running your connections.
After running the tests, optimize your VPN to compensate for the weaknesses of using Tor. Some of the things to do are:
- Choosing an appropriate server: If your provider has Tor-dedicated servers, be sure to choose these as your default servers.
- Adjusting encryption levels: Using a lower encryption level on your VPN can help increase the speed of your connection through the two networks.
- Running other relevant features: Go through your VPN’s host of features to determine which ones you can use alongside Tor for increased security.
Play around with different settings to find out which one will work best for your chosen Tor+VPN configuration.
It is important to keep in mind that there are certain tasks you won’t easily do with Tor. Running torrents is one such thing, as the limitation of the Tor network will significantly impact download speeds. Even if you use a fast VPN with Tor, the speeds would still be slower than with just the VPN alone.
Torrenting can also potentially expose your IP address. This defeats the very purpose of why you added Tor in the first place. Choosing a VPN service that has dedicated torrenting servers will resolve some of these issues, but you will still experience certain limitations.
As a final note, you will want to use alternatives to some commonly-used sites when using Tor to safeguard your browsing session. The Tor browser itself is connected to the alternative search engine DuckDuckGo instead of Google.
If you plan on using social media through Tor, Facebook also has its own onion version which you can use with Tor.
Combine Tor and VPNs to enhance your browsing experience
Tor is a versatile anonymizing tool on its own, but combining it with a VPN will let you expand that anonymity more. To get the most out of this combination, you need to:
- Find the right VPN service: Using a free VPN for Tor will not give you the same level of performance as a paid one, as the latter usually has dedicated Tor servers.
- Set things up the right way: Choose between the two Tor+VPN configurations based on what purpose you intend to use the connection for.
- Optimize your setup: Take into account the different weaknesses of Tor, and optimize your VPN settings to lessen their effects on your connection.
Follow the different steps and strategies I demonstrated above, and you will be able to run your Tor+VPN combination more effectively. Get both tools now, and be ready to improve on your browsing security and anonymity.