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How To Use Tor Properly: Explained As Simply As Possible

For anyone who isn’t familiar with the term, Tor can simply be explained as software which allows users to browse the web anonymously. The term Tor is actually an acronym for The Onion Router because it uses a technique called onion routing. Tor is mainly used to conceal and protect information about user activity. While Tor is useful for some things (like secure online browsing), there are areas where the performance of this software is severely lacking. Stick around, and find out all the perks and downsides of using Tor as we delve into a deep analysis of this topic.

The basics of Tor

Tor is a volunteer-based software that dates back to the mid-90s when the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory first developed Tor. The goal was to create software which would allow its users to search the web in a safe and anonymous manner. Today, nearly two million people are regularly using Tor as their protective cloak of online invisibility. Here’s a brief introduction to the fundamentals of Tor:

  • What is Tor: Developed by the Tor Project as a free and open-source software which enables anonymous communication, the purpose of Tor is to protect the privacy of the users by keeping their Internet activities from being monitored.

  • Why use Tor: If you want to stay anonymous and don’t want others to find out what you’ve been up to on the web, you should definitely use Tor. Using Tor makes it difficult for anyone to trace your Internet activity.  When a Tor user visits a certain website, the data doesn’t normally travel to the server. Instead, Tor creates a randomly-assigned path by using specific nodes which the data follows before it reaches the server.
  • How Tor works: Tor is basically a network that is made up of thousands of volunteer nodes called relays. A relay is a computer inside Tor that receives signals from another relay and passes the signal to another relay. The thing is that none of the relays are keeping track of the traffic that is passing through, so there is no way to report the connections.

For every website you visit, the path toward the online destination is randomly generated, your original IP address is masked, and your data is completely secured. What this means is that none of the relays trace these connections or keep records of connection patterns, so there is no way for any relay to withhold information about your online activity and report the traffic that was generated. In other words, Tor makes all its users look exactly the same, which confuses potential observers, thus making you anonymous.

P.S. Even though your IP address is masked by using Tor, your online data and personal information can still be accessed. To make sure you achieve complete online anonymity and security, you should combine Tor with a top-quality VPN. Our reviews of the top VPNs can help you make a better choice. Here is the one which we rank first right now:

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Understanding the “Onion Router” concept

As I already mentioned, Tor is short for “The Onion Router.” This name actually describes the concept around which this software revolves. Here’s a scheme of how the system of using “Onion Routing” works:

  • Onion routing: The “Onion Routing” concept resembles an encryption method where one layer of encryption is removed each time the data reaches another node/relay until it reaches the final exit node.
  • Bridge: A bridge is a hidden relay; this means that the relay is not listed in the main Tor directory. Bridges are provided for those users that can’t access Tor regularly due to proxies which are configured to block Tor traffic.
  • Exit node: The last relay in the path toward the online destination is called the exit node. This is the node that actually connects you to the server you’re trying to access. This means the server can trace your data back to this relay only.

By using the onion routing method, no one will be able to trace your online activity back to you. The farthest trackers can go to is the exit node. This means that no one can track your online activity. That is why online browsing is listed as one of the biggest advantages of using Tor.

Who uses Tor?

First of all, if you’re a regular Internet user looking at puppy GIFs all day long and browsing on Facebook, then you don’t really need a safety net like Tor. However, if you fall into the following group of people, Tor is definitely a good fit for you:

  • Tor is quite popular among journalists who live in oppressive countries, military personnel, law-enforcement officers, activists in countries which have Internet restrictions, those who are politically outspoken in any country, porn viewers, and many others. 
  • Tor is endorsed by many academics and journalists. In fact, Edward Snowden used Tor as a safe venue to release information about the NSA’s PRISM program to news organizations.

Tor is a good way gain anonymity and privacy on the Internet. However, if your goal is to download large files and you don’t want people to know about it, then Tor is probably not the right solution for you. In this case, you’d be better off with a quality VPN. The best VPN for torrenting now is this one:

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How to use Tor: Pros and Cons

Learning how to use Tor basically boils down to discovering the strengths and weaknesses of the software. Once you learn the positives and the negatives that come out of using Tor, you’ll learn in which situation it is best use it.

Simply put, these are the advantages and the downsides of using Tor:

  • Benefits: Tor allows users to circumvent content restrictions and provides security by routing the Internet through relay servers. It provides anonymity for Tor users by hiding their IP address. The Tor Browser is easy to access. It supports all the major operating systems.
  • Downsides: It’s not recommended for torrenting or live streaming. Bandwidth speed is reduced by using Tor. Higher authorities may still monitor your activity. It doesn’t completely encrypt your data; someone who monitors your activity may still see your username and password. Tor uses apps which are not protected and don’t provide anonymity.

Tor operates in a way that it protects a user’s privacy but doesn’t hide the fact that the user is using Tor. While Tor has advantages when it comes to browsing the Internet in an anonymous manner, Tor doesn’t quite “have your back” when you want to torrenting or streaming online.

How to get started with Tor

Starting with Tor is easy. You just find the browser that is compatible with your device, and the rest is a piece of cake. Although, you might want to learn a few things about using Tor properly:

  • How to use Tor: The Tor Browser is the easiest to use. It works on Firefox, and it requires no specific configurations or tweaks whatsoever. You can simply download and install the browser, which is a modified version of Firefox that’s available for Windows, Mac, and Linux.
  • No firewalls: While Tor is configured to work properly on any device, users on networks with firewalls and other security software may experience difficulties.
  • No browser plugins: Browser plugins are easily manipulated, and they can reveal your real IP address. It is not recommended to install any browser plugins into the Tor Browser, as they may bypass Tor and otherwise harm your privacy and anonymity.
  • No torrenting: If you’re torrenting files while using Tor, not only will it be very slow, but it may also show your real IP address. By using P2P networking, you de-anonymize your torrent traffic and risk compromising your privacy and security. For torrenting files, I would suggest turning to a quality VPN which excels at P2P networking. With a good VPN, you will be protected while you download and share torrent-based files. Our reviews of the top VPNs for torrenting will help you find the right VPN for you.

With these points, you should be able to use Tor properly and obtain the full benefits that come with using Tor.

How to tell if Tor is not working

To make sure that you’re using Tor correctly, you can simply check by using this Tor Check website. I recommend you check whether Tor is working for you before you go on with your online activity every time you’re using a Tor client.

Tor Checker

If you’re getting the same message like the one above, stop doing activities which require online anonymity. There might be something wrong with the Tor client or your login process. Either way, use this website whenever you want to make sure that you’re actually using Tor.

What to do if the Tor website is blocked in your country

There are countries where the government has strictly censored connections to Tor’s website. In those instances, you have three solutions:

  1. Get it from a friend: The Tor Browser can easily be transferred via USB as it doesn’t occupy too much space.
  2. Download from an email: You need to log in to your email account and forward an email to “gettor@torproject.org” with one of the following words: Windows, OSX, or Linux. Afterward, you should receive a reply with links connecting you to cloud services. Depending on which operating system your device is running on, you can download the Tor Browser for Windows, Linux, or Mac OS X.
  3. Use a geo-unblocking VPN: A VPN is a popular and effective solution for accessing geo-restricted websites. It is a perfectly legal solution that will help you bypass the website restrictions and use Tor without any limitations.

Use any of these alternative methods to be able to get and use Tor.

Other facts about Tor

By now, we’ve established that Tor is a tool that enables users to browse the Internet privately and anonymously. Here are some interesting facts about it:

  • The Tor network vs. the Tor browser: Tor actually refers to two things—Tor the network and Tor the browser. The first one is a network which consists of a large number of computers, all using special software. The other one refers to the browser application which allows users onto the network and access the Internet anonymously.
  • Tor is not impenetrable: While Tor is great at hiding traces from your online activity, it’s not immune to all privacy breaches. For instance, if you want to visit online services, like Gmail per se, you’ll be required to log in, and the service will know that it was you who logged in.
  • File-sharing or P2P is a weak link: Tor is open about the fact that the software is not ideal for peer-to-peer networking. The exit nodes are designed to block file-sharing traffic by default, and they strongly discourage file sharing.
  • Android-friendly: While Tor is available on Android devices, as of this writing, it is currently not compatible with iOS devices.
  • Access to “The Dark Net”: Other than protecting your data and granting you anonymity on the Internet, Tor is also known for providing users access to hidden websites on “The Dark Net.” The Dark Net is a network made up of hidden websites which are not accessible by a regular browser. These hidden sites can be recognized by their .onion top-level domains which are appended to the end of their URLs. Only users connected to Tor can access these sites.

These additional facts will further expand your understanding of Tor.

How to use Tor: Combine Tor with a VPN

The best way to use Tor is to combine it with a VPN. Why? Because a VPN will make up for all the situations where Tor comes short. Here’s why the VPN-Tor combo is a great idea:

  • Further encryption: Combining Tor with a VPN is basically the best formula for staying private online. A VPN provides an encrypted tunnel from your device to the ISP from a VPN server. This means that anything you do online will look like it’s coming from the VPN server.
  • No way of reaching your personal data: When you connect to a Tor Browser and visit a certain website, the ISP can see that you’re connecting to a Tor entry node. This is more than enough to raise eyebrows, and those with the right skills would somehow manage to trace the activity back to you. The solution to this problem is simple—connect to a VPN and then open the Tor Browser.

The ISP won’t be able to see that it is you who is connected to the Tor Browser, as all they’ll be able to get access to is the encrypted data from the VPN server. This is the ultimate online incognito mode. What this means is that no one will be able to understand how the data got to the server, and therefore, no one will be able to trace your online activity back to you.

If you’re unsure on which VPN service will work best with Tor, our team here at BVP has got you covered. Check out our list of the best VPN providers here, and maintain your privacy and anonymity at all times.

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