Onion Over VPN Explained: Everything You Need to Know

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Onion Over VPN Explained: A Quick Guide

Onion over VPN combines the security and anonymity of the Tor network with a VPN. Hence, it provides additional security and is used by individuals who value digital privacy and security.

As the name suggests, when using Onion over VPN your device first connects to a VPN server and then to the Tor network. This adds an extra layer of security and prevents any surveillance of your internet activity.

However, using both technologies together slows down your internet connection considerably. Moreover, you might not be able to visit websites that block Tor exit nodes.

Using Onion over a VPN is very straightforward with NordVPN. NordVPN is a premium VPN service that offers its own Onion over VPN servers. You can connect to the Tor network using the NordVPN app itself and don’t have to take any additional steps.

Check out the rest of this article for more information on how you can set up and use Onion over VPN, and the advantages and disadvantages that it offers.

A virtual private network and the Onion Network are two of the most popular ways to secure one’s digital privacy. However, certain situations call for extra security and protection.

For instance, journalists and researchers working in authoritarian nations are at risk of imprisonment if their online activity is revealed. It’s important for them to know how to bypass online censorship to protect their identity and their interests.

In such situations, combining the Onion Network and a VPN provides additional security. This is known as Onion over VPN or Tor over VPN. When using Onion over VPN, internet traffic is routed through VPN and Tor servers.

This adds an extra security layer and makes it difficult to trace your activity online. Now, let’s break down each of the components involved in setting up an Onion over VPN connection, and explain how it works.


What is a VPN?

A VPN is a service that encrypts your internet traffic before routing it through servers around the globe. In other words, it creates a secure tunnel between your device and the Internet.

Moreover, it changes your IP address and protects your digital identity from your Internet Service Provider and others online.

How Does a VPN Work Illustration

Using a virtual private network has several benefits. In addition to protecting your digital identity, it is used to circumvent geo-restrictions and use the internet more freely.

The easiest way to use a VPN is by buying a subscription to a premium VPN provider, like NordVPN. You can simply use the VPN provider’s app and avoid the hassle of manually configuring a VPN.

Premium VPN providers like NordVPN also provide additional security features, such as double VPN, specialty P2P servers, and obfuscated servers.

However, in some situations, you may need to manually add a VPN to your device.  For instance, joining the VPN hosted by your company sometimes requires manual configuration.


What is the Onion Network? How Does It Work?

Tor The Onion Router LogoWhen you usually connect to the internet, your data travels from your device to the ISP’s server and then to the internet. It’s a fairly direct connection.

However, when using the Onion network, your data is sent through a network of volunteer-operated servers, known as nodes or relays. Usually, the data is sent through three kinds of nodes (guard, middle, and exit) making it difficult to trace the activity back to you.

The first node is the relay node. This is your access point to the Tor network and it knows your IP address. Thereafter, your data travels through additional middle nodes which add more layers of security and obscure the origins of the traffic.

Finally, the data arrives at the exit node where it is decrypted and sent to internet services. To these services, it will seem as if your traffic originated from the exit node.

The Onion Network refers to this network of relays and nodes across the globe. It can be accessed using the Tor browser and provides nearly perfect online anonymity.

As a result, journalists and political activists use it to store and transfer sensitive information. There are currently 7,000 nodes across the world, all of which are run by volunteers.

Now that we know what both a VPN and the TOR network are, let’s understand what Onion over VPN is.


How Does Onion Over VPN Work?

How does Onion over VPN work iconAs the name suggests, Onion over VPN combines elements of both a VPN and the Onion network. Indeed, it refers to a situation when an individual links on to the Onion Network after being connected to a VPN server.

In essence, the connection to the VPN servers adds an extra layer of security as it obscures your IP address when it connects to the relay node. But what does this mean in practice? Let’s go over the benefits and disadvantages of using Tor over VPN.

Benefits of using Onion over VPN

Using Onion over VPN offers a variety of different benefits as compared to a direct connection with the Onion network. Some of the major ones are:

  1. Using Onion over VPN makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to trace your activity on the internet. It combines a VPN’s focus on privacy and the Tor network’s focus on anonymity.
  2. The entry node sees the IP address provided by your VPN service and not your actual IP address. Hence, your identity is hidden even from the Onion network.
  3. Onion over VPN also helps prevent surveillance from your ISP, the Government, and other prying eyes.

As we mentioned earlier, the Onion network is associated with illegal activities that occur on the dark web. Hence, several ISPs and governments block traffic from Tor nodes. Using a VPN allows the use of Tor even in areas where it’s restricted, such as China and Russia.

Disadvantages of using Tor over VPN

The added security and privacy provided by Tor over VPN does come at a price. Some of the disadvantages of using it are:

  1. Connection speeds when Onion over VPN can be much slower. This is because the data passes through the VPN server first and then the Tor network. This increases the time it takes for the data to go from your device to the website or internet service.
  2. Some websites actively block Tor exit nodes. Since data finally reaches the internet from the Tor exit node, certain websites may be inaccessible.
  3. Nodes on the Tor network are run by volunteers. While most nodes are reliable, some can be malicious. If an exit node is malicious, it can track your internet traffic, making you vulnerable to a traffic correlation act.
  4. A key benefit of using a VPN is that you can choose the server location and unblock content available only in certain nations. However, when using Onion over VPN, you lose some control over the choice of server.

When Should Onion Over VPN be Used?

Given the advantages and advantages listed above, there are only a few specific situations when you should use Onion over VPN.

Essentially, Onion over VPN should be used when privacy and anonymity are of utmost importance and the connection speeds don’t matter. This holds true for journalists, diplomats, and other political activists located in regimes that clamp down on dissent.

Tor over VPN can also be used to access the Onion network in countries where the Onion Network is explicitly banned. However, it is likely that using a VPN in such countries could also land you in trouble.

Hence, you should always check the potential legal ramifications of using a VPN and the Onion Network in the country you’re currently residing. People working with sensitive data can also use Onion over VPN since it provides extra encryption.

Conversely, there is no need to use Onion over VPN for normal browsing activity. If you want to maintain privacy during regular browsing, using just a VPN is a more viable option.

Similarly, Onion over VPN should not be used while streaming or downloading content. The streams and downloads will take ages to load, leading to a frustrating experience.


What’s the Difference Between Tor Over VPN and VPN Over Tor?

Infographic presenting Tor over VPN and VPN over TorAs we’ve mentioned, Tor over VPN is when you first connect to a VPN server and then the Tor network. On the other hand, VPN over Tor is when you first join the Tor network and then connect to a VPN server.

Each kind of connection has its own pros and cons, though Onion over VPN is more commonly used.

The main advantage of VPN over Tor is that you can access websites that block Tor exit nodes since your traffic reaches the website from the VPN server. This also helps protect you from malicious exit nodes as they can no longer monitor your activity.

However, the advantages of using a VPN over Tor fade when compared to its drawbacks. To begin with, it’s considerably harder to set up.

You also won’t be able to access .onion websites, which is the main benefit of using the Tor network. You’ll also lose out on the privacy benefits that Onion over VPN provides. For instance, your ISP will be able to see that you’re using the Tor network.


How to Use Onion Over VPN?

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s get to setting up an Onion over VPN connection. We’ll be using NordVPN for this guide as it provides one of the easiest and most convenient ways to set up over Onion over VPN.  There are a couple of reasons for this:

  • NordVPN offers its own OnionVPN servers which means you access the Tor network using a normal browser as well
  • It has a double audited no-logs policy which means you don’t have to worry about your VPN provider spying on your activity
  • It’s effective in avoiding geo-restrictions even in countries such as China and Russia

Here’s how you can set up an Onion Over VPN connection using NordVPN:

  1. Get a NordVPN subscription from their website.
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  3. Download and install the app from their website. NordVPN supports macOS, iOS, Windows, Android, and other major operating systems. We’ll be using a Mac for the steps that follow
  4. Launch the NordVPN app and sign in using the credentials you entered when purchasing the subscription on the NordVPN website.
  5. Scroll to the server list located on the left-hand side of the app. You should see some Speciality Servers.
  6. Screenshot of NordVPN specialty servers
  7. Click on Onion over VPN. You will be asked to allow NordVPN to configure VPN connections click on “Allow.”
  8. Screenshot of NordVPN, Allow VPN configuration window
  9. You should now be connected to an Onion over VPN server. This can be verified by the status bar at the top of the app, which will mention the Onion server you’re connected to.
  10. Screenshot of NordVPN status check
  11. Enjoy the security and privacy of your Onion over VPN connection!

Final Thoughts on Onion Over VPN

When privacy and anonymity are crucial, it makes sense to use Onion over VPN. That said, the combination of the two does have serious drawbacks which makes it unfit for daily use. You’re much better off going with a regular VPN connection for regular browsing. You can even try a double VPN.

If you do intend on trying Onion over VPN, we’d suggest sticking with NordVPN. It provides a seamless connection experience that’s easy for beginners to use as well while offering ironclad security.

Onion over VPN Explained: Frequently Asked Questions

Some of the most frequently asked questions about Onion over VPN have been addressed in the section below. Let us know in the comments if you have any other questions!

Onion over VPN is slow because your internet traffic first passes through the VPN server and then through a series of nodes on the Tor network. As a result, it takes much longer for data to reach the website/application and travel back to your device.

No, the Tor browser is not a VPN. It does provide anonymity while browsing and alters an individual’s IP address. VPNs on the other hand prioritize privacy and make it difficult to trace your activity online.

Onion over VPN refers to a situation where you first connect to a VPN server and then to the Tor network. It provides extra security and anonymity. Usually, Onion over VPN is safe to use. However, it could land you in trouble in nations where using a VPN or the Tor network is illegal.

Tech journalist
Mohit is a legal and public policy researcher whose work focuses largely on technology regulation. At VPNOverview, he writes about cybersecurity, cryptocurrencies and sports events.