What is Tor

The Tor Browser – What is it and why would you use it?

Last edited: October 16, 2020
Reading time: 15 minutes, 41 seconds
Click here for a short guide on how to install Tor
Summary: What is Tor and how do you install it?

The Tor browser is an internet browser that allows users to surf the web anonymously. It also gives you access to the dark web. Tor is a worldwide network of servers specifically made for private communication. If you want to get started with the Tor browser, you can follow these steps:

  1. Get a decent VPN to protect you online
  2. Go to the Tor project website
  3. Download the right Tor browser for your operating system
  4. Install the browser
  5. Click ‘Connect’

You’re now ready to browse all corners of the world wide web with the Tor browser. If you’re not sure which VPN will protect you best while using Tor, we’d like to recommend NordVPN:

For more information about Tor and a detailed installing guide, check out our full article below.

Tor The Onion Router Logo

If you’re interested in online privacy and anonymity, you’ve probably heard of Tor. To many, Tor is the basis of true freedom on the internet. But what is Tor exactly? How does it work and why would you use it? What are the main differences between the Tor browser and other privacy-related solutions, such as a VPN or a proxy server? Read all about it in this article!

Safety First: be careful when you start using Tor!

The Tor browser is one of the most important tools to guarantee anonymous and free browsing on the internet. We fully understand you’re excited to experiment with all the possibilities that come with Tor. However, some of those possibilities come with great risks. An example is the dark web. Tor gives you access to this dark part of the internet, but you shouldn’t try to access it without knowing exactly what you’re getting yourself into. That’s why, before telling you more about Tor, we’ll show you some measures you can take to stay safe while using the Tor browser, especially when visiting the dark web.

First of all, make sure to check Tor’s security settings. Tor uses a very effective and reliable system of data encryption, as we’ll see in a bit. Even so, using Tor’s security settings can make your online experience much safer. Secondly, even though this might be quite obvious to many, it’s important to never visit websites and click on links you don’t trust. Of course, this is something you should keep in mind regardless of the browser and safety measures you’re using. Lastly, we recommend you use a good and secure VPN, or virtual private network.

Use a VPN to stay safe while using Tor

Using a VPN at the same time as Tor ensures your data is better encrypted. Moreover, the VPN also hides your IP address by displaying the IP of the VPN server you’re using rather than your “real”, static IP-address. This means you’re much safer while browsing. A VPN provider we recommend for additional safety while using the Tor browser is CyberGhost. This provider offers a very reliable and secure double-encryption system, is very affordable and even has a 45 days money-back guarantee. This means you can try it out to see if it works well for you without having to commit to a yearly subscription.

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What does Tor do?

The team behind Tor (short for The Onion Router) provides free open-source software that helps you browse the internet anonymously. Originally the Tor network was developed with the help of the US navy. The network was developed to enable the US Navy and other military organizations to communicate anonymously online. These days, Tor mainly focuses its attention on its browser and the development of a few other privacy tools, which we’ll briefly touch on later.

As we mentioned before, the Tor browser greatly benefits your online privacy and, up to a point, your security. The browser makes use of the vast world-wide server network that the Tor network consists of. When using the browser, your data goes through different Tor servers (or “nodes”). The traffic is heavily encrypted and slowly decoded one layer at a time at the different nodes. This means that whoever is trying to identify you based on your online traffic, will just stumble on the last server your data traffic passed through, the ‘exit node’. In other words: this browser makes it impossible, or at least very difficult, to identify its users.

Girl retrieving an internet file through Tor Nodes

In order to access the Tor network, you simply need to download the browser. Everything you do online while using the Tor-browser will automatically be encrypted and “anonymized” in the process described above.

One disadvantage that’s often pointed out is that the Tor browser is generally much slower than your bare internet connection. Because your online traffic is sent through different nodes, your internet connection will have to go the long way around and therefore become significantly slower.

What do people use it for?

Though Tor’s developers originally created the software for military purposes, it has developed into a tool that can be useful to all – especially to those who have something to hide or will otherwise benefit from online anonymity. Many journalists and political activists use it to avoid being prosecuted. Usually, these people live in countries where authorities might punish them for the thoughts and views they wish to share online.

Similarly, journalists use Tor to protect their sources. If a source does not want to risk being revealed, they can communicate sensitive information through the browser. Not just suppliers of information, but also consumers are to be found on Tor. Many people use it to access geo-restricted content, to bypass censorship and visit specific websites. After all, a lot of pages, such as those on the dark web, won’t be visible to you when using a “normal browser” such as Safari or Firefox.

Another well-known group of people who use Tor are whistle-blowers. For instance, one of Tor’s most notable users and supporters is Edward Snowden, who revealed documents on classified surveillance programs in the US. Similarly, the browser can be used by employees to expose company or government secrets or address illicit or immoral activities.

The dark side of Tor

While all of this might seem very positive, not everyone uses Tor for what one might call “a noble cause”. For instance, many hackers and cybercriminals use it to stay anonymous while conducting their illegal business. The anonymous browser is especially useful to criminals because it provides access to the dark web. This dark part of the internet contains multiple illegal networks such as the former illegal marketplace Silk Road. This used to be a vast network where people bought and sold all sorts of illegal items, such as illegal drugs and firearms. In short, many criminals use Tor to avoid getting caught when they’re going about their illegal activities.


Tor is not just used to gain anonymity as an internet user, but also to host websites that are only accessible through it. As such, any website that is hosted using the Tor network won’t be indexed and found by popular search engines such as Google and Bing. This makes them part of the dark web.

The use of Tor itself is completely legal in most jurisdictions, especially in the “western world”. However, as we mentioned, some people use it for illegal activities, because of the anonymity the software helps users achieve. Using Tor doesn’t make these activities any less illegal. Therefore, we want to strongly advise you to refrain from such practices. For more information on Tor’s legality, we’d like to refer you to this article on the topic.

Privacy and safety limitations

Eye on LaptopTor is useful, but definitely has its imperfections. Browsing with Tor isn’t as anonymous as you might hope. Although the people at Tor are constantly working to improve their protection, their software has been cracked in the past. The developers have stressed that it wasn’t their network and system that had been breached, but rather individual browsers. Nevertheless, although this might give users some peace of mind, this still shows Tor is not perfect as a stand-alone privacy measure.

With the help of internet providers, law enforcement is sometimes able to expose the identity of users. However, they only do so selectively. When something fishy is going on, official organizations might try this method to expose a website or individual. As long as you stick to the law, you should be fine. However, you should realize that using the Tor browser, which many associate with illegal activities on the dark web, might make authorities more inclined to try to track you.

More privacy doesn’t mean more security

Privacy doesn’t necessarily equal security. Tor cannot guarantee you’ll be safe from cyber attacks and cyber criminals while using their browser. The Tor network is incredibly hard to hack, which is amplified by the fact that its code is open-source. However, the same does not hold true for your browser, which is relatively easy to hack. Even man-in-the-middle style attacks are still possible on Tor with the help of ISPs. Fortunately, the browser’s developers are more than aware of these risks and are constantly working to improve the Tor software to make it easier for users to protect themselves.

If you want to use Tor, always make sure to download its most recent version. It’s clear that it has limitations, but the organisation is also constantly working towards better, safer software. You’ll only be able to benefit from this if you keep your system as up to date as possible.

Should I use Tor?

For the average internet user, the anonymity Tor offers isn’t enough of an incentive to start using the software. This is mostly because the encryption makes your connection significantly slower. Besides, as we mentioned previously, carrying out online surveillance still costs time and money, which means governments can’t – and very likely don’t even want to – spy on every single one of their civilians. They have to focus on suspicious online behaviour instead. That’s why most people who spend their time online to, let’s say, watch funny cat videos and google the closest pizza place, will most likely not benefit much from using the Tor browser.

VPNs: an alternative to Tor

VPN on mobileWhile you can browse relatively anonymous with Tor, the browser does not anonymize nor protect all your other internet activities. Applications that run outside your browser will not be protected by the Tor network. If you want to make sure all your online activity is encrypted and anonymized, a VPN might be a better solution for you. Especially if you’re trying to secure your connection from cyber criminals when using a public WiFi-network, for instance, a VPN could come in very handy.

A VPN allows you to use the internet without restrictions. It helps you bypass any geographical censorship and geographical restrictions in general, such as the restrictions enforced by Netflix. Moreover, a VPN encrypts all your data traffic and makes sure you can browse and download completely anonymously. Most decent VPNs also have far superior internet speeds compared to the Tor browser. This means that streaming, downloading and gaming are generally much easier and less frustrating with a VPN.

There are, however, also some things a VPN cannot do. It won’t give you access to the dark web, first of all. If you use a VPN while visiting the dark web, it does help keep you safe from malware, online attacks and other dangers. The second advantage of Tor over VPNs is that the first is completely free. On the contrary, most good VPNs ask a (usually small) compensation a month.

Is Tor the browser for you?

Whether you should use Tor greatly depends on your needs. Tor is free, easy to use and usually very effective privacy software. It gives you access to the dark web and has several options to protect your online safety. On the other hand, it is quite slow and opens the door to many, many online dangers. If you would rather have a fast connection, for instance for streaming, downloading and gaming, we recommend a VPN. Feel free to have a look at our VPN reviews and comparison tool, to see which VPN would suit your wishes best.

Tor blocked

In countries with a strict regime such as China, Russia and Iran, attempts are often made to block VPNs. The government wants to keep an eye on what citizens do online. These countries also make attempts to block Tor; however, this is a lot more complex. It requires identifying and blocking the destination nodes traffic travels trough.

China is one of the few countries to have successfully blocked Tor. By blocking access points one by one, China is trying to deny the population access to Tor.

The governments of Venezuela and Ethiopia are also trying to block the Tor network. Venezuela is not only blocking direct connections, but also connections via a “bridge”. “Tor-bridges” are private Tor servers that can be used to bypass blockages.

Russia and Iran are constantly trying to restrict access to the Tor network as well.

What is the difference between Tor and a proxy server?

Apart from Tor and a VPN, you could also choose to increase your privacy and online security by using a proxy server. However, generally, proxy servers only work well for specific purposes and situations, such as accessing The Pirate Bay. Even then, many consider them both less effective and less secure than both Tor and a good VPN. Nevertheless, people often wonder how a proxy differs from Tor. That’s why we’ll have a look at the main differences here.

What does a proxy server do?

A proxy server, much like a VPN or Tor, is another way to guide your online traffic through a different server that (figuratively) stands between your computer and your data’s ‘destination server’. This server is the proxy, which is offered to you by the person who owns it. The setup used for this is often quite simple: everyone using the service sends their data through the same server. All of those people get the same ‘fake’ IP address.

Person connecting to the internet through a Proxy Server

Why Tor and a VPN protect you better than proxies

People tend to like proxies because many of them are free to use. This doesn’t mean that proxies actually are the best solution to your online problems, however. Proxy servers only offer a certain degree of anonymity and online safety. For example, proxies generally don’t encrypt your data like Tor and VPNs do. Moreover, the privacy a proxy offers isn’t nearly as reliable as that, of say, a good and secure VPN such as PIA.

Another disadvantage of using a proxy server is that the server’s host can see exactly what you’re doing online. In theory, they could even log this information, potentially causing you all sorts of trouble. That’s why, if you’re intent on using a proxy server, you should pick one which is under control of someone you really trust. More often than not, you won’t know the owner’s identity, which makes this hard to do. He or she could be collecting your data or even injecting ads into the pages you visit for all you know. In short, a proxy server doesn’t offer you the level of privacy and security as other solutions.

How do I install Tor?

Convinced you want to get Tor? Installing Tor on your device isn’t difficult at all. Follow the next few steps and you’ll be able to use the browser in a matter of minutes.

Step 1: Go to the website and click on the download button  in the top right corner of your screen.

Tor installatie download button

Step 2: You’ll find yourself on the download page. Select your operating system by choosing one of the four icons shown below. As you can see, you can opt for either Windows, Mac, Linux or Android. If you want to download the browser in a specific language, you can click ‘Download in another language or platform’.

Screenshot besturingssystemen ondersteund door Tor

Step 3: A file will be downloaded onto your computer. Open this file to start the installation process. Choose your preferred language, then press ‘OK’.

Tor language

Step 4: The Browser Setup will appear. Choose the destination folder (usually you don’t have to change anything here and the installer will automatically create a new folder for it) and press ‘Install’.

Tor install

Step 5: During the installation process, you can opt for Tor to start automatically once you’re done installing it. If you didn’t do this, you’ll have to open it yourself by looking up the program. The first time the browser opens, you’ll see the screen shown below. In most cases, you can just click ‘Connect’ and get started. However, are you currently in a country that actively censors Tor, such as Turkey, China or Egypt? Then it’s best to click ‘Configure’ first. The software will help you configure your browser so you won’t be bothered by your country’s online restrictions as much.

Tor app

Step 6: Once you’re done configuring, press ‘Connect’ and your Tor browser will open. You can now use it freely.

Tor browser interface screenshot

Other Tor projects

orbotApart from the browser, Tor has quite a few other projects that all have something to do with online privacy. The Tor project, as the team is called, is constantly working on ways to protect their users’ online privacy and fighting online freedom. An example of one of their projects is Orbot, which is a free proxy application for Android devices. It uses the same network of nodes as the browser to transport your information over the world wide web. Orbot both helps your online privacy and encrypts your internet traffic. Just like the browser, but for Android.

OONI

Another project of the Tor team is OONI and focuses on detecting online restrictions. OONI, which stands for Open Observatory of Network Interference, monitors internet censorship around the world. Since 2012, it has been developing free software that is designed to detect online blocking. The software doesn’t protect your device, nor does it bypass the restrictions it finds. It is simply a mean to get an insight into the global situation surrounding online restrictions and censorship. You can learn more about OONI’s findings on the OONI website.

Tor-messengerNot all projects are still up and running. The Tor project once created a chat program that encrypts all communication. They called it Tor Messenger. With this program, you could still use all your regular services such as Google Talk, Facebook Messenger, and Twitter, but your chat data would become anonymous. No logs could be kept, either, so your messages were all completely safe. However, updates of the Tor Messenger have stopped as of April 2018, meaning the software isn’t as secure as it used to be. This is why we don’t recommend using it any longer.

Final thoughts

Tor is a great champion in the world of online privacy. Its browser provides users with the freedom to visit any website they like and offers them a certain degree of online anonymity. However, this protection is limited to their browser and does not cover all internet activity, like a VPN would. Moreover, Tor is often closely watched by law enforcement, because illegitimate businesses and criminals often use the browser for illegal activities. The service is free and easy to download, but does have its limitations. If you decide to use the browser, always be careful with unregulated websites and protect yourself against malware with decent antivirus software. We also recommend using other safety measures in combination with it, such as a good VPN. If you protect yourself well and think your choices through, the Tor browser can offer a fun, anonymous, and free internet experience.

The Tor Browser: frequently asked questions

Have you got a question about the Tor browser that you’d like a quick answer for? Have a look at our FAQ down below!

Tor (The Onion Router) is a worldwide network of servers used by people who want to greatly increase their privacy and internet freedom. After all, the Tor browser ensures your data traffic passes through different servers (nodes) located all over the world. This makes it a lot more difficult for online entities to track Tor users. Read our article on Tor for more information.

Tor is used for a great number of different reasons. For instance, many journalists in countries without freedom of speech use the Tor browser to report safely and anonymously on sensitive topics. The Tor browser is also used to circumvent other types of online censorship. Furthermore, there are also people who simply use the Tor browser to browse the internet anonymously.

The Tor browser offers users more anonymity by guiding their data traffic through different servers, located all over the world. This ensures your IP-address changes at every server (node), making it way harder for websites to trace back where your data traffic originates from (you). For more information on how Tor works exactly, read our article “What is Tor?”.

Tor can be easily downloaded, for free, on Tor’s website. If you require help with installing the Tor browser on your device, then make sure to read our article, which explains in detail how to install Tor.

Yes, Tor’s main disadvantage is its lower internet speeds. Since Tor guides your traffic through different servers all over the world (nodes), it can greatly decrease your internet speeds. To people who want to browse the web more safely, anonymously and freely, but with good internet speeds, we recommend using a VPN. This privacy and internet freedom solution offers, depending on the provider, better connection speeds and better unblocking options.

Tech journalist
Tove has been working for VPNoverview since 2017 as a journalist covering cybersecurity and privacy developments. Since 2019 she is VPNoverview.com's cybersecurity news coordinator.

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  1. What about ProtonVPN? Any comments?

    • ProtonVPN should work with Tor, seeing as they have special Tor servers. This is only the case with ProtonVPN’s ‘Plus’ subscription though, which is on the more expensive side.

  2. If you are have a paranoid mind and want to feed it even more, get a VPN like NordVPN or ExpressVPN and use it over TOR. For that complete anonymity anything is possible, so don’t just use Tor or just VPN, if you are afraid of torrenting or accessing certain pages. I prefer NordVPN because of their prices but ExpressVPN is also really good

    • We wholeheartedly agree. Our advise is to always use a VPN when you want to use Tor, just to give you that extra layer of protection in case you’ll need it. Both NordVPN and ExpressVPN are extremely good options. Both will keep you well protected.

  3. Nice

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