A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, is used to encrypt data and anonymize its users. Consumer VPNs are used for all kinds of purposes: bypassing censorship, watching another country’s Netflix and ensuring that neither their ISP nor anyone else can snoop into what they’re doing online.
VPNs work through a variety of VPN protocols. VPN protocols determine how a VPN routes and manages the data going through it. You’ll enjoy different speeds and different levels of security depending on what VPN protocol and VPN provider you happen to be using. While some focus on speed over security (or vice versa), it’s generally a good idea to find one that can do both well.
In this article, we’re going to discuss the best VPNs to use with Tor. We’re also going to introduce you to how Tor and VPNs can be utilized together to safeguard your privacy without too much compromise on performance.
Understanding Protocols: OpenVPN and L2TP/IPSec
The most widely used VPN protocols are OpenVPN and L2TP (with IPSec encryption).
OpenVPN is a VPN protocol that’s commonly seen implemented with third-party applications. The “open” in its name stems from the fact that it’s open source, which means that anyone can edit and improve its source code. Due to robust developer support, OpenVPN boasts some of the best security out there, and thus far has not been broken. It focuses on security, but does so without an excessive compromise on speed.
L2TP is another VPN protocol, but requires IPSec to be implemented alongside it. This is because L2TP is technically just a tunneling protocol, while IPSec is an encryption protocol; the two combined make one of the most popular VPN protocols out there. There are no known vulnerabilities, as L2TP is heavily focused on security. Like OpenVPN, its speed isn’t bad either (depending on the day, it might even be a little faster).
What is Tor?
Tor is not only an incredibly interesting piece of software, it also has an incredibly interesting history. Despite its modern day association with cyber criminals, its underlying technology (known as “onion routing”) was developed by US Naval Researchers and DARPA.
Onion routing is known as such because it relays messages through a node network of proxy servers, each of which adds a new layer of encryption to any data passed through it. Each encapsulated message can be peeled away in the application layer of a protocol stack, much like peeling off the layers of an onion. In theory, the end result of transmission via Tor is that a message should be nigh untraceable to its originating IP address. While Tor itself isn’t vulnerable, the opposite ends of the relays (the original user and the exit node) can still be compromised.
The media has portrayed Tor users as criminals or creeps, but in reality the utility of internet anonymity attracts people from all walks of life. In reality, there is a rather large number of legitimate usages for Tor including whistleblowing, anonymous communication, journalism, and much more. Ultimately Tor is only a tool, and how it is used depends entirely on the person who is using it.
The idea of being compromised on Tor remains a scary one, however. Even if you aren’t a shady type, there are a large number of less scrupulous Tor users out there, and they may not be friendly. If they learn your personal information, it could have some truly scary consequences. In general, as long as you practice good browsing and don’t give any personal information out on Tor, you’ll be safe. The chance of actually getting nailed on the Tor network by normal means is infinitely small, and isn’t worth the worry for most users.
Why use Tor along with a VPN?
Let’s say you’re not most users, though. Say you’re a whistleblower, like Edward Snowden, or you’re doing something of similar weight that absolutely must not be detected by anyone. Whether you fit that description or you just want to be careful for the sake of being careful, using a VPN with Tor may just be the answer that you’re looking for.
How can I use Tor with a VPN?
In this section, we’ll cover two distinct methods for the utilization of VPNs alongside Tor. There are benefits to both solutions.
Method 1: VPN-to-Tor
The first method of using Tor with a VPN is to route your VPN traffic into the Tor network. Since your VPN will hide your traffic from your ISP, using Tor within it will effectively hide that you’re using Tor at all, which is useful if people are actively searching for evidence of Tor usage/connections, or your ISP restricts usage of Tor altogether.
Fortunately, the execution of this method is pretty simple. All you need to do is enable your VPN, verify that it’s working properly, and open your Tor browser of choice (whether that’s the official Tor Browser or Whonix, a popular alternative).
Method 2: Tor-to-VPN
This second method effectively prevents any possible interception of your Tor traffic, but won’t hide your Tor traffic from your ISP like the first method does. If you want to ensure that it’s impossible for anyone on the Tor network to track your data back to you, this is the method to go with (though it is much more difficult to set up).
This method requires either a dedicated PORTAL router or Whonix. We recommend Whonix for convenience’s sake if you don’t already own a PORTAL router. Using Whonix will require that you have VirtualBox as well, since Whonix is technically its own OS. Here’s a tutorial on that.
Once you’re in your Whonix workstation or you’re connected to your PORTAL router, sign into your VPN network. Congratulations: your Tor traffic is now completely secure against all eyes but your own!
Now, we’re going to recommend our top VPNs for use with Tor. Keep reading to learn more about each of these solutions and which might be right for you.
- Monthly Pricing: $6.67/mo
- Supported Platforms: Windows RT, XP, Vista, 7, 8, 10; Mac OS X, iOS, Linux, Android
- Supported VPN Protocols: OpenVPN, L2TP with IPSec, SSTP, IKEv2, PPTP
- Supported Payment Methods: Credit Card, PayPal, Bitcoin, Paymentwall
- Additional Features: VPN Split-Tunneling
- Logging: Yes, technically, but only dates when connected and amount of data transferred. No other information is kept.
ExpressVPN is one of the most popular VPNs on the market. This is because of its sheer level of performance, which means it’s one of, if not the fastest VPN service out there. In addition to speed, ExpressVPN also offers VPN split tunneling, which will allow you to route only certain applications (say, Tor) through your VPN while using your normal connection for other stuff (gaming, for instance).
ExpressVPN is also one of the options on this list that offers a .onion site and Bitcoin payments. Along with their privacy-sensitive logging policy, these features give you the ability to create a completely anonymous account on ExpressVPN’s network that can’t be traced back to you. In fact, they don’t even want to track back to you!
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While ExpressVPN does technically have logging, this logging is extremely basic: only the dates when you connect and the amount of data that is used within that date. This is also matched alongside your account information, but not your IP address. And even if it were, you using Tor to access your VPN would negate that as well.
In addition to great performance and the convenient split-tunneling feature, ExpressVPN supports Netflix spoofing. If you want to use your VPN to access other country’s Netflix as well, feel free, just be sure not do the Netflix viewing through Tor, as it’ll be quite slow and Netflix might actually detect your Tor usage.
Honestly, ExpressVPN has very few downsides to speak of. Besides its price, which is higher than any other VPN on this list and higher than most offerings you might see, ExpressVPN really doesn’t have any outstanding flaws. It’s just an incredibly solid VPN offering.
For that reason, it’s our top recommendation.
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- Monthly Pricing: $4.87/mo
- Supported Platforms: Windows 7, 8, 10; Mac OS X, Linux, iOS, Android
- Supported VPN Protocols: OpenVPN, L2TP with IPSec, PPTP
- Supported Payment Methods: Credit Cards, Paypal, Bitcoin, WorldPay
- Additional Features: N/A
- Logging: No
A passing glance will tell you that IPVanish has a no-frills VPN solution designed for one thing and one thing only: giving you private traffic.
While the lack of extra features may be a downside to some, that shouldn’t matter much to you. You probably don’t need a VPN to use Netflix if accessing Tor and the Dark Web is your main concern, and IPVanish isn’t really geared toward anything else. Instead of bothering with all that, it focuses on pure performance reliability, and is easily one of the most reliable solutions on the market.
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This is ideal, since any weak link in your connection could expose you. With IPVanish in play and its automated DNS leak protection, you should be completely safe. Additionally, IPVanish claims that they don’t keep logs at all, which makes it ideal from a privacy standpoint.
In fact, if you want to go all the way, you can sign up for IPVanish from within Tor, use an anonymous email address and pay with Bitcoin. Done that way, your IPVanish traffic will never be able to be traced to you, even if they are logging it, because they’ll have no idea who you are.
If you’re not completely happy using IPVanish, get your money back with a 7-day satisfaction guarantee!
- Monthly Pricing: $3.29/mo
- Supported Platforms: Windows XP, Vista, 7, 8, 10; Max OS X, Linux, iOS, Android, Chrome OS, Windows Phone
- Supported VPN Protocols: OpenVPN, L2TP with IPSec, PPTP, SSTP
- Supported Payment Methods: Credit Cards, PayPal, Bitcoin, Paymentwall
- Additional Features: Double VPN
- Logging: No
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Because NordVPN is based outside of the US, it is legally able to maintain a firm no-log policy. This means its users don’t get saddled with the liability created by mandatory logging laws.
While some logging may be tolerable in a VPN context (the most basic kind), no logging is still better than some logging. NordVPN is another great option for this usage scenario based on that alone.
In addition to a no-log policy, NordVPN supports Double VPN. Double VPN routes your VPN traffic through two VPN servers instead of just one of them, like most VPNs. When implemented in tandem with Tor, your data becomes virtually impossible to track, since its origin is buried under so many layers of abstraction and encryption.
However, using Double VPN comes with a performance penalty. Considering Tor’s already low speeds, that may end up being a problem if you’re short on time and need your Tor browsing to be as fast as possible.
Additionally, NordVPN may occasionally have trouble on its initial connection. While this can usually be fixed by simply trying again, this can be quite annoying to deal with in the long run, especially if the implementation of Tor makes it a recurring issue.
Finally, Nord offers Netflix spoofing. If, for some reason, you want to enjoy Netflix from another country while also browsing Tor, NordVPN makes that possible. NordVPN also has the most compatible platforms out of all the entries on this list.
It’s a worthy option, but whether or not it’s the best one is up to you.
NordVPN prioritizes customer satisfaction, and offers a 30-day money-back guarantee!
With all features considered, we recommend ExpressVPN for most Tor users. If you’re leery about its basic logging, however, you can always elect NordVPN or IPVanish.
IPVanish and NordVPN is the more interesting grudge match. IPVanish is more reliable than NordVPN, and cheaper at that. However, NordVPN is much more feature rich and supports more platforms (including obscure ones like Chrome OS).
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter which of these options you pick — they’re all great. Just go with the one that you feel most comfortable with, and tell us in the comments below which one that was!