When it comes to online privacy there are several tools which can help you to protect it. In today's article, we'll take a look at the key differences between VPN, Proxy and Tor Browser. Each of them is protecting you on a different layer and some are actually complemental when running together. But which one is the best?
Before we jump into comparison it's important to explain each of these tools. Don't worry if you are not an expert in this field, we have tried to write down this article for beginners. If you don't understand some part of it, just ask us in the comments section.
What is VPN
Virtual Private Network a.k.a. VPN creates an encrypted tunnel for all your connections. Without VPN your private data are going through the unsecured connection straight from the client (you) to the server (Facebook.com for example). That is very dangerous because of bad guys with proper tools and knowledge who are able to “listen” to such connection and see for example your password, credit card number, and other personal information. Also, governments and ISPs are able to get such information quite easily.
With VPN all your data are going first to the VPN server provided by the VPN vendor where they are encrypted and then go the server. And even the final server (e.g. Facebook.com) and your ISP can only see the information about the VPN server, not you and your real IP address and location. So the only party which knows your personal data (location, IP address) is the VPN vendor.
It's very clear from the illustrations below which were created by Hotspot Shield, a reliable free VPN vendor.
The advantage of using a VPN are the fast connections with minimum impact on your download/upload speeds (if the VPN server is located within the same country as you). And there is always a risk that the VPN vendor will reveal your private data when asked by law enforcement or government.
You can either get a free VPN solution which is usually limited in terms of monthly traffic or server locations.
Or premium VPN service which adds extra features, more locations, and enhanced security and privacy.
What is Proxy Server
Proxy server often simply referred to as proxy is a server between the client (browser) and the Internet. In theory, it's very similar to the VPN approach (in fact, VPN is just an enhanced proxy), but it's far less secured and very limited in terms of server locations.
Instead of a client sending the data or requests directly to the final server (e.g. Facebook.com), it is using a proxy server in the middle which hides the real client location and IP address.
Proxies are typically used within the browser itself, so you don't need to download and install any program. You just go to the web proxy site and “surf” through it. The biggest disadvantage is many free proxies are actually run by hackers only to spoof on people. And if the proxy is legit, it's still very slow and offers only a limited amount of locations.
See our list of the top 10 best free web proxies.
What is Tor Browser a.k.a. The Onion Router
Tor Browser and Tor Network are free, open source services run by the community. Tor anonymizes your IP address in a similar way like VPN but using a different technique. Instead of one server which encrypts the connection, traffic is routed via many random layers (volunteers) around the world before reaching a destination site (server).
Tor Browser is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. For Android, it's known as Orbot.
So for example, if you open Tor Browser and go to Facebook.com, your request and identity will circulate through three random layers in random locations with different IP addresses. The last layer, the so-called exit node will reach the server, but with a different IP address than your real one. There is no way how could someone track back the original first layer and reveal your real identity, IP address, and location.
Tor is having onion in a logo and is being called The Onion Router, because of the layered approach which is similar to peeling an onion.
The main disadvantage of Tor is speed. You can't control through which layers the request will flow, so, for example, you are in Germany, the first layer will be in Switerzland, and the second in Finland. This significantly slows down the connection speed, so Tor is definitely not recommended for streaming videos or downloading larger files.
And to be clear, using Tor Browser for your regular browsing is definitely not illegal or “shady”. It is being used by many governments, journalists, dissidents etc. By using Tor you are not necessarily accessing the so-called Dark Web.
Conclusion & The Key Differences
All three solutions are hiding your real location and IP address. Yet, they are all very different and should be used in different scenarios.
- Proxy is good for ad-hoc access to websites and overcoming some geo-restricted content
- Tor Browser is good for privacy-sensitive online actions like banking, shopping or even accessing your Gmail
- VPN is good for all above plus it actually encrypts all bandwidth (including games and other apps) without any major impact on speed
Major differences are in the table below.
|Hides your real location||✅||✅||✅|
|Hides your real IP address||✅||✅||✅|
|Protects your privacy||❌||✅||✅|
|Unblocks geo-restricted content||Only some||Only some||✅|
|Doesn't slow down your connection||❌||❌||✅|
|Works on games and other apps||❌||❌||✅|
Tor Browser and VPN can be actually used together and such setup will enhance your privacy even more. But using Tor for regular browsing is sometimes really annoying due to its limited speeds.