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The Tor Browser: Shared with VPN

Updated: July 12, 2021 July 12, 2021 By Dean Chester

I can't in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, internet freedom, and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they're secretly building.

Edward Snowden.

There is a lot of information on the web about Tor and even more information about VPNs. But not everyone knows that for maximum privacy, you need to use the two technologies together.

In this article, I will share my over 10 years of experience of setting up secure networks using Tor over VPN.

You will learn how to properly configure the onion browser;

How to choose an effective Tor VPN;

What important options need to be activated in the VPN app;

Using TOR via VPN

 
Have a look at the best Tor VPNs:
  1. ExpressVPN: The fastest and most secure VPN. Its main advantage is diskless servers, which 100% do not log. Has servers in 90 countries.
  2. NordVPN: One of the largest VPN providers. Has more than 5300 servers in 59 countries of the world. Supports state-of-the-art WireGuard protocol and VPN traffic masking.
  3. Surfshark: Budget VPN # 1. At the same time, it practically is not inferior to the leaders, and even surpasses them in matters of protection of email correspondence.

Is Tor a compromised solution or a completely secure means of anonymization?

What is known about Tor in 2021?

The Tor browser (The onion router), launched in 2002, is an advanced tool for accessing a free and inaccessible network built on the existing Internet. Tor is also used to anonymously access the regular internet due to its multiple exit points. It has an official website torproject.org.

Most often, the internal Tor network is called the “darknet” or “dark-web”.

As part of this article, I will not delve into the darknet device and what can be found in it, since there is more than enough such information on the Internet (for example, here).  

I would like to share my opinion on the security and safety of Tor.

Throughout the existence of the Onion browser, there have been endless discussions about whether Tor technology really protects the user 100% from any attempts to determine the user's real location.

There are messages about some computing power of the FBI, which, according to a certain algorithm, can calculate the real IP address. There are even conspiracy theories that part of the network or even all of its servers are supported by US intelligence services.

As a rule, all theories and assumptions have no direct evidence. But at the same time, there are no reliable refutations.

Thus, the Tor network must be viewed as a risky means of anonymization, and access to its internal sites in the virtual domain zone.onion as insecure.  

Moreover, every year there are more and more cases when the special services or the police gain access to sites on the darknet, collect information, and go to their users.

But there is three good pieces of news:

1. All methods of deanonymization in Tor are at least very laborious.

2. As a rule, they are all based on incorrect user behavoir.

3. There is an additional way to protect yourself with Tor much stronger - using a VPN.


Using Tor safely

In this chapter, I will share my experience with Tor and tell you what points to consider for maximum privacy and security.

Preparing the device

Before going to a .onion site or hiding your IP using Tor, it is important to know some weak points that can lead to loss of privacy:

  • Tor does not protect any apps other than The onion router browser.
  • All IP addresses of Tor servers are usually known.
  • Some networks have blocked access to Tor.
  • By accessing the .onion website, you can give out your current location.
  • Most cases of detection occur with the thoughtless use of instant messengers and social networks.

Based on this, I will list the precautions that will prevent you from giving your location out.

  1. Do not visit the same sites from a regular browser and a Tor browser. This is especially true for sites that use tracking and authorization.
  2. Do not use nicknames, logins, and passwords used in everyday life.
  3. Never install Tor browser as your default browser
  4. Use a VPN. This will avoid the rest of the listed problems.

Set up Tor

  1. Go to the project website www.torproject.org and download the app for your device. Software is available for Windows, Mac, Android, and Linux. If access to this site is blocked on your network, then first install a VPN (next chapter).

    OS selection before installing Tor

  2. Start the installation.
  3. If you have had a problem accessing torproject.org then go to “Configure”. If you did not have any problems in step # 1 and you are not in countries with restrictions on free access to information (such as China, Egypt, UAE, Turkey, and others), then go straight to step 5.

    Additional settings button

  4. Next, you can select a connection via a bridge or a proxy. The easiest way is to use one of the two built-in bridges.

    Choosing a built-in bridge to bypass Tor blocking

    Items 3 and 4 can be done later through the menu item "Settings".

  5. Click “Connect” and wait for the installation to complete.

    Tor installation process

  6. Check your IP address. Enter the following URL in the address bar of the Tor browser that appears: https://cooltechzone.com/what-is-my-ip and click on this link in your regular browser. Compare IP addresses and your location. They must be different.

Congratulations! You've taken the first step towards nearly 100% privacy. Now it is important to install the VPN (you can do this before installing the Tor browser).

Along the way, I want to note that the IP addresses of the Tor network are widely known, and even free public services define them as an anonymizer (information from whoer.net in the screenshot):

Confirmation that Tor IP addresses are well known


Set up Tor VPN - step by step guide with a real example

For an example of using a VPN with Tor, I chose NordVPN, since I actively use it myself. You can also use ExpressVPN.

It is slightly faster in US locations and is more convenient to install on multiple devices. The ExpressVPN setup process is very similar to NordVPN.

Subscription

  1. Go to the NordVPN website
  2. Click “Grab the Deal”

    NordVPN sign up process: step 2

  3. Select and arrange a subscription duration convenient for you. To minimize risks, long-term subscriptions have a 30-day money-back guarantee.

Set up the VPN app

  1. Download and set up the software for your device (or multiple devices - NordVPN and other modern VPNs support 5 or more simultaneously connected devices).
  2. Run it and go to the app settings (for example, VPN for Windows). Activate Kill Switch.
  3. Activate it.

    Kill Switch activation

  4. This will further protect you even if there is an unexpected loss of connection with the VPN server. Other VPNs may have a different name for this feature.
  5. Additional settings. In some cases, in countries with internet censorship, you need to activate obfuscation. This will bypass filters that block VPN protocols.

Running Tor over a VPN

After you install the VPN and The Onion router browser, you need to re-check the functionality of the entire protection system.

To do this, check your IP address in a regular web browser with the VPN enabled (check your IP). It must belong to the country selected when connecting.

Then open this link in your Tor browser and make sure that the displayed address is different from your real one and the virtual one.

If everything works, then the setup is complete.

If the page in the Tor browser does not open with the VPN, then change or disable the bridge mode.


Tor VPNs that have passed all security tests

I already talked about using NordVPN, and I mentioned ExpressVPN. I also recommend using Surfshark if you want to save money on a long subscription.

Next, I'll talk about each of these services, their strengths and weaknesses.

Comparison of the main features of VPN services for Tor 


Service Ranking
(out of 10)
Speed, Mbps Obfuscaion Price (monthly)
ExpressVPN 10 >100 - $6.67-12.95
NordVPN 10 >60 + $3.71-11.95
Surfshark 10 >50 + $1.99-11.95


ExpressVPN
ExpressVPN logo

Pros:
  • Maximum security with default settings
  • Support for all platforms
  • Superfast connection speed and stability
  • Convenient app setup the scheme
  • Up to 5 devices simultaneously
  • Split Tunneling 
Cons:
  • Does not provide the ability to select a specific IP address
  • No long-term (cheap) tariff plans longer than one year

Overview

ExpressVPN is by far the fastest VPN service with the highest level of privacy, Tor support, and a wide range of locations across multiple subnets.

The provider has not only been tested but passes it at least 3-4 times a year on all OSs.

Why I think ExpressVPN is the best:   

  • Does not keep logs and uses TrustedServer technology. This means that they are not using hard drives on the servers through which user traffic passes. This is the best that providers have to offer in 2021 to protect user activity.
  • Really high speed. Tests have shown data transfer rates of 150Mbps or more. That's more than 5-10 times the average VPNs.
  • Perfectly working Kill Switch on all OSs. To date, there are no information leaks, including the addresses of the sites visited under whatever conditions, including with an unstable cellular Internet.
  • Among the leaders for over 10 years. ExpressVPN has a crystal clear track record. It went through high-profile forensic investigations related to the activities of international criminals and proved that it doesn’t keep any data on the activities of users.

ExpressVPN is based in the British Virgin Islands. This is the safest jurisdiction possible.

Price

The table lists the ExpressVPN * plans:


  1 month 6 months 1 year
Monthly cost $12.95 $9.99 $6.67
Money-back guarantee, days 30 30 30

* Prices are indicated taking into account the discount that is provided when using this link.

I believe that ExpressVPN's level of quality is in line with its price tag.

Summary

 
ExpressVPN Preview
Get an extra 20% discount
 

Also read:

ExpressVPN for Tor


NordVPN
NordVPN logo

Pros:
  • Maximum level of privacy even with disabled Kill Switch
  • Two kinds of Kill Switch
  • Interactive map of locations
  • Support for all platforms
  • Double VPN
  • Works even in countries with VPN blocking
  • Up to 6 devices simultaneously
  • WireGuard (high-performance protocol to reduce the processor load)
Cons:
  • Not found

Overview

I can tell the most about NordVPN since I use it myself at work and home. As for working with Tor, what I like most about the provider is that its VPN apps 100% protect traffic, the addresses of the sites visited and the real IP address, even with the Kill Switch turned off.

Also, the user has access not only to the selection of countries and cities in the list of locations, but can, if desired, select a specific server. This is especially useful if you need to connect to the same IP address several times.

For the most careful, there is the possibility of using VPN-over-VPN (double VPN). This is the highest level of location protection I know of.

Excellent connection stability, high speed, support for the cutting-edge WireGuard (NordLynx) protocol, which makes VPN virtually invisible to the user, even on mobile devices. This is due to the minimal power consumption of this protocol.

NordVPN is based in Panama. This is a safe jurisdiction.

Price

The table lists the NordVPN * plans:


  1 month 6 months 1 year 2 years
Monthly cost $11.95 $9.00 $5.75 $3.71
Money-back guarantee, days 30 30 30 30

* As of the time of this writing, NordVPN has a 68% discount on its 2-years plan.

NordVPN offers significant savings when you sign up for over a year. To minimize risks, there is a 30-day money-back guarantee.

Summary

  • NordVPN has everything you need for Tor
  • High speed
  • More than 5300 servers with the ability to access each one
  • Available with long-term use
  • Allows up to 6 connections simultaneously
  • Supports NordLynx (WireGuard) protocol, ideal for mobile devices.
 
NordVPN Preview
Take advantage of the current promotion -68%
 

Also read:

Tor via NordVPN


Surfshark
Surfshark VPN logo

Pros:
  • Perfect combination of price and quality
  • Proven safety
  • MultiHop technology
  • Ultra-modern obfuscation for censored countries
  • Apps for all OSs
  • Unlimited devices used
  • Additional privacy options
Cons:
  • Not very high speed on US servers

Overview

If you don't need top performance or a choice of 90 countries, Surfshark is a great budget VPN service for Tor.

Despite the low price, it has strong features that are practically not inferior to competitors.

For example, Surfshark offers over 10 locations for double protection (MultiHop). In this case, you choose the input and output servers.

For those who are in countries with censorship on the Internet, the function of the obfuscation of the OpenVPN protocol improved in 2020 is useful.

Testing has confirmed the complete security of apps for all OSs.

Surfshark, like ExpressVPN, is based on the BVI.

Price

The table lists the plans of Surfshark VPN:


  1 month 1 year 2 years
Monthly cost $11.95 $5.99 $1.99
Money-back guarantee, days 30 30 30

As you can see, with a 2-year subscription, Surfshark is significantly cheaper than the competition. A one-year subscription is also affordable.

The provider also offers additional services that increase the security of email correspondence and web surfing for $0.99 per month.

Summary

  • Surfshark is great for Tor
  • Has apps for all platforms
  • Supports double protection
  • Super low price when you subscribe for more than 1 year
  • Works in countries with internet censorship
 
Surfshark Preview
Install an efficient VPN for $1.99+ per month
 

Also read:

Surfshark for Tor browser


Free ways to further protect Tor

I do not recommend using the free Tor security enhancements, as most of them will not increase Tor security, but expose the user to additional risks.
Nevertheless, I will discuss two main free methods for additional protection of a Tor connection.

Proxy

The Tor browser supports proxy connections. This is an encrypted connection between the browser itself and the Tor gateway server.

There are a large number of free proxy lists on the Internet. But besides the fact that they are free, they have significant disadvantages:

  • Most of them are inactive. Finding a working IP address and port sometimes takes 10-30 minutes or more.
  • Low speed. Free proxy speed is usually 0.1-0.5Mbps. Plus, add here the significant loss of Tor speed by the network. Normal work is out of the question.
  • Low stability. The proxy can go offline at any time.
  • Lack of security. It is completely unknown what is on the proxy server. Most likely, there is a network filter that registers IP addresses and intercepts traffic.

So, a free proxy can be used in conjunction with Tor, but this will add inconvenience and significantly reduce security.

Free VPN

I want to say right away that completely free VPN services have practically disappeared. In 2021, free VPN means a free plan of a regular service. Naturally, such a plan has significant limitations. The strongest of these is the ban on use with Tor.

There is also a group of so-called free VPN apps distributed through the Google Play Store, Huawei AppGallery, and the Apple App Store. But in practice, these are services with a free trial subscription. Usually it lasts up to 7 days. Besides, there is no way to ensure that these apps do not provide users' data to third parties.

Of the verified players, I can only offer the following free VPNs:

ProtonVPN
Windscribe
Hide.me
TunnelBear
Hotspot Shield
TurboVPN
VPN Gate

Senior Researcher
Dean Chester
Cybersecurity and online privacy expert and researcher. He's been published on OpenVPN, EC-Council Blog, DevSecOps, AT-T Business, SAP Community, etc. Dean has been testing VPNs for 8 years.

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