With data brokers and advertisers tracking your every move online, it’s all the more important to protect your privacy as you surf the web. But between a VPN, a proxy, or Tor, which is going to get the job done? They all can help you stay private online, but what separates one from the next?
By the end of this article, you’ll know all about the differences between VPNs, proxies, and Tor, and you’ll have the knowledge you need to pick the right privacy solution for you.
What is a proxy?
A proxy server is an intermediary between your internet browser and the greater internet. Your browser connects to the proxy, and it connects your browser to the internet. As far as all the websites and internet services you use are concerned, the proxy is your identity online. Your actual IP address is hidden behind the proxy. You can configure a proxy on your device, or you can connect to one of the many web-based proxies available online.
By concealing your IP address, a proxy can help to anonymize you over the internet — though some proxies communicate your IP address to your destination website. You can also use a proxy to make yourself appear as though you’re in a different real-world location than you actually are — perhaps because you want to access location-locked content.
What most proxies cannot do is encrypt your internet traffic. If you’re on an unsecured Wi-Fi network, for example, anyone else connected to the same network could eavesdrop on your online activity. Proxies also work on an app-by-app basis, and you can’t simply set one proxy to cover your entire device. The lack of encryption is one of the chief differences between a proxy and a VPN or Tor.
Speaking of VPNs…
What is a VPN?
Like a proxy, a VPN is a remote server that connects you to the internet. VPN stands for “virtual private network,” and it’s the privacy aspect that weighs heavily in the VPN vs. proxy discussion.
When you connect to a VPN, it encrypts all the internet traffic between your device and the VPN server. A VPN covers 100% of the internet traffic on your device, including not only your browser but also games, social apps, and more — if it connects to the internet, it goes through the VPN. Proxies don’t usually provide that comprehensive level of protection, even if you configure one on your device.
VPNs cover much of the same ground as proxies do, but with the added bonus of encryption on all your traffic (though some proxies do offer HTTPS encryption). A VPN can conceal your IP address from the web services you use, and it allows you to change your real-world location. You can set a VPN up on Windows and macOS just as easily as you can add a VPN to your Android or iOS device.
AVG Secure VPN is an ideal solution for protecting your privacy online, and it’s available for Windows, macOS, Android and iOS. Get military-grade encryption and protection against hackers and anyone else trying to spy on you.
What is Tor?
Tor is a free, open-source software tool run by the Tor Project that anonymizes your internet traffic under numerous layers of encryption. When you use Tor, it sends your traffic through a series of three relay points, called “nodes,” to obscure your point of origin before delivering to you to the website you’re trying to visit. Tor relies on volunteers to maintain its relay network, which comprises thousands of nodes, and most people access the Tor network through Tor Browser.
Each node removes one layer of encryption to reveal the next relay point for your traffic. When all the layers have been decrypted, the final relay sends your traffic to your intended website. It’s the multilayered nature of Tor’s encryption method that resulted in its name: “Tor” stands for “The Onion Router.” Of course, the actual process is a bit more complicated than peeling an onion, but it’s a good way to imagine how Tor works.
When it comes to comparing a VPN vs. Tor, it’s the layered encryption and traffic-relay system method that sets Tor apart. But if you use Tor Browser to surf the internet, it won’t cover anything you’re doing in other applications (which a VPN does).
Proxy, VPN, or Tor - which is best?
You’ve got your three options for online privacy, but between a proxy vs. VPN vs. Tor, which one is going to be optimal for your needs? Is Tor better than a VPN? Is a VPN faster than a proxy? Is a proxy easier to use than Tor?
We’ve evaluated the differences between proxies, VPNs, and Tor based on seven distinct criteria. Check the table below for a convenient summary, and read on to learn more about how the three stack up against each other.
In the age of streaming and HD video content, speed is essential. Because proxies, VPNs, and Tor add extra steps between you and the web, all three may result in decreases to your internet speed, though to varying degrees.
Proxies are fine for simple tasks, but be wary of disclosing any sensitive personal data while using one — especially free proxies. This includes logging in to check your email or making an online purchase. A free proxy may not be your best choice if speed is your top priority, though you should be able to stream reliably on many paid proxies. But like any intermediary, they’re also prone to disconnections.
Many VPNs are fast enough so that you can stream video, though it’s not a guarantee. If possible, try selecting a VPN server that’s located closer to you, as connecting to more distant servers may slow down your speed. Some VPNs automatically connect you to less-trafficked servers so as to improve your speed that way, even if those servers aren’t the closest ones to you. If your VPN includes an auto-connect feature like this, use it.
Because Tor bounces your traffic around through its relays before delivering it, it’s usually the slowest of these options. It’s the price you pay for the way Tor hides your origin through its relay network.
Anonymous proxies hide your IP address, but transparent proxies don’t, and both proxy types reveal themselves as proxies to the destination server. While some anonymous proxies only obscure your IP address, others go farther.
HMA Free Proxy applies HTTPS encryption to any site you visit, and it’ll also encrypt your visited URLs locally on your computer. This way, anyone trying to peek at your browser history will only see a bunch of gibberish.
While you’re connected to a VPN, web sites and services will see only the IP address assigned to you by the VPN server. But cookies and other trackers on your device are still visible with a VPN. Unless you block them through other means, you’ll allow online marketers to create a unique digital profile of your preferences and behavior in a process known as fingerprinting.
Though some services can detect VPN traffic, they aren’t able to peek inside. There’s only one party who can access your identity when you use a VPN: the VPN provider. This is why many VPN providers boast about not keeping logs of their users’ activity. If you purchase a VPN plan, be sure to go with a provider who’s dedicated to preserving your privacy.
Privacy is Tor’s priority: its relay encryption is designed to obscure your IP address. Each relay node only knows the IP addresses of the previous and next nodes in the chain. Tor is a favorite choice of whistleblowers, political dissidents, and anyone else with anonymity as a chief concern — including cybercriminals and those pursuing other illegal ends.
But be careful with Tor. If you don’t set it up correctly — and many people don’t — you may wind up leaking your IP address or other personally identifiable information. Your ISP can identify if you’re using Tor, which can draw unwanted attention. Additionally, Tor is maintained by volunteers, and you can’t verify who is managing each relay node. You may be vulnerable to governments and hacking groups who create nodes to monitor Tor activity. If you use Tor, connect to it via a VPN to hide your IP address.
Winner: Tor (via a VPN)
When it comes to the integrity of your connection, proxies don’t even begin to compete. The two most common proxy server protocols — HTTP and SOCKS — don’t encrypt your traffic at all.
HTTPS proxies provide the same degree of encryption as HTTPS websites. If you’re going to use a free proxy, be sure it’s HTTPS-capable, and only use it to browse HTTPS websites.
VPNs encrypt your traffic from your device to their server, then pass it onto your destination website or service. If a hacker uses a sniffer to intercept your connection, all they’ll get is your (unreadable) encrypted data. This is how VPNs protect you on unsecured public Wi-Fi networks, for example. But in all cases, you’re taking on additional risk when you entrust your data to a third party.
While Tor is routing your traffic around its relay nodes, it’s encrypted and safe from prying eyes. And because the relay route changes every time you use Tor, it’s impossible to predict where your traffic will go. There’s just one glaring vulnerability in Tor’s security: the exit node. If your desired website isn’t using HTTPS security, it’d be possible for somebody to intercept your traffic as it exits the Tor network — and even HTTPS isn’t foolproof.
As mentioned above, proxies apply on a per-application basis. On mobile, you might find that certain apps ignore your proxy altogether. There’s no way to force an app to use the proxy if its developer doesn’t want it to.
Most mainstream VPNs are available for all standard operating systems: Windows and macOS as well as Android and iOS. The VPN application should only require minor manual adjustments to the settings on your device, if any. Otherwise, as soon as you turn it on, your internet connection is protected.
The sole official mobile solution for Tor is an Android-only app — there’s no way for iOS users to access Tor on their phones and tablets without turning to intermediary apps. If you’re using Tor Browser, anything you do on other apps won’t be secure, unless you also configure them to access the Tor network.
If you’re just looking to do a quick bit of web surfing, proxies are a quick and easy option. Never use a web-based proxy to conduct any online activity that may divulge sensitive personal information, such as your login credentials or credit card numbers.
When security is more important, a VPN isn’t much more complicated than a proxy. You’ll have to go through the process of setting up an account and downloading one, but once you’ve installed the VPN, you should be able to activate it with a single click or tap.
Installing and using Tor Browser is about as easy as with any other browser. Download it, install it, run through the configuration process, then enter the URL you’d like to visit. Your anonymity may falter if you change some of Tor’s default settings, such as whether or not it logs your browser history.
Proxies and VPNs can both support content streaming, if you’re connected to a stable and fast server. If you want to access content from your home country while abroad, all three options may permit you to access it, though at varying degrees of utility.
A VPN typically provides the fastest and most consistent internet speed, making it your best choice for streaming. However, some content providers block connections from mainstream VPNs as a countermeasure against people who are looking to circumvent region-based content restrictions.
Many countries have banned, restricted, or censured the use of VPNs and Tor, and you may encounter trouble should you go ahead and use these services there.In other countries, internet privacy tools may not be explicitly illegal, but due to internet censorship laws, you might cross a line when you view or post certain types of content.
Even when Tor is permitted, its use may draw government suspicion due to its associations with political dissidents, activists, whistleblowers, and the dark web.
A few countries have banned proxies as well, but they are generally the least restricted of the three options. Always investigate the laws of the country you’re in before using any internet security tools.
The right choice for you
As you can see, there’s no objective best choice for all situations between proxies, VPNs, and Tor. Instead, consider why you want to use one of these tools. Each of these options has its optimal uses, and alternatively, situations in which it won’t be as helpful.
When to use a proxy
- You want to circumvent content restrictions on an occasional basis.
- You don’t need to perform any online activities that involve the disclosure of sensitive personal information.
- You want basic IP protection with an anonymous proxy, but don’t need to encrypt your data.
When to use a VPN
- You want to encrypt all the traffic coming to and from your device.
- You want to hide your IP address and real-world location from anyone excluding your VPN provider.
- You want to circumvent internet restrictions on a regular basis (which, depending on who is doing the restricting, may be illegal).
- You want to log in to a personal account on public Wi-Fi.
When to use Tor
- You want to secure your anonymity above all other concerns and prevent tracking (and plan to access only HTTPS websites).
- You want to publish sensitive material as a whistleblower, political dissident, or other type of activist.
- You have the expertise needed to configure your device to use the Tor network, or you want to use Tor Browser to protect your browsing activity.
Can you use VPNs, proxies, or Tor together?
You can combine a VPN with both Tor and web-based proxies. If you connect to a VPN and then direct your traffic to a web-based proxy, you’d be able to use both services simultaneously. If you have both a device-based proxy and VPN on your device, you’d only be able to choose one.
When you pair a VPN with Tor, you can also decide how: you can either use Tor to access your VPN, or use a VPN to reach Tor. The former allows you to access websites that typically block traffic from Tor nodes, while the latter hides your Tor use from your ISP.
- Tor over VPN: You connect to your VPN, then access the internet through Tor. This method is most often used by people who are blocked from accessing the Tor network.
- VPN over Tor: You connect to a VPN after your traffic leaves the Tor exit node. This prevents the websites you’re using from identifying you as a Tor user.
Protect your online identity the easy way
The combination of privacy, security, and simplicity found with a VPN is hard to beat. AVG Secure VPN for Windows, macOS, iOS and Android gives you top-of-the-line encryption of all your online traffic with your own private tunnel through the internet. Secure your Wi-Fi, block spies and snoops, and control your online privacy all with a VPN.