Onion over VPN & Tor over VPN
Tor and Onion have been around for quite some time. Sometimes these services are mentioned in a good context, while other times their descriptions might be less flattering. In any case, many people know that Tor and Onion exist.
However, understanding what the services are and how they work is a different story. Between all the talk about online safety and dark web access, many details can get lost in translation. This article will explain everything you need to know about Tor over VPN and Onion over VPN.
- “Onion over VPN” and “Tor over VPN” are internet privacy methods where user traffic is sent through a VPN and then into the Tor network, enhancing anonymity by layering the encryption (akin to the layers of an onion).
- These techniques offer robust security due to the combined strength of VPN’s IP masking and Tor’s route randomization, making it extremely challenging for anyone to track a user’s online activity.
- Despite these strengths, they are not completely safe. Potential vulnerabilities include VPN service’s log policies, the inherent risk of Tor exit nodes controlled by malicious entities, and susceptibility to advanced, persistent threat actors with vast resources.
What is Tor over VPN?
Tor over VPN includes using the Tor browser via a VPN service. Granted, that explanation doesn’t tell you much. That’s why we’ll look at what Tor and VPN are separately.
What is the Tor Browser?
Even if you haven’t used the Tor browser before, you’ve likely heard of it. And the description probably included some conspicuous terms.
Like most reports, those talking about the Tor browser focus on the sensational parts. While there’s truth in certain claims about the browser, the essence of Tor is quite straightforward.
Tor is an open-source internet browser that allows anonymous online surfing. The browser has its own encryption and doesn’t save browsing history. Those are the basic facts – now onto the more exciting parts.
Tor browser is most famous due to its capability to access the dark web. This is the part of the internet not indexed on major services like Google. Of course, as the great unknown, this dark part of the internet has garnered plenty of attention from users and news outlets.
While it’s true that you could use the Tor browser to access websites most people don’t even know exist, that isn’t the primary idea behind this technology. The Tor network is made for security and anonymity and doesn’t necessarily involve suspicious or dangerous online behavior.
How Does the Tor Browser Work?
The Tor network consists of numerous servers located all over the world. These servers are called nodes.
Your data is first encrypted heavily, and multiple times, and then passed through several nodes. Each node decrypts only the portion of the data needed to pass the packet forward – a method that has significant benefits to online privacy. This transferring of data from one node to the other while “peeling off” the layers of encryption is “Onion routing.”
Since there’s no single node that contains all of your decrypted data, whoever tries to track your online behavior will only find seemingly disconnected bits and pieces from the last Tor exit node.
Tor nodes come in three variants:
The first Tor node, the entry node, is where your encrypted data starts its online journey. Since it passes from one Tor node to another, tracking your location becomes nearly impossible. In fact, it’s extremely difficult to track the data back to the Tor entry node, let alone your computer.
Tor exit nodes are where your data comes in contact with the internet. As mentioned, each exit node peels one layer of encryption.
Although it’s possible to intercept information traveling from a relay to an exit node, the data will be practically useless. This is precisely how the Tor network allows its users to browse anonymously.
What is a VPN?
A virtual private network (VPN) server is used to mask your web traffic. In essence, VPN encrypts your data, hides your actual IP address, and can even bypass geo restrictions.
Furthermore, if you sign up with a premium VPN provider, they’ll guarantee a no-logs VPN service. This means your online activity won’t be recorded even on the VPN servers. As a result, you’ll be pretty much the only person with detailed knowledge about your web traffic – no one else will have insight into your activity.
Why Use Both a VPN and the Tor Network?
Between the layers of protection, encryption, Tor entry, relay, and exit nodes, and the additional protection from your VPN service, you might wonder why you’d need both.
The reason is that using Tor over VPN negates the shortcomings of both technologies.
While the Tor browser functions great, it’s not foolproof. Tor exit nodes can still be compromised which could expose your internet traffic. But there’s an even greater issue.
Your internet service provider or even the government can be suspicious of anyone using the Tor browser. In some cases, Tor servers and even access to the entire Tor network might be prevented or obstructed.
On the other hand, VPN technology might seem less suspicious – although there are countries that ban VPN service entirely. Traffic obstruction isn’t the main problem with a VPN connection – logs are.
Depending on your VPN provider, logs of your internet traffic might be kept on a server. Of course, if you’re looking for complete online anonymity, having such records won’t do at all.
As you might’ve presumed, the solution is in the Tor-VPN combination. Running Tor over VPN gives you the best of both worlds. The browser doesn’t allow data tracking or logs, while the VPN protection ensures your data can’t be breached even if Tor exit nodes are compromised.
Combining Tor traffic with a VPN service will be the best option, allowing you seamless access to the internet and the Onion network.
Speaking of which…
What is the Onion Network?
We might’ve played a little trick on you – whenever the Tor network was mentioned so far, we were thinking of the Onion network. This is because the two are essentially the same thing.
The Onion network is a hidden part of the internet. When we mentioned those websites that are unlisted on mainstream search engines, we were referring to the so-called Onion sites.
On the other hand, the Tor browser is used to access the Onion network. In fact, that’s the only way to get to Onion websites. That’s precisely why the Onion network is often called the Tor network and, similarly, why some refer to Tor as the “Onion browser.”
Onion servers don’t function like the regular ones. Instead of the usual “.com,” “.net,” or “.org” sites, these servers mostly house “.onion” websites. Such sites are accessible exclusively through Tor, so the browser and the Onion network work together to get users to the dark side of the web.
As mentioned, this doesn’t mean that all sites that Onion servers house are malicious or that the Onion network is bad or illegal. It simply means that, due to the possibility of being practically invisible online, some ill-intentioned people may use the network for their own purposes.
However, for normal users, the Onion network can represent a safer way to browse as well as an opportunity to visit websites they wouldn’t even hear of otherwise. Through the mentioned technique of Onion routing, browsing data is sent from one server to another. This effectively conceals your online movement.
How Does Onion over VPN work?
We’ve pretty much explained the intricacies of Onion over VPN when we talked about Tor over VPN. However, when discussing Tor connections, we were focused on the browser more than the Onion, i.e., Tor network.
The big difference is that, when talking about the Tor network, we need to take into account how VPN works to keep you safe from all dangers – not only from someone monitoring the internet services you use.
Those dangers can appear on the Onion network itself.
As mentioned, an Onion router can safely get you to a certain online destination. However, the network can’t always guarantee that the site you visited is free of harmful elements. In other words, your Onion network adventure can take you to some malicious exit nodes.
Many websites on the Onion network are either spoofs of some famous early sites or original websites set up to attract unsuspecting users. Once you land on such a site, chances are your data will be compromised.
This is where the Onion over VPN feature comes in to protect your privacy.
Since the VPN connection passes your data through an encrypted tunnel, you gain an extra layer of security. Running Onion over VPN is in a way like passing your internet traffic through two VPN servers.
What Dangers Lurk on the Onion Network?
There are two main risks of using the Onion network: the Onion sites themselves and the structure of the network.
We’ve already touched on the first issue, but it’s worth a more detailed look.
But you might find trouble on the Onion network even if the website you’re visiting is genuine. This can happen if your web traffic goes through malicious exit nodes.
The node itself can be infected with malware, making any download potentially dangerous.
The second main issue with the Onion network is that it consists of volunteer-operated servers. This means that, while your movement around the network is hidden from outside onlookers, the same might not apply to the servers themselves.
Running Onion over VPN can help resolve most of these issues.
How to Get Onion over VPN
Getting Tor traffic over a VPN server is relatively easy. In fact, some VPN servers have a dedicated Onion over VPN feature that makes the VPN setup straightforward.
In particular, the widely popular NordVPN app has built-in Onion network support. This option can be found in the app under the name “Onion over VPN.”
This VPN feature routes the traffic through the Onion network, allowing the VPN provider to offer extra security on top of their base service. While the NordVPN app has a designated feature specifically for Onion over VPN, you don’t have to use the NordVPN server exclusively.
Instead, Onion over VPN can be set up with other VPN servers without much trouble. You’ll only need to set up the VPN software and the latest Tor version separately.
Setting Up the VPN Software
To make your Tor-VPN server work, you should start by making the VPN work precisely how you want it. For that, you’ll need to:
Choose a VPN server.
Install the VPN security of your choice.
Get familiar with the settings.
Choosing Your VPN server
The choice of the right VPN server will be essential. There are many VPN providers out there, and most provide at least a decent service. However, there are several factors that should lead your decision-making process.
Firstly, the VPN server should support multiple devices. This VPN feature shouldn’t be rare nowadays – most VPNs allow for up to five devices to connect, while some don’t have any limitations.
Next, if you plan on using some of the popular file sharing services like P2P or torrents, you should ensure your VPN server supports that functionality. If it doesn’t, any P2P traffic on your device will stay unprotected. Some VPNs will have such support only on certain servers.
Third, you should pay attention to the pricing. Monthly fees for VPN service shouldn’t surpass $10, with the annual price reaching, on average, around $70. However, that doesn’t mean that a VPN server who’s charging more than that is ripping you off. Instead, they might offer extra features that keep the VPN safe from advanced anti-VPN technologies.
On a related note, it would be best to start with a monthly subscription. You don’t want to make your obligation long-term before you know how the service suits you.
If you’re worried about the VPN slowing down your internet connection, you’re probably right. Since your traffic goes through the VPN server’s IP address, it might get routed across greater distances, leading to slower speeds. Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about this.
The truth is that using a VPN usually means exchanging speed for extra security. And since network performances can vary day to day and even hour to hour, comparing VPN speeds won’t help.
The most important consideration will be trust. After all, your VPN will have the same access to sensitive data as your internet service provider. This means you’ll need to trust the VPN to not only conceal your true IP address but also keep your data confidential.
Finally, there’s the question of free or paid VPN. In truth, this is no question at all – a free VPN will never provide the functionality you need. In fact, the Onion over VPN feature we’re discussing in this article probably won’t be accessible on most free VPNs.
With the matter of choosing the right VPN explained, let’s move on to setting the service up.
Setting Up the VPN
Once you choose the VPN, you’ll need to download and install the app. This will be straightforward to do on a computer, although there might be some complications for other devices.
In particular, the website and app store versions of VPN apps might be different. This is mainly due to regulations that app stores impose, but it won’t mean the website version will be the superior option every time.
If you find different app versions for your VPN, it would be best simply to test them out and see which one works better.
Next, you’ll need to log in, and you’re probably thinking this part should be a no-brainer. While it is in most cases – all you need is to create a username and password – some VPNs will have a different system.
Your VPN could have a more elaborate signup and login methods for maximum protection. In that case, the service will probably provide relevant documentation. Refer to the available manuals to have the setup for the VPN explained thoroughly.
After the setup, the VPN should be ready to go. Once you enable it on your device, the service will connect to the fastest server available to keep the connection speeds as high as possible. But if you want to start using Onion over VPN, you’ll need to dig a bit deeper.
Understanding the Settings
When you’re ready to start using the VPN, you’ll want to do more than connect to a default server. After all, this won’t enable Onion over VPN – instead, only the base VPN functionality will be available.
The Onion over VPN feature will usually be available somewhere inside the app settings. Naturally, every VPN app will have a different layout, so you’ll need to learn how to adjust the program to your liking.
While looking for Onion over VPN, you’ll probably find other options that protect your real IP address and sensitive data. These might be worth exploring – sometimes you won’t need the double VPN protection that comes from combining the base program with the Tor project. However, you’ll always want the best connection speeds available.
VPNs offer multiple servers with various functions. Some will add extra security while others might have different advantages. Explore your options to make the most out of your VPN.
Setting Up the Tor Network
When your VPN combines with the Tor network, you effectively get a double VPN service. Luckily, setting up this VPN-Onion combination is as straightforward as it gets.
The only thing you’ll need to do to get the extra layer of protection for your sensitive data will be to – download and install the Tor browser.
The browser is pretty much plug and play. Everything’s already set up for you to get online and no further setting up will be needed.
Linux is the exception to this, and anyone using this operating system will have quite a bit of tinkering to do. However, explaining that process falls outside the scope of this article.
How to stay safe online:
- Practice Strong Password Hygiene: Use a unique and complex password for each account. A password manager can help generate and store them. In addition, enable two-factor authentication (2FA) whenever available.
- Invest in Your Safety: Buying the best antivirus for Windows 11 is key for your online security. A high-quality antivirus like Norton, McAfee, or Bitdefender will safeguard your PC from various online threats, including malware, ransomware, and spyware.
- Be Wary of Phishing Attempts: Be cautious when receiving suspicious communications that ask for personal information. Legitimate businesses will never ask for sensitive details via email or text. Before clicking on any links, ensure the sender's authenticity.
- Stay Informed. We cover a wide range of cybersecurity topics on our blog. And there are several credible sources offering threat reports and recommendations, such as NIST, CISA, FBI, ENISA, Symantec, Verizon, Cisco, Crowdstrike, and many more.
Frequently Asked Questions
Below are the most frequently asked questions.
What is an Onion over VPN?
Is Onion better than VPN?
Should I use Tor over VPN?
Author: Tibor Moes
Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab