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The Ultimate Guide to The Tor Browser

In this article, we'll take a look at what the Tor Browser is, and how it can help you stay anonymous on the internet.

If you are reading this, you’ve likely heard about how the Tor Browser can help protect your internet privacy and anonymity online.

You probably have questions about the Tor Browser, such as,

  • Is the Tor Browser really that good at protecting users online?
  • How does the Tor Browser work?
  • Should I use a Virtual Private Network with the Tor Browser?
  • Why do I need the Tor Browser?

In this comprehensive guide, I will endeavor to answer those questions and many more. I’ll go into how the Tor system works, explain the Onion Network, what a relay is, and how to make the Tor Browser work best to protect your online privacy and anonymity.

The Tor Browser – What Is It?

The Tor Browser (“The Onion Router”) is a product of the Tor Project, which was founded on the belief that “internet users should have private access to an uncensored web.”

The Tor Browser automatically routes its traffic through the anonymous Tor network. The browser isolates each website you visit, so it prevents trackers and ads from following you online. When the browser is closed, it deletes all privacy-sensitive website data such as browsing history and cookies.

The Tor browser provides access to “.onion” websites, which are Tor hidden services that you can only access through the Tor browser. You can access these websites without worrying about someone snooping on a Tor exit node, offering more private browsing of what is known as the deep web.

The Tor Browser is a popular online anonymity tool among political activists and journalists who fear totalitarian governments monitoring or arresting them. Other users appreciate the browser as it allows them to circumvent censorship. And yes, unfortunately, those seeking to perform criminal acts also use it.

The Tor Browser does have its flaws, which we’ll go into a bit later. Suffice it to say that your Internet Service Provider (ISP) can detect when you’re using the Tor Browser, which can make you the target of increased surveillance by both the ISP and the government. However, there is an easy-to-use way around that, which we’ll talk about later.

How Does the Tor Browser Work?

The Tor Browser is a modified version of the Mozilla Firefox browser and includes the TorButton, TorLauncher, NoScript, and HTTPS Everywhere Firefox extensions, along with the Tor proxy. You can run it from removable media (a USB stick, for example).

The browser is available for Linux, macOS, and Windows desktop and laptop computers. A Tor Browser from the Tor Project is available for Android, and The Onion Browser from developer and journalist Mike Tigas is available for iOS mobile devices, which the Tor Project links to.

The browser uses a unique security system, which the United States Navy originally developed to protect the government’s intelligence communications.

All Tor Browser data is encrypted and relayed three times over the Onion Router network, which is composed of thousands of volunteer-run servers, which are known as Tor relays.

This encryption and relaying of your browsing data prevents anyone who is watching from detecting which websites you are visiting. All anyone can see is that you’re using Tor. You can also hide your Tor activity (more about that later).

The Tor Browser is configured to make all users look the same, making it nearly impossible for users to be fingerprinted based on their browser and device information.

What Is the Onion Network?

In an onion network, messages are encased in layers of encryption, much like the layers of an onion. The encrypted data is sent through a series of network-based nodes called onion routers.

There are four nodes between your computer and the website you want to connect to.

Each of these nodes removes or “peels” away a single layer, which uncovers the data’s next node destination. When the final layer of the “onion” is reached and decrypted, the message arrives at its destination.

All of this keeps the sender anonymous thanks to how each intermediary node only knows the location of the previous and next node. This provides high-level anonymity and security.

If this all sounds a bit processor-intensive and a bit slow, you are correct.

Because of the relaying of data through the onion nodes, and the encrypting and decrypting taking place at each node, your internet connection will slow considerably. This means the Tor Browser is not recommended for streaming video, playing games or downloading large files.

How to install the Tor browser

The Tor Browser is easy to install. Simply visit the Tor Project website, then click on the “Download Tor Browser” button found in the upper right-hand corner or the center of the web page.

On the “Download” page, download the correct version of Tor Browser for your device by clicking on or tapping on the button for your device’s operating system. (Windows, macOS, Linux, and Android. There is no official iOS version available.)

Defend Yourself

Once you’ll downloaded the version for your device do the following:

Windows

Go to the directory where you saved the downloaded Tor Browser installation file. Launch the installer by double-clicking the file. Choose your language and click “OK.” Follow the installation prompts. Click “Finish” when the installation is complete.

Mac

Open the Downloads folder on your Mac, double-click the file you just downloaded. A window will pop-up. Drag the Tor Browser icon onto the Applications folder icon. This will install the Tor Browser into your Applications folder.

Linux

Go to the directory where you downloaded the Tor Browser installation file. Right-click on the downloaded file and select “Extract Here.” Once the Tor Browser setup files have been extracted, double-click on “Tor Browser Setup” to install the browser.

Android

Tap on the “Download for Android” button. Here, you can download an .apk to sideload the app to your device (sideloading is beyond the scope of this article, or simply tap “Go to Google Play.” (This is what we’ll do here.) In the Google Play Store, tap “Install.” Once the app is installed, tap “Open” to launch, then tap “Connect” to start your Tor network connection.

iOS

While Tor doesn’t offer a Tor Browser for iOS devices, it does recommend a browser for the platform. The “Onion Browser” is available in the App Store. In the App Store, click “GET” to download the browser. Once it is installed, tap the “OPEN” button to run the app. Tap “Connect to Tor” to connect.

How to uninstall the Tor browser

Windows:

Locate your Tor Browser folder or application. The default installation location is the Desktop.
Delete the Tor Browser folder/application.
Empty your Windows Recycle Bin.

macOS:

Locate the Tor Browser application. (By default, the installation location is the “Applications” folder.
Drag and drop the Tor Browser application to the Trash.
Go to the ~/Library/Application Support/ folder. (Just FYI: the Library folder is hidden on newer versions of macOS. To navigate to this folder in Finder, select “Go to Folder…” in the “Go” menu. Then type “~/Library/Application Support/” in the window and click “Go.”)
Locate the TorBrowser-Data folder and move it to the Trash.
Empty the Trash.

Linux:

Locate the Tor Browser folder on your hard drive. The folder will be named “tor-browser_en-US” if you are running the English Tor Browser.
Delete the Tor Browser folder.
Empty the Trash.

Android:

Tap and hold on the Tor Browser icon.
In the pop-up menu that appears, tap “App Info.”
On the App Info screen, tap “UNINSTALL.”

iOS:

Tap and hold on the Onion Browser icon.
In the pop-up menu that appears, tap “Remove App.”
Tap “Delete App” to fully remove the app from your device.

Is the Tor Browser Secure?

While the Tor Browser and the Onion Network are an excellent way to protect your online privacy and anonymity, it is by no means a perfect solution, and it has a few weaknesses.

Since each node server in the Tor network is volunteer-operated, you never know who operates the relays that your data is traveling through. While this isn’t an issue for most of the trip (since each relay only has access to the previous and next relays in the network), it is an issue with the exit node.

The exit node removes the final layer of encryption on your data. While this doesn’t tell the exit node what your original IP address or your geographical location is, it could spy on your activity if the website you’re visiting isn’t a secured HTTPS website.

Also, since the Tor Browser is based on the Mozilla Firefox platform, it’s susceptible to the same attacks that other browsers are.

When you install the Tor Browser, it comes preconfigured with the most secure privacy settings. That means Javascript is disabled, extensions are disabled, and the browser is configured to warn you if an attempt is made to download a file and open it in another application.

This means you should never change the default settings in the Tor Browser. Stick with the original settings – they’re the most secure.

Disadvantages of the Tor Browser

While the Tor Browser does an excellent job of protecting your privacy and anonymity, you really shouldn’t use it as your daily driver browser.

As I mentioned previously, using the Tor Browser will slow down your browsing. Since your traffic goes through a series of relays, getting encrypted or decrypted along the way, things slow way down. This means Tor is a lousy option for streaming video, online gaming, or downloading files (torrenting).

If you need to protect or enhance your streaming, gaming or torrenting activities, a Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a much better option as a secure connection to the net.

Another reason you don’t want to use the Tor Browser for your daily web browsing is that it draws attention to you. The Tor Browser prevents your ISP from seeing what websites you’re visiting, but it does not prevent the ISP from seeing that you’re using Tor. That could make them suspicious about what you’re doing. That makes you a target for monitoring.

Your ISP may contact a government agency, like the FBI or NSA, who are always interested in suspicious online activity. Unless you’re a fan of having big black SUVs parked outside your home and place of work, maybe only use Tor when you REALLY need to hide your online travels. (If you want to protect all of your daily internet activity, try a VPN.)

Why Use the Tor Browser with a VPN

While the Tor Browser hides your online browsing, it only hides your online activity through the Tor Browser. All of your other online activities remain open to observation.

This is why I strongly suggest using a Virtual Private Network to protect and enhance all of your online activities. A VPN keeps all of your online activities – including your web browsing, online gaming, streaming and file-sharing – undercover and safe from being tracked or recorded.

A secure VPN server slows down your browsing much less than the Tor Browser and also opens access to geo-blocked local content around the globe. This makes it a great option for watching videos from streaming services that are available only in other regions of the world.

That said, the Tor Browser and a VPN make an excellent team for protecting your online activities from prying eyes, and provide optimal online privacy protection.

There are two ways to use Tor and a VPN in tandem. They are known as “Tor Over VPN” and “VPN Over Tor.” Let’s take a look at how both options work.

What Are the Differences Between Tor Over VPN vs. VPN Over Tor?

Tor Over VPN

Tor Over VPN is when you first connect your computer or mobile device to your VPN service and then use the Tor Browser to travel the internet.

This encrypts your internet traffic using your VPN’s servers, protecting against outside parties monitoring all of your device’s internet activities.

This ensures that your real IP address is hidden from the first Tor relay (it sees the IP address that your VPN provider supplies). Then the Tor anonymity network relays further obfuscate your true location, as the browser relays your browser traffic through several relay locations.

Pros:

  • Hides your use of the Tor Browser from your ISP
  • Provides access to .onion websites
  • You can simultaneously use your regular browser for other activities
  • Hides your true IP address from the Tor relay network

Cons:

  • Some websites don’t accept traffic from Tor
  • Your VPN knows your actual IP address

VPN Over Tor

VPN Over Tor is when you first connect to the Tor network and then connect to your VPN.

While Tor Over VPN merely requires you to connect to your VPN service provider in the usual manner and then fire up your Tor Browser, VPN over Tor requires you to manually set up a few things before you use it.

Plus, there are only a few VPN providers that offer this option (PrivateVPN being the only one that comes to mind).

Pros:

  • Prevents both your ISP and VPN from seeing your internet traffic
  • Enables access to websites that normally block Tor traffic
  • Reduces the risk from improperly-configured Tor exit nodes

Cons:

  • ISPs can detect your Tor usage
  • Requires manual setup and is not recommended for beginners
  • Denied access to .onion websites
  • The Tor relay network entry port can detect your true IP address
  • All your internet traffic is routed through Tor, slowing everything down

What Is the Best VPN for Tor?

Using a VPN in conjunction with the Tor Browser is an excellent way to keep your online travels secure and private. A VPN’s ability to hide your Tor usage from your ISP and from government authorities makes for a valuable addition to your online privacy arsenal.

While there are numerous VPN services that work well with Tor, I’ve found that NordVPN offers the best protection and compatibility, and keeps your personal information safe.

NordVPN offers top-notch encrypted protection, a kill switch that keeps your Tor usage from being inadvertently exposed, fast download speeds, comprehensive global server coverage and excellent multi-platform app support.

In addition, NordVPN offers Onion over VPN, which routes your internet traffic through one of its servers, passes it through the Onion network, and then sends it to the internet. This means you can use your favorite browser instead of the Tor Browser and still benefit from being routed through the Onion Network.

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Check out more information about the best VPN providers for Tor.

Can I Access the Dark Web with the Tor Browser?

The dark web (often referred to as the “darknet,” “black web” or “black net”) is a small section of the deep web that is hidden and kept inaccessible to regular internet users on purpose.

The dark web is web content that exists on darknets, which are overlay networks on the internet that require specialized software (such as the Tor Browser), configurations and authorization to access. Arguably, the best-known tool used to access the dark web is the Tor Browser.

The dark web is a refuge for information leakers and whistleblowers. Edward Snowden used the Tor global network on a regular basis. The dark web is the perfect avenue for communicating and publishing sensitive information with no fear of retribution, such as imprisonment.

The dark web is a popular privacy tool for activists and revolutionaries (such as Anonymous). It serves as a way for activists to organize gatherings and other activities in secret, with no worries about giving their plans or position away to the authorities.

The dark web is a very popular platform for journalists, political bloggers, and political news publishers, especially for those living in countries where strict censorship shields are the rule.

Unfortunately, the dark web is also where underground marketplaces flourish, selling drugs, weapons, stolen IDs and credit cards, and other ill-gotten goods. It is also used to facilitate human trafficking, money laundering and worse.

This is why I strongly advise anyone visiting the dark web to exercise the greatest of caution during their dark online travels. Check out my article for more information about the dark web and how to access it while staying safe. One way to stay safe is to use a VPN while accessing the dark web, so be sure to check out my article on the best VPNs for the dark web.

How to use Tor in a restricted country

One of the major advantages in using Tor in overly-restrictive countries is that it keeps your online travels private. Unfortunately, some oppressive regimes have figured out a way to block Tor traffic. Luckily, there is a way around these virtual roadblocks.

If you find that Tor is restricted in your current location, you can use a bridge. A bridge creates an obfuscated relay on the Tor network that is not listed in the main directory. That means that even if an ISP is monitoring all of the known Tor relays, they may not be able to block all of the obfuscated bridges. This presents an extra option for connecting.

To use a Tor bridge, click the “Hamburger Menu” (three stacked horizontal lines), then click “Settings.” On the “Settings” page, click “Tor” in the left-hand column. Look for the “Bridges” section. Click the “Use a bridge” checkbox to enable the bridge settings.

Tor Bridges

Your options are:

  • Select a built-in bridge: Tor offers pre-configured bridges. This is an easy way to use a bridge and will work the majority of the time. However, since the bridges are listed here, it can act as a “censor this” list, leading to your ISP blocking the relays.
  • Request a bridge from torproject.org: click “Request a Bridge…” Complete the Captcha and click “Submit,” then Click “Connect” to save your bridge settings.
  • Provide a bridge: If you know the address of a Tor bridge you’d like to connect to, enter it in this field (one address per line). If you don’t know how to find a Tor bridge address, but you’re sure you need one (use this only when the built-in bridge settings don’t work), visit bridges.torproject.org and follow the instructions.

In Closing

We’ve learned a lot from this article. We’ve found that Tor is an excellent way to keep your internet browser-based online activities undercover, although we’ve also seen how using the Tor Browser can bring unwanted attention. Luckily, a VPN can help prevent that.

We’ve also looked at how Tor allows users to access the dark web, and we’re now aware of the resources and dangers that await us there.

Now you have enough information about what Tor is, how it works, and how best to use it, allowing you to make an informed choice on its proper use, and how to best protect yourself online when using it.

Tor Browser FAQ

Is There a Search Engine for .Onion Sites?

There are numerous search engines for .onion websites. DuckDuckGo offers an .onion version of its search engine, while Sci-Hub offers access to millions of scientific articles and papers.  Library Genesis offers a search engine for collections of books on such topics as computers, business, technology and more. These are only a few of the .onion search engines that are available.

Is It Illegal to Use the Tor Browser?

Merely downloading, installing and using the Tor Browser is not illegal. There are many safe and legal uses for Tor. However, some Tor users do so to facilitate illegal online acts.

However, criminals soon found that just using the Tor Browser can bring unwanted attention to their online activities. The NSA and FBI have been known to specifically target Tor users. Internet Service Providers also become interested in your Tor-based online activities, and at least one ISP ::COUGH!:: Comcast! ::COUGH!:: has threatened to cut the service of Tor users.

Can You Use the Tor Browser on a Mobile Device?

Yes, Tor-capable browsers are available for both major mobile platforms, Android and iOS.

An official Tor browser from the Tor Project is available for Android in the Google Play Store, while iOS users can take advantage of The Onion Browser from developer and journalist Mike Tigas, which is available for iOS mobile devices. While the iOS solution is not an official one, the Tor Project links to it, providing the browser its tacit approval.

Is Tor Browser Safe to Use?

The Tor browser is designed to provide improved online anonymity and security. However, be careful when using the Tor Browser to access the dark web. The dark web is a dangerous place, and all bets are off on your safety.

Can you be tracked if you use Tor with a VPN?

By using Tor over VPN, the VPN encrypts your data and hides your IP address. This means that all of your traffic, including your Tor Browser activity, is protected. Your ISP won’t be able to see your Tor network activity. This does not protect you from malicious exit nodes, as your internet traffic is unencrypted by the time it reaches its destination.

While VPN over Tor is a bit more complicated to set up, it protects you against malicious exit nodes. All data is routed from the exit node through a secure VPN connection. This prevents the node operator from detecting your IP address or from finding out any other information.

Are there alternatives to the Tor browser?

There are several ways to protect your online activities from being tracked. Using a VPN is perhaps the easiest and most efficient way to protect your online travels from prying eyes, as it hides your real IP address, and encrypts all of your online traffic.

Other options are the Freenet and I2P (Invisible Internet Project) peer-to-peer networks, both of which provide censorship-free communications.

Live OS options that can be run on nearly any computer by simply popping a USB stick in and booting from it include Subgraph OS, Freepto and Tails. These can all also make use of Tor’s anonymity features.

Should I use the Tor browser for everything?

If top-notch privacy is your goal, yes, you can use the Tor Browser for all of your browsing. Just remember, this only hides your browser-based activities and doesn’t hide any of your other online activities. 

For totally hiding all of your online antics, you’ll want to also use a VPN. Just remember, both the Tor Browser and VPNs will slow things down, so you’ll likely not be happy with streaming through the Tor Browser.


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