What is the Tor Browser? A Beginner’s Guide

Everything you need to know about what the Tor browser is and how you can use it safely today.
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Do you feel uneasy about exposing your identity when using the internet? You are not alone.

In today's digital age, online privacy and security are serious concerns. To overcome these worries, the Tor browser is a popular and secure option for many people worldwide.

Keep reading to learn what the Tor browser is, how people use it, and how you can use Tor to keep yourself safe online.

In this article
What is the Tor browser?
How does Tor work?
Should you use Tor?
8 tips for staying safe while using Tor
Tor browser FAQs
Bottom line: Is Tor safe to use?

What is the Tor browser?

Tor (which stands for the onion router) is a free web browser that allows anonymous access to the internet. the Tor browser routes your data traffic through servers (or nodes) scattered worldwide. This makes it challenging to track your location or online activities.

The U.S. Naval Research Lab (NRL) developed Tor in the mid-1990s to hide intelligence communications. Tor became available to the public as an open-source project in 2002 by The Tor Project, a non-profit organization based in Seattle, Washington. The organization has maintained the software since 2006.

Today, the Tor browser is an open-source privacy tool available in 37 languages. Tor is available for Linux, macOS, Windows, and Android mobile devices.

Due to its privacy qualities, Tor is a go-to for those valuing free speech and access to information. On the other hand, Tor is also attractive for concealing criminal activity. the Tor browser conflicts with some international laws on censorship, so not everyone can use it today.

How does Tor work?

Tor is a modified version of Mozilla Firefox. It provides enhanced privacy compared to mainstream browsers like Google Chrome or Safari. Tor encrypts your internet traffic, clears your browsing history, and conceals your internet protocol (IP) address. These tactics make your online movements untraceable, for the most part.

Unlike traditional browsers that use single servers, the Tor browser uses onion routing. This technology bounces through different servers, preventing easy monitoring. More servers equal more security.

To help visualize, imagine your online activity as a package sent through the mail. With Tor, your package passes through many post offices and gets tagged by each one. This adds layers of protection without revealing the package’s true origin. Onion routing ensures your privacy remains intact and untraceable.

Let's dive deeper into Tor’s features and see what it can offer you, should you opt to access the dark web.

Private browsers can safeguard your browsing habits and digital data with enhanced tracking protection. Learn more about the best web browsers for privacy


Does Tor hide your IP address?

Tor hides IP addresses using a network of special servers called Tor relays. When you use the Tor browser, your traffic gets sent through these relays, which act like a secret tunnel. Each relay adds a layer of encryption to your traffic, making it difficult to see where it is coming from. This makes your IP address looks like it is coming from one of the Tor relays, not you.

While Tor is not perfect, it does a solid job of keeping your IP address hidden from hackers and protecting your privacy.

Is Tor browser anonymous?

Tor browser enhances privacy and anonymity by routing your activity through Tor relays. These hide your IP address and browsing movements. Be mindful that complete anonymity might not be possible due to potential risks.

For example, the exit node (the last server in the Tor network) could watch your activity if compromised. User mistakes remove anonymity, like downloading personal files or using personal accounts.

For added security, we recommend using a reputable virtual private network (VPN) alongside Tor.

Tor vs. VPN: What’s the difference?

Tor Browser and VPN apps are tools that create a more secure and private browsing experience when paired together. Each one does different things.

Tor is a network that hides your IP address and routes traffic through relays. VPNs create an encrypted connection between your device and a remote server, securing your data and hiding your IP.

An easy way to remember how these work on their own and together is this:

  • Tor: Hides your IP and encrypts traffic.
  • VPN: Encrypts your connection to a remote server.
  • Combined: Enhances privacy and security.

Together, the Tor browser and a VPN protect your privacy and conceal your online activities from prying eyes.

Should you use Tor?

Whether you should use the Tor browser depends on your intentions and goals. Are you trying to keep your Christmas shopping discreet? Or conceal your identity from the government? As you can imagine, these two scenarios call for a different level of privacy and security.

Here are a few advantages and disadvantages you should consider before using Tor.

3 reasons you should use Tor:

  1. Protects privacy: Allows for free roaming of all corners of the internet — good and bad.
  2. Prevents tracking user activity: the Tor browser uses onion routing technology, which hides your IP address and improves your online anonymity.
  3. Is easy to access and use: The Tor browser is available on most devices in 37 languages.

3 reasons you shouldn’t use Tor:

  1. Susceptible to weak spots and malicious attacks: No platform is foolproof. In 2017, a vulnerability in Tor leaked IP addresses on macOS and Linux.
  2. Slower browsing speeds: The extra steps to keep you anonymous online – encryption and routing – make Tor slower compared to browsers that focus more on speed.
  3. Legal trouble: If you use Tor in a country where it’s banned or use it for illegal activities, you may face legal consequences.

Ultimately, the decision to use Tor depends on your circumstances. Weigh all the pros and cons.

If you decide you don’t want to use Tor browser, there are additional ways to secure your internet activity. Private search engines like DuckDuckGo and ad blockers like Total AdBlock help protect your privacy and prevent tracking and browser fingerprinting.

8 tips for staying safe while using Tor

While Tor is an excellent tool for privacy, it does not fully protect your anonymity. To get the most out of your Tor experience, follow these top safety tips if you choose to use Tor to browse the dark web:

  1. Use a VPN: Use a VPN service to add more anonymity.
  2. Download from the source: Only download the Tor browser from the official Tor Project website to avoid accidentally downloading malware.
  3. Update Tor often: Regularly update your Tor browser to benefit from improvements and security patches.
  4. Disable plugins: Keep browser plugins, such as Flash, Java, and JavaScript disabled to help conceal your identity.
  5. Refrain from sharing personal information: Never share your sensitive data on the dark web.
  6. Watch out for scams: Be wary of suspicious links or downloads. Make sure to verify the legitimacy of what you are buying or using.
  7. Use HTTPS: Opt for websites with HTTPS (https://) encryption whenever possible to ensure secure connections.
  8. Know the risks: Dark web browsing has its risks and could be illegal. Surf the dark web wisely!

6 security addons to use with Tor browser

Additionally, consider using these security programs with the Tor browser:

  1. Virtual machine (VM): Using VM software like VMware allows you to create an isolated environment for running Tor. The isolation helps protect your device from malware or attacks.
  2. Whonix: Whonix is an operating system that runs Tor in a virtual machine. It isolates the Tor network from the rest of the system, providing extra security.
  3. Firewall and antivirus software: A solid antivirus program helps protect your device from malware and threats while surfing the dark web.
  4. OpenPGP (Pretty Good Privacy): OpenPGP encrypts and decrypts messages, helping users communicate securely on the dark web.
  5. NoScript: NoScript is a browser extension that prevents malicious scripts or plugins from running.
  6. Tails: A privacy-oriented operating system, Tails routes all internet traffic through Tor while leaving no traces on the computer.

Pairing these tools with the safety tips above increases your online security.

Tor browser FAQs


Is Tor Browser legal?

The legality of the Tor browser depends on how people use it. In the United States, using Tor for everyday browsing is legal. Other countries, such as China, Iran, and Russia, restrict or ban using Tor.

There are legitimate legal reasons people use Tor in their daily life. Journalists, whistleblowers, dissidents, law enforcement, and cybersecurity professionals use Tor to do their jobs securely and secretly. Unfortunately, Tor has a bad reputation for being a hub for crime, which is why certain nations restrict its use.

If you are in a country where Tor is legal and you are not breaking the law, you should be okay using Tor.


Can you be tracked while using Tor?

There are ways that someone could track you even if you use Tor. Cybercriminals might be able to see what you are doing if they take over the exit node you are using or if they have control over your internet service provider (ISP) or the website you are visiting.

Be cautious about the websites you visit and use a VPN with Tor to lower your chances of others monitoring your activity.


Do you need a VPN for Tor?

You do not need a VPN to access Tor, but using one can provide additional security and privacy while accessing the Tor browser. A study done in 2018 by the Journal of Physics proved this combination can help enhance your privacy and guard against unwanted monitoring.[1]

A quality VPN can add another layer of protection by encrypting your Internet connection before it reaches the Tor network. Just make sure you know how to configure a VPN to avoid misconfiguration issues that might lead to leaks.


Is it illegal to access the dark web?

The dark web is not illegal, but it is often where illegal stuff happens. People sell drugs, weapons, stolen data like Social Security numbers, and hacking tools on the dark web, which is against the law in most places. Following your local and national laws should help you avoid legal issues.

Bottom line: Is Tor safe to use?

In a nutshell, the Tor browser is safe for the everyday person. Whistleblowers, journalists, or someone under an authoritarian regime often use Tor along with extra tools for online security, which helps them achieve enhanced privacy and anonymity.

You can further improve your online security while using Tor browser by connecting to a VPN, downloading Tor from the official source, keeping the Tor browser updated, disabling browser plugins, avoiding revealing personal information, watching for phishing attacks, using HTTPS connections, and understanding the risk that comes with surfing the dark web.

Now you have the knowledge and resources available to use Tor safely. It is a powerful privacy platform with pros and cons, so consider your level of need before accessing the dark web.

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Author Details
Cheyenne Lightfoot is a freelance content writer specializing in the intersection between identity and access management and user privacy. As an account executive, she has helped small-to-medium-sized businesses prevent data breaches, safeguard sensitive information, and achieve compliance with passwordless multi-factor authentication software.


[1] Anonymity Communication VPN and Tor: A Comparative Study