The way most people access the dark web and hidden onion servers is through the Tor browser. If you use a VPN however, there is a better option, you can use Tor over your VPN. By connecting to your VPN then connecting to the Tor network you get an extra layer of privacy to the Tor network.
What is Tor?
Tor is a privacy network based on a similar concept to a VPN but with many extra privacy and anonymity features. Most people access Tor through a specially modified Firefox browser called Tor Browser. To access the Tor network your browser connects through three randomly selected Tor nodes.
One “Entry” node is used to first connect to the network, it only knows your IP address. the final node is called the “Exit” node, it only knows what website or hidden onion service you’re connecting to. The middle node is called the “Relay” node, it is designed to stop the entry and exit nodes from being able to directly communicate with each other, making it more difficult to associate requests with users.
When connected to the Tor network, normal websites can be accessed, hidden onion services are also accessible. An onion service, formally known as a hidden service, can only be accessed through the Tor network. Onion services can only be accessed through their onion addresses, which are only available through an encrypted distributed system. The IP address an onion service is always hidden.
Why use a VPN to Access Tor?
When you connect to Tor, your ISP is able to tell, in the same way that it can tell you are connected to any VPN. Your ISP can tell that you have connected to a Tor entry node and how much data you are sending and receiving, but not what web or onion service you’re connecting to.
Connecting to Tor through a VPN prevents your ISP or anyone else from knowing that you’re even accessing Tor. Accessing Tor over a VPN also hides your home IP address from the Tor network, the entry node only sees the IP address of the VPN server.
One key thing to note is that you should only ever start your VPN then connect to Tor, rather than the other way around. If you connect to Tor first, then your VPN, you’ll end up removing the privacy protections of using Tor over a VPN and still have the slowdown from using Tor. To get the best experience with all the privacy advantages, you should instead connect to Tor ONLY once you’re already connected to your VPN.
NordVPN specifically offers an “Onion over VPN” service that will automatically connect you securely to the Tor network. With Onion over VPN it is possible to access onion services with any normal browser. It is, however, still recommended that you use Tor Browser, as it includes a number of modifications and pre-installed extensions designed to ensure you have the best privacy protections possible.
NordVPN not only supports access to the Tor network but has tried to make it as simple as possible.
Tip: Be careful using the Onion over VPN service and Tor Browser at the same time, you may end up connecting through the Tor network twice. This could cause a significant reduction in your internet speed, and it doesn’t offer any benefits – one is enough.
ExpressVPN doesn’t have any specific features for Tor but provides a number of guides and information on Tor and how to use it securely through its VPN. ExpressVPN also offers its website through an onion service, so it’s perfect for someone who wants to set things up for themselves without relying on ready-made services for Tor.
Surfshark doesn’t have any specific features regarding the Tor network, however, they do have a support page with advice for using Tor over its VPN. Surfshark customer support agents are also able to help if you have any issues related to accessing Tor over its VPN. Being a smaller service, they are still a popular choice for Tor users.
What to avoid
VPN services that log user connection data should be avoided by those looking for the highest levels of privacy protection. Some examples include HideMyAss and PureVPN, both of which have historically handed logs over to law enforcement agencies.
In general, you should avoid free VPN services, especially when your privacy is important to you. Free services try to make money somehow, generally through tracking and monetising your data.