Tails: What Is It and can I Use It as a VPN? (2020)Last Updated by Kate Hawkins on September 01, 2020
Tails is a free service that promises to keep you 100% anonymous online. However, after digging deeper into it, I discovered that it won’t actually completely protect your privacy.
During my tests, I found that connecting to the internet with Tails doesn’t hide you completely. Your ISP can’t see what you’re doing, but when you connect it can see that you’re using Tails (and Tor). The problem with this is that frequent use might alert your ISP and result in your connection being put under surveillance.
The best option for maximum anonymity and privacy is to pair Tails with a reliable VPN service like NordVPN. This gives you added encryption when you connect and you can make use of its other security features too. NordVPN has a generous offer to try its service risk-free for 30 days, so you can test its state-of-the-art security features yourself.
What is Tails?
Tails is a full operating system that you can set up on your computer through a USB stick or disk drive. It’s similar to Windows or macOS because it has pre-configured applications (like a web browser, messenger client, office suite, and more) but Tails has a specific focus on keeping your activity secure.
It’s known as an “amnesiac system” because it doesn’t store any activity logs and leaves no trace of itself on your device (unless you specifically configure it to). When you set it up, it connects with the hardware of your computer (the USB or disk drive) but doesn’t interact with your operating system — so there’s no way for it to create a record of its existence. As soon as you eject the USB and restart the computer, it’s like Tails was never there.
Tails lets you connect to the internet using Tor (The Onion Router) to create a secure, anonymous connection. Tor is a worldwide network that bounces your connection through three different computers on the network (known as nodes) before connecting to a website.
Your connection changes IP addresses each time it connects to a new node, and each node only knows the IP addresses that your connection came from and is going to. This means that by the time it reaches the third node, your original IP address is entirely obscured. Every ten minutes or so your path is also randomly reassigned, which means it’s sent to bounce between a different set of 3 nodes.
Is the Tails Browser Really Secure?
Tor (and the Tails browser, by extension) is designed more for anonymity than privacy. What I mean by this is that while no one will be able to track who you are, the contents of what you’re sending are not so well protected.
Your connection is encrypted as it is bounced between the three nodes, but at the last one where your connection meets the internet (also known as the exit node), it becomes unencrypted. This means that anyone watching that exit node can see and access what information you’re sending through — although they will not know who you are or where your connection is coming from. So if you’re sending the contents of a private email or data containing your name, this could be traced back to you. Adding a layer of VPN protection, which encrypts this section of your connection, solves the problem.
In addition, while the internet can’t see your true location, Tor can — when you connect to Tor, it can detect your IP address, which could leak if Tor is ever compromised.
I’m also concerned by Tails’ lack of leak protection for its browser. There’s no additional DNS or IP leak protection to secure your location information if there’s a security hole or error with an application — something I’d expect from a browser designed to protect my anonymity. This is a problem that using a VPN fixes — premium VPN services like NordVPN have DNS and IP leak protection as standard, keeping your information private.
Should You Use a VPN With Tails Browser and Tor?
There is some debate about whether it’s a good idea to combine Tails and a VPN — Tails actually suggests not using a VPN.
According to Tails, using a VPN presents a permanent entry or exit point — this means that instead of being randomly assigned different nodes each time you connect, all of your connection is funneled through one static IP address via your VPN. When using Tor, the system won’t know your true IP address because of all the nodes your connection bounces between, but if you add a VPN your VPN provider will have access to that information.
This means that if you want to use a VPN with Tor, you need to take steps to protect your privacy. Make sure your chosen VPN doesn’t keep user logs and has robust security features. Using a premium VPN in the right way with Tails will give you added anonymity and keep your personal data secure.
No matter what you do, you should not use a free VPN with Tails. Free VPNs often have weak encryption which makes your personal data susceptible to leaking. Many of them will also sell your personal information to third parties to make money, which defeats all the work you’ve done to stay anonymous using a VPN and Tails.
Tor is also notoriously slow — as there are several “hops” between your device and the exit node, you can find that your internet speed decreases considerably when you’re connected. Some think that adding a VPN encrypted connection can slow speeds even more, but I’ve found that using a quality VPN with fast servers can actually marginally improve connection speed.
Quick Guide: 4 Easy Steps to Set Up Tails Browser with a VPN
- Get a VPN. I recommend NordVPN for its dedicated Onion over VPN servers and easy router setup.
- Set up the VPN with your router. Your VPN will have dedicated setup guides on its website.
- Connect to a VPN server. I recommend choosing a server that is close to your physical location as that will give you the fastest speeds.
- Open the Tails browser and start browsing online anonymously! Your connection will pass through your encrypted router and Tor before reaching the sites and services you want to access.
The 3 Best VPNs to Use With Tails Browser
- 5,000+ servers in 59 countries plus 2 dedicated Onion over VPN servers in Switzerland and the Netherlands
- Military-grade encryption protects your personal information
- Guaranteed zero-logs policy verified by independent audit
- Super-fast connections for high-speed browsing
- 30-day money-back guarantee
NordVPN takes the top spot for Tails because its state of the art security features ensure your anonymity and privacy when you’re connected. DNS and IP leak protection secure your location data so that your online activity can’t be traced back to you. An automatic kill switch blocks the internet if your secure VPN connection becomes unstable — essential for securing your activity when you’re using Tor.
I was also impressed to discover that NordVPN’s zero-logs policy has been confirmed in an audit by PricewaterhouseCoopers. This means you can be sure that no data that passes through the encrypted connection will be kept around for ISPs or government agents to find.
My tests showed NordVPN has excellent speeds. I ran several speed tests with NordVPN configured to my router and connected to the Tor network. I chose a local server (UK #1892) to make sure that my speeds were as fast as possible. I was surprised that my speeds averaged 21.62Mbps across 10 connection tests — this was faster than I anticipated and meant I could browse the web without having to waste time waiting for pages to load.
I found NordVPN really easy to use with Tails, too. Getting NordVPN set up on my router was simple as I could follow the step-by-step guide on the website without any hassle. You can check to see if your router is compatible on the NordVPN website as there’s a full list of configurable models. If your router isn’t compatible, NordVPN is easily configurable for a mobile hotspot connection, so you can protect your computer when running Tails that way instead!
Another bonus is that NordVPN has “Onion Over VPN” servers that connect you directly to the Tor network. These are useful if you want to connect quickly or don’t have time to set up the Tails OS. However, while this method is convenient, it provides less protection. My web searches and entered passwords were saved by my browser (Chrome) after I disconnected, meaning that if someone wanted to hack my computer they would be able to see my online activity easily. I also didn’t have access to features that Tails provides like a secure email or messaging system. For true anonymity and privacy using NordVPN and Tails combined is still the better option.
You can see how convenient and secure NordVPN is by trying it for 30 days risk-free with its money-back guarantee — and you can even pay with cryptocurrency for a truly anonymous experience! I was surprised by how simple it was to get my money refunded, especially after using the service frequently for almost the whole 30 days. I simply contacted NordVPN’s 24/7 live chat and, after the agent asked me to reconsider canceling, stated that I wanted to use the money-back guarantee. The conversation took less than 5 minutes and I had my money back in my account in 7 days.
NordVPN works with: Windows, macOS, Linux, iOS, Android, Chrome, Firefox, Smart TVs, Amazon Fire TV, PlayStation, and routers.
NordVPN also unblocks: Tor browser, Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Sky Go, YouTube TV, BBC iPlayer, HBO, ShowTime, Sling TV, fuboTV, ESPN, Kodi, Crunchyroll, and more.
- 3,000+ servers in 94 countries and a dedicated .onion site on the Tor network for easy access even when using Tails
- Best-in-class encryption protects your data from prying eyes
- No-logs policy has been verified in an independent audit
- Fast servers minimize slowdown associated with using Tor
- 30-day money-back guarantee
ExpressVPN’s high-quality security features are some of the best I’ve seen in all the VPNs I’ve tried. It has DNS leak protection and an automatic kill switch to protect you from any potential data leaks. It passed every IP, DNS, and WebRTC leak test I’ve performed while connected to Tails. My WebRTC leak tests always showed my location as that of the US VPN server I was connected to rather than my true location (in the UK). This really reassured me that any identifying information would not be revealed when I used ExpressVPN together with Tails.
While many VPNs claim to have a strict no-logs policy, ExpressVPN has backed up its claims with real action. In 2017, it stood up to Turkish authorities who requested information about a user during a murder investigation. The authorities were unable to find any private user data — even after seizing one of ExpressVPN’s servers — because all of that information simply did not exist. With this kind of track record, you can rest assured that your online activity will remain private and protected when you’re connected to ExpressVPN.
Some countries have extremely strict internet censorship and block access to the Tor network. There are very few VPNs that work in China, Russia, Iran, Turkey, and other countries with restrictive internet regulations — ExpressVPN is one that does, again because of its impressive encryption. Countries like these, as well as some networks like schools, offices, and even your ISP, can restrict your access to the Tor network. By using ExpressVPN to connect to servers outside of the network or country, you can easily access Tor through Tails no matter where you are.
My tests showed ExpressVPN was a little slower than NordVPN, with an average speed of 17.05Mbps. Even though this was not the speed I usually expect from the provider (it can usually achieve at least 50Mbps when used on its own), it was fast enough to browse online with very little lag. Pages on the Tails browser loaded almost instantly, just like I was using my standard browser.
ExpressVPN is a slightly pricier VPN option, but I think the peace of mind you get with its premium security features is worth the price. If you want to stay completely anonymous during sign-up, you have the option to pay for the VPN using Bitcoin.
Don’t just take my word for it — you can use ExpressVPN’s 30-day money-back guarantee to try the service yourself risk-free. I subscribed to ExpressVPN and tested it for over 25 days before requesting a refund. The live chat agent didn’t ask me to troubleshoot or give a reason for my cancelation — my refund was processed quickly and I had my money back in a week.
ExpressVPN works with: Windows, macOS, Linux, iOS, Android, Chrome, Firefox, Smart TVs, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo Switch, and routers.
ExpressVPN also unblocks: Tor browser, Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Sky Go, YouTube TV, BBC iPlayer, HBO, ShowTime, DAZN, ESPN, Kodi, Crunchyroll, and more.
- 6,200+ servers in 89 countries for secure global connections
- Military-grade encryption, DNS and IP address leak protection for total anonymity
- No-logs policy — passed a security audit and renews certification yearly
- Fast server connections — optimized servers for streaming and torrenting
- 45-day money-back guarantee
CyberGhost uses the same encryption as what’s used by the military, meaning if any cybercriminals tried to hack your connection, all they’d see would be a string of random numbers and letters instead of any of your personal information. This, combined with an automatic kill switch and DNS leak protection, keeps your activity and information secure. During my tests with Tails, CyberGhost kept my DNS and IP address totally private — there were no leaks at all!
It’s easy to configure CyberGhost to work with Tails through your account page on its website. When I was running Tails on my laptop, I signed into my CyberGhost account using my iPhone XS to configure the router connection and was able to start browsing Tails in practically no time at all.
I tested CyberGhost and Tails on local servers in the UK to get the fastest possible speeds, as connecting to the web using Tor will inevitably cause some slowdown. I ran speed tests with both Tor over VPN and VPN over Tor. With the former I achieved 10.67Mbps, but I was only able to get just over 4Mbps with VPN over Tor.
CyberGhost is the most affordable VPN on this list, making it an even better option for beginner users. It lets you pay with cash (in select physical stores) and Bitcoin to ensure there’s no record of your activity. You can take advantage of CyberGhost’s 45-day money-back guarantee to try the service out for yourself. It’s a risk-free way to make sure CyberGhost is right for you and it’s easy to get your money back — just contact the live chat, ask for a refund, and a customer support agent will process it for you with no questions asked.
CyberGhost works with: Windows, macOS, Linux, iOS, Android, Chrome, Firefox, Smart TVs, Apple TV, Xbox, PlayStation, and routers.
CyberGhost also unblocks: Tor browser, Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime, HBO, ShowTime, DAZN, ESPN, Kodi, Crunchyroll, and more.
How to Use a VPN with Tails
There are 2 ways you can connect with both a VPN and Tails:
Tails and Tor Over VPN
This method involves connecting to the VPN server before connecting to the Tails OS and its browser. It’s the easiest way to combine the benefits of VPN encryption and Tor security.
As most VPNs aren’t compatible with the Tails OS, the best way to get VPN protection is to configure your VPN with your router. That way, all connections (including Tails and Tor) will be routed through the secure VPN server first. If you find that your router isn’t compatible, it’s also possible to set up a mobile hotspot connection with your VPN. You can connect to the hotspot through Tails and be covered by the VPN encryption.
Connecting to a VPN first prevents the Tor network from recording your IP address because it sees your traffic as coming from the VPN server rather than your device location. Having VPN encryption between your device and the Tor network protects you in the event that the network is compromised — anyone attacking the network still has to get through the VPN’s encryption to get to your personal information.
In addition, because the VPN encrypts your traffic, it also means you can connect to the Tor network even if access to it is restricted by your ISP, government internet regulations, or your local network. This is handy if you’re at the office, in an airport, or somewhere similar.
The disadvantage of this method is that your Tor exit point remains unencrypted, so anyone spying on the exit node can still see your traffic. Also, while Tor can’t see your true location, your VPN provider can — which is why it’s important to choose a top-quality VPN with a strict no-logs policy and reliable security features like NordVPN.
VPN Over Tor and Tails
This method adds the VPN encryption after you connect to Tails, meaning your connection between the Tor exit node and the internet is protected. This stops anyone watching the exit node from being able to see your data passing through it.
This method also allows you to access sites and services that aren’t available on the Tor network (for example, online shopping sites often block Tor exit nodes).
However, in my experience, this method has more downsides than positives. VPN over Tor is complicated to set up — it involves registering with an OpenVPN provider, downloading VPN certificates (which act as authentication for the connection and the VPN client), and creating configuration files.
You’ll also find that many premium VPNs, including ExpressVPN, don’t support this method because it won’t improve your privacy. The exit node can’t see your traffic, but the VPN can — and while a quality VPN has a strict no-logs policy and doesn’t monitor you when connected, you have to trust that your VPN isn’t looking at your activity.
Using VPN over Tor means you won’t be able to access any sites that are exclusively on the Tor network, like SearX and Hidden Wiki. As the traffic passing through the exit node is encrypted by the VPN and can’t be identified as being on the Tor network, those sites will deny permission to enter.
If the network is compromised at any point, you also risk your IP address being leaked — and given that the US government has been trying to deanonymize Tor users in the last few years, this is potentially a huge compromise to your data security.
Ultimately, using Tor over VPN is going to give you the best anonymity and privacy although you will experience some slowdown due to the additional “hops” your connection makes. As long as you use a reliable VPN service like NordVPN, which never stores logs and has military-grade encryption, you can rest assured that your data will stay protected when you’re connected.
Use A VPN and Tails Browser Together for the Strongest Protection
Right now there isn’t a guaranteed way to ensure total anonymity and privacy when you’re online — but using a VPN with the Tails browser is one of the best ways to get as close to it as possible. By protecting your location data with a VPN and bouncing your connection through the Tor network, it becomes almost impossible to trace your online traffic back to you.
To avoid compromising your data, make sure you only use a trusted, secure VPN like NordVPN. With its guaranteed zero-logs policy and military-grade encryption, you can be sure that your data is protected when you’re connected to its servers. Plus, its simple router configuration guides mean you can start browsing with Tails quickly and easily.
I always like to try out a service before I subscribe, and NordVPN has a 30-day money-back guarantee you can use to see if it works for you. You get full access to all of its servers and other security features (like CyberSec malware protection) for 30 days — if you’re not totally satisfied, it takes less than 5 minutes to request a refund.