How to Safely Access the Dark Web in 2023 (An Expert‘s Guide)

Have you heard about the dark web but aren‘t quite sure how to access it safely and anonymously? As an experienced cybersecurity professional, allow me to walk you through the steps to securely use this hidden part of the internet.

The dark web is an encrypted network only accessible through specialized software like the Tor browser. It is used by people who want complete privacy online, including activists, journalists, and whistleblowers.

Yes, the dark web does enable criminal activity. But it also provides a safe haven for many legitimate uses. You just need the right tools and knowledge to avoid the dangerous elements.

In this comprehensive guide, I will cover:

  • What exactly the dark web is and its key differences from the surface web
  • Step-by-step instructions to access the dark web safely using Tor and a VPN
  • How to choose the best VPN for optimal anonymity
  • Essential security tools to enhance your privacy
  • Assessing risks and legality of dark web access
  • And much more…

Let‘s get started.

Demystifying the Dark Web

The internet is like an iceberg – the part you interact with everyday is just the tip visible above water. Beneath lies the massive deep web and the dark web that make up for the majority of internet content.

To understand why the dark web exists, we need to first differentiate between the surface web and the deep web.

The Surface Web

This refers to the internet that is indexed by search engines and readily accessible through browsers. The content here is all public and visible to anyone.

According to statistics, the surface web only comprises about 4% of the entire internet. This includes web pages, blogs, shopping sites etc. that search engines can crawl.

The Deep Web

This makes up about 90% of the internet and contains content that can‘t be indexed by search engines. Deep web content sits behind paywalls, logins and dynamic pages.

Examples are your social media feeds, bank account portals, subscription sites, databases etc. The deep web isn‘t completely closed off and some content is accessible to the public through memberships.

The Dark Web

This final slice comprises the remaining portion of the internet. The dark web refers to encrypted networks and websites that ensure complete anonymity for users.

Instead of .com or .org domains, dark web sites use specialized extensions like .onion. You need configured software like The Onion Router (Tor) browser to access dark web content.

The dark web allows internet use without surveillance and censorship. This enables many legitimate uses like anonymous whistleblowing. But it also harbors unlawful activities.

Now that you understand the landscape, let‘s see how to actually access the dark web yourself.

4 Steps to Safely Access the Dark Web

Gaining anonymous access to the dark web is pretty straightforward. You just need two essential tools – a VPN and the Tor browser. Here‘s what to do:

Step 1: Download and Connect a VPN

The first step is to get a VPN (virtual private network) to hide your real IP address and encrypt traffic between your device and the internet. Here are two reasons why a VPN is vital:

  1. It prevents your internet service provider from knowing you use Tor to access the dark web. Certain governments closely monitor Tor traffic as well.

  2. The VPN provides an added layer of encryption on top of what Tor offers. This protects you against malware and eavesdropping attempts when browsing the dark web.

When picking a VPN for dark web use, ensure it has a strict no-logging policy and uses strong encryption protocols. Based on my research and tests, I recommend NordVPN for the best combination of security, speed, and reliability.

Other good options are Surfshark and ExpressVPN. Avoid free VPNs as they often lack encryption and keep usage logs.

Once you‘ve installed the VPN app, connect to a server in a private-friendly country like Switzerland or Iceland. Make sure the app shows you are protected before moving to the next step.

Step 2: Download and Setup Tor Browser

The free Tor browser allows you to access dark web sites with .onion domains anonymously. Head to to download it directly. Avoid third-party sites that could be distributing compromised versions with malware.

Tor works by randomly routing your traffic through a minimum of three of its volunteer-run servers (called nodes or relays). At each node, a layer of encryption is added to mask data about the original source.

This multi-hop architecture ensures anonymity by not revealing your IP address or physical location to any website or network observer.

After downloading Tor, launch the browser – it will take some time to connect on first use as it finds routes through the node network. Be patient.

Once connected, Tor generates a new virtual IP address and you can start accessing dark web sites by entering .onion addresses in the browser.

Step 3: Find Dark Web Links

One challenge with the dark web is discovery. Search engines like Google don‘t index hidden dark web sites. So how do you find working .onion links? Here are some options I recommend:

  • Hidden Wikis – These contain large directories of tested dark web links. The Ultimate Hidden Wiki is a good starting point. Access hidden wikis using Tor.

  • Reddit – Subreddits like r/onions have threads where users submit dark web links. But use caution as some links could be dangerous.

  • Dark web search engines – Search engines like Torch, DuckDuckGo (in Tor mode), Grams etc. index dark web content and are relatively safer to find hidden sites.

  • Dark web news sites – These collect and publish dark web links into various categories and topics. Try Dark Web News and The Hidden Wiki News Hub.

Step 4: Practice Safe Browsing Habits

The dark web does contain many legitimate sites. But always remain vigilant when clicking links and avoid suspicious sites altogether. Here are my top safety tips:

  • Don‘t purchase anything illegal – that can get you in serious trouble. Avoid marketplaces selling drugs, weapons etc.

  • Watch out for scams that are designed to steal your money and information. Take nothing at face value. Verify sites before entering any data.

  • Disable JavaScript in Tor settings to prevent vulnerabilities like clickjacking and cross-site tracking which could reveal your identity.

  • If accessing extremely sensitive content, consider using a "burner" or disposable device that can be factory reset later to remove all traces. Don‘t login with personal accounts.

And there you have it! With Tor over a VPN, you can now browse the dark web privately. Next, let‘s look at how to pick the right VPN for maximum anonymity.

Choosing the Best VPN for the Dark Web

Since a VPN forms the cornerstone of dark web security, you want to choose the best service tailored for anonymous browsing. Here are the top factors I would look for:

Does the VPN have a strict no-logging policy?

VPNs that don‘t keep activity logs can‘t reveal any user data if compelled. NordVPN for example underwent a third-party audit confirming its zero-logging policy.

Does it offer robust encryption standards?

Strong AES 256-bit encryption is a must. Also look for support of the latest WireGuard protocol. VPNs should use perfect forward secrecy and other protections like a kill switch.

Does the VPN provider offer onion/obfuscated servers?

These specialty servers can hide the fact that you are using a VPN in the first place. They prevent VPN blocking and throttling when accessing the dark web through Tor.

How many server locations does the VPN have?

More locations means you can spread dark web access across different jurisdictions for better privacy. Top VPNs like ExpressVPN have 3,000+ servers worldwide.

Does the VPN work in authoritarian countries?

If you need to bypass censorship the VPN should reliably work in countries like China and Russia with harsh internet controls.

How many simultaneous connections does the VPN allow?

More is better for connecting devices. While on the dark web, running the VPN on your router protects all connected devices.

Does the VPN accept anonymous payment methods?

To better preserve privacy, the VPN should allow payments via gift cards and cryptocurrencies without requiring personal identification.

Based on these criteria, these are my top 3 recommended VPNs for safe dark web access in 2023:

1. NordVPN – Excellent all-rounder, high security, obfuscated servers to bypass VPN blocks.

2. ExpressVPN – Fast speeds, wide server network, works reliably in China.

3. Surfshark – Affordable plans with unlimited devices supported. Has obfuscated servers.

I suggest trying out a VPN with a money-back guarantee to test if performance and features fit your needs before committing long-term.

Advanced Privacy Tools for the Dark Web

I‘ve covered the two essentials – Tor and a VPN – you need to get started on the dark web safely. But here are some additional tools you can utilize for enhanced privacy:

encrypted email

Never use your personal email address when signing up for dark web services. Instead get a secure encrypted email account from ProtonMail, Tutanota or similar providers. This prevents your identity from being exposed if credentials are lost.

PGP encryption

Consider using PGP encryption for sending private messages and securing sensitive files. PGP generates a public-private key pair to allow content to be signed and decrypted only by intended recipients.

cryptocurrency wallets

To make anonymous payments and purchases on the dark web, you‘ll need bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies. Set up a crypto wallet on a device not connected to your identity to enable this.

disposable devices

If accessing risky content, use a cheap disposable device instead of your personal computer or phone. This isolates malware and other vulnerabilities from your main gadgets.

firewall and antivirus

Don‘t rely solely on Tor security protections. Run reputed antivirus like Bitdefender and enable a firewall for defense-in-depth when downloading files over the dark web.

dark web forums

Forums like Dread provide a relatively safer space for discussions around dark web news, technology, legal topics etc. Seek advice but avoid shady forums altogether.

With the right skills and tools, the dark web can be accessed safely. But ultimately your online habits matter more than anything else.

Assessing Risks and Legality of Dark Web Access

Given all the ominous warnings, you may be wondering – is accessing the dark web even legal? Is it safe?

Let‘s tackle the legality question first. In most countries, merely accessing the dark web is not illegal. You retain protections like free speech and privacy. However, using it for clearly illegal activities can get you prosecuted.

On that note, here are some risks to keep in mind:

  • Malware – Downloading files or clicking suspicious links can infect devices with malware designed to steal data.

  • Scams – Many dark websites are designed to steal money through fraudulent offers. Avoid purchases from unverified vendors.

  • Hacking – Your IP address and identity could get revealed if proper precautions like VPNs are not used. This can lead to cyber attacks.

  • Questionable content – Parts of the dark web host unethical and straight up criminal content. Avoid accidentally accessing such material.

However, the dark web isn‘t all shady. For instance, WikiLeaks and other whistleblower sites rely on it to protect sources. Some legitimate uses are:

  • Anonymity – The dark web allows internet use impervious to surveillance, protecting free speech. Dissidents rely on it.

  • Uncensored access – Citizens in repressive regimes use the dark web to bypass internet filters and access news freely.

So in summary, the dark web itself isn‘t inherently good or bad. It provides tools that can be used and misused. But with enough precaution, you can minimize risks.

Closing Thoughts

I hope this detailed guide provided you a comprehensive overview of the dark web and actionable steps to access it securely. The key takeaways are:

  • Use the Tor browser for anonymous access to dark web sites

  • Always connect a VPN before accessing Tor for an added encryption layer

  • Carefully research before clicking any links to avoid malware and scams

  • Use disposable devices and emails for accessing sensitive dark websites

While parts of the dark web are risky, it opens up possibilities like free access to information that oppressive regimes try to censor. So remain vigilant, but don‘t let fear stop you from venturing in. The right knowledge is power!

Stay safe. And feel free to reach out if you have any other questions.

Written by Jason Striegel

C/C++, Java, Python, Linux developer for 18 years, A-Tech enthusiast love to share some useful tech hacks.