The proxy vs VPN debate addresses two different methods of accessing the internet anonymously. Both make it appear as if you’ve established a connection from a different IP address by routing traffic through a remote server. This may be particularly important if you’re concerned about the privacy of your personal data and your browsing habits.
However, while these technologies do similar things, they don’t work in the same way, and knowing the difference can have significant implications for your online security. In this article, we take a closer look at the differences between proxies and VPNs, how they can be best used, and who will find them most useful. Let’s see how they stack up against one another.
What do proxies do?
A proxy is a type of server that acts as a middle-man for internet traffic and data. It redirects internet traffic from a particular application to a different location before routing it to its eventual destination. By masking your IP address, it gives the impression that the traffic originated somewhere else.
There are various types of proxies, each with different features. For example, a proxy may be what is referred to as “transparent.” With a transparent proxy, the connection between your computer and the internet is intercepted. You might request to view a certain website page, but this is not delivered to you directly from that website’s server, but rather via a transparent proxy running on your network. However, because your experience of using that website is exactly the same, the proxy is “transparent”—you are possibly even entirely unaware that it is there. However, the owner of the network on which the transparent proxy is running will be able to monitor your activity.
On the other hand, with a non-transparent proxy, you will have been required to first configure your browser to send its requests explicitly to the proxy’s IP address and sometimes to enter authentication details in your settings.
What do VPNs do?
VPN stands for “virtual private network.” Similar to a proxy, a VPN also acts as a go-between for internet traffic and data. The main distinction is how they utilize encryption. VPNs tend to be significantly more secure than proxies because, at the same time as concealing your IP address, they also build an encryption tunnel between your computer and the server, making data interception nearly impossible. NordVPN (opens in new tab)and ExpressVPN (opens in new tab) are powerful examples of platforms that do this.
It’s also important to note that a VPN protects your entire computer, redirecting and encrypting all your internet traffic rather than just that of a single application, as in the case of a proxy.
A VPN, therefore, serves as a secure gateway to the internet. Most popular devices, such as your phone, laptop, and desktop, can run VPN software. One thing to keep in mind is that a VPN service provider is not an internet service provider (ISP). To access the internet, you’ll still need an ISP—your VPN will run atop that connection.
Choosing a proxy or VPN
Deciding on whether to use a proxy or a VPN will depend on your individual needs. Let’s use video streaming as an example. If you’re out of the country, but want to stream video content that is exclusively available to users in the United States, you could use a US-based proxy server to access the streaming site. Certain platforms like SmartProxy (opens in new tab)excel at this, but some providers, like Netflix, are starting to block proxies.
Proxies can also help prevent users from being bombarded with unwanted advertisements, or to avoid the capture of IP-specific data. Large organizations often find transparent proxies especially beneficial. For example, they can be used in schools to restrict access to age-inappropriate websites, or businesses might use them to block the use of distracting social media platforms.
However, proxies are not suitable for activities such as online banking and shopping. Here, your security may be jeopardized if your personal details aren’t safeguarded—and you’ll need encryption for this. A VPN is therefore a superior option for users who want to share sensitive information or engage in other activities where it’s important to keep data safe, such as torrenting. They’re particularly useful when using public WiFi.
VPN companies also tend to be more proficient when it comes to accessing geo-locked content, as they provide a higher level of online anonymity and security. For this reason, a VPN may be best overall if you want to watch Netflix or Hulu from a different region.
One downside is that due to the encryption process, the use of a VPN can sometimes cause a noticeable decrease in internet speed. However, there are numerous fast VPN applications available, with speeds improving all the time. Because data encryption places a greater demand on your device’s resources, VPNs can also be a slightly more expensive option than proxy servers. There are, however, many excellent inexpensive VPNs to choose from, as well as some good free ones.
Proxies and VPNs share similarities in that they both employ the use of a remote server to mask your IP address and redirect internet traffic through it. The major difference between the two is encryption, and it is for this reason that VPNs far outperform proxy servers (opens in new tab)when it comes to secure browsing, especially on public WiFi networks.
With a huge range of options available, it’s not always easy to choose the perfect software for you. To help you in the decision-making process, we’ve recommended some of our favorites. Take a look at our guides to the best VPN services and the best proxy services (opens in new tab) of 2022.