The Essentials

Proxy vs. VPN: What’s the Difference?

Callum Tennent
Updated

You can use a VPN or a proxy to unblock websites, but you can't rely on a proxy to protect your privacy. In this guide, we’ll look at the difference between a VPN and a proxy server and explain the pros and cons of both.

Illustration of two people choosing between a VPN and a proxy.

VPNs and proxy servers are both great tools for hiding your IP address and accessing blocked content. Many people refer to them interchangeably because they help to achieve similar goals. However, the way they accomplish these goals is completely different.

Proxies and VPNs both use a remote server to hide your IP address and make it appear as if you are browsing from a different location.

While both tools can hide your location, the level of privacy, security, and anonymity they offer varies wildly.

If you’re looking to unblock a website or hide your IP address and you care about your online privacy and security, you need to be sure you’re using the right tool for the job.

In this guide we’ll look at the difference between a proxy server and a VPN. We’ll cover the potential risks and explain exactly when you should use each option.

For a direct comparison, you can skip straight to our VPN vs. Proxy Comparison Table.

What Is a Proxy and How Does It Work?

A proxy server acts as a middleman between you and the website you’re visiting.

If you’re using a proxy, your internet traffic will flow through the proxy server on the way to the web address you’ve requested. The proxy server will connect to the website on your behalf, retrieve the contents of the web page, and then forward this information to you.

Diagram of how a proxy server works

The main benefit of using a proxy is that you don’t connect directly to the websites you visit. If configured correctly, this means that websites won’t be able to see your personal IP address. Instead, they will see the IP address and location of the proxy server, keeping your real location a secret.

This means you can use a proxy server located in a different country to access websites that are geographically restricted. Some proxies even allow you to choose the location you’d like to connect from.

This makes proxies great for simple tasks like watching region-restricted videos or bypassing blocks on a specific website.

Most people use web proxies in their internet browser. You simply enter the URL you want to visit and it’ll take you there in the same browser window.

A web proxy will:

  • Act as a middleman between you and the website you’re visiting
  • Hide your IP address from the website you visit
  • Bypass geographical restrictions on a specific website
  • Bypass IP address blocks on a specific website

Good proxy servers can also improve performance by saving copies of a website locally. This means that if one hundred people ask for the same website simultaneously, the proxy server only needs to send one request to that website. This process is called proxy caching.

Proxies only work on the application level, meaning they will only reroute the traffic coming from the browser you’re using the proxy with. More importantly, the majority of proxies don’t encrypt your traffic.

No encryption means you are sending your requests as plain text. Anyone who is watching will be able to collect your usernames, passwords, and browsing activity.

What Is the Difference Between a Proxy and a VPN?

The main differences between a proxy and a VPN are:

  1. Encryption. A VPN will encrypt your traffic to protect you from ISP tracking, government surveillance, and spying on open networks. Most proxies do not encrypt your traffic, so you shouldn’t use them to handle sensitive data.
  2. Coverage. VPNs are installed on your device and reroute all of your traffic, including any background applications. Proxies usually only reroute the traffic of one specific window.
  3. Price. It’s expensive to maintain a reliable VPN network, so a good VPN service usually comes at a cost. While free VPN services do exist, they often come with data caps, slow speeds, or intrusive logging policies. By contrast, web proxies are mostly free.
  4. Safety. Both VPNs and proxies can be dangerous. A poor-quality proxy or VPN can expose you to malicious scripts, malware, and aggressive advertising. Some proxies and VPNs even exist with the sole aim of tracking your online activity. You can learn more about the dangers of free VPN services in our Free VPN Risk Index.
  5. Support. VPN services are usually run by large companies with a financial incentive to offer the best service possible. For this reason, they tend to be more reliable than proxies and often have a strong customer support system. Proxies are typically much smaller operations with no real support network.
  6. Speed. Encrypting your data and rerouting your traffic with a VPN can reduce your connection speed somewhat. That said, the fastest VPNs on the market should have a negligible impact. Good proxies can sometimes offer better overall performance thanks to web caching.

VPNs and proxy servers mostly differ when it comes to privacy, security, and support. A VPN will encrypt all of the traffic sent from your device, while a proxy only redirects the traffic sent from your browser window.

A VPN creates a private and secure tunnel between your device and the website or application you’re visiting.

A VPN will reroute your traffic through a private server of your choice and then on to the website you want to visit. Your IP address will change and your browsing data won’t be linked to your real location, making everything you do online much more private.

Depending on your VPN provider, you’ll be able to choose from dozens or even hundreds of VPN server locations around the world. This means you can trick websites into thinking you’re browsing from a specific city or country.

Unlike proxy servers, however, a VPN works on the device-level. This means it will protect and redirect all of the traffic coming from your device, not just the traffic coming from your browser window.

More importantly, a VPN also encrypts your internet traffic and prevents third parties like your Internet Service Provider (ISP) from monitoring your browsing activity. It’s for this reason that VPNs are considered privacy tools first and foremost.

By contrast, proxy servers are not considered privacy tools. While they can disguise your IP address, they do not encrypt your traffic. Anyone viewing your data before it reaches the proxy server — your ISP, for example — can see exactly what you’re doing.

It’s important to note that both VPN and proxy providers can log user data such as IP addresses, DNS requests, and connection timestamps. This information can then be passed on to law enforcement agencies, advertisers, or other third parties. To keep your online activity truly private, look for a VPN provider with a strict no-logs policy.

Which Is Better: VPN or Proxy?

Proxy servers are a great option if you need a temporary solution, whereas VPNs have a wider range of long-term privacy and security applications.

If you want to unblock Netflix, for example, you’re better off using a VPN.

Here’s a quick comparison table showing the pros and cons of each option:

VPN vs. Proxy comparison table

In this section, we’ll cover the advantages and disadvantages of proxy servers and VPNs in detail. To skip these pros and cons, you can jump straight to our summary of which tool you should use.

Proxy Server Advantages

Illustration showing the advantages of a proxy server.

  1. Simple Setup. Most proxies require very little configuration. With a web proxy, you simply enter the URL you want to visit and it’ll take you there in the same browser window.
  2. Speed. Proxies typically have very little impact on performance because they don’t encrypt your data. For this reason, they are a very quick way to bypass restrictions on specific websites.
  3. Hides Your IP Address. If configured correctly, a good proxy server will hide your IP address from the website you’re visiting.
  4. Free. Most proxy servers are free to use. There is no bandwidth cost and only a little extra latency.

Proxy Server Disadvantages

illustration showing the disadvantages of a proxy server.

  1. Logging & Malware. Some proxies log user activity and IP addresses, while others make money by injecting ads or malware into web pages. Similarly, a transparent proxy will send the server your IP address and location. You can learn more about this in the final chapter of this guide.
  2. No Encryption. Most proxies will not encrypt your data. This means your ISP, government, or anyone snooping on your network will be able to see your browsing activity.
  3. Application-Specific. Proxies are application-specific: they will only reroute the traffic sent from the browser window you’re using.
  4. No Support. Because most of them are free to use, proxies generally lack the advanced features and customer support network of a high-quality VPN.
  5. VPN Advantages

    illustration showing the advantages of a VPN vs a Proxy

    1. Encryption. VPNs protect your privacy by encrypting your data, making it illegible to your ISP or anyone spying on your network.
    2. Hides Your IP Address. A VPN will assign you a new IP address in your chosen location. This allows you to circumvent censorship or geographical restrictions on certain content.
    3. Advanced Features. Many VPNs come with advanced features including ad-blockers, kill-switches, and obfuscation. These can often help further protect your privacy.
    4. Network-Wide Protection. VPNs encrypt and reroute all of the traffic sent to and from your device, including any applications running in the background.
    5. Accountable Providers. Most VPNs come with a dedicated customer support system in case you run into problems.

    VPN Disadvantages

    illustration showing the disadvantages of a VPN vs. a Proxy

    1. Quality Variation. Using a free VPN can sometimes be more dangerous than using no VPN at all. Some of the most dangerous free services can collect and share your browsing data or inject your device with malware.
    2. Logging Policies. The privacy offered by a VPN service will depend on their logging policy. Some VPNs can collect identifying information like IP addresses or connection timestamps, which can be used to identify users.
    3. Slower Speeds. A VPN can slow down your connection speeds due to the overhead introduced by the encryption protocols. This is negligible with high-quality providers: the better the VPN protocol and remote hardware, the less overhead there is.
    4. More Expensive. A good VPN will cost you a small monthly subscription.

When Should I Use a VPN or Proxy?

Illustration of a decision between a VPN vs a Proxy.

You should use a proxy if you need to hide your your IP address or unblock a website quickly. However, when it comes to sensitive data and serious privacy, you’re better off using a VPN.

When to Use a Proxy

Use a proxy if you need to get around a blocked website quickly and you’re not trying to hide your data from anyone. You can paste the URL into an HTTPS proxy and access that page as a one-off. Most of us can tolerate ads and slow speeds on that basis.

That said, proxies are often unreliable, lacking advanced features, and may even harm your privacy. It would be foolish to use a free proxy and assume that nobody is watching what you’re doing.

Use a proxy if:

    • You need to quickly bypass a geographical restriction.
    • You are not concerned about your privacy or anonymity.
    • You are not transferring sensitive personal data.
    • You need to quickly avoid an IP-based website block.

While proxy servers are not the best for privacy, they’re great if you’re not dealing with any sensitive data. Popular web proxies include Hide.me, HideMyAss, kproxy, and Whoer.

When to Use a VPN

If you need to unblock websites on a regular basis or you’re interested in browsing privately, a VPN is the way to go. VPNs offer a secure, private connection with added layers of protection to keep your data safe, regardless of the security of the network you’re on.

Using a VPN means you can unblock websites, use streaming services, and hide your IP address without being exposed to strange code, content injections, or advertising. You’ll also benefit from the protection of an encrypted tunnel for all of your internet traffic.

The VPN services worth using will come at a cost, but if you’re serious about protecting your privacy, it is a worthy investment.

Use a VPN if:

    • You’re connecting to a public WiFi network.
    • You need a long-term solution for geographical restrictions.
    • You want to protect your activity from ISP or government surveillance.
    • You want a long-term solution for hiding your IP address.

The process of choosing a high-quality VPN is slightly more complicated than selecting a free proxy. If you want to know exactly what features to look for, you can choose from our recommended VPN services or read the dedicated section in What is a VPN?

What Are the Types of Proxy Server?

Proxy servers can be set up to work in lots of different ways. It’s important to understand exactly how your proxy is operating to ensure that it meets your privacy and security needs.

Proxy Connection Protocols

To begin with, it’s important to note the different connection protocols that a proxy server might use. This refers to the set of commands issued between your browser and the proxy server.

There are three types of connection protocol behind the most commonly used proxy servers:

1HTTP Proxy

An HTTP proxy is a simple method of using a remote server to grab a web page via an unencrypted connection.

When using an HTTP proxy, your browser will send a GET request to the proxy server, which will forward this request to the server of the website you’re trying to access.

The web server will only see the proxy connection, and will answer to it as if it was your browser. The proxy will then receive this response and forward it back to you.

This is a fairly transparent process that is not far from communicating with the web server directly. However, it is possible for the proxy owner to add or change content within the data stream. This means you might receive unwelcome advertisements or even malware.

While this kind of proxy will hide your identity and IP from the website you’re visiting, the proxy itself will see everything you do because your data isn’t protected by HTTPS.

2HTTPS/SSL Proxy

HTTPS is the secure extension of the HTTP protocol. As the name suggests, HTTPS proxies work with the HTTPS protocol to send data over the internet.

The same process takes place as with the HTTP proxy, but the data between your computer and the proxy server is protected by TLS encryption.

Anyone with access to your network — including your ISP — will be able to see the domains you are accessing, but not the specific URLs you visit.

While HTTPS proxies can be useful, they are only designed to handle HTTP and HTTPS connections, which make them less functional than a SOCKS proxy.

3SOCKS/SOCKS5 Proxy

SOCKS proxies are more flexible than HTTP or HTTPS proxies. They can handle routing data from a multitude of different sources including HTTP, HTTPS, SMTP (email) and FTP (torrenting).

SOCKS5 is the most recent version of SOCKS. Unlike its predecessors it supports encryption, and also offers authentication methods which provide an additional layer of security.

Username and password authentication is available with SOCKS5, as well as GSS – API authentication. If configured correctly, this means that only authorized users can access a given server.

While SOCKS5 is more flexible and secure than other types of proxy server, it does take a lot more effort to set up. Unless you’re a hardcore torrent user, you might find the time and hassle required to set up and use SOCKS is excessive compared to the simplicity of a VPN.

That said, some VPN services including Private Internet Access, IPVanish, and NordVPN are now providing SOCKS5 proxy servers as an option for their subscribers. This gives you the luxury of being able to easily choose between a VPN server or a SOCKS5 proxy server.

4Transparent Proxies

A transparent proxy will tell the destination website that it is a proxy server. It will still forward your real IP address, which means the website you are visiting will be able to identify your true location.

Transparent proxies are not typically used by consumers for this reason. They’re usually put in place by libraries, businesses, and schools who use the proxy for content filtering or activity monitoring. They can also be used on public wifi to stop users accessing content that would take up too much bandwidth.

Proxy Server Configurations

Proxy servers can configure these protocols in various different ways. Each of these configurations offer a significantly different experience in terms of privacy and security.

1Private and Dedicated Proxy

A private proxy server can only be used by one person at a time. A dedicated proxy is simply a private proxy with a set IP address that never changes. The main goal of these tools is to hide your personal IP address.

Because they can only be used by one party, both private and dedicated proxy servers usually come at a cost.

2Shared and Public Proxy

A shared proxy is a collection of private proxy IP addresses that multiple people can use at once. This is a cheaper alternative to a private proxy because the cost is usually shared amongst a number of users.

Public proxies are also used by multiple people, but they are free to use and much less secure. These proxies have some major security risks. Firstly, you’re sharing a service with an unlimited number of strangers, any of whom could be using the service to conduct illegal activity.

The owner of the public proxy can also easily misuse the data of the users who connect to it. They could sell it to advertisers, or even pass it over to authorities.

webproxy

In short, you have no idea what could be happening to your data once it reaches the proxy server. For this reason, it’s best to avoid public proxies.

3Web Proxy

Web proxies allow you to use a browser-based form to navigate to a blocked web page or hide your IP from a website. Many of these services are also public proxies.

An example of a web proxy can be seen below. This particular example is hosted by Hide.me and allows users to pick the location of their proxy server before routing their data through it.

Screenshot from Hide.me’s web proxy service.

The downside to this type of proxy is usability. Pages rendered through web proxies sometimes appear mangled or lack their original functionality. Because they’re free and shared, you will almost certainly be hit with slow speeds and advertising when using web proxy services.

These proxies can be handy for visiting a blocked website that doesn’t involve sensitive data. However, they offer similar risks to a public proxy and their general functionality is poor.

4Residential and Data Center Proxies

A residential proxy uses an IP address provided by an Internet Service Provider (ISP), not a data center. These addresses are tied to an actual physical device like a mobile phone or desktop computer.

When using a residential proxy, the website you’re connecting to will be unable to tell you’re using a proxy, because it will appear as if you’re connecting through a normal IP. Security systems will usually place more trust in residential IPs because they are assigned only to real residential addresses.

Data Center proxies, on the other hand, provide private IP addresses that come from a third party corporation and are not affiliated with an Internet Service Provider (ISP).

Datacenter IPs are often easier to acquire than residential IPs. The IP addresses in a datacenter also tend to be very similar (e.g. each IP address going up in ascending order). For this reason, it’s often more obvious that they’re being used as a proxy, which can lead to blocking.

About the Author


  • Headshot of Top10VPN.com Site Editor Callum Tennent

    Callum Tennent

    Callum is our site editor and a member of the IAPP and the EC-Council's Knowledge Review Committee. He oversees all our VPN testing, reviews, guides and advice. Read full bio