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Proxy vs. VPN: What’s the Difference?

Callum Tennent oversees how we test and review VPN services. He's a member of the IAPP, and his VPN advice has featured in Forbes and the Internet Society.

Fact-checked by JP Jones

Our Verdict

Proxies and VPN services both hide your public IP address and replace it with the IP address of a remote server, allowing you to unblock geo-restricted websites and services. However, a VPN will encrypt and reroute all of your network traffic, while a web proxy rarely encrypts your data and only reroutes the traffic from a single app or browser window.

Proxy vs VPN

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and proxy servers are similar tools that hide your IP address and unblock geo-restricted websites. However, despite their similarities, they actually work in very different ways.

Here’s a summary of the main differences between a proxy and a VPN:

Proxy vs VPN: The Key Differences Explained

  1. Unlike a VPN, most proxies do not encrypt your web traffic. That means your ISP and any other third party will be able to see your browsing activity if it’s intercepted. If a proxy does use encryption, it’s almost always weaker than the encryption used by a VPN.
  2. A VPN reroutes all of the web traffic sent from your device, including any applications running in the background. In contrast, most proxies only work within a single window, such as your browser. You can configure a proxy to work within your operating system, but this is less common and more complicated than using a VPN.
  3. It’s expensive to maintain a reliable server network, so good VPN services usually require a paid subscription, while web proxies are mostly free. It’s possible to find good free VPNs, but they’re often slower and much more limited than their paid equivalents.
  4. VPNs typically deliver more stable connections than proxies. VPN services are usually larger operations with dedicated customer support and a financial incentive to offer the best experience. Proxies tend to have much more limited technical capabilities and no real customer support.
  5. Proxy servers rarely offer a choice of server locations, additional features, or security settings. VPN services tend to be more configurable, with larger server networks and a wider variety of locations to choose from. Top-tier VPNs will unblock most streaming services, and often include additional security features too.
  6. Proxies are often faster than VPN services because they don’t encrypt your data. However, it’s not always the case — free web proxies with highly-congested servers can be very slow.
  7. Top-rated VPNs are maintained by reputable, independently-audited companies with a vested interest in your online privacy and security. For this reason, they’re typically far safer and more trustworthy than free web proxies from unknown developers.

Comparison: Proxy Servers vs VPN Services

In the table below, you can find the key differences between proxy and VPN services summarized in a table:

Feature Web Proxy VPN Service
Encryption HTTPS or No Encryption AES-256 Encryption
Coverage Reroutes the traffic from your browser window Reroutes all of your web traffic
Price Usually free Usually paid
Customer Support None Live Chat or Email Support
Speed Fast Medium
Ease of use No Installation Required Requires Software Installation

In the rest of this article, we’ll explain the key differences between a proxy and a VPN in more detail. We’ll cover the pros and cons of each tool, which is better for different activities, and when you should use each type of software.

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What Is the Difference Between a Proxy and a VPN?

VPNs and proxy servers both redirect your traffic through a remote server. However, each tool affects your privacy, security, and user experience in different ways.

The difference between a VPN and web proxy

A VPN application (left) compared to a web proxy (right).

Here are the main differences between a proxy and a VPN:


A VPN encrypts your traffic to protect you from ISP tracking, government surveillance, and spying on open networks.

If you’re using a good VPN, you’ll be able to choose your connection protocol and encryption strength — typically with the option of using WireGuard in combination with the AES-256 cipher.

Analyzing Windscribe's encryption using Wireshark

Using Wireshark, the unintelligible letters and numbers verify Windscribe’s connections are encrypted.

Most web proxies do not encrypt your traffic. If they do use some form of encryption, it’s typically the same protocol used to secure HTTPS websites, which is far weaker than the encryption you’d get using a secure VPN.


VPN services typically come packaged in applications that are installed on your device. When you open the application and connect to a VPN server, the software reroutes and encrypts all of the internet traffic leaving your device.

Proxies can be set up in your operating system to work in a similar way. However, in the vast majority of cases, proxies are set up in just one application, like your web browser.

In this case, only the traffic from that window or application will go through the proxy server. If you send data from another application on your device – a torrenting client, for example – your true IP address will be visible to anyone spying on your activity.

Wireshark results of an unencrypted proxy

StrongVPN’s unencrypted proxy extension failed to conceal our traffic.


It’s expensive to maintain a secure and reliable server network, so high-quality VPN services usually cost money. While safe free VPN services do exist, they usually come with data usage caps, slow speeds, and other limitations.

Web proxies are mostly free, and they’re often very limited as a result. They may have poor or non-existent customer support, lackluster security, slow speeds, and their servers can be highly-congested.

It’s possible to pay for a proxy server that will have better features, stronger security, and faster speeds, but free proxies are much more common.


VPN services are usually run by companies with a financial incentive to provide the best service possible. For this reason, they are more reliable than proxies, and offer strong customer support. Proxies — especially free ones — are typically much smaller operations with no real support network.

Contacting PrivateVPN's customer service team

VPN services usually offer reliable customer support.


In simple terms, it’s risky to use a free proxy. It’s not uncommon for free web proxies to harvest user data to sell to advertisers, and some have been known to inject malicious code into user traffic.

The same applies to many free VPN services: there are a handful of trustworthy free VPNs, but even some of the most popular applications pose a risk to your privacy and security. In fact, many free VPN applications are actually simple web proxies in disguise.

Fortunately, paid-for VPNs are usually much more reputable. The VPN industry is competitive, so providers work hard to build and protect their reputations. In the best cases, they’ll store no identifying information about your connection, and they’ll commission external audits to prove it.


Encrypting and rerouting your traffic with a VPN reduces your internet speed — though usually by a negligible amount. In our testing, the fastest VPN services reduced our internet speeds by less than 7% when connecting to a server in the same country.

Nevertheless, good proxies are often faster than VPN services. A proxy doesn’t use strong encryption or a tunneling protocol, both of which can slow down your connection somewhat.

In addition, a proxy can cache files. If you request a file another proxy user has already downloaded, the proxy can send it to you without waiting to download it again. This can make your web browsing feel faster.

Ease of Use

Using a web proxy is incredibly easy. You simply navigate to the proxy’s website in your browser and enter the URL of the website you’d like to visit.

Other types of proxy require some configuration to set up in your application or operating system.

A VPN requires some installation, but the application is easy to use once it’s installed. For most basic activities, you simply choose your preferred server from a list and then press one button to connect.

What Is a Proxy Server?

A proxy is a remote server that acts as an intermediary between you and the website you’re visiting. The main benefit of using a proxy is that you don’t connect directly to the websites you visit. If the proxy is configured correctly, that means the websites won’t be able to see your IP address.'s Proxy Browser’s web Proxy.

Instead, they see the IP address and location of the proxy server — keeping your true location hidden.

A web proxy will:

  • Hide your IP address from the websites you visit
  • Bypass geographical restrictions on some websites
  • Bypass some IP address blocks or bans
  • Occasionally improve connection speeds via proxy caching
Pros Cons
Hides Your IP Address Can track your activities, or inject ads and malware into web pages
Simple to set up and configure Most proxies do not encrypt your data
Minimal impact on your connection speed May only reroute traffic from one application or browser window
Free to use No advanced features or customer support

You can use a proxy server located in a different country to access websites that are geographically restricted. The best proxy sites let you choose which location to connect from.

Using a proxy is also good for bypassing IP bans, basic website blocks, and registration walls that track your IP address and force you to register after reading a certain number of articles.

Good proxy servers can also improve performance by saving copies of a website locally. For example, if one hundred people visit the same website at once, the proxy server only needs to send one request to that website. This process is known as proxy caching.

How Do Proxy Servers Work?

When using a proxy server, your internet traffic flows through the proxy server on the way to the internet address you’ve requested.

The proxy server connects to the web service on your behalf, retrieves the content, and then forwards it to you.

Diagram of how a proxy server works

A proxy server hides your physical location.

Most proxy services are unencrypted, but some do support HTTPS encryption. That means someone inspecting the connection between your device and the proxy server would be able to see which websites you’re visiting, but not the specific pages you’re accessing.

How to Use a Web Proxy

The most common and simplest type of proxy is a web proxy. Here’s how to use one:

  1. Open a browser window.
  2. Visit the web proxy’s website. Popular web proxies include Proxyium and
  3. Enter the address of the site you want to access.
  4. Choose the location you’d like to connect through. For example, proxy offers servers in Netherlands, Germany, and Finland.
  5. Choose any additional options. For example, you can choose to remove scripts and disable cookies.
  6. Click the button to establish a connection.
  7. You’ll see the website you requested in your browser. The website will not see your IP address. They will instead see the web proxy server’s IP address.

Other Ways to Use a Proxy

There are other ways you can use a proxy server. For example:

  1. In your browser, you can install some proxies as an extension and then use them from your browser’s menu.
  2. In Firefox, you can configure a HTTP, HTTPS, or SOCKS proxy in the Network Settings menu.
  3. In your torrenting client, you can route your traffic through a SOCKS5 proxy to hide your IP address.
  4. In Windows 10 and 11, you can set up a proxy manually for all your device’s traffic. To do this, go to Settings > Network & Internet > Proxy.
  5. On macOS, you can also manually set up a proxy to reroute all of your device’s traffic. To do this, navigate to System Preferences > Network > Advanced > Proxies.

What Is a VPN?

VPN software is typically installed on your device and used as an application. When you turn the VPN on, it establishes an encrypted tunnel to your chosen VPN server. The VPN server connects to the destination website for you, and sends your requested content back to you.

Screenshot of Surfshark's android app, showing the homepage and server list.

The Surfshark Android app is modern and easy to use.

Just like a proxy, that means websites and online services see the IP address of the VPN server instead of your own.

A VPN will:

  • Hide and temporarily replace your IP address, unblocking websites and bypassing geographic restrictions on streaming services, such as Netflix and BBC iPlayer.
  • Encrypt your web traffic, preventing your ISP and other third parties from spying on your activity.
  • Include additional security features, such as advanced protocol selection, double VPN, or VPN obfuscation.

Depending on the VPN service, you can choose from numerous VPN server locations around the world. This means you can trick websites into believing you’re browsing from a specific city or country.

Unlike proxy servers, a VPN always works at the device-level. It protects and redirects all traffic coming from your device.

More importantly, a VPN 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 and security tools first and foremost.

Pros Cons
Hides Your IP Address Free VPNs have data caps, and many have security risks
Encrypts your online activities to stop anyone, including your ISP, profiling you or snooping on your activities Premium VPNs require a subscription fee
Reroutes all of your web traffic VPNs slow down your connection somewhat
Includes advanced features, such as obfuscation and a kill switch Responsibility for your data is offset from your ISP to the VPN provider
Usually offers customer support
Able to bypass stricter website blocks, including geo-restrictions on streaming services

Like a proxy server, a VPN changes your IP address, so it can be used to unblock restricted websites. In fact, most VPN services are far better than proxies at unblocking websites — especially streaming services.

Diagram explaining how VPN services work to encrypt and reroute web traffic.

Unlike a proxy server, a VPN also encrypts your connection and stops anyone snooping on the connection from seeing which websites you visit.

How to Use a VPN Service

To use a VPN, follow these steps:

  1. Choose a trustworthy VPN service provider. Our top-rated recommendation is ExpressVPN.
  2. Subscribe and register an account on the VPN provider’s website.
  3. Download and install the software for your device.
  4. Open the VPN app and sign in using your account details.
  5. Check the settings to make sure the kill switch is enabled and that the VPN is set to automatically connect when you switch your device on.
  6. Choose a server to connect to, and press the ‘Connect’ button.
  7. Once you’ve connected, any websites or web services you visit will see your VPN provider’s IP address instead of your own. All your internet activities will be encrypted, too.

Which Is Better: VPN Software or Proxy Servers?

In this section, we compare proxy servers and VPNs based on their speed, security, ability to unblock streaming websites, and more.

Both tools are equally good at spoofing your location. However, the highest-rated VPNs offer stronger encryption, more reliable streaming functionality, and better torrenting capabilities compared to proxy servers.

Conversely, proxies deliver faster speeds, are easier to set up, and are usually cheaper than VPN services.

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.

In the table below, you’ll see which solution is the winner in each of our testing categories:

Feature VPN Service Proxy Server
Torrenting Winner Loser
Streaming Winner Loser
Bypassing censorship Winner Loser
Privacy & anonymity Winner Loser
Reliability Winner Loser
Speed Loser Winner
Price Loser Winner
Ease of Setup Loser Winner

Torrenting Winner: VPN

Torrenting can be dangerous, so it’s important to take appropriate safety measures. In short, you need to make sure your identity and activity remain private throughout the file-sharing process.

Web proxies are simply not safe enough to protect your torrenting activity. They may hide your IP address, but they typically do not encrypt your downloads and it’s much harder to know what the proxy provider is doing with your information.

A VPN encrypts your activities, which means your ISP and anyone else spying on your connection cannot see that you’re torrenting or the files you’re downloading. It can be bound directly to your torrenting client, and it’s much easier to verify that a no-logs VPN is true to its word.

Torrenting with NordVPN

NordVPN performed well in our torrenting tests.

ISPs have been known to slow down the connections of people who are torrenting, and to use deep packet inspection to record all the files you torrent. Some ISPs block torrenting websites, too, and a VPN is the best way to unblock them.

The best torrenting VPNs also offer additional features that make torrenting much safer and more convenient. This might include obfuscation, port forwarding, or even a SOCKS5 proxy, so you can use both technologies with a single subscription.

Streaming Winner: VPN

Streaming services often restrict their content to certain countries due to licensing agreements. By changing your IP address, you can circumvent these restrictions and unblock content from other regions.

Although both tools can change your IP address, VPNs are far better at unblocking streaming services.

Screenshot of NordVPN's New York server unblocking US Netflix.

The top-rated VPNs consistently work with US streaming services.

VPN services have the resources to invest in circumventing streaming restrictions. Streaming services are constantly working to ban IP addresses originating from proxies or VPN servers, and VPN providers are constantly evolving to evade these bans.

From a technical point of view, VPN services can change more than just your IP address, too. They can also change your DNS server and HTML5 geolocation, or even give you a residential IP address. Some VPNs can even spoof your GPS location.

Put simply, there’s less risk of a streaming provider working out your true location with a VPN.

Bypassing Censorship Winner: VPN

There’s a reason why VPNs are illegal or restricted in some countries: VPN software is highly effective at evading censorship.

Changing your IP address allows you to access geographically-restricted websites from overseas. However, VPN encryption also prevents firewalls from being able to block websites based on the URL or specific phrases.

Unblocking websites in China using Astrill VPN

We used Astrill VPN to unblock YouTube in China.

In the same way, VPNs can also be used to unblock website restrictions in schools or workplaces.

Because proxies do not fully encrypt your communications, they’re nowhere near as effective at evading censorship.

Privacy & Anonymity Winner: VPN

The most secure VPNs use the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) with 256-bit keys, which is the same type of encryption used by banks and the military. A good VPN service will also use first-party DNS servers, too — so your ISP cannot see which websites you are visiting.

Most proxy services do not offer any additional encryption or DNS servers: they simply forward the communications between your device and the website you’re accessing.

Similarly, private VPNs publicly commit to a no-logs policy, which means they don’t store any information about your browsing activity. If this data doesn’t exist, it can’t be hacked or shared, even if the authorities request it.

By contrast, web proxies often lack a robust privacy policy. It can be hard to know who’s operating them, and what information they might be logging.

Speed Winner: Proxy Server

Rerouting your communications through a remote server means your data has to travel further, which means both tools will inevitably slow down your connection speeds.

However, a VPN also establishes an encrypted tunnel for your data, which can make it slower than some proxy services.

On a fast connection, the speed loss using either technology is negligible. Nonetheless, on average, it would be faster to connect to a proxy server in the same location.

To get the best speeds using either tool, make sure you’re connecting to a nearby server that isn’t overloaded with other users.

Price Winner: Proxy Server

There’s no doubt that proxy servers are cheaper than VPN services — most of them are free.

However, free VPNs and proxies can both be dangerous. A poor-quality proxy or VPN can expose you to malicious scripts, malware, data logging, and aggressive advertising. Some proxies and VPNs even exist with the sole aim of storing and selling your online activity.

Ease of Setup Winner: Proxy Server

You can set up a proxy server by changing a few settings in your operating system. You will need to find the information for those settings first, but there’s no need to register for the service or to download special VPN software.

If you just want to unblock a website from time to time, it’s even simpler: just use a web proxy and enter the details of the website you want to see.

Most VPNs worth using will require you to register an account and download the relevant application, which makes them marginally less convenient in the short term.

When Should I Use a VPN or Proxy?

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.

Use a VPN if:

  • You need a long-term solution for geo-restrictions.
  • You want a long-term solution for hiding your IP address.
  • You want to protect your activity from ISP or government surveillance.
  • You’re connecting to a public WiFi network.
  • You want to stream restricted content or download torrent files.

The Different 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 Types

There are 4 main types of proxy connection: HTTP, HTTPS, SOCKS5, and web proxies.

HTTP Proxies

HTTP proxies use a remote server to fetch a web page via an unencrypted connection.

The web server only sees the proxy connection, and answers it as if it was your browser. The proxy receives this response and forwards it to you.

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

What’s more, 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.


An HTTPS proxy is similar to an HTTP proxy, but the data between your computer and the proxy server is protected by TLS encryption. That means the proxy cannot interfere with your web pages before forwarding them on.

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.


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

SOCKS5 is the most recent version of SOCKS. 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.

TorGuard VPN's SOCKS5 server list screenshot

TorGuard VPN’s SOCKS5 server list.

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, a small number of VPNs now provide SOCKS5 proxies as part of their service. This gives you the luxury of being able to easily choose between a VPN server or a SOCKS5 proxy server.

Web 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 is hosted by and allows users to pick the location of the proxy server before routing their data through it.'s web proxy

Screenshot from’s web proxy service.

The downside to this type of proxy is security and 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 have similar risks to a public proxy.

There is an additional risk, too: Because of the way they work, web proxies break your usual end-to-end HTTPS encryption.

This is what happens:

  1. Your browser uses HTTPS to make a secure connection to the proxy server. Someone spying on the connection between your device and the proxy server will see that you visited the proxy server but won’t see the website you requested through it. offers additional URL encryption to hide the URL of the website you’re visiting.
  2. The proxy server connects to the internet for you. This is important because if you request a HTTPS website, the secure connection to that website starts from the web proxy server. Anyone spying on the connection between the proxy server and the internet can see the website you’re visiting, but none of the data you exchange with it. However, the proxy server can see all of your activities on the website you’re visiting.

Proxy Server Configurations

There are also several different ways a proxy server can be set up. Each of these configurations offers a different experience in terms of privacy and security.

Private and Dedicated Proxy

A private proxy server can only be used by one person at a time. A dedicated proxy is a private proxy with a set IP address that never changes.

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

A private proxy server doesn’t offer the privacy a VPN does: it still does not encrypt your traffic or hide your DNS requests. However, it’s typically better at unblocking websites than a shared or public proxy server.

Shared and Public Proxy

A shared proxy is a private proxy that’s shared by a limited number of people. For obvious reasons, it’s typically cheaper than a fully private or dedicated proxy.

Public proxies are also used by multiple people, but they are free to use and open to all. They usually suffer from performance issues due to congestion from other users on the server.

Public proxies have some major security risks, too. Research reported by Wired found that 79% of public proxy servers inserted code into the requested web pages or blocked HTTPS connections.

In addition, you’re sharing an IP address with an unlimited number of strangers, any of whom could be using the service to conduct illegal activity.

Using a free and open proxy, there’s also a risk that the owner of the proxy could misuse your data, for example, selling it to advertisers. You have no idea what is happening to your data once it reaches the proxy server. For this reason, it’s best to avoid public proxies.

Residential and Data Center Proxies

A data center proxy is based in a data center, sometimes hosted by a cloud provider like Amazon Web Services.

The IP addresses in a data center tend to be very similar. For this reason, it can be easy for content providers to identify them and block them to enforce geographic content restrictions.

One solution is a residential proxy. This uses an IP address belonging to an Internet Service Provider (ISP), so your traffic looks like it is coming directly from a real person or household.

Transparent Proxies

A transparent proxy tells the destination website that it is a proxy server and forwards your real IP address. It’s useless for protecting your privacy or unblocking restricted content.

You probably wouldn’t want to set up a transparent proxy, but you might be forced to use one anyway. They’re usually put in place by libraries, businesses, and schools to filter content or monitor web access.

They can also be used on public Wi-Fi to stop users accessing content that would take up too much bandwidth.

Fortunately, you can use a VPN to bypass content restrictions enforced by a transparent proxy.

Reverse Proxies

You might see reverse proxies mentioned online. These are another type of proxy that you’re unlikely to need to set up yourself, unless you’re responsible for IT and web servers.

A reverse proxy is a server that is connected to a number of other web servers, and provides a gateway to them.

A reverse proxy can be used, for example, to receive incoming requests and distribute them evenly across a number of web servers, or to speed up encryption or compression.


What’s the difference between a proxy and a VPN?

VPN and proxies have similarities: they both use a remote server to reroute your data and change your IP address. However, a VPN service also fully encrypts your web traffic to stop anyone monitoring your online activities. A VPN typically gives you greater control over the locations you connect to and the security settings you use, and is usually better at bypassing censorship and unblocking restricted content.

Can You Use a VPN and a Proxy Together?

You can use a VPN and a proxy together, but it’s rarely a good idea. The proxy doesn’t add any value on top of the VPN.

The exception is if your web connection goes through a transparent proxy that’s being used to filter your web traffic. In that case, using a VPN enables you to access the websites that the transparent proxy tries to block.

Can I Be Traced If I Use a Proxy Server?

In most cases, using a proxy server hides your real IP address from the websites you visit. However, your proxy provider could store information about you and the websites you visit. It’s easier to find a VPN service with a clear (and sometimes independently audites) no-logs policy.