VPN vs Proxy - What's the Difference?

Rebecca Duff
By Rebecca DuffUpdated

To get around content blocks, you can use a VPN or a proxy, but you can’t rely on a proxy to protect your privacy. Before choosing between them, learn about the risks.

An illustration of the difference between a VPN and a proxy

There are many valid reasons for viewing blocked content online. You might need to access a video for study that’s blocked in your location, or view a politically sensitive website without attracting attention. In many countries, VPNs and proxies allow regular internet users to do just that.

But when it comes to your privacy, VPNs and proxies differ. A poor quality, free proxy can actually increase your risk of being snooped on, while exposing you to malicious scripts and ads. Some proxies exist with the sole aim of tracking what you do. This guide explains the risks and best options.

What are Proxies, a.k.a. Proxy Servers?

A proxy server is a computer that acts as a middleman between you and the site or service that you want to connect to. The proxy hides your real IP and location from the destination site, which can allow you to get around content blocks and other restrictions.

Some proxies also offer a degree of privacy protection, but it would be unwise to assume that they all do. In tests, many proxy services have been found to log data and block secure websites so they have a detailed record of your activity. In essence, tracking is their business model.

There are different types of proxies, though. Some have their uses, depending on what you’re trying to achieve.

How do Proxies Work?

When you load a web page through a proxy, the request is sent from your computer to the proxy server. The server fetches the content you’ve asked for, then forwards that content back to your computer, essentially hiding your IP and location from the destination service or site.

The data sent to and from the proxy server may or may not be logged by the provider. It may or may not offer some level of encryption — many proxies don’t.

There are hundreds of proxy servers for consumer use. They vary wildly in their speed, privacy features, and trustworthiness. Before you use one, it’s really important to understand the type of proxy you’re using, and the risks.

What are VPNs?

In strict technical terms, a VPN is a complex type of proxy. But don’t let that confuse you. VPNs are designed for privacy and ease of connection, and VPN providers tend to take more care to ensure that you are not blocked or tracked versus their competitors in the proxy market.

VPNs also add much more functionality compared to a proxy. For example, with a good VPN, you can choose which server you connect to. Some of the best providers have more than 100 servers in different countries. This can help you to get the best possible speeds wherever you are, or spoof your location to practically anywhere in the world.

Once you’ve installed your VPN, all traffic flows through it without the need to configure each application separately. You just need to install your provider’s app once, or set up the connection in your device’s settings pane. That’s a big benefit, because it means you can use your VPN for every application or app that you own without repeating the set-up process, or — worse — discovering that your software doesn’t support proxies. On mobile devices, the ability to hit a button and get protection for all your data traffic at once is a huge plus point.

What to Choose: VPN vs Proxy

On the surface, VPNs and proxies appear to hide your IP and spoof your location. But that’s where the similarities end.

A proxy is an inelegant but effective way to quickly get around a content block. So if you need to access a lecture video on YouTube, and it’s geo-restricted to another country, you can paste the URL into a HTTPS proxy and get to that content as a one-off. Most of us would tolerate ads and slow speeds on that basis.

But proxies are often unreliable, lacking features, and may even increase risk of snooping. It would be very foolish to use a free proxy and assume that nobody is watching what you’re doing.

VPN providers know that their customers don’t want to be logged; the best providers will record nothing at all about your activity. You also won’t be exposed to strange code injected into web pages, and you will benefit from the protection of an encrypted tunnel for all of your internet traffic.

All of these things make VPNs the only logical choice for privacy protection, long-term use, and the use of multiple applications. If you are serious about browsing without being snooped on, a good VPN provider is the way to go.