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.

Most Popular Types of Proxy

Proxies can be provisioned using different protocols, and it’s important to check how yours works.

HTTP Proxy

A HTTP proxy is a basic way of grabbing a web page via another server via an unencrypted connection. So while this kind of proxy will hide your identity and IP from the destination site, the proxy — which acts as the go-between — can see everything you’re up to, and probably has a financial incentive for keeping a record of it.

It is also possible for the proxy owner to inject additional content into the pages, which means you might get hit by ads (or, in some cases, more sinister additions, like hidden malware). A surprising number of proxies inject some form of code, or alter the content of pages, and these versions will be the ones your browser caches — so they’ll hang around even after you’ve disconnected.

A majority of HTTP proxies were found to block HTTPS requests. Why? They’re only interested in letting you access the pages they can track. That should give you some idea as to their business model.

HTTPS Proxy

A HTTPS proxy improves on the HTTP proxy by adding encryption between your computer and the proxy server.

It’s not perfect, but it’s an improvement on the HTTP proxy. However, even though the proxy server can’t track you in detail, it could still log the sites you visit on a basic level. These kinds of proxies are really only suitable for occasional use.

SOCKS Proxy

A SOCKS proxy is a more versatile version of a HTTP or HTTPS proxy. It can handle web browsing, plus additional protocols like email, ftp, and torrents. Using SOCKS with a torrent application is one of the main use cases and can help to prevent ISP throttling.

If your provider advertises SOCKS5, that just means that you can log on using a password. The server achieves this via SSH.

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 ease of a VPN, which has more benefits and a shallower learning curve.

Web Proxy

Web proxies allow you to use a browser-based form to navigate to a blocked web page, or to hide your IP from the site owner. Often, web proxies are free. They can be accessed without the need to install any software, which is a big benefit in some situations.

The downside is usability. Pages rendered through web proxies sometimes appear mangled or lack their original functionality. You might find that the layout is more basic, or some of the features don’t work. Additionally, you will almost certainly be hit with slow speeds and advertising when using web proxy services.

These proxies are handy for occasional usage where you can’t install software. You wouldn’t normally want to navigate the web using one.

Proxy URLs

Sometimes URLs are blocked at a government or ISP level, and anyone attempting to get to a site that’s on the block list will see an error page.

Proxy URLs are designed to get around these top-level blocks by redirecting an unblocked URL to a blocked one via a proxy server. Often, these URLs will not be widely advertised for obvious reasons.

In some countries, ISPs will be compelled by the courts to block websites; 451wiki maintains a list of websites blocked in the UK. In other jurisdictions, websites are blocked for political reasons — compare the UK list with this list of websites blocked in China.

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.