Antivirus Software Versus a Firewall: What Is the Difference?

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In a nutshell: what is the difference between a virus scanner and a firewall?

Virus scanners and firewalls both fight malware and viruses, but they do this in a slightly different way.

  • A virus scanner, also called antivirus software, scans all the files already on your computer and removes viruses and other malware it may find.
  • A firewall scans incoming internet traffic for viruses and malware and prevents them from gaining access to your computer.

Many antivirus programs integrate both a virus scanner and a firewall. This means that with one program you will be fully protected against malware and viruses.

Are you looking for a good antivirus program? Then we can confidently recommend Bitdefender.

Do you want to know how a firewall works, what a good free virus scanner includes and why it is important to have both? Read the full article below.

Over the years, users have become more and more aware of online safety. This is a good thing, as unfortunately, cybercriminals are omnipresent and they have discovered novel ways to trick people and to steal data. Furthermore, viruses and malware continue to develop and are becoming more of a problem, with the consequences for people and businesses becoming disastrous.

With growing interest in a safe internet, more and more people have begun to wonder: how do I protect my computer against malware and viruses? Is there an easy solution to this? While most people will have heard the words “antivirus” and “firewall” before, the difference between the two is not always clear. However, it is important to know the difference as an antivirus program and a firewall perform slightly different tasks and thus protect you in different ways. Therefore, in this article, we will address the question: what is the difference between antivirus software and a firewall?

Antivirus Software Versus A Firewall: The Difference

A virus scanner, also called antivirus software or anti-malware, and a firewall are both tools used to secure a computer or device connected to the Internet or another network. Simply put, a firewall is more of an external security measure – aka the security guy at the entrance of your building. Antivirus software is an internal security measure – aka the caretaker guy in your building.

A firewall filters all your network traffic in order to prevent infected files, malware, and viruses from entering your computer or network. The goal of anti-malware, on the other hand, is to detect, disarm, and remove malware and viruses that are already on your computer or network.

What Is Antivirus Software?

An antivirus program, often referred to as a virus scanner, detects viruses and then quarantines them so that they can no longer cause any damage. Next, you have the option to delete the infected files, so that your entire system is safe again.

The name “antivirus” sometimes refers to a more old-fashioned type of program that mainly tackles more traditional forms of malware on your computer or network, such as viruses, trojans and computer worms. Antimalware programs, on the other hand, are capable of dealing with many different types of malware, including adware and spyware.

So, in a way, antimalware is a more evolved form of an antivirus program. In practice, however, the two terms are often used interchangeably. Most contemporary antivirus programs also stop malware, although people often refer to them as “antivirus programs”.

A virus scanner “scans” the files on your computer in order to detect whether any viruses are present. This may involve real-time scans as well as periodic or manual scans. The program compares the files on your computer with a blacklist. This blacklist is a database that contains a list of all viruses and malware that the virus scanner already knows about.

Many scanners also try to predict if your computer could be infected with malware based on, for example, unusual behavior or suspicious file properties. This is done to intercept newer forms of viruses and malware that are not yet blacklisted. A prediction is just that, however, your virus scanner makes “a guesstimate”, but cannot be sure. Some virus scanners make more mistakes than others.

Are you looking for more detailed information on virus scanners? Then read our article about antivirus software.

What Is A Firewall?

firewall-laptopA firewall protects your computer in a different way than a virus scanner. Unlike a virus scanner, a firewall filters all your internet traffic before it even enters your network or computer. Next, it decides which internet traffic is safe enough to enter your network.

The “rules” that a firewall applies to determine this vary widely. In the Windows Firewall’s settings, for example, you can create a rule that says only IP addresses that fall within a specific range of IP addresses are allowed access to your network.

Firewalls can consist of both hardware and software. A good firewall set-up uses both. Hardware firewalls can be purchased separately and usually resemble a rectangular flat box. In most cases, a hardware firewall is already built into your router, so you do not need to buy one separately.

Software firewalls are also for sale separately. Again, many people use an “integrated firewall”. Such firewalls are built into antivirus programs or operating systems. For example, the Windows Firewall is built into the Windows operating system.

How Does A Firewall Filter My Internet Traffic?

Just like a virus scanner, a firewall uses different techniques to protect a network or computer. Below are four of the most common:

  • Packet filter: First, the firewall inspects every message and every data packet that enters the network. Subsequently, depending on the configuration of the firewall, the data is accepted or rejected. The inspection looks at various aspects of a data packet. This is because data packets contain a lot of information about the sender, such as their IP address.
  • Application gateway: This is a more selective way of filtering, as this security component applies security criteria only to traffic passing through certain applications. These are usually applications and systems that are widely used to enable communication between computers and networks, such as FTP and Telnet servers.
  • Circuit-level gateway: with this type of firewall, security measures are applied when a TCP or UDP connection is made. Once the connection is established, data traffic takes place without restrictions and controls (since TCP and UDP already have network security measures). This is a useful option for people and companies who have set up their own VPN server and use OpenVPN. In such cases, the circuit-level gateway works almost like a kill switch.
  • Proxy server: There is also a firewall system that uses proxy servers. Such systems intercept all internet traffic between two parties, thus hiding the user’s identity behind the firewall – to a certain extent.

Most of the time, a firewall uses a combination of two or more of the above techniques to provide a greater degree of security.

Do I Need Both an Antivirus Program and a Firewall?

It may sound over the top, but if you want to protect your computer properly, you will need both a virus scanner and a firewall. There are several reasons for this.

A firewall is Not Always Impenetrable

A proper virus scanner and a good firewall are crucial to protect your computer against viruses and malware. In an ideal world, a firewall would be 100 percent reliable and would never fail. However, in practice, this is not the case.

Your firewall may have problems filtering your internet traffic correctly. There can be several reasons for this. Sometimes a firewall is not properly configured and therefore does not keep out all threats. In such cases, the “rules” that the firewall uses to filter traffic are not strict enough.

A firewall can also malfunction because some updates are overdue or because of certain hardware-related limitations. In short, it can happen that your firewall does not work optimally, and malicious files still end up on your computer. If this happens, it is important that they do not cause any damage. To that end, you will need some extra help. This is when antivirus software comes into its own.

Antivirus Software Does Not Detect All Malware

Computervirus LaptopThe same argument applies the other way around. An antivirus program also does not come with a 100 percent guarantee. Antivirus software detects malware by paying attention to certain characteristics, which are “known” to indicate that you are dealing with some form of malware. Consider, for example, certain malicious code or a certain type of file that is often infected with viruses.

However, new viruses and other forms of malware are constantly being deployed. So even if your antivirus software is completely up to date, it does happen that it misses a file that is infected with, for example, a keylogger. Many modern antivirus programs also use other techniques to detect viruses and malware, such as threat detection, but this defense mechanism can also fail.

In conclusion, both firewalls and antivirus software will never work perfectly just by themselves. This is the reason why it is very important to install both a good firewall and proper antivirus software, and to keep both up to date. In this way, the two safety measures complement each other and avert as many dangers as possible.

Virus Scanners and Firewalls: Some Good Options

Many virus scanners have a built-in firewall. This means that you only need to purchase one product to properly protect your computer against malware. Below we provide you with two recommendations for virus scanners with integrated firewalls, one paid and one free.

Bitdefender: Antivirus Software with Safeguards

bitdefender-logoBitdefender is a very versatile virus scanner. It offers three different plans, depending on how many devices you want to protect. It does not matter if your device is Windows, Mac, Android, or iOS based. Bitdefender works across all operating systems. It is known globally as one of the best virus scanners.

Bitdefender includes a high-quality firewall, especially after the major firewall update of 2018. The firewall gives users more control over filter rules. It also offers a number of special options such as stealth mode, which makes it more difficult for others to detect your device. Bitdefender’s antivirus software includes webcam and microphone protection. This means that you are also protected against eavesdroppers and snoopers.

We are also very happy with Bitdefender’s user-friendliness. For example, Bitdefender software updates itself automatically and does not slow down your computer or your internet connection. Would you like to give Bitdefender a try? No problem. You can use the software for free for 30 days and then decide.

For more information about Bitdefender, or to get a nice discount on a subscription, click on the button below.

Visit Bitdefender

Avast Free Antivirus: A Good Free Alternative

avast-logoAvast Free Antivirus is a good free alternative to a premium virus scanner. This free virus scanner offers both “real-time” protection and threat detection. Both are actually important features that not many virus scanners offer without charging you a hefty price. Most free antivirus programs only carry out periodic or manually activated scans.

In addition, Avast Free Antivirus’s firewall is decent and not inferior to firewalls of any other free competing antivirus software available out there. Avast has a large network of 400 million users. The users in this network are in constant “contact” with each other, which makes the software stronger. When a new threat is identified on the computer of one user, Avast will update the threat detection on the devices of all Avast users.

The only downside of this free version of Avast is the ads, which repeatedly try to convince you to switch to the paid version.

Visit Avast Free Antivirus

Other Online Security Measures

Of course, installing a good virus scanner and a proper firewall is a good start to keeping your devices safe. Yet there are other important measures you should take into consideration if you really value your online safety and privacy.

Virus scanners and firewalls mainly ensure that malicious files cannot enter your computer or network. But keeping your data traffic private is equally important to avoid unpleasant surprises, or worse. Think about cybercriminals who try to steal your data via public Wi-Fi networks, for example. Or criminals who want to intercept your login and other details while you are banking online.

To keep your internet traffic out of criminals’ hands, you can use a VPN. A VPN changes your IP address, making you more anonymous online, and encrypts your internet traffic, so that you are safer when online. Nowadays, there are many excellent and reasonably priced VPNs on the market. A good provider that we often recommend to novice VPN users is Surfshark.

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Other programs and services that make your online experience more pleasant and more secure include password managers, the Tor browser, and privacy-focused browser extensions.


Both a proper virus scanner and a decent firewall are indispensable if you want to keep your online devices and data safe. Although both programs are often bundled in one antivirus or antimalware package, they perform a different but equally important function. You can even get gaming antivirus programs that allow you to play your favorite games while protecting your computer.

A virus scanner detects and makes short work of malware and viruses that are already on your computer. A firewall, on the other hand, acts like a digital wall that keeps harmful traffic out. Therefore, our advice is to use both a good virus scanner and a firewall, preferably in combination with additional security measures, such as a VPN.

Antivirus Programs versus a Firewall: FAQs

Do you have a question about the difference between antivirus software and firewalls? Click on one of the questions below to read the answer.

A virus scanner, also called antivirus program or antivirus software, detects and removes harmful files on your computer. In this way, viruses do not have a chance to affect your systems.

A firewall, on the other hand, is not interested in the files already on your computer, instead it scans all incoming internet traffic. It puts up a wall between your device and dangerous files on the internet, so that malware cannot get onto your computer.

Yes. Firewalls and antivirus software each fulfill an important task. The best way to protect your computer is by installing both. Fortunately, there are many programs that bundle antivirus software and a firewall, so you only need one service provider to have both. For more information, read this article.

A firewall is literally a wall between your device and the internet that keeps viruses and other malware out, so that they cannot access your computer. For example, a firewall would scan all your incoming data traffic when you are on the internet to ensure that all such traffic is safe. If a virus tries to enter your computer, the firewall will prevent it.

A virus scanner, or antivirus software, is a program that scans your computer for viruses and other malware. If there is a malicious file on your device, the virus scanner will detect and disarm it. For more information on how antivirus programs work, read the following article: All About Virus Scanners.

IT communication specialist
Sandra has many years of experience in the IT and tech sector as a communication specialist. She's also been co-director of a company specializing in IT, editorial services and communications project management. For she follows relevant cybercrime and online privacy developments. She rigorously tests the quality of VPN services using's dedicated VPN testing protocol that has been finetuned and optimized over the years.