VPN vs Proxy vs. Smart DNS: What’s the difference?

Cartoon man doubts between three systems: VPN, Proxy, and SmartDNS
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A Quick Guide - VPN vs. Proxy vs. Smart DNS: What's the Difference?

When you’re trying to unblock geo-restricted content online, there are three main options to use:

  1. VPNs provide you with more anonymity and encrypt your data. They’re user-friendly and can be used for many streams in many countries. However, they might slow down your connection and be blocked by certain streams.
  2. Proxy servers can help you browse anonymously and are quite fast, but they don’t provide online safety or privacy and can be challenging to set up. They’re also often blocked by streams.
  3. Smart DNS doesn’t slow down your connection and can’t get blocked by websites. While they’re easy to use, they don’t encrypt your data and won’t hide your online behavior from other parties.

While all three services provide the same end goal of streaming blocked content from anywhere in the world, they do so in very different ways. Depending on the amount of privacy, security, and speed you require when accessing streams, one service might be preferable over the others.

We recommend VPNs, as they provide this unblocking service with the highest levels of anonymity, privacy protection, user-friendliness, and security. Check out our full review of NordVPN, one of the most secure and proven “no log” providers.

Ready to take a deep dive into the differences between VPNs, proxies, and Smart DNS? Want to know when you should use one over the other? Read our full article to find out.

When you cruise along the internet highway, you’ll notice a lot of digital roadblocks have been put up to stall you on your trip. As the internet continues to evolve, so does the technology that restricts internet content based on your geographical location. While it is getting easier for governments to enforce censorship and businesses to implement restrictions online, an entire industry has emerged to help users break through these digital barricades.

So what are the main services in this industry used to unblock international content? There are three: VPNs, proxy servers, and Smart DNS. While they serve a similar function, they do so in very different ways. Depending on your needs and desires for privacy and security, some services are more suitable than others. So what are the differences between Smart DNS, proxies, and VPNs? When should you use one over the other? What are the pros and cons of each?

What’s the Difference Between a VPN, Proxy, and Smart DNS?

To explain the basic differences between these three services, look at this scenario: Let’s say that you’re on a business trip in a foreign country and you want to live stream your favorite TV show. When you navigate to your streaming provider (Disney Plus, Amazon Prime, Netflix, etc.), you find that you can’t access the site at all from the country you’re in, or it has an entirely different library of content. The service has been geo-blocked. To access your home provider’s catalog, you have three options: a VPN, a proxy server, or Smart DNS.

1. A VPN

This is the safest and most secure way to access content from abroad. A premium VPN — we’ll use ExpressVPN as an example — allows you to access its Virtual Private Network (that’s what VPN stands for) and stream through their servers. ExpressVPN masks your real IP address and assigns you a virtual one, for example in the US. This unblocks American content while also keeping you completely anonymous. All the while, the VPN is encrypting your activity and data.

Some countries like China, Iran, and Russia take censorship very seriously. It’s no coincidence that VPNs are illegal in these countries. A VPN allows citizens of authoritarian governments to bypass politically constructed barriers to access content that would otherwise be unavailable. It also creates anonymity for VPN users. Even if government authorities got their hands on the server used to access the censored sites, all they would have is unreadable data from an anonymous IP address.

ExpressVPN just scored a top spot on our list of the best no log VPNs, which means they don’t keep any records of user activity. It’s also important to note that ExpressVPN, as well as Surfshark and CyberGhost (two of our other top five recommendations) also have Smart DNS services they include in their VPN subscriptions. We’ll look at Smart DNS later.

Advantages and disadvantages of using a VPN for unblocking content

ProsCons
Good VPNs provide a high level of anonymityMonthly fee
Encrypts your internet connection and activityCan slow down your connection, takes up bandwidth
Premium providers have a “no log” policySome (free) VPNs keep logs
and sell your data
Protects from third-party snoops and hackersSome websites block VPN servers
Can be used with all kinds of websites and appsIllegal in some countries
User-friendly
Easy to configure, default settings are secure

2. A proxy server

A proxy server works similarly but doesn’t provide the same level of security or anonymity as a VPN. A proxy is a computer that stands between you and the internet and relays your activity and requests for you. You’re assigned a new anonymous IP address by the proxy, and all your internet traffic is sent through the proxy server first. So it seems as if your request to watch your television show is coming straight from that proxy instead of your own computer and IP address.

This is another way to stream your out-of-country content. However, unlike premium VPNs, proxy servers can log and record all your online requests and activities. So while the rest of the web might not know who you are, the proxy does. If the server falls in the hands of authorities or gets hacked by cybercriminals, all your activity on that server could be there for them to see.

Advantages and disadvantages of using a proxy server to unblock content

ProsCons
Fast speeds, good performance overallNo encryption, may keep activity logs
Provides anonymous IP addressSome services and sites block proxies
Fewer CAPTCHAs and bot checksThird parties could see your activity on servers
Doesn’t use a lot of bandwidthPrices can be expensive
Configuration and setup can be tricky

3. Smart DNS

Smart DNS also has the ability to unblock streaming content in geo-restricted areas, but it does not mask your IP address, nor does it encrypt any of your data. Smart DNS tricks websites and streaming platforms into thinking your DNS queries are coming from eligible countries by using DNS proxy servers. It blocks certain traffic that gives away your location, while everything else runs as normal through the internet connection.

While a VPN encrypts and reroutes all of your activity and data through its private tunnel, Smart DNS just tweaks one small aspect of your activity. Though Smart DNS provides no anonymity or extra security, it does offer fast streaming speeds. It will also help you avoid automatic security and bot checks that get prompted by logging in repeatedly from different IP addresses like you do with VPNs and proxies.

As we mentioned before, some premium providers (Surfshark, ExpressVPN, and CyberGhost) can offer you this service if you want to stream without encryption.

Advantages and disadvantages of using Smart DNS to unblock content:

ProsCons
Fast streamingNo encryption or security protocols
Minimal security or bot checksProvides no anonymity
No website or service blocks (yet)Third parties could see your activity on servers
Only used for streaming content

Should I Use a VPN, Proxy, or Smart DNS?

Which service you should use, depends on a few factors, with the largest being how much security and anonymity you require. At VPNOverview.com, it should come as no surprise that we’re partial to VPNs, and for good reason. When you factor in pricing, privacy, security, and performance for each of the services, a good VPN comes out on top. You get the same result of unblocked content, plus a ton of other benefits, usually for just a few bucks a month.

Here’s a chart breaking down the differences between the three services.

FeaturesVPNProxySmart DNS
Unblocks geo-restricted content
Provides anonymous browsing
Encrypts and protects your online data
Has “no logs” policy
User-friendly
Doesn’t slow down your connection
Can be blocked by websites
Can change servers on the spot
Protects you from third-parties
(hackers, ISP, snoops)

When to use a VPN

  • Browsing the internet: If you are browsing the internet or accessing sensitive information online, a VPN will encrypt your data and keep it safe from hackers and cybercriminals.
  • Connecting to public Wi-Fi: If you connect to public Wi-Fi or other unsecured networks, a VPN is a must. Cybercriminals often hack into unsecured networks and can access any data you transmit over the network. A VPN keeps your private data secure from these cybercrooks.
  • Accessing region-restricted content: While proxies may work for accessing certain kinds of region-restricted content, many services have software to block proxies. Some of these services also have VPN blocks, but you can generally use a premium VPN and private browser to get around them. VPNs are the best choice when trying to watch Netflix. The streaming service is constantly blocking proxies and known VPN IPs, and premium services stay on top of this cat-and-mouse game.
  • Bypassing government censorship: If you live in a country with widespread censorship and online surveillance, only a premium VPN will allow you to safely bypass censorship and hide your online activity from the government.

When to use a proxy

  • Bypassing a firewall or geo-block: When attempting to access a restricted streaming service or website, a proxy server may be sufficient. However, this is usually only true if you aren’t transmitting sensitive data and don’t need to hide your online activities. Users should also be aware that some services like Netflix have anti-proxy technology and may block connections from known proxy servers.
  • When using an outdated operating system: Proxies don’t require you to install software for them to function. This can work in your favor if you have a slow or out-of-date operating system. VPNs can slow your browsing speed, while HTTP proxies barely affect your machine’s performance. There are also caching proxy servers that can store copies of websites you often visit to reduce your bandwidth and boost your machine’s performance.

When to use Smart DNS

  • Accessing geo-blocked content you trust with high streaming speeds: The real edge that Smart DNS has over VPNs and proxies is streaming speeds. You also won’t be blocked by websites and services like VPNs and proxy servers often are. You’re only tricking the website into thinking your DNS query is coming from a DNS server in a country that is eligible to watch the content (more on that later). The rest of your internet traffic runs normally and at optimum speeds. So if you’re in a country that doesn’t enforce heavy censorship, and you’re just looking to stream, that’s when you’d most likely use it.

How Does a VPN Work?

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) creates an encrypted tunnel between your computer and the server. The only thing your ISP, hackers, or possibly the government will be able to see, is that your connection is coming from the IP of your VPN server. All your online activities, your real IP, location, and downloads will remain hidden behind the VPN’s encryption and server.

Moreover, a VPN gives you access to multiple different server locations (often all over the world), meaning you could reach all sorts of geo-restricted pages and services that wouldn’t otherwise be available to you.

How Does a VPN Work Illustration

Not all VPNs are created equal. While they each serve approximately the same purpose, multiple extra factors need to be taken into account. We’ll be naming three important considerations you’ll have to think of here: logging policy, user-friendliness, and price. For more information about how VPN providers deal with these as well as other topics, you can read our detailed VPN reviews.

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Logging policy

The only party that will be able to see your online behavior when you use a VPN, is the VPN provider. After all, your data traffic is being sent through their server. Therefore, it’s important to choose a trustworthy VPN provider that won’t save any of that information. That would go against everything a VPN stands for: guaranteeing your online anonymity and safety.

The so-called logs that your VPN provider could be keeping of your data have potentially awful consequences. Governments could force the provider to show them your data. Therefore, it’s always important to check whether the VPN you’re considering using has a “no logs” policy. If that’s the case, they promise not to save your data traffic, so they themselves and others won’t be able to access it.

User-friendliness

If you wish to set up a VPN connection on your device, you’ll have to download and install a VPN service. Sometimes you’ll have to configure your computer or mobile device in order for the VPN to work. Usually, this is quite a straightforward process: many providers have step-by-step installation guides that you can use even when you aren’t that skilled with computers. As soon as your VPN has been installed and activated, all your online data will be sent safely through the VPN tunnel. It won’t matter which program or browser you use, all traffic is taken care of.

The software provided by VPN services can be quite diverse. While one provider might have a simple and structured app that makes for very easy use, other VPNs might choose to add more options to their software, which could make the client slightly cluttered and harder to use. Depending on your own wishes, you might prefer one sort of client over another.

Price

A VPN subscription usually isn’t free. Luckily, the prices aren’t too bad: for just a few dollars a month you’ll already have a very good VPN. When compared to a free web proxy, this might seem too much, but you will get extra protection and encryption in return. There are even a couple of very decent free VPNs on the market.

When you opt for a free VPN, you should be wary of the VPN you choose, however. Good, trustworthy VPNs often have speed or data limits, but they’re much better than the many fake free VPNs you’ll find online, which often don’t work or are filled with malware. A good free VPN will still give you better protection than a proxy would.

If you want complete protection without any limitations, we’d advise you to put aside a few dollars a month and get a premium VPN anyway. Compared to a proxy, a VPN will make your internet experience much safer and more anonymous. If you choose a cheap provider on top of that, like Surfshark, you’ll have the best deal you can get.

How Does a Proxy Server Work?

A proxy server functions as an intermediary between you and the internet using HTTP, HTTPS, or SOCKS protocols. When you go online with a proxy, you’re assigned an anonymous IP address and all your internet traffic gets sent through the proxy first. Because of this, it seems as if your data is coming straight from that proxy instead of your own computer and true, local IP address. This is how you’re able to unblock restricted content and browse anonymously.IP address change with proxy

While VPN servers automatically encrypt all of your data — protecting it by making it unreadable — a proxy doesn’t normally do this. Since there’s no encryption, a proxy can handle a huge number of simultaneous connections from different users around the world (usually tens of thousands). But all these users can really slow down your internet connection.

Just like VPNs, there are private premium proxy servers you can sign up for (which can be quite expensive) and free public servers that might be interested in your online activity. While there are lots of free proxy servers available, it’s important to remember that not all are created equal. Let’s look at those three points:

Logging policy

One of the main arguments against proxies is this policy. They have none. While they can provide the same end goal for the user in anonymous browsing and unblocking international content, proxy servers don’t take extra steps to protect your anonymity. This is why a lot of VPN advocates have turned their back on proxy services. Why use a proxy when a premium VPN provides the same service, but with the additional benefit of encryption and truly anonymous browsing?

User-friendliness

Proxy servers aren’t known to be the easiest to use. Sometimes configuring a proxy server to your device can be a bit tricky, and it’s not quite as user-friendly as VPN software. If you’re a computer novice, you might run into some issues trying to set it up.

However, if you’re using an old operating system or want to use a proxy on an old device, one benefit is that you don’t need to download and update any software, like with a VPN. And because it’s using HTTP, HTTPS, or SOCKS calls, you’re not eating up much bandwidth or power, so an old computer or operating system would work well with a proxy.

Price

As the saying goes, you get what you pay for. While there are plenty of free proxy servers available to the public, there are also lots of private proxy servers that charge a fee. If you want to browse anonymously, it may not be a good idea to use a free public server. If they’re not collecting a membership fee to use the server, you could wonder whether their goal is actually to load up as many users as possible for free and sell their online activity to third parties.

We’ve always recommended setting aside a few dollars a month for a premium VPN and would recommend doing the same for a proxy server. The last thing you want to do is use a server that could be easily hacked or have a provider that would give up all your history and activity.

How Does Smart DNS Work?

To understand how Smart DNS works, it helps to understand the Domain Name System (DNS) itself. You can read our full article on DNS servers here if you want to learn which DNS servers are the safest, and how to switch them. DNS is like a contact list for the internet and is the foundation that the web was built on. Computers recognize numerical IP addresses, while humans are better with names. So just like your phone organizes your contacts, the DNS system pairs domain names — like VPNOverview.com — with their corresponding numeric IP address. So when you log into VPNOverview, your computer knows to take you to that destination.

Instead of masking your IP address and creating a tunnel of anonymity — as a VPN does — Smart DNS redirects your DNS queries to its American DNS servers. Smart DNS is used primarily to unblock websites and digital media unavailable in your country or geo-specific location. So if you’re in Europe on business, you can still watch American Netflix, access your usual library on Amazon Prime or Disney Plus, or listen to North American-based internet radio at your hotel.

Smart DNS also helps you avoid automatic security and bot checks that get set off when a user logs in repeatedly from different IP addresses. You might also benefit from faster speeds as VPN encryption uses up a lot of bandwidth. Smart DNS allows you to run the rest of your internet traffic through your ISP.

Logging policy

Smart DNS doesn’t have much to log: just your DNS queries and the websites you’ve unblocked. But nothing is stopping them from using your user data for marketing or business purposes. Smart DNS doesn’t have advanced security features or protocols unless the service comes bundled with an additional VPN service.

User-friendliness

This will largely depend on the Smart DNS service you use. Each one offers different mobile apps and desktop software, but since these services are generally marketed to inexperienced users, they’re made to be user-friendly and easy to install and operate. But while one provider might have a simple and easy-to-use app, others might add more advanced options to their software, making it harder to use.

Price

Premium Smart DNS services are in the same range as VPNs, anywhere from $3 to $8 per month, depending on the plan that you choose. We’ve yet to hear of free Smart DNS services and would be wary of using one. Again, we’d recommend getting a subscription to ExpressVPN, Surfshark, or CyberGhost (which will likely end up being cheaper), and get a full VPN account plus Smart DNS services.

Summary: Proxy vs. VPN vs. Smart DNS

VPNs, proxies, and Smart DNS are all tools that expand your freedom online. However, the way they do this and the degree of privacy and freedom offered are quite different.

In terms of privacy and security, VPNs far surpass proxies and Smart DNS. While proxies hide your IP, they don’t offer much else in terms of protection. A VPN takes the idea of a proxy server a step further. That said, if you’re in a country that doesn’t have an authoritarian or oppressive government, and you’re not worried about any third parties seeing your activity, Smart DNS for streaming content can be a fine choice as well.

While VPNs provide far more encryption and security than proxies, they may not always be necessary, depending on the task at hand and how you wish to deal with your online privacy. But when factoring in price, privacy, security, and performance, VPNs certainly come out on top.

VPN vs. Proxy vs. Smart DNS: What's the Difference? - FAQs

Do you have some questions about the differences between VPNs, proxies, and Smart DNS? Click one of our frequently asked questions below and find out the answer.

While both VPNs and proxy servers provide you with an anonymous IP address, only a VPN will encrypt your data traffic for extra security and privacy. A premium VPN also offers many different servers spread throughout different countries, which lets you access more online content. For all the differences and more information on VPNs and proxies (and Smart DNS too), read this full article.

A premium VPN unlocks content by letting you access one of its thousands of servers peppered across the globe. A VPN provides you with an anonymous IP address and encrypts your data traffic for optimal security and privacy. Smart DNS does none of this. It only tricks a website or streaming platform into thinking your DNS queries are coming from a country that’s eligible to access that content. For more information on VPNs and Smart DNS (and proxy servers), take a look at this comparison.

When you factor in unblocking capability, privacy and security measures, speeds, and performance for each of the services, a good VPN wins every time. You get the same end result of unblocked content, but with the benefits of data traffic encryption, advanced security protocols, optimal privacy protection, and high speeds. Read more about the benefits of VPNs, proxies, and Smart DNS here.

A proxy server is an external server to which you can connect your device to hide or change your IP address. This makes you more anonymous and gives you access to online content that would normally be blocked in your country. For more information, read our article on proxies.

A VPN (virtual private network) is a – often worldwide – network of servers to which you can connect your device to be more anonymous, safe and free online. After all, a VPN changes your IP-address and encrypts your data traffic. This means your identity will remain private and your data safe. This also means you get access to content which normally is not available in your country (if you choose a server in “the right country”).

Smart DNS has the ability to unblock streaming content in geo-restricted areas — and does so at optimum speeds — but it does not provide anonymity by masking your IP address, nor does it encrypt any of your data. Smart DNS tricks websites and streaming platforms into thinking your DNS queries are coming from eligible countries by using DNS proxy servers. It blocks certain traffic that gives away your location, while everything else runs as normal through the internet connection.

Tech journalist
Taylor is a tech writer and online journalist with a special interest in cybersecurity and online privacy. He’s covered everything from sports and crime, to explosive startups, AI, cybercrime, FinTech, and cryptocurrency. For VPNOverview.com he follows news and developments in online privacy, cybersecurity, and internet freedom.