VPN vs Proxy Featured Image

VPN vs Proxy: What’s the difference?

Last edited: November 21, 2019
Reading time: 16 minutes, 26 seconds
Click here for a short summary of this article
What is the difference between a proxy and a VPN?

VPNs and proxies can both help you change and hide your IP address. You can use both of these services to unblock restricted online content, for example. A proxy doesn’t give you any extra sort of protection, however. Moreover, proxies are much less secure than VPN connections.

If you really want to surf the web anonymously and safely, you’re better off choosing a VPN. VPNs send all your online activities through an encrypted tunnel, so it becomes much harder for external parties to look into your online behavior. A proxy doesn’t provide you with this level of safety.

Want to try a good and affordable VPN? We recommend NordVPN.

When you want to surf anonymously, you could use a VPN or a proxy.

VPN and proxy on scales

Both VPNs and proxies can change your shown geographical location, allowing you to circumvent geo-restrictions on websites. Think of the many streaming services that won’t show you their content when you aren’t in the right country. While VPNs and proxies can both change this, the two work in completely different ways. Even the word ‘proxy’ itself is a broad term with many different meanings. There are, for example, public and private proxies that each have different functions.

So what’s the exact difference between a VPN and a proxy? Which of the two is best to use? While they have similar functions, the ways in which they set up your internet connection are very different. We’ll explain what those differences are, how various proxy servers work, and which pros and cons are attached to proxies and VPNs.

Proxy servers

A proxy server is a server standing in between your computer and the internet. When you go online with a proxy, all your internet traffic will be sent through that proxy first. Because of that, it’ll seem as if your data is coming straight from that proxy instead of your own computer and IP address. While VPN servers automatically encrypt all of your data, a proxy doesn’t do this. Therefore, a proxy is able to handle a huge number of simultaneous connections from different users (usually tens of thousands). Many VPN providers also offer a separate proxy service for their customers to use.

IP address change with proxy

Proxy servers are able to communicate with the internet in different ways. They use one of two protocols for this purpose: HTTP or SOCKS.

HTTP proxy servers

The HTTP protocol has been designed to interpret any traffic on HTTP level. Proxies using this protocol are only able to work with web pages. Every address starting with http:// or the more secure https:// will be covered by this proxy. Consequently, proxies using this protocol will only be effective when you’re using your browser. Because this proxy only accepts HTTP requests, it’s somewhat faster than a VPN or SOCKS proxy, which both have to process more data. Moreover, an HTTP proxy could help you get around some geographical online restrictions. Finally, HTTP proxies are often free or otherwise very cheap to use.

The main drawback of a proxy using the HTTP protocol is that your data could be tracked down quite easily. When using Flash or JavaScript, which the HTTP protocol can’t handle, many sites will be able to detect your real IP address regardless of the proxy. Aside from that, proxies don’t encrypt your data, allowing hackers, governments, security systems and your ISP to follow your every step. If you’re on an HTTPS website, your data traffic won’t be tracked by third parties. However, your IP address is still visible. A final drawback of HTTP proxies is that you’ll have to configure the proxy separately on every browser you use. This’ll cost you a lot of extra effort and time.

To shortly summarize all pros and cons of HTTP proxies, we’ve made an overview in the following table:

Pros: Cons:
Cheap (often completely free) Only useful for accessing websites
Hides your IP address Your IP could easily be uncovered
Fast in use HTTP data won’t be encrypted and will be susceptible to hackers
Provides access to some restricted websites Needs individual configuration in every browser

SOCKS proxy servers

Aside from HTTPS, proxy servers can use a second protocol: SOCKS. SOCKS proxy servers can do more than just interpret web pages. They’ll also take all other internet traffic into account, for example, applications for your email, IRC chats, and torrenting programs for your downloads. This way, you’ll remain more anonymous outside of your browser as well.

Since SOCKS proxies process more data than HTTP proxies, they’re usually also a lot slower. They deal with the same security issues as well: you’re still susceptible to hackers and your IP can be uncovered, even though that process isn’t as easy as with an HTTP proxy. Finally, you’ll have to configure this proxy separately on each bit of software, for example, BitTorrent.

A SOCKS proxy has both advantages and drawbacks when compared to an HTTP proxy. Still, it can be very useful in specific circumstances. If, for example, you just want to hide your identity to download torrents on BitTorrent, a SOCKS proxy using a secure SSL connection (a connection with certified encryption levels) is sufficient. However, if you are planning to download illegal documents or files on the internet, always be aware of the local regulations about this type of downloading.

Pros: Cons:
Hides your IP address Slower than an HTTP proxy
Gives you access to some restricted websites Doesn’t encrypt your data traffic, making it susceptible to hackers
Processes each form of internet traffic (including torrents) Needs individual configuration on each piece of software
Protects sufficiently for anonymous use of BitTorrent.

Public vs private proxy servers

Proxy servers can perform many different tasks. To differentiate between proxies and the functions they carry out, proxies can be categorized according to how they work. Firstly, there’s a difference between private and public proxies.

Public proxy servers

Free Proxy ListPublic, or open, proxy servers are proxies that anyone can use freely. This is possible because proxies are capable of handling thousands of connections at the same time. There are many public servers online, which are all free to use. These include both HTTP and SOCKS proxies, although there are generally more public HTTP proxies available. You’ll find countless lists of public proxies online if you know where to look. HideMyAss, for example, offers a free public proxy on their website.

Sadly, public proxy servers often are quite unstable. This is because a server that’s used by too many people at once can become overloaded and stop functioning. When a public server is easily found online, a lot of people are likely to use it, which can cause all sorts of issues. Your connection could drop without warning, and usually, the proxy’s speed is extremely bad. Moreover, you’ll often have to send all sorts of sensitive information to the owners of these anonymous servers. All your data traffic is passing through their servers, after all. Last of all, public proxies usually don’t offer any additional support. However, fact remains that these open proxies are very easy to use and available for free.

Private proxy servers

Private proxy servers aren’t available for everyone: you’ll have to buy one for a small price. These servers are generally much faster than public proxies. You’ll need a username and password in order to use them. Private proxy servers tend to be much more trustworthy than public servers because they’re often owned and controlled by businesses with good reputations. They usually offer additional support and software that has been configured to your personal use. BTGuard and TorGuard, for example, both have pre-configured servers that are perfect for downloading torrents. These services offer specialized SOCKS torrent services, while other VPNs might offer both HTTP and SOCKS services.

Different kinds of proxies

A proxy can be either public or private. Aside from that, however, there’s another way to subdivide proxies, namely according to function. There are web proxies, transparent proxies, anonymous proxies, reverse proxies, and more. We’ll shortly explain each of these categories. For more information on different kinds of proxies, you can read our article “What is a proxy server”.

Web proxy

A web proxy service, such as that offered by CyberGhost, sets up a connection with a public HTTP server. The moment you send out an online web request, the proxy will pick it up. They’ll change the request and subsequently send it on to its original destination. With a web proxy you’ll be able to do any browsing within your browser more anonymously without having to download or install additional software. You won’t even have to configure your browser. Moreover, these web proxies are often completely free.

Unfortunately, web proxies also have their drawbacks: they tend to use many adverts, which you’ll all see on your screen. They also tend to be slower and only partly support Flash Player and JavaScript. Moreover, many websites block the IP addresses belonging to these proxies, keeping you from accessing the information on these pages while you’re using the proxy. All security issues that come up when using an HTTP server are also relevant for web proxies: they aren’t very secure and can’t guarantee complete anonymity while browsing.

Web proxies are very easy to use. Even so, their issues with speed, safety, and blocked access limit their usefulness significantly. For proper protection and a quicker connection, you’re better off using a different kind of proxy.

Transparent proxy

A proxy is transparent when it can’t be seen by its users. You could say it’s ‘invisible’ in that sense. Similar to a web proxy, you won’t have to configure this proxy in your browser. Using a transparent proxy is ‘obligatory’ in many cases, even if the user isn’t aware of it. A transparent proxy stands in between user and service. While the user can’t see that their data is sent through a proxy first, the provider of the service can.

The main advantage of transparent proxies is that they increase the speed of your internet use because they use caching. An example: when you log into the free Wi-Fi network at Starbucks as a new user, you’ll have to accept the conditions first. This screen with user conditions is a cached page provided by the proxy. The moment you press accept, you’ll be sent on directly to the actual service. In other words, you’ll first be sent to a previously saved copy of the website. Due to this process, using a big network will be easier and faster with a proxy.

If you’re looking for a proxy that’ll hide your IP address, you won’t find the answer in a transparent proxy. This kind of proxy directly sends on your IP address to the service. Therefore, it doesn’t provide you with any anonymity and only offers ease of use and increased speed.

Anonymous proxy

Opposed to a transparent proxy, an anonymous proxy does hide your IP address. The services you use while connected through this proxy will be able to see that someone has visited their website while using a proxy. However, they won’t know who it was, since they can’t see your real IP address, only the IP of the proxy server. This kind of proxy generally works quite well for increased online anonymity. However, it isn’t a guaranteed solution. Aside from regular anonymous proxies, there are ‘extreme’ anonymous (or high anonymity) proxies. These servers won’t even reveal to websites that they’re a proxy, while a regular anonymous proxy is detectible.

Reverse proxy

A reverse proxy does the exact opposite of a normal proxy. Instead of protecting the data of the browsing internet user, this proxy protects the web server it’s used on. A reverse proxy can be used to protect online data on a page by putting up a firewall. Access to these specific pages can be given or denied by the proxy. This way, customers of a certain bank won’t be able to accidentally browse to the bank environment of a stranger. Moreover, reverse proxies are often used to cache static pages, ensuring the server won’t be easily overloaded.

VPN

Instead of a proxy, you could also use a VPN. 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. Moreover, a VPN gives you access to multiple different server locations, meaning you could reach all sorts of geo-restricted pages and services that wouldn’t otherwise be available to you. A VPN works like this:

How Does a VPN Work Illustration

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

Do you want to get started with a decent VPN right away? Take a look at NordVPN.

NordVPN
Deal:
Only $3,49 a month for a 3-year subscription
9.1
  • Excellent protection and a large network of servers
  • Nice and pleasing application
  • No logs
Visit NordVPN

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 making 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 to use has a no logs policy. If that’s the case, they promise not to save your data traffic, so others won’t be able to see it either.

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, making 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 the best 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.

To make the choice between VPN and proxy easier, we’ve listed the pros and cons of VPNs for you in the table below.

Pros of a VPN: Cons of a VPN:
Your internet activity well-protected Price
High levels of encryption Possibility of logs
Fast to use
Available in many countries/many server locations

Which is best: VPN or proxy?

In terms of privacy and security, VPNs far surpass proxies. While proxies hide your IP, they don’t offer much else by means of protection. That said, you may opt to use a proxy for specific situations. 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.

When to use a proxy

  • Bypassing a firewall or geoblock: 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 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 especially 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 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 hackers.
  • 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 to get around them.
  • Bypassing government censorship: If you live a country with widespread censorship and online surveillance, only a premium VPN will allow you to safely bypass censorship and to hide your online activity from the government.

Final thoughts

A proxy server could redirect your online traffic for different reasons. You could use one to stay more anonymous while browsing or a service could increase your internet experience by adding a proxy for caching. There are multiple kinds of proxies available that can be used for different purposes.

In almost every way, a VPN is better than a proxy. VPNs offer more online anonymity and protect all of your online data instead of just specific parts of it. Moreover, a VPN could speed up your internet connection: when your ISP artificially lowers the bandwidth of your internet connection, a VPN can circumvent this effectively.

The only real reason to choose a proxy server over a VPN is the price. Proxies are simply cheaper than VPNs. Regardless, for a small payment each month you’ll already have a high-quality VPN service, for example CyberGhost, NordVPN, or Surfshark. In almost all cases, it’s smarter to pay to ensure your data is really safe. Before choosing a proxy to increase your online anonymity, it’s best to consider a limited free VPN first. Always keep in mind that nothing on the internet is 100% safe and anonymous. Therefore, you should always be careful about what you do online, even when using a proxy or VPN.

Main author:

More articles from the ‘VPN info’ section

Comments
Leave a comment
Leave a comment