VPN vs Proxy: What’s the Difference?

James Milin-Ashmore

James Milin-Ashmore Last updated: August 30, 2021

VPN vs Proxy: What’s the Difference?

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What’s the difference between a VPN and a proxy, and aren’t they basically the same thing? Well, they often get lumped together when talking about online security, but they’re used for a variety of different tasks.

Both serve as a decent entry point for increased privacy, which is becoming more important for the average user, although there are significant differences to consider. In any case, either a proxy or a VPN will be helpful if you want to protect your identity or access blocked content.

This guide will take you through the basics surrounding VPNs vs proxies, giving you a better idea of what to expect from their varying levels of protection. You will also be able to separate the two and understand which will serve your needs best.

The Basics of a VPN vs Proxy

Proxies and VPNs will allow for improved levels of privacy, but the methods they use to do so are different. The same is true for the level of protection they provide, with the latter seen as a more secure option. Either only takes a few clicks of a mouse to set up and start, and there are a few distinct similarities. 

We’ll get into that below, but first, we’ll take you through the basics, as well as the pros and cons each service provides. 

What is a VPN?

VPN diagram graphic

A virtual private network (VPN) replaces your ISP routing, establishing a secure tunnel that encrypts your network traffic. In layman’s terms, they encrypt and secure any data sent to and from your device, ensuring it’s safe from prying eyes. This data is then disposed of, for anonymity and privacy purposes. (Well, ideally, but that’s not always the case.)

This service works by connecting your device to a VPN server, which can be found anywhere in the world. For example, a UK server would give access to British websites, by giving the user a UK IP address to connect to the internet with.

VPNs come in many forms, from barebones services with a handful of servers to premium providers that have partnered with football teams to improve recognition. Most importantly, in comparison to a proxy, a VPN connection routes and encrypts all of your network traffic. 

Pros & Cons

Every VPN will come with certain quirks depending on what users it’s created for. However, on the whole, most providers offer similar pros and cons you should consider before pulling out your credit card. Here are the main points:

pros

  • Very easy to set up and use
  • Drastically improves online security
  • Unblock geo-restricted content
  • Do not log your data
  • Military-grade encryption of all internet traffic
  • Hides IP address so you can browse the web anonymously
  • Great for torrenting or working from home securely
  • Available on a range of devices

cons

  • Subscription fees for any top-quality VPN
  • Budget VPNs tend to impact speed performance
  • Learning curve for first-time users
  • VPN servers blocked by some websites
  • Not all VPN providers are trustworthy

What is a Proxy?

Proxy diagram graphic

Rather than the all-encompassing protection offered by a VPN, a proxy is typically used to unblock websites or browse anonymously.

A proxy is used to translate traffic between networks or protocols. This is done with a server that often adds functionality, be it via added security or improved performance. 

In relation to VPNs, proxy servers change your IP address, redirecting your traffic to another server. This means that you’ll be able to unblock websites or services since the connection will appear to come from a different location than your own. However, this traffic isn’t encrypted to the same level as with a VPN. Many proxies work within the browser, either charging for use of the service or making money through advertising. 

Proxy interface screenshot from Hide.Me VPN
The Hide.me free proxy website

To put it simply, instead of directly connecting to a website, your computer will send web traffic to the proxy server first. The proxy forwards your request to the website, which causes the traffic to appear to come from their server location, rather than your device. 

There are various types of proxies depending on what task you have at hand. If you were aiming to avoid an IP ban, a rotating proxy is a server that assigns a new IP address for every connection made. With a rotating proxy, you could launch a script to send 10,000 requests to any number of sites and get as many different IP addresses.

A more fundamental example of a proxy server can be found in many office networks. In addition to forwarding traffic, they may act as a firewall and web filter, or provide shared network connections for increased usability. 

Pros & Cons:

While proxies don’t encrypt your data like VPNs can, they still come in handy for a handful of tasks. Below we break down the pros and cons to help you decide if a proxy is right for you.

pros

  • The majority of proxies are free and simple to use
  • Unblock geo-restricted websites and services
  • Can be customized to act as a firewall
  • Provide basic protection so long as the connection isn’t intercepted
  • May can boost connection speeds or load times
  • Hides user IP address for anonymization
  • Various types of proxies with different features

cons

  • Your IP will be masked, but you won’t benefit from the same security as with VPN
  • Will have an impact on overall load times and performance in many cases
  • Blocked by some websites directly
  • Despite masking your IP address, anyone able to intercept the traffic can see it
  • Many lack speed consistency (or are consistently slow)
  • Some sell data to advertisers

Key Differences

VPNProxy
Freemium/Premium softwareFree to use (some premium options)
Privacy-focusedFor unblocking websites 
Encrypts all trafficEncrypted web traffic
Multiple apps/websites One website/app at a time 
Client appsWeb Based
Audited servicesPotential to log user data
VPNFreemium/Premium software
ProxyFree to use (some premium options)
VPNPrivacy-focused
ProxyFor unblocking websites 
VPNEncrypts all traffic
ProxyEncrypted web traffic
VPNMultiple apps/websites 
ProxyOne website/app at a time 
VPNClient apps
ProxyWeb Based
VPNAudited services
ProxyPotential to log user data

It’s easy to see how VPNs and proxies get lumped together, but the differences are clear. A VPN tends to be a premium service with a subscription fee. Proxies are generally free to use, but that does mean that they could be selling user data. Also, they will both unblock websites and services, but a solid VPN is more likely to do so consistently. 

The most important difference is that a proxy will encrypt web traffic, typically for one website or app at a time. A VPN encrypts all traffic, which is better from a security standpoint. You’ll also be able to use the majority of VPNs on multiple devices, whether desktop or mobile

VPNs offer a range of additional features, and in many ways, it’s like using a proxy on steroids. The security is enhanced, speeds will be improved, and the majority have native apps for every major platform. 

Using Both Simultaneously

Is there any point in doubling up with a VPN and a proxy? Not really, as a VPN should offer everything you’d expect from a proxy server – and then some.

A VPN will also override any proxy settings. This means that a VPN can be used to bypass a proxy server or firewall. A combination of the two would probably have an impact on connection speeds, so we’d stick with a proxy if you just want to unblock a website and a premium provider like NordVPN if you’d prefer true anonymity. 

Free VPNs vs Free Proxies

graphic of a VPN vs Proxy for computers

If you face the choice between a free VPN vs a free proxy, we’d always opt for the latter if you want to access a website or two. 

It’s likely to be more of a basic experience, but you won’t be upsold or limited to the extent you’ll find with the majority of free VPN services. However, be wary of the websites you visit as your data could be sold to advertisers or other third parties worth paying. For more comprehensive coverage, we’d stick with a paid and trustworthy VPN service.

If you can’t decide either way, we recommend going with Tor (The Onion Router). Tor is a free web browser that offers good security when accessing websites. It routes your data through three different servers before returning any searches, although this does come at the expense of slower speeds. Due to the nature of the relayed connections, you can expect poorer performance compared to a VPN. Yet, it is free – which counts for a lot to some users.  

VPN vs Proxy: Summary 

Before exiting, let’s recap what we’ve covered.

A proxy is a handy online tool that helps the user to access encrypted websites. It does so by acting as an online gateway. There are many different types that serve to provide a range of extra functions. 

VPNs are an improvement on proxy services, thanks to additional security features, faster speeds, and a host of server locations to choose from. They also have native apps and a diverse list of compatible devices. We’d advise sticking with an audited provider, so you don’t have to take their logging claims at face value.

Services like Tor also provide a happy medium, with enhanced security compared to a proxy (though at the cost of connection speed). 

The “best” option is dependent on the user, and what they plan to use the proxy/VPN for. Remember, a proxy is a gateway, while a VPN is a secure tunnel. Either will be helpful if you want to reach an online destination, but there are pros and cons to consider for both options. Though, you know which one we’d pick for peace of mind.