What’s the difference between a proxy and a VPN?

proxy vs vpn difference

Both proxy servers and VPNs work by connecting you to a remote computer in order to mask your IP address. But despite both providing the same functionality in this sense, VPNs and proxy servers are actually very different. VPNs cost money but they encrypt your data, while proxy servers offer much less in the way of security, but don’t usually charge users. More importantly, proxy servers only work at the app level, whereas VPNs secure all of your traffic.

But should you get a VPN or a proxy server? Well, if you want a cheap way of hiding your online activity then a proxy server can be a good option. But if security is your main priority, a VPN will offer you much greater privacy.

We’ve pulled together a lot of useful information to help you if you’re weighing up the benefits of a proxy vs VPN to decide which one’s right for you. So read on for everything you need to know about VPNs and proxy servers and the differences between them.

VPN and proxy

VPNs and proxy servers mask your IP address to keep your identity protected while you’re online. So, whether you’re surfing the internet, checking your emails, going on social media, streaming videos, playing games online or downloading files and photos, you can use a VPN or a proxy server to keep your activity private.

But both of these tools work in very different ways. Despite the fact they have the same basic function, a VPN is not the same thing as a proxy server. A VPN offers sophisticated encryption to give you complete anonymity while you’re online, while a proxy server only affords you a basic level of privacy.

Still, there are lots of pros and cons to both. So read on as we explore the differences between proxy servers and VPNs.

Main differences between a proxy and a VPN

Because proxy servers and VPNs mask your IP address by connecting you to a remote computer, a lot of people believe that VPNs and proxies are the same thing.

Here are the main differences between VPNs and proxy servers:

VPNsProxy servers
Encrypt your trafficYesNo
Works on the operating system levelYesNo
Free to useNo (usually)Yes (usually)
Reliable connectionYesNot always

VPN and proxy: pros and cons

When it comes to VPNs vs proxy servers and which to choose, there are pros and cons for each option. Proxy servers are usually the cheaper and quicker choice and are really handy if all you want to do is hide your IP address. But VPNs offer much greater security by encrypting all your online traffic. 

This means that only a VPN can help you protect your online activity from hackers, government agencies, and businesses that might be looking to learn more about you and how you spend your time while surfing the internet.

But there are still loads of benefits of each option. We’ve pulled together a list of pros and cons to help you decide if you want a proxy server or a VPN.

What are the pros and cons of using a proxy server?

A proxy server masks your IP identity by routing traffic through a remote machine that connects you to the host server. It acts as a firewall and web filter, provides shared network connections, and it’ll cache your data to speed up common requests.

how a proxy server works

Essentially, a proxy server is ideal for basic functions like anonymous web browsing and managing and circumventing content restrictions. Proxies allow users to bypass content restrictions and monitoring and can (but usually won’t) enable you to access geographically restricted content, like Hulu or foreign versions of Netflix.

Why you should use a proxy server

  • Proxy servers are usually free, so you won’t need to pay to use one.
  • Proxy servers can be faster than VPNs because proxies don’t encrypt your data.
  • Using a proxy server gives you a basic level of privacy, as it hides your IP address and any other identifying information while you’re online.
  • You can control the internet usage of your kids or employees by configuring your proxy server to deny access to specific websites.
  • A proxy server can improve your bandwidth and load times as it’ll cache your favorite websites.
  • A proxy server can guard against known malware sites by blocking access to them.
  • You can access blocked resources and regional content as a proxy server can circumvent content restrictions imposed by companies and governments. 

Why you shouldn’t use a proxy server

  • A free service doesn’t always mean a better service. Because proxy servers are often free, it’s likely they aren’t investing too heavily in your security and could even be selling your data
  • Not all proxy servers can be trusted with your data. So be sure to check the server’s retention policy before you sign up and start using the proxy
  • A proxy server doesn’t encrypt your data, so it doesn’t provide you with much security
  • Proxies are no good against sophisticated geo-blocking on streaming platforms like Netflix
  • They only work at the app level, so unless you set one up on all the apps you’re using (your browser, torrent client, messaging app, etc.), this traffic will not be secured

What are the pros and cons of using a VPN?

A VPN (also known as a virtual private network) works by creating an encrypted tunnel between you and a remote server operated by a VPN service. When you use a VPN, all your internet traffic is then routed through this tunnel. This keeps your online activity safe from hackers, third party companies and even government agencies.

how a vpn works

Why you should use a VPN

  • VPNs encrypt your traffic, which is something proxy servers won’t do. By encrypting your online activity, a VPN service protects you from hackers, as well as ISP tracking and government surveillance
  • VPNs work on the operating system level, which means that it’ll redirect all your traffic from your web browser and other apps
  • VPN providers usually offer a no-log policy, which means that they don’t store any data on you, so they can’t sell it to any third party sites
  • A VPN connection is more reliable than a proxy server, which drops connections more often
  • VPNs will get you access to virtually any kind of geo-blocked or censored content

Why you shouldn’t choose a VPN

  • You have to pay to use a VPN, so it might not be the best option for you if you’re trying to avoid spending money. If you do find a free VPN, it’s probably not a trustworthy service, so it’s best to avoid free VPN options.
  • VPNs can be slower than proxy servers because they have to encrypt your data.

Proxy vs VPN: which is more secure?

A VPN is a lot more secure than a proxy server. While both mask your IP address, a VPN will actually encrypt all the data you send and receive. Therefore, VPNs are much better at providing online protection than proxy servers, which don’t offer any encryption.

All a proxy does is pass your traffic through a mediating server. So this doesn’t necessarily provide you with any additional protection. And you’ll have no way of knowing what a proxy server will do with any data it’s collected on your online activity. But it’s possible this information could be sold to third party companies.

It’s also worth noting that VPNs, unlike proxies, work on the operating system level to secure all your traffic, which makes them a lot safer than using a proxy server.

Proxy with VPN: can it be used together?

There’s no need to use a proxy server if you’ve also got a VPN. Both proxy servers and VPNs mask your IP identity, so there’s no reason to use them together. In fact, if you’re already using a VPN, then connecting to a website or app through a proxy server just adds an unnecessary extra step that could even slow things down without adding any additional security.

With that said, you could use both if you feel the extra step to secure your anonymity is necessary.

VPNs vs proxy servers: the bottom line

If you’re looking at a proxy vs VPN for security reasons, the VPN is the clear winner. Its layers of encryption as well as its no-log policy means that it’ll keep your online activity safe from hackers and third parties.

However, if all you want is to keep your IP address hidden, then a proxy server will work just as well as a VPN. In fact, if you just want to mask your identity from a single site or app, a proxy server might be the better choice, particularly if you’re concerned about bandwidth and browsing speeds.

And if you’re concerned about cost or you just don’t want to commit to yet another monthly subscription, there are loads of decent free proxy servers out there. So you can get a basic level of online privacy and the ability to bypass content restrictions without paying a penny.

While VPNs usually charge a monthly subscription fee, they’re not likely to break the bank. You can sign up for a VPN for just a few dollars a month. And let’s be honest, this subscription fee does seem like a pretty small price to pay to keep your sensitive personal and financial information protected from hackers and other third parties.

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