Last Updated: October 4, 2021
Proxy servers and virtual private networks (VPNs) are popular privacy tools for connecting to the internet.
So, are they the same? What should you use them for?
Keep reading to understand the merits of proxy vs VPN solutions.
What Is Proxy?
A proxy is a remote computer that acts as an intermediary between an app residing on your device and the open Web. It keeps your traffic looking normal all the while to avoid raising suspicion.
Here’s how it works:
You send your internet traffic through it. Then, the proxy server will connect to a site or an app on your behalf using its own IP (Internet Protocol) address.
This way, you don’t have to broadcast yours, can circumvent any geo-restrictions, and get to keep your privacy intact.
Proxies use different protocols, but the most common ones are HTTP and SOCKS.
What Is VPN?
A VPN is a network of remote servers. It can conceal the actual IP address assigned to your device, enabling you to browse the Web as if you’re in a different city or country.
In addition, a VPN establishes a secure tunnel that encrypts the traffic data passing through it. It can do so at the operating system level. This means a VPN can obscure the entire stream of internet data coming from your device.
We have an in-depth piece on VPNs if you’re interested to learn about their common tunneling protocols and standard features.
Proxy vs VPN – What’s the Difference?
So, proxy vs VPN – how are they similar and where are the differences?
Both proxy and VPN vendors can defeat basic detection techniques. The latter, however, tends to deliver a more robust defense against advanced checks.
Furthermore, neither of the two can deliver absolute online anonymity. Not so reputable proxy and VPN vendors may keep a log of their users and their traffic data.
In the event of a data breach, the sensitive user information that they save could end up on the black market.
Ease of Use
VPNs usually have a more straightforward installation procedure. You can choose from desktop clients, mobile apps, and browser extensions. They can be downloaded and set up in minutes.
VPNs are customizable to suit your unique preferences. But their default settings can be good enough to let you use the internet more privately and securely right away.
Public and private proxy servers, on the other hand, aren’t preconfigured. You have to manually set them up for individual apps.
On some occasions, a VPN might need manual configuration. But it’s less of a concern if you intend to use the service on a personal computer, tablet, or smartphone.
Using either of the two can almost always result in a slower connection. A proxy has to reroute your traffic while a VPN still has to encrypt your data. Both processes can be time-consuming.
Also, proxies and VPNs are prone to performance issues caused by usage overload. But you can increase your connection speed if you opt for a private proxy, which limits the traffic on it. Or you can pick a server for VPN in a nearer and/or less popular location.
Moreover, there are instances where a proxy or a VPN can ensure a decent or stable connection speed.
A proxy may display a locally stored cached version of the webpage you want to view to boost its loading time. And a VPN can help you avoid any throttling attempts by your ISP (internet service provider) by not leaking your DNS (Domain Name System) queries.
With their inherent ability to encrypt traffic data, VPNs are typically more secure than proxies.
But this doesn’t mean that proxy servers endanger your cybersecurity all the time. Visiting sites-enabled to use the HTTPS protocol will already encrypt your data and keep external parties from observing your browsing activity.
That’s why you should look for the padlock icon in the address bar. It can separate secure sites from vulnerable ones more easily.
Many remote proxy and VPN vendors provide additional security features to help neutralize various cyber threats.
The best proxy service providers may actually rival some VPNs by providing end-to-end encryption via SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) and ad blockers. The most reliable VPN companies use military-grade encryption, offer advanced security features like a kill switch, and come with built-in malware protection.
Premium VPN solutions usually cost more than paid proxy services. In general, VPNs have superior privacy and security capabilities, so you can get more for what you pay for.
Then again, the market is full of free proxy server and VPN services. If you don’t want to spend time, you won’t have a shortage of options.
One word of caution: free proxy server and VPN solutions are questionable at best and dangerous at worst. With no other clear source of revenue, vendors that charge nothing might not be doing business in good faith.
If you really value internet privacy and security, strongly consider spending some money.
If your choice is VPN vs proxy, here’s a rundown of the advantages and disadvantages of either option:
- Hides your IP address – you can overcome internet censorship
- Can load web pages fast with cached data
- Has multiple practical commercial uses (more on these shortly)
- Can come with enhanced VPN-like features
- Doesn’t encrypt traffic data in general
- Requires manual configuration
- Works at the app level only
- Can slow your connection
- Acts as an IP masker and encrypts your traffic data automatically
- Works at the OS level
- Renders setup a breeze
- Won’t record browsing activity
- Can slow your connection
- May cost more money
Which One Is Best For You?
So far, this VPN vs proxy debate seems one-sided. But the former isn’t always the right choice. Sometimes, a proxy is actually more suitable.
When to Use a Proxy Instead of a VPN
Here are some scenarios where a proxy server makes more sense:
- You want to hide your IP address to perform low-stakes activities.
If all you want to do is bypass a geoblock without any serious need to keep your traffic data out of view, then a proxy should be enough.
- You want to restrict access to certain sites for users in your network.
Businesses use reliable proxy servers to prevent their employees from visiting certain sites in order to reduce distraction, boost productivity, and safeguard sensitive information.
A proxy service can be a useful tool to ban users in your internet network from checking out dubious sites and keep malware (especially ransomware) at bay.
- You want to show web content based on a user’s location.
If your international organization’s site has localized content, you can use a remote proxy to display relevant information to visitors from around the world.
- You want to use a bot to appear as multiple persons.
Residential proxies are an effective tool for purchasing limited-edition items like sneakers. The combination of a bot and a multitude of IP addresses can help you beat human shoppers.
- You want to carry out bulk tasks for commercial purposes.
The use of a myriad of proxies can help you carry out bulk business tasks you can’t feasibly do with a single anonymous IP address.
Those include, but are not limited to web scraping, data aggregation, monitoring of SEO metrics, market research, advertising fraud prevention, etc.
When to Use a VPN Instead of a Proxy
A VPN is what you’re looking for if you:
- You want to reroute your entire device’s internet traffic.
Device-wide protection is the undisputed advantage of VPNs over proxies. But some services offer split tunneling functionality. It enables you to exclude some programs and connect them to the internet without passing through a secure tunnel.
This way, you can enjoy your regular connection speed on apps that don’t require robust VPN encryption.
- You want to spoof your location without the pain of manual configuration.
Whether you’re technologically proficient or not, you’d want an easy-to-use IP address–changing tool.
- You want to hide your browsing activity.
Encryption is a standard feature of VPNs. Although encrypted proxy servers aren’t hard to come by now, they’re still the exception, not the norm.
Besides, hiding DNS requests is another core function of VPNs. That’s why using a trusted VPN can keep your ISP (and other prying eyes) in the dark about your online activities.
- You want to defeat internet throttling.
If your ISP doesn’t know how you use the internet, it can’t throttle your connection and ruin your online experience. This could mean uninterrupted torrenting and streaming.
As you can see, proxies and VPNs can solve different problems. For the right reason, combining secure proxy servers and a VPN won’t be a waste of money.
So, which services should you use? For private proxy services, the following our top picks:
Smartproxy is a solid paid proxy service with about 200 data centers spread across 8 cities globally. You can tap its more than 40 million residential IP addresses to break geo-restrictions.
Although you can use it for personal use, it’s a popular solution for data harvesting and other commercial tasks. Its Chrome and Firefox extensions have intuitive interfaces, so navigation won’t be a problem.
With Smartproxy, you can do multiple connections all at once. It offers data center IPs that enable unlimited simultaneous connections.
It will change your assigned anonymous IP address every half an hour, however. The point is to prevent user abuse, preserving the integrity of its IPs.
Smartproxy’s starting price is $50. But it comes with a three-day money-back guarantee to let you test the waters.
KProxy is suitable for every budget. It offers a freemium pricing model, good for both casual and power users.
This service has no less than 120 secure proxy servers in five countries in Europe and North America. It picks the proxy by default, but you can switch locations as you please. While it imposes a 300MB limit on downloads and uploads, it doesn’t have a cap on bandwidth usage.
You can deploy KProxy through its Chrome or Firefox extension. But you can go with its own proxy browser if you wish. If you use the Android Kiwi Internet Access app, you’ll be able to configure it to the program.
Other than its affordable $10 premium monthly subscription, KProxy has a range of privacy features. It can prevent browser-related IP leakage and beat network filters at work or in school with its plugin.
If you want a VPN, here are some of our favorites among the over two dozen services we’ve reviewed.
CyberGhost is a Romania-based VPN, great for P2P sharing and streaming. In its fleet of 5,900 VPN servers across 60 countries, it has optimized hardware for Netflix use and torrenting.
It works with:
- Linux computers
- Amazon Fire TV.
Likewise, it has Chrome and Firefox extensions.
It uses 256-bit AES encryption, which is the industry standard. It has robust IP and DNS protection capability, stealth VPN functionality, and a kill switch. This helps you keep a low profile when circumventing internet censorship and safeguard your identity when the connection fails.
You can test-drive CyberGhost for one day before upgrading to a premium plan that starts at $12.99 a month. You can get up to seven simultaneous device connections and enjoy the luxury of applying for a refund if you decide to cancel within 45 days.
TunnelBear is awash with wonderful advanced features for torrenting.
This freemium VPN product supports kill switch, double VPN, and stealth VPN.
It also has split tunneling, so you can choose to change your original IP address and encrypt your traffic data in select apps only.
You can use TunnelBear on up to five Windows, macOS, iOS, and Android devices. It gives you access to 1,800-strong online VPN server network that encompasses 23 locations.
Despite being headquartered in Canada, which is Five Eyes Alliance territory, TunnelBear has a strict zero-log policy.
So, proxy vs VPN – which one is better?
Truly, the former can’t go head-to-head with the latter.
It’s amazing that many paid proxy vendors have capitalized on encryption solutions to help level the playing field. But they still can’t compete with VPN providers in terms of privacy when all is said and done.
Proxies have the edge over VPNs in commercial use, though. Most VPNs focus on individual users, whereas proxy service providers consider enterprises their primary target users.
Which one will you go for?
They serve a common purpose: IP masking. Apart from enabling you to combat censorship and get around geo-restrictions, VPNs and proxies are worlds apart.
Coverage is the biggest difference between VPN vs proxy talk. A VPN can spoof your location on whatever app you use on the device, where a proxy’s capability is limited to individual apps only.
To some extent, the line separating VPNs and proxies has become blurry nowadays, though. VPNs with split tunneling and obfuscated capabilities can mimic proxies, and encrypted proxy servers can obscure internet data as VPNs do.
Proxies support multiple connections, which can facilitate many bulk commercial tasks, including sentiment analysis and keyword research. VPNs, on the other hand, are practical for personal use.
But if you only want to hide your IP address to access censored content and encrypt your traffic data, just a VPN will do.
Yes, but it would be redundant to use them at the same time for location spoofing. Having said that, there might be instances where you would find proxies and VPNs useful in tandem.
To learn about when each privacy and security tool is sensible to use, read our Proxy vs VPN article above.