What Is the Difference Between a VPN and a Proxy?

VPNs and proxies both improve digital security. But what’s the difference between the two?

By
&
Aliza Vigderman
Gabe TurnerChief Editor
Last Updated on Apr 7, 2021
By Aliza Vigderman & Gabe Turner on Apr 7, 2021

With so many tactics to improve digital security, the options might seem to blend together. We want to lay out the key differences between two common solutions: VPNs and proxies. We’ll go through the pros and cons of each and, ultimately, which will make you safer.

Surfshark Connected to VPN
Surfshark Connected to VPN

What Is the Difference Between a VPN and a Proxy?

Both a proxy and VPN connect you to a remote computer, but that’s essentially where the similarities end. VPNs cost money, but they encrypt your data and your IP address, while proxy servers only encrypt your IP address and are more likely to come free of charge. More importantly, proxy servers work at the app level, whereas VPNs secure all of your traffic.

The two tools also work in different ways. They have the same basic function — to mask IP addresses — but a VPN offers sophisticated encryption that gives the user total anonymity online, while a proxy server is much more basic. We’ve talked about the difference between a proxy and a VPN before, and it does get a bit more complex, so read on as we go through each service’s strengths and weaknesses.

Pros and Cons of a VPN

We just hit you with a lot of information, so here’s the CliffsNotes version of the pros and cons of a VPN.

VPN Pros and Cons

Pros
  • VPNs encrypt web traffic and IP addresses. 
  • They work at the operating system level.
  • Logging of web activity information is rare.
  • Users are more likely to access geo-blocked or censored content with VPNs than with proxies.
Cons
  • VPNs usually cost money. 
  • They are more likely to slow down your system.

 

Money-saver: Many VPNs offer either a free trial or a money-back guarantee, giving you the chance to try a service without paying any money.

Pros and Cons of a Proxy

With proxy servers, we find that while there are lots of pros, there are considerable cons as well.

Pros
  • They are free.
  • They can be faster because they don’t encrypt data.
  • They hide IP addresses.
  • They can control internet usage of kids or employees.
  • They guard against known malware sites by blocking access to them.
Cons
  • They don’t encrypt data.
  • They don’t work on sophisticated geo-blocking platforms like Netflix.
  • They only work at the app level.
  • They are more likely to log and sell web traffic data.

What Is a Proxy?

A proxy server is a middleman in the flow of your internet traffic that makes your online activities appear to come from somewhere else. For example, if you’re based in Brooklyn like us and want to log in to a website that is restricted for everyone except people in Australia, a proxy would let you access it by blocking or changing your location.

When To Use a Proxy

Proxies are great for low-stakes tasks like watching regionally restricted YouTube videos, bypassing simple content filters, and circumventing IP-based restrictions on services. We definitely don’t recommend using them for more important internet activities, like banking, as proxies have significant security shortcomings.

Types of Proxies

There are several different types of proxies.

  • HTTP proxies: HTTP proxies are the oldest type of proxy server, designed expressly for web-based traffic. The proxy server connects to your web browser’s configuration file and then routes your web traffic through that remote proxy.
  • SOCKS5 proxies: SOCKS5 proxies are an extension of the HTTP proxy system in that SOCKS5 is indifferent to the type of traffic that passes through it. However, HTTP proxies can only handle web traffic, and the SOCKS5 server will pass along any traffic it gets, whether that traffic is for a web server, an FTP server, or a BitTorrent client.
  • Transparent: Just as proxy servers can unlock certain websites, organizations can use them as a tool to restrict websites from view. This method is probably what your college used in the library to prevent you and your friends from playing video games instead of studying.

What Is a VPN?

We hear about VPNs all the time, but what is a VPN, anyway? “VPN” stands for “virtual private network,” and, like proxies, VPNs make your traffic appear as if it comes from a remote IP address. But that’s essentially where the similarities end. VPNs are set up at the operating system level, and the VPN connection captures the entire network connection of the device it is configured on.

vpn

Shared vs. Dedicated IP VPN Addresses

When selecting a VPN, companies will often talk about shared or dedicated IP addresses. Shared IP addresses are typically static, meaning they do not change. Thousands of users share the same few IP addresses to obscure their identities. Alternatively, dedicated IP addresses are assigned to only one user rather than being shared by several. With a dedicated IP address, you don’t have to worry about getting confused with another user who might be using the IP address for illegal activities. Dedicated IP addresses usually cost a separate fee on top of the regular VPN subscription. If you’re dealing with a dedicated IP address, we recommend changing the IP address routinely. We’ve laid out the step-by-step process for how to change your IP address.

Alternatives to VPNs and Proxies

While we covered a lot of ground discussing VPNs and proxy servers, there are other tools out there to fill in the gaps of both options.

Pro Tip: All digital security tools have some shortcomings. Typically, it’s best to use multiple tactics to get the most complete protection.

  • Tor browser: Tor protects users’ web activities and lets them dodge social media and internet blockages. It bounces around between multiple computers, or nodes, on the Tor network, making your communication difficult to trace. However, Tor can take ages to load, as it is used by many people at once, and you cannot share large files.
  • Smart DNS: A smart domain name system (DNS) disguises your location and lets you access restricted websites. It reroutes a request through proxy servers located in other countries where the websites are allowed. The main advantage of a smart DNS is that it only needs to reroute information about your location through a different network instead of routing all your web traffic, as is common with VPNs. This leads to higher speeds. On the flip side, a smart DNS does not always encrypt web activity, putting your information at risk. It doesn’t change your IP address either, increasing your likelihood of being tracked.
  • Operating systems: Computer and mobile operating systems also allow you to circumvent the internet using various features. For instance, Tails, a portable operating system, ensures that incoming and outgoing connections are forced to go through Tor. Tails also encrypts files and email messages, and it won’t leave any traces on the computer you’re using unless you want it to.

Do You Need a Proxy if You Already Have a VPN?

No, you do not need a proxy if you already have a VPN. While both mask your IP address, a VPN also encrypts your data and comes with a kill switch. Kill switches are like safety nets: If your VPN goes out for some reason, a kill switch will automatically shut down all of your browsing activity. That way, your browsing activity is never exposed to hackers or other bad actors who might be trying to spy on you. Additionally, VPNs tend to have more stringent logging policies. If you only use a proxy, upgrading to a VPN will increase your digital security, whereas using a proxy in addition to a VPN will not add any further protection.

Can I Use a VPN and Proxy Together?

Technically, yes, you can use a VPN and a proxy together. However, we don’t necessarily recommend it. VPNs do what a proxy can do — hide our IP addresses — but with additional services like a kill switch and web activity encryption. We don’t advise using both, because that may slow down your system without any additional benefit.

Which Is More Secure, a VPN or a Proxy?

VPNs are much more secure than proxies. While proxies are great for hiding your identity when you’re completing low-stakes tasks, like getting around country restrictions to watch the World Cup, you’d need a VPN for more serious tasks. VPNs encrypt web traffic and IP addresses across operating systems, while proxies don’t encrypt web traffic and need to be set up on each app individually.

The ProtonVPN App
The ProtonVPN App

 

In Summary

While both VPNs and proxies provide digital security, we recommend that you use a VPN. VPNs encrypt your web activity data, and that additional step makes a huge difference. They hide your browsing activity from everyone from the government to hackers, while proxies don’t encrypt web activity, only IP addresses. In case you need help picking a VPN, we compiled a list of the top VPNs. If you’re not ready to start paying for a VPN, many companies offer free trials or money-back guarantees. There’s even a handful of free VPNs that work very well, so you can ease into the world of digital security.

FAQs

Here’s a summary of the most common questions we get about the difference between a proxy and a VPN.

  • Is a proxy server the same as a VPN?

    No, a proxy server is not the same as a VPN. A proxy server can redirect web requests and hide your IP address, but not all proxies encrypt your web traffic. A VPN connection, on the other hand, routes and anonymizes all of your network traffic, IP address, and web browsing activity through an encrypted tunnel.

  • Do I need a VPN and a proxy?

    No, you do not need both a VPN and a proxy. VPNs and proxies mask your IP address, but a VPN will also encrypt your web activity data, which a proxy does not do.

  • Can I use a proxy and VPN together?

    Yes, you can use a VPN and proxy together to add an extra layer of security to your network connection. However, this might slow down your internet connection considerably.

  • Does a proxy hide your IP address?

    Yes, a proxy hides your IP address.