Proxies vs VPNs: What Are the Differences?

When it comes to privacy online, most Internet users want something that will keep their information and activity hidden while still offering a reliable connection. Both proxies and VPNs have proven that they’re capable of checking those boxes. But what’s the difference between the two? If you’re comparing proxies vs VPNs in order to make a choice between the two, read on; we’ll explain what they do, when you should use them, and which might be better for you.

What is a proxy server and how does it work?

A proxy server works, essentially, as a hub through which Internet requests are processed. When you connect to the server, your computer sends requests to the proxy server rather than directly to the destination. The server processes the requests and returns a response to your computer.

When you connect to a proxy server or web proxy, the computer or server on the other end of the connection doesn’t see your IP address. It sees the IP address of your proxy server. Your public IP address is hidden, meaning your activity can’t be tracked like it could be with an unprotected connection.

Proxies use two different types of encryption to shield your identity: HTTPS and SOCKS. HTTPS is a secure connection protocol that uses Transport Layer Security (TSL) to securely send data between a web browser and a website. SOCKS routes data packets through a remote server, offering authentication methods to make sure only legitimate traffic gets through.

Proxies vs VPNs

Both are beneficial to the average users. However, HTTPS is slightly faster and cheaper to run, whereas SOCKS offers a slightly stronger defense against outside threats.

What is a VPN and how does it work?

A virtual private network, or VPN, encrypts the data from your connection point to the connecting server point using a tunneling protocol. VPN clients connect to a VPN server using secure software, and like with proxy servers, the IP address displayed to the party on the other end of the connection won’t be your public IP.

VPN services usually work by installing a piece of software onto your desktop, laptop, or phone that connects you to a proxy server under their control. Once the connection is established, you’ll be able to freely visit sites without worrying that your information or activity is being tracked. Some VPN providers do keep logs on their clients, meaning that your real IP address is still known to someone, but it won’t appear online to other devices.

Is a proxy the same as a VPN?

Though they both focus on privacy via hidden IP addresses, a proxy is not the same thing as a VPN. Both help users protect their online activity and online privacy – just with slightly different methods.

The main differences between proxies and VPNs are as follows:

  • VPNs encrypt your web traffic completely; proxy servers don’t. Both use some levels of encryption, but secure VPN technology uses complete end-to-end encryption protocols. Proxy servers lack that security.
  • Proxy servers act as a gateway; VPNs act as a tunnel. Proxy servers allow web traffic through, hiding your IP address. VPNs create a direct, secure connection that hides your IP and gets you right to the connection point.
  • They may run at different speeds. Depending on the VPN or proxy service that you choose, you may experience faster speeds with one or the other. Typically, paid services provide faster speeds than free services.
  • Proxies are more vulnerable to security exploits. Because they act as a gateway and don’t have the same level of encryption as a VPN connections, proxy connections are more vulnerable when it comes to cybercrime and incidents of hacking.

There are, of course, many similarities between the two. Both mask your IP address, both can potentially be detected with the right technology, and both can slow down your browsing experience simply because routing web traffic involves extra steps. Though they are not identical, both deliver enhanced privacy and anonymity online.

Should I use both a proxy and a VPN?

Using both a VPN and a proxy server at the same time is unnecessary. They perform similar tasks, and combining one with the other won’t make your connection any faster or better than it would be with one or the other on their own. Unless you receive specific proxy instructions, stick to either a VPN or a proxy. 

Choosing whether a proxy vs VPN is right for you

There’s no right answer when it comes to choosing a VPN or proxy. It depends entirely on what your priorities are.

If you prefer speed and server availability, then a proxy is a great pick. They are readily available and offer faster speeds than VPNs since they don’t use the same tunneling protocols. If you don’t mind sacrificing bandwidth for the promise of total protection and don’t mind paying for the service, then a VPN might be the right choice for you.

Keep in mind that no matter which you choose, you don't want to use a free VPN or a free proxy. Though the price is appealing, these are not safe for tunneling your Internet traffic. Free versions of these programs often contain malware or collect your personal information without your knowledge, which defeats the purpose of using one in the first place.

Weigh your options and decide what you want to use the proxy or VPN for. This can help you decide which is right. Regardless of the decision you make, using a VPN or proxy will help you protect yourself, your activity, and your information online.

Frequently asked questions

Does a proxy hide my IP?

Yes, a proxy server hides your IP address when you go online. Instead of displaying your own IP address, the proxy server displays its own IP address to servers or devices on the receiving end of a connection. Therefore, your IP remains hidden and your identity is protected online.

Does a VPN hide my IP?

Yes, a VPN hides your IP address when you're browsing the Internet or going online. It uses secure encryption methods to tunnel your traffic, displaying its own IP to the device or server on the other end instead of your own IP address. This is especially helpful on public networks, as it protects your data and activity while simultaneously hiding your identity.