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Proxy vs. VPN: What’s the Difference?

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A proxy server and VPN server hide your IP address by rerouting your internet traffic through a remote server, making it seem like you’re in another location.

However, a proxy merely reroutes your online traffic, while a VPN encrypts it for additional privacy and security.

If you’re wondering what this means, don’t sweat.

This guide takes a comprehensive look at the differences between a proxy and a VPN to help you understand which is ideal for your needs.

proxy vs vpn differences infographic

What Is a Proxy Server?

A proxy server is a remote server that acts as an intermediary between your device and a web property (website, forum, web app, etc.) you want to access.

It usually works at the application level, only re-routing internet traffic from the app you set up the proxy. However, it can’t encrypt your online traffic.

Although some proxy server services provide private proxies, they’re not entirely private. They only give a server with a dedicated IP address for your exclusive access. 

While this might have benefits, anything you do online with the proxy server address can easily be traced back to you.



How Does a Proxy Server Work?

Your internet device typically connects to the web by directly loading URLs you enter in the address bar or interacting with internet-run apps you might want to use. 

But when you use a proxy server, your device sends your internet traffic to the proxy server first.

Thus, the proxy servers forward your request to the site you want to visit, load the data, and deliver it back to your device. The diagram below illustrates how a proxy server works.

how a proxy server works

Thus, the web property you’re trying to access sees your traffic coming from the web server. This also means it sees the web server’s IP address and DNS details rather than your actual details.

That’s how a proxy server allows you to bypass censorship and access geo-locked content. So, if you’re in Australia and want to watch US Netflix, you only need to connect to a US proxy server.

Types of Proxy Servers

There are HTTP proxy servers, SOCKS5 proxies, and transparent proxies among the most popular options. These proxy servers differ by how they execute internet-based operations and filter your internet requests.

The table below explains some of the essential features of these proxy servers.

Proxy Type Significance
HTTP Proxies  Designed for web pages and ideal for accessing geo-restricted content like streaming platforms. It’s faster than SOCKS5 Proxies.
  SOCKS Proxies Ideal for accessing web pages, playing online games, browsing file-sharing sites, and video streaming services. It can also be used for secure emails, torrents, and peer-to-peer file sharing.
Transparent Proxies Designed to monitor and control web traffic to specific sites on a home, work, school, or other networks. They can also be used to authenticate users on public Wi-Fi.  

What Is a Virtual Private Network (VPN)?

A VPN (Virtual Private Network) also conceals your IP address by redirecting your online traffic via a remote server. However, unlike a proxy, a VPN server uses encryption protocols (most notably AES 256-bit) to encrypt your online activities.

That way, third parties such as your government, network admins, and Internet service provider won’t see your web activity.

This type of encryption also ensures you can use public Wi-Fi safely since hackers can’t leverage the network’s weakness to hijack your conversations, steal your sensitive logins or sniff the data packets you send.

Although there are browser extensions for various VPNs, Virtual Private Networks can work at the operating system level. By so doing, it reroutes all your online traffic, regardless of origin.



How Does a VPN Work?

how a vpn works

On connecting to a VPN server, your internet traffic first goes through your chosen VPN client. The VPN client then encrypts your traffic before it’s passed to your ISP to complete the internet request.

That way, your ISP can’t see your internet traffic data anymore. It only knows that a device is trying to access the internet but won’t see what sites/apps you’re using.

Likewise, a VPN generates a new IP address for you on connection to its servers. Thus, making it impossible for your ISP to use your IP address data to pinpoint who you are on the network.

These make VPNs an essential privacy tool on public WI-FI since network admins or hackers lurking on the network won’t see your internet activity.

The encryption technology on VPNs, preferably the unhackable AES 256-bit encryption, also helps secure your work emails, online banking, and shopping activities on private or public networks.

Furthermore, a VPN allows users to change their IP addresses to access geo-blocked content anywhere. Thus, if your favorite streaming platform isn’t available in your country, a VPN comes in handy to circumvent the geo-blocks.

That said, not all VPNs are equally reliable. It’s best to avoid the free options and premium providers with a history of poor privacy and performance.

In contrast, the best VPNs provide features that enhance your online security and protect your data over several servers in several locations without compromising fast connection speeds.

Types of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs)

There are two main types of VPN:

Remote Access VPN

This VPN allows you to connect to a remote private network to utilize its resources and services.

Business users can connect to a remote access VPN to access sensitive company resources and files. Conversely, home users can circumvent geo-restrictions and enhance their privacy and security with a remote access VPN.

Site–to–Site VPN

Also known as a Router-to-Router VPN, it’s typically designed for organizations with branches or offices in various locations to link the private network of one branch to another.

In such setups, one router acts as the VPN client and the other as a VPN server.

A site-to-site VPN can be of two types:

  • Intranet-based VPN: Links several offices/branches of the same firm to one site-to-site VPN.
  • Extranet-based VPN: Links outside partners (such as customers, supplies, stakeholders, etc.) to the firm’s network in a secure environment.

VPN Protocols

VPNs use specific rules for sending data, known as tunneling protocols

These protocols give instructions on what checks to do and how to package the data.

These protocols also affect the security and speed of your VPN connection

You’ll find some of the most robust VPN protocols in the table below:

Encryption Protocols Explanation
WireGuard Generally the fastest VPN encryption protocol with security to beat other top protocols like IKEv2/IPsec. NordLynx (from NordVPN) is based on WireGuard, while Lightway (ExpressVPN) is a WireGuard alternative.  
OpenVPN This is an open-source improvement of the SSL/TLS framework with cryptographic algorithms for enhanced security. It uses heavier code and is slower than WireGuard.
IKEv2/IPsec It hits all the right spots regarding stability, security, and speed. IKEv2 is an improvement over the IPSec tool to retain faster speeds (than OpenVPN) and improve security.

Other VPN protocols exist, such as L2TP and SSTP, but increasing data security needs invalidate them as reliable tunneling protocols. Likewise, they’re primarily reliable for rerouting your data, like a proxy, but aren’t as reliable on encryption.

What Are the Differences Between VPN and Proxy Services?

The table below highlights the core differences between a VPN and a proxy server.

  Proxy VPN  
Encryption Doesn't encrypt your traffic, just IP masking End-to-end encryption
Coverage Works on the application level   Works on the operating system level
Speed Relatively faster since it doesn’t encrypt your data Relatively slower because they must encrypt your data. However, with most premium options, you won't notice the difference because of fast protocols and servers
Reliability Less reliable (server connections drop frequently) More reliable 
Cost Usually free Free (limited features and poor privacy) and Paid (robust data encryption and better performance)
Logs May monitor and track your traffic to sell it to third parties   Most paid providers won't log your web traffic
Setup Complex. You must enter the proxy's IP address and port number into an app's network settings Easy. Download the service's app, install it, then connect to a VPN server of your choice  
Bypassing geo-restrictions Can stream but will have issues bypassing geo-blocks Premium options are highly efficient for Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, and more  
Anonymity Limited Yes
Additional security features None Automatic switch, no-logs policies, obfuscation, and DNS leak prevention
Speed Speed will depend on the server Speed-optimized VPNs won’t cause a noticeable speed drop
Ease of use Setting up and changing server locations requires some technical knowledge Very easy to set up. Depending on the provider, all you have to do is click “Connect” after installing the app

Which One Should You Use, a VPN or Proxy Server?

A VPN and a proxy are slightly different, and there are unique cases where each might work well. The table below distills when either is ideal.

Use a VPN if? Use a proxy if?
You want to hide your online activities from other parties You wish to hide your IP address from one app or site
You want to secure the entire traffic from your device You need to hide your IP occasionally
You want to encrypt your traffic, not just change your IP You don't want to pay
You don't want your traffic to be logged You don't need to encrypt your online traffic
You want better speeds and security You only want to access geo-restricted content and don't care about security

Can I Use a Proxy and VPN Together?

You can use a proxy and VPN together, but I don’t recommend it.

Connecting to a VPN and a proxy server adds another security layer to your connection. This may considerably slow down your internet speed or disrupt your internet connection due to conflicting processes. So, it’s best to use a VPN or a proxy, depending on your needs.

Can a VPN Bypass a Proxy Server?

Yes, a VPN bypasses a firewall or a proxy server, especially when such proxies are set up to screen the websites you can access on specific networks.

Do I Need a VPN if I Have a Proxy?

You don’t need a VPN if you already have a proxy to only hide your IP address without worrying about the security of your online data. However, you’ll need a VPN to secure your online data while browsing from a new IP address.

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If You're Unsure, Use a VPN

A VPN is a better choice because it offers the same IP masking capacity as a proxy server. It also provides encryption and OS-level coverage against cybercriminals, governments, and ISPs.

Likewise, premium VPNs like ExpressVPN are ultra-fast and allow you to bypass sophisticated geo-blocks like the Great Firewall of China.

But you can choose a proxy server if you want to change your IP address without online privacy/security or bypass content blocks.

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