When it comes time to consider your online privacy options, there are a few tools which immediately come to mind. There are several apps and services in use today that offer differing levels of online security and each comes with its own list of pros and cons. Two of the most popular online privacy tools available today are VPNs and proxies. But, what is the difference between a VPN and a proxy?

Each one aims to route a user’s internet traffic through a remote computer or server to mask the originating IP address, so the two tools are often confused with one another.

They are, in fact, quite different in what they offer and what their capabilities are. Knowing which to choose for particular situations is always very important for those interested in maintaining a secure online presence. VPN vs. proxy, so what’s it gonna be?

What is a proxy?

When comparing the two online privacy tools, proxies, and VPNs, it is important to remember that despite their various similarities, it is the differences that you should note. The most vital of all is that proxies are good, lightweight web filter tools that can help a user’s connection appear to be coming from a different place than where it is actually coming from but they are not as secure as a VPN service.

What is a proxy

A proxy is generally applied to one type of connection from a user’s device. Whether it is a smartphone, a personal computer or any other type of connected device, proxies are used to mask the IP address coming through a specific program. Common programs that can be used with a proxy are browsers, torrent clients, and mail servers. A proxy server doesn’t cover the entire internet connection, unlike a VPN service.

Proxy servers are created when an online host decides to allow internet users to send traffic through their server. While there are different sizes and levels of capabilities found with the various proxy servers available, they rarely offer encryption or protection from prying eyes and hackers.

Speaking of encryption, it is important to know that any encrypted connection that comes with a proxy does not actually come from the proxy itself. Sending and receiving information through a proxy is going to be encrypted only if the site being connected to an SSL certificate. Any traffic that is not encrypted, therefore, can be seen by the administrator of the remote computer being connected to.

Types of proxies

If a proxy server is right for your needs, it’s a good idea to note the different types available to you as they are each slightly different.

  • One type of proxy is called an HTTP proxy. HTTP proxies have been around for the longest amount of time, and they are among the simplest to set up. HTTP proxies route browser traffic through a remote server and all that is required to set them up is to use a browser extension that connects the user computer to the proxy server.
  • The other primary type of proxy that you can find is called a SOCKS server. This type of proxy is essentially the same as an HTTP proxy in that it is able to route traffic through it, but the advantage of using a SOCKS-style proxy is that it is independent of your browser. Users are able to choose which applications and services connect through the proxy server, which means they are quite popular for apps like Netflix, HULU, torrent clients and other similar programs.

What is a VPN?

In a sense, a VPN (Virtual Private Network) is a type of proxy, as it achieves much the same effect by making use of a remote server. Where a VPN shines, however, is in how robust the options that come with it are. A VPN comes in a few varieties. Some are free and some are subscription-based services. Generally speaking, paid VPNs are faster, more secure and packed with location features that their free counterparts lack.

proxy server vs vpn

Like a proxy server, a VPN service utilizes a remote server to route user traffic. Unlike a proxy server, a VPN will encrypt all traffic that travels to and from the service’s remote servers. The difference may seem small, but it is a very important distinction between the two privacy tools.

VPNs are also great for users who require a dedicated connection that is fast and reliable. The servers that Virtual Private Networks use are generally very capable of facilitating large amounts of high-demand traffic. Banks, large corporations, government agencies, schools and universities and individuals all make use of the stability and anonymity that VPNs provide.

When it comes to hackers and snoops, VPNs make private information very difficult to siphon off. As traffic moving to and from the VPN’s servers is so heavily encrypted, even if some of it did fall into the wrong hands the information would be garbled beyond comprehension.

In general, whenever sensitive information is sent over the internet, it is always best to send it using a VPN. Even if there is no need to get around region blocks and internet censorship, a VPN can ensure the encryption of your personal data.

How does a VPN Work?

difference between a vpn and a proxy

Without getting too technical, here is a short description of how a VPN service works. When a request is made by a VPN user, that request is sent through a secure tunnel that is fully encrypted to the VPN’s servers. The request is then unpacked at the VPN server side, before being sent to its destination. The response then comes back to the VPN server, gets encrypted with military-grade encryption, and is then sent back to the user. The final step in the process is when the information is ‘unpacked’ on the user’s Internet-enabled device.

VPN or proxy: which one should you use?

When it comes to which of the available online privacy tools you should choose, the answer depends on what you need. The difference between a VPN and a proxy can be rather significant. Proxy servers are convenient and often times very cheap, if not free, and provide a simple solution for routing internet traffic. VPNs, on the other hand, complete the same end result but in a very different way.

Main advantages of a proxy

There are several advantages to using a proxy.

Proxies allow users to access region-specific services and websites.

Multiple users of a single computer can each log in using a different proxy to appear as though they are accessing the internet from different places.

Foreign nationals and expats can use proxies to get ads and online content related to the countries and languages that they are used to.

Proxies are generally fast.

Main advantages of a VPN

In most cases where your online security is at risk, a proper VPN service is going to give you far more advantages than any other online privacy tool.

VPNs come with a high level of security. The fact that connections made between web users and VPN services are fully encrypted means all traffic is extremely difficult to access.

Anonymity is easy to attain using a VPN. There are several VPN services available which do not log user information. While not all make the anonymity promise, the ones that do create a worry-free space to surf and conduct business online.

VPNs allow users to unblock websites and get past both local and international usage restrictions.

A good quality VPN allows users to pick and choose between IPs and regions/countries of ‘origin’.

As you can see, proxies and VPNs both provide a whole host of advantages. For many people, deciding which online privacy tool to use is not a matter of choosing between option A and option B; it is more about deciding which of the available options (VPN or proxy) is most suitable for the task at hand. Some jobs require robust, end-to-end encryption and top-of-the-line security features while other tasks require something much simpler. This is why it’s crucial to know the difference between a VPN and a proxy.

Many paid VPN services can be very fast, but that is not always the case. The encryption that takes place between the user’s computer and the VPN server takes time. For some applications, that extra time needed is not necessarily a good thing, especially when the added level of security is not needed. In times like those, proxies can be an easy way to reroute your internet traffic while maintaining your usual connection speeds.

Final thoughts

Both proxies and VPN services can be quite useful, but knowing the difference between a VPN and a proxy even more so. Proxies often offer greater speed with less security, while VPNs offer more options and a high level of security features while sacrificing some speed. When using a proxy to route your traffic through a remote server, always remember that your traffic is not secure. Using browser extensions like “HTTPS Everywhere” and other similar tools can ensure that you don’t miss out on needed encryption.

You also have to keep in mind that when you use a proxy, your entire connection is not being sent through the proxy server – a problem that is easily solved by using a quality VPN service. In general, VPNs are better than proxies, but depending on your needs there still may be a place for a proxy server in your toolkit.