VPN vs. Proxy: What’s the Big Difference?

VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) and Proxies are both tools that offer a higher degree of privacy through a third-party server. With the help of these tools, you can anonymously access the internet without revealing your IP address and location.

Both tools can help you bypass geo-locks and firewalls while adding a layer of privacy at the same time. However, the way they accomplish this task is very different from one another.

Which Protocol Should You Choose?

In today’s world, security risks are everywhere, especially online. Leaked data, encryption, snooping and invading digital privacy have become rampant. You’ll find many “experts” talking about the need to secure your internet connection with tools like VPN when you’re on shared Wi-Fi like your local coffee shop, but they don’t often delve into the details.

You’ve probably heard about VPNs and Proxies, but you don’t exactly know how they work. If you must invest your time and energy into improving your internet security, you might as well know how to choose the right tool for you.

The two may have certain things in common, but they are fundamentally different.

What is a Proxy Server?

A proxy server acts as a middle man for your PC and the internet. When you are connected to a proxy server, it will appear as if you are connected from another IP address.

It is a great tool to get around geo-restrictions. Imagine you are located in California and you want to access a website that is exclusively limited only to people living in Toronto. You can connect to the website by connecting to a proxy server that is located in Canada. The traffic coming from your browser will appear like it is originating from a computer located in Toronto and not from where you are.

Proxy servers are great at performing low-stakes functions like bypassing basic content filters or service restrictions based on IP address or watching YouTube videos restricted to certain regions.

On the other hand, they don’t perform so well at performing high-stakes tasks. All they do is hide your IP address and do nothing else for your internet traffic. Any interested party can check out your internet traffic as if you weren’t using a proxy in the first place. There are also instances where Flash and Java can cause failure in your proxy when loading them in a web browser, exposing your real IP to any website.

Most of the free proxy servers are not well reputed which is why they are recommended only for single applications like accessing non-sensitive content or geo-restricted websites. Free Proxies also have operating costs to pay for which are no doubt taken care of by the ads you see. Your information collected by the proxy could be sold to a bidder, and your cover could be blown.

The two most important proxy server protocols are HTTP and SOCKS

HTTP Proxies

HTTP Proxies are the oldest types of proxy servers and the easiest and fastest to use. You can use it to browse the internet as they are designed expressly to access websites.

Connect the proxy server to your web browser and if your browser doesn’t support proxies, use a browser extension. Once done, all your web traffic will be routed through the proxy.

If you are trying to connect to sensitive content like your bank or email account, you need to use a browser that is SSL enabled and a website that supports it. Since proxies do not encrypt traffic by itself, you need to provide the encryption yourself.

SOCKS Proxies

SOCKS (Socket Secure) proxies are an extension of HTTP proxies. They are useful because it stays indifferent to the kind of traffic passing through it. This kind of a server will pass through any traffic that it gets, irrespective of whether it is for a BitTorrent client, an FTP or a web server.  

They are geared more towards internet traffic beyond HTTP traffic. People use it for services like torrent or to connect to web servers and FTP.

The downside to using a SOCKS proxy is that it is slower than HTTP proxy, but that’s because it handles more data. Just like HTTP proxies, they don’t offer any encryption unless you apply SSL.

How to Select a Proxy

With proxies, you get what you pay for. The thousands of free proxies you get on the internet are almost universally unreliable with terrible uptime. These free services are only good for performing one-off-tasks that takes no more than a few minutes.

It’s always advisable to pay for your proxy. And if you really must insist, limit your choices only to reputed free proxy database sites like Proxy4Free, for example.

You can also find a lot of stand-alone services nowadays. But with the rise of faster mobile devices and computers backed by even faster connections, superior VPN solutions are now widely opted over proxies.

What is a VPN?

Like proxies, Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) also make you access the internet anonymously without exposing your IP address or location. But this is where the similarities end.

VPN is ideal for use in a high-stakes network where security or privacy is a big concern. It forms a virtual encrypted tunnel for your internet activities between your device and a host server and captures all the network connection on the device in which it is configured.

This means its encryption is so strong that no one will be able to see any of your activities on the internet, be it checking your email account or playing games. Remember that if your VPN keeps logs, any interested party with the right tool could potentially scoop up information on your activities.

When it comes to protecting your privacy, VPN does so much more than just helping you get around geo-restricted content and websites. Public Wi-Fi has become very common in hotels, restaurants, and airports. Almost everybody is using it, and there could be people snooping around trying to get access to data that aren’t encrypted. If you have a VPN, you’re secure.

For instance, if you are traveling and you need to log into your email, financial websites, or even connect to your network at home from a distance, you can simply use a VPN on your laptop, and you’re good to go.

Most companies today use VPNs to enable employees to get access to their corporate network or local intranet when they are out of the office. Since you can use a VPN on any device with the client installed, you can access it from anywhere.

If you are just a casual user seeking privacy and security in your network at home, you’ll probably need to buy a VPN service and connect to their server. The set up for such purposes is pretty straightforward. It is a suitable option for a lot of people.

VPN and Proxy Benefits

One of the biggest benefits of choosing a VPN over Proxy is the encryption for all the traffic that you get with a VPN. Even if a VPN and Proxy server were priced the same, the former would provide more security.

For IT business owners who take care of the security of data and users, both the tools can be beneficial. Most companies have both VPN and Proxy configured. Users in the network might use the proxy for logging web traffic, protecting the organization from malware, and ensuring web content policy.

VPN and Proxy Drawbacks

When using a proxy to hide your internet activity, you will face performance issues like preventing you from downloading or streaming certain content. High ping times on the proxy server could slow down the page loading. This is why many users pay for private proxy servers to speed up their connections by limiting the number of users accessing it.

VPN performance can also be affected by the proximity of the VPN server that you are connected to. VPN uses a local client to connect to the VPN server, and so any memory or CPU issues slow down the connections. Typically, VPNs are also more expensive to use than Proxy servers.

VPN vs. Proxy: Which is Right for You?

Security and privacy are very important these days irrespective of whether you want to protect your data or your company data. Make sure that the money and time you are investing in is going into the right tools. Both VPNs and Proxies are instrumental in ensuring privacy and adding that extra layer of security to your data.

If you want your employees to get access to the company’s resources remotely, then set up a VPN to enable access to the network. If you just want to know the websites your users are hitting, then a proxy server would be a better option.

To get more bang for your buck, sign up to a reputed VPN service provider. VPN services mostly enable you to use their servers from different locations for content restrictions.

If this is your first time implementing data security on an enterprise level, you need to watch out for complex attack vectors. APTs, privileged account escalations, insider threats, and even old social engineering equally pose a high security and privacy risk as an encrypted data stream.

Neither of the tools (VPN or Proxy) can ensure 100% protection from cybersecurity threats that your company may encounter. They will not be able to prevent insiders from stealing company data, conducting coordinated infiltration or a ransomware attack.


Jonathan has a masters degree in Computer Engineering, loves programming and creating web services that help people perform various tedious tasks.

In his free time, he writes informative articles about networking and routers for RouterReset.com

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