VPN vs Proxy: what are the differences?

vpn vs proxy

Table of Contents

VPN vs Proxy quick comparison:

proxy vs vpn

In the VPN vs proxy debate, which of them is worth getting? Setting a network up for privacy and security can require anything from linking to a proxy server to checking the benefits of VPN systems to find out which of them will protect you the most.

In this guide, you’ll learn more about what each of these systems is, how they compare to each other, why you should consider one over the other, and why services like a free proxy or VPN aren’t as good as they might seem at first.

For more information on VPNs before you start, check out our VPN 101 page. If you’re looking for some budget-friendly options, check out our cheap VPNs page.

What is a Proxy Server?

what is a proxy

A proxy server is essentially a postal service for the internet. When you send your request out, it goes to the proxy server first, which forwards the request on after anonymizing it, so nobody knows precisely where it came from. When it gets a response, it sends that response to you, once again preventing any other service from knowing where the information is going.

Proxy servers can provide various benefits, ranging from encryption to firewalling content or even changing your IP address. This can make it seem like you’re anywhere else in the world, which is useful for accessing content streaming services.

Proxies also have a variety of corporate uses. For example, a proxy can block access to specific web pages. Many businesses use proxy servers to stop employees from accidentally visiting dangerous sites.

However, proxies are ultimately not secure, and people can bypass them. This makes them a poor choice for protecting sensitive data.

What Types Of Proxies Exist?

There are many proxy services available, and some systems provide more than one benefit at the same time. Here are some of the most common functions you might see advertised.

Web Proxy

web proxy

This is one of the most popular types of proxy servers. Web proxies forward HTTP requests while protecting the client, and is therefore helpful for home users. Most people who use web proxy servers are using anonymous proxies.

Anonymous Proxy

anonymous proxy

These proxy servers hide the client’s IP address to prevent other websites from determining who they are. Anonymous proxies are a specific type of web proxy, although they aren’t always as good at making users totally anonymous as they’d like to be.

High Anonymity Proxy

These servers are similar to regular proxy servers, but they add additional defenses to prevent other websites from recognizing them as a proxy service. This is particularly useful when you want to access content that blocks regular proxies.

CGI Proxy

Don’t confuse this with the computer-generated imagery type of CGI, a popular technique for film and animation. A common gateway interface proxy is a web page that allows you to access another website through it.

These are most useful on computers that don’t allow you to set up a regular proxy system.

Reverse Proxy

A reverse proxy server focuses mainly on incoming requests, then determines where to send them. This can be used to protect the rest of a network from external traffic or balance the load between a larger cluster of servers.

Suffix Proxy

Suffix proxies were a type of proxy used to bypass simple website filtering, usually by adding the proxy’s name to the end of the page. This bypassed filters that blocked specific websites because the filter treated the proxy-modified URL as a different, acceptable site.

However, suffix proxies are no longer widespread because most filters are advanced enough to see through them. 

TOR Onion Proxy

Sometimes referred to simply as an “onion proxy” service, a TOR onion encrypts content several times before sending it out. These content requests move between several servers, each of which decrypts one layer before it finally arrives.

This service makes it exceptionally difficult to track content back to its place of origin, and the code it runs on is both open source and free to use.

However, TOR onion proxies are also considerably slower than most other proxies because the information may have to travel around the world several times before reaching its destination. That makes this a poor choice for time-sensitive uses, including video games and watching some live videos.

Transparent Proxy

transparent proxy

Unlike many other services, transparent proxies don’t provide anonymity to the client. Instead, they act as a cache for other websites that people frequently access, reducing bandwidth and loading times to improve overall performance.

Transparent proxies are especially popular with businesses because they can help prevent problems like denial-of-service attacks.

Can You Buy A Proxy Server Service?

buy proxy server

Yes. There are two primary types of proxy server services that you can buy.

A residential proxy service gives you a legitimate IP address that you can use when visiting websites. This detects as functionally ordinary web browsing, so browsing experience stays the same. Unfortunately, some low-quality services pretend to offer this while really giving dedicated proxies instead.

A dedicated proxy separates IP addresses from your internet service provider and hides your identity. However, they may share IP addresses between multiple users, which can be suspicious if multiple people access the same website simultaneously.

Dedicated proxies are more common than residential proxies.

What Is The Price Of A Proxy Server Service?

That depends on the service you’re using. If you’re getting a lot of protection and features, the price is going to go up. Similarly, companies may charge you for different speeds. This is more common on high-end services that have robust internet connections.

You can also find a variety of free proxies by browsing the web. However, these are fundamentally more suspicious than paid proxies. Some free services use advertising to stay in business, which could result in having to deal with far too much intrusive content.

Priced plans go as low as $5 a month for access, and rarely more than $15 for a higher-end plan. These are mainly designed for standard users and tend to be easy to set up and use.

At the high end, enterprise-level proxy plans can cost up to several thousand dollars per month. Many large corporations set up their own proxies, which allows total control over what they do.

Is It Easy To Use A Proxy Server?

That depends on how you define “easy”. In some cases, using a proxy is as easy as toggling something in your web browser. You can also set your computer up to use the proxy by default every time someone accesses the internet through it. This is particularly common in businesses, schools, and other locations that always want the service enabled.

The difficulty of setting up the proxy service varies by provider. Most companies provide either dedicated software or a step-by-step guide to enabling the proxy service. Remember that it may take some time to troubleshoot any errors, so be sure to set up your proxy before you need to use it.

Are VPN Browser Extensions Good Alternatives To A Proxy?

zenmate browser extension
ZenMate Browser Extension

In most cases, yes. VPN browser extensions are similar to proxies because they can protect the user’s identity and forward information to websites. However, browser extensions can also encrypt your data to give it added protection while you’re online. Most proxy systems do not encrypt data on your behalf.

What Is A VPN?

what is a vpn

A virtual private network is a method of connecting to the internet that helps protect users and their information from snooping. Most virtual private networks exist between the user’s local network and the wider internet.

Like proxies, a VPN usually exists as a separate server somewhere in the world that the user’s information goes to before heading anywhere else on the internet. As such, proxies and VPNs can be difficult to distinguish for normal users.

The main benefits of VPN systems over proxies are the additional security and the fact that VPNs can rout all network traffic. Proxies are limited to web requests, which means they can’t protect information from desktop apps, games, or other special situations. VPNs can work with all network traffic, though some limit themselves to browsers.

So, is VPN a proxy by definition? No. While they look similar from the outside, proxies and VPNs function quite differently on a technical level. It’s a mistake to consider these the same type of service, even though they both offer a level of protection while you’re using the internet.

How Do I Get A VPN?

The easiest way to get a VPN is by buying access through a well-known public company like ExpressVPN, NordVPN, or Surfshark. Reputable companies have hundreds or even thousands of VPN servers located worldwide and can provide technical support, high-speed connections, and other benefits to their users.

It is possible to create your own VPN system if you’re willing to buy and configure a server. However, this is usually more expensive than buying a data plan from a reputable company, so most people don’t bother with it.

The primary reason to consider buying a private server is to have complete control over the network and how it functions. Some companies prefer this because data breaches can cost millions of dollars in one form or another, and using VPNs provides robust protection against many common threats.

What Is A Good Price For A VPN?

hotspotshield

Fastest VPN according to Speedtest

4.5 / 5.0
4.5/5
surfshark

Feature-rich VPN

4.5 / 5.0
4.5/5
vyprvpn

Privacy. Freedom. Wherever you are.

4.5 / 5.0
4.5/5

There are plenty of cheap VPNs available. Although these tend to either have advertising or limited functionality compared to any paid plans, there are even a few free options. Free VPNs are a good choice if you only need it for a little while and aren’t doing anything speed-sensitive, such as gaming. For any privacy-related needs beyond that, you should get a paid plan.

VPNs usually cost between $2 and $12 per month (depends a lot on a length of selected plan). Some VPNs offer lifetime plans at a fixed cost, and these typically start in the mid-hundreds.

VPN Native Apps For Desktop And Mobile

native apps

This is one of the most important things to keep in mind while considering the VPN vs. proxy debate. A native app is a program you can start running on a device to turn on your VPN. Or, more specifically, to connect to an existing VPN server so you can start taking advantage of it.

You can even set up a desktop or mobile device to start running the VPN as soon as the computer turns on. This provides outstanding protection for your information and removes the need to toggle it on or off when you want to use it.

Keep in mind that VPNs can provide a variety of services. For example, some VPNs can provide “split” feeds where they protect all information except content going through your browser. VPNs are not programmed the same, and there are real differences between them, so it’s essential to read up on each service before deciding which one you want to buy.

VPN vs Proxy: Differences

We touched on this above, but there are several major differences between VPNs and proxies. Here are the main things to consider about each of them, including answers to questions like “What does a VPN do that a proxy doesn’t?”.

Privacy

vpn vs proxy privacy

VPNs are significantly better from a privacy perspective because they spend more time encrypting information and limiting third-parties’ ability to snoop on your data. These privacy protections take a wide variety of forms, ranging from not logging the information to killing access to the internet if the VPN connection ever goes down.

Some VPNs even use double-layered encryption, which is as secure as anything can realistically get.

The best VPN services undergo third-party audits from reputable firms like SEC Consult to test whether or not they’re doing what they claim. Most companies publicly release the results of these audits, though only after correcting any problems they noticed. 

Number Of Available Servers And Locations

vpn vs proxy servers and locations

The number of servers, and the location they’re in, varies by company. Most proxies and VPNs have as many as they need to maintain consistent quality in their services, so this isn’t as important as you might think. However, in the VPN proxy debate, many proxies have fewer servers and are more likely to get clogged during peak hours.

The location of servers, however, can impact a lot. Good companies have servers located all around the world. This provides redundancy in case a physical disaster strikes one area and makes it much easier to access content in different areas.

Unblocking Websites

vpn vs proxy unblock websites

Proxies and VPNs are both capable of unblocking websites that are restricted in your area. How good they are at doing this depends on where the servers are located and what type of software they’re using. VPNs are a little better at this because they can encrypt your data, and websites won’t know where you’re truly connecting from.

Unblocking Streaming Services

vpn vs proxy unblock streaming

Just like unblocking websites, both proxies and VPNs are a good way to unblock streaming services. We prefer VPNs for this because they tend to have faster connection speeds, especially when they’re set up to focus on streaming. However, particularly for lower-definition videos, proxies are a valid choice.

Torrents And P2P File Sharing

vpn vs proxy torrenting

VPNs are better for file sharing because they can protect all of your network access. Proxies work mainly with web requests, and in many cases, torrents can bypass these in favor of direct connections between computers.

Speed

vpn vs proxy speed

In the VPN vs. proxy debate, the winner of the speed contest is clear: VPNs are faster. The main reason for this is that virtual private networks are primarily a type of connection, rather than a computer that’s processing the connection. This means that VPNs are optimized for speed while still providing outstanding service to their users.

However, the value of speed varies by what you’re doing. If you don’t need much bandwidth, then you probably won’t notice a speed drop while using a proxy unless you’re using it at a peak time. On the other hand, if you’re playing a time-sensitive online game, lag from a proxy server can make things almost unusable.

What this means for average users is that speed is an important metric, but it’s not a decisive one. It matters to some people far more than others, so we can’t say that superior speed alone makes VPNs the best choice.

Ease Of Use

vpn vs proxy easy of use

This is another major factor for modern users in the proxy vs. VPN debate. After all, what is a proxy (or any other service) good for if you can’t figure out how to use it? The ease of use for the software depends on the service you’re using, and not all of them are the same.

Some proxies ask you to manually paste each website you’re using on to their site, and they’ll give you the page. Others let you log on and browse the internet more-or-less freely. For most users, these are very different situations because nobody wants to use a proxy site for every single page they have to visit.

VPNs are usually easier to use because you can run them in the background of your device, or even on startup. However, VPN services may require adjusting your network settings or router configurations. This can be difficult if you’re not technically-inclined.

Price

vpn vs proxy price

Proxies and VPNs have similar pricing, so there’s no clear winner here. However, there is one pricing-related point to keep in mind, and it’s that there are many free proxy options out there. Most of these aren’t especially high-quality services, but you can certainly avoid ever paying for a proxy if that’s what you want to do.

Just like other services, proxies and VPNs differ greatly based on how much you’re willing to spend. While they’re rarely more than a few dollars per month unless you’re talking about business-level solutions, cheap services rarely have the features or the speed of high-quality services.

When To Choose Proxy And When To Choose A VPN

As you learned in the VPN meaning described above, it’s best to choose a VPN when you want a faster connection or more security for your information. Speed is a critical factor for some users, so the slower nature of proxies can eliminate it by default.

However, proxies are easy to set up and access when all you want to do is get content from another region and you don’t need to protect your personal information. For example, if you’re using a public device and none of your information is on it, chances are you don’t need a VPN because there’s no data for anyone to steal.

VPNs usually have a limit on the number of devices you can use to access their services. This could be in total, or it could be at any one time. Either way, proxies are a lightweight alternative for accessing many types of content.

Both services are significantly faster than TOR networks. TOR is best for sending especially confidential information, such as delivering whistleblower information to news organizations. It is not a good choice for standard internet use.

Proxy vs VPN. VPN Is A All-In-One Solution

So, why use VPN services when proxies are often free? The main reason to use a VPN is because they’re a more comprehensive solution. They offer better privacy protections, help access more content, and run faster than proxies.

High-Rated VPNs

nordvpn

Big & Fast VPN

4.8 / 5.0
4.8/5
protonvpn

High-speed Swiss VPN

4.9 / 5.0
4.9/5
mullvad

Award-Winning VPN

4.8 / 5.0
4.8/5

Here are some of the highest-rated VPN services currently available. Remember, don’t pick a VPN service based exclusively on its rating. Every service is different, and what works for most other people won’t necessarily work for you. That said, these services are a great place to start looking.

NordVPN
nordvpn - best vpn services

NordVPN is one of the largest services currently available. With over 5000 servers at an affordable price, as well as a no-log policy, this service meets the needs of most users without any trouble at all.

ProtonVPN
protonvpn review

ProtonVPN is a Swiss service with a strong focus on privacy. Connections here go through servers in a privacy-friendly jurisdiction first, which adds an extra layer of security that many other VPNs lack.

Ivacy VPN
ivacy vpn review

Headquartered in Singapore, Ivacy VPN has over 2000 servers and a focus on secure downloading. Like most better services, it uses a kill switch feature to automatically protect you if there’s an interruption in its connection.

Tim Robinson

Tim Robinson

I research, write, and publish about VPN and other privacy tools.

My first VPN setup was over ten years ago, and since then, it is an essential part of my internet experience. I surf the internet, stream, and work with a VPN.