Proxy vs. VPN: Choosing the Perfect Network Protector for You

It’s time to settle the score between these privacy technologies once and for all.

Nikolina Cveticanin Image
Updated:

July 08,2022

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There are many options to choose from when it comes to online privacy and security. Two of the most popular tools are proxy networks and VPNs. But what's the difference? And which one is right for you? These technologies are often talked about as two faces of one coin; they serve the same purpose but function in quite different ways.

This blog post will explore the distinctions between proxy vs. VPN services and help you decide which one is best for you. Let's dive in and put an end to any confusion you might have.

Levels of Obfuscation

Proxy servers are excellent for internet pages, avoiding geo-blocking measures, and hiding your IP. VPNs do all this while hiding all internet traffic data by sending it through an encryption tunnel. However, there is much more to these two server technologies than meets the eye.

Defining a Proxy Server

A proxy server is a computer that acts as an intermediary between your computer and the internet, which is a crucial step when comparing a proxy server vs. a VPN. When you use a proxy server, your internet traffic is routed through the proxy server before it reaches its destination. This means the proxy server can see and track all of your online activity.

This kind of server is a mediator or a gateway between your device and the site you're surfing. Before you reach the web page you intend to visit, your connection goes through a proxy machine first. 

From here on, your device picks up the web proxy server's IP, which is visible to all entities that try to monitor your browsing history. Up until this step, the similarities between proxy service vs. VPN still apply. Simultaneously, your Internet Protocol address is hidden by the proxy server, which may be a computer.

Proxy servers operate on a web and app level, which means servers can only reroute traffic from a specific site or a single application. They cannot encrypt your browsing trails, meaning that while your device's IP is hidden, your ISP can still see the websites you've visited.

Proxy Types

There are three main types of proxy servers that people use to this day:

  • HTTPS proxies - This is a server that reroutes internet traffic for your web browser; a web proxy vs. VPN comparison shows that VPNs also do this. This type of proxy is the most common and can be used to access websites and content that your ISP blocks. You can access sites that are geo-blocked for specific regions and countries.
  • SOCKS proxy - A SOCKS proxy is a general-purpose web and app proxy that can be used for any internet traffic, including web traffic, email, and file sharing. Its service is not limited to sites, as you can visit online games, streaming, and file-sharing services. Due to sheer demand and heavy traffic load, these servers are slower than HTTPS ones. People often debate the merits of the SOCKS5 proxy vs. VPN, since SOCKS5 is the latest version of this protocol available.
  • Transparent proxies - This is a widely used method of traffic rerouting that users are often unaware of, and it’s done on purpose. Parents, institutions, or employees can set up transparent proxy servers to prevent monitored users from gaining access to specific sites. For example, libraries often use them to block access to undesirable web pages.

VPN and Encryption Tunnels

A VPN, or virtual private network, is a tool that encrypts your internet traffic and routes it through a VPN server. Your online activity is hidden from your ISP and anyone else who might be snooping on your web traffic.

When discussing the difference in VPN vs. proxy functionalities, VPNs offer the best privacy and security, but they’re also the most expensive option. VPN services also reroute your traffic through a virtual or remote server like a proxy would. The key difference is that they also forward all traffic data through an encrypted tunnel. Proxies do not offer this last step, and as a result, VPN users have their IP addresses hidden from both websites and their ISP.

VPN apps work on a deeper functional level: the operating system. Regardless of what app you're using or the sites you're visiting, a VPN still redirects all the incoming and outgoing traffic data and encrypts it. This is a critical difference between VPN vs. proxy network services.

A VPN client prevents your ISP or government agencies from monitoring your internet traffic and gathering data about you. They cannot see what sites you've visited, nor can they track your IP address. They can only see the VPN's IP. A VPN client also protects you against website tracking and hackers with nefarious intentions in mind.

VPN Protocols

VPN services rely on unique encryption protocols, instruction sets, and encryption standards that tell your device how to connect and sustain that connection with the VPN server. Each VPN protocol specializes in at least one area, such as providing high data transfer speeds that are essential for torrenting, which is something to consider when comparing VPN vs. proxy for torrenting purposes.

Other VPN protocols put security and privacy at the forefront, which is vital for both small and big businesses. However, most of them nowadays find a balance between providing strong security measures and high speeds. Here are a few of the VPN protocols you might want to consider:

  • OpenVPN - One of the most widely used VPN protocols, OpenVPN offers sophisticated encryption that is practically unbreakable. It relies on military-grade AES-256 bit encryption and state-of-the-art encryption ciphers.
  • L2TP/IPSec - Designed by Microsoft, this VPN protocol employs double encapsulation, making it highly secure with no known vulnerabilities. However, some reports suggest that the NSA has cracked through its brick wall of security.
  • SSTP - SSTP is another VPN protocol that Microsoft owns, and it’s often discussed in ​anonymous proxy vs. VPN comparisons. It's an open-source encryption protocol that integrates fully with Windows and uses a 256-bit SSL encryption key.
  • IKEv2 - This protocol excels at network switching and auto-reconnection. Cisco and Microsoft created it to provide straightforward usability for newcomers and powerful protection capabilities.
  • PPTP - As an older VPN protocol, many consider this to be outmoded tech with excellent network speed but weaker security features. Most sites have stopped using it, but many users still rely on it because of its outstanding streaming performance.
  • WireGuard - This is the most recent and leading VPN protocol. It’s easy to use, with solid encryption measures and excellent connection speeds. It's becoming the most popular solution for users worried about the risks of VPN vs. proxy.

Differences Between Proxy and VPN Services

Both network services have pros and cons, depending on how you're using them and whether the service is a free or commercial version.

Product trait  VPN Proxy
Traffic encryption Yes No
Cost Mostly paid Mostly free
Operates on a system level Yes No
Number of uses No limits One
IP address encryption Yes Yes
Stable connection Yes No
Good speed performance Usually yes Yes
Affects speed performance Yes Yes
Coverage All apps and websites One app or website
Sells user data Mostly no Yes
Bypasses geo-restrictions Yes Yes
Works well with gaming and streaming Yes Yes
Additional features Yes No

We've listed all their critical differences in the table above. We've also included the benefits and drawbacks ​​of these two networks and security technologies in the following segments.

Data Encryption

The most significant benefit VPN providers offer is the complete encryption of traffic data. The data you send and accept, your IP address, and your browsing habits are all encapsulated under the VPN encryption tunnel. This is also the leading benchmark when comparing VPN vs. proxy to see which is better.

Proxy servers do not offer encryption protection; they merely hide your IP address and reroute internet traffic. VPN encryptions give users the power to resist hackers' attacks and prevent government and corporate snooping.

Speed Impact

It doesn’t matter whether you're using a VPN or a proxy server; either of these networks will hurt your connection speed. This reduction in speed is related to server infrastructure and the number of users connected. 

Some free-version apps will have a limit on available servers, which will directly result in slower speeds; in this sense, there’s no real VPN vs. proxy difference. Free proxies often have high pings that affect gaming and slower download and streaming speeds. For this reason, the number of users who turn to paid proxy services is steadily on the rise.

On top of all this, VPNs also encrypt data, which impacts overall browsing speeds. However, newer protocols have greatly ameliorated this issue, and VPNs are now becoming nearly as fast as proxies, which were previously the quicker choice.

Handling Private Data

Proxies are typically free, which means most of them rely on selling user data to advertising agencies to stay profitable, making this an important proxy vs. VPN difference. On the other hand, most VPN client apps have monthly or yearly subscription plans and come with a no-log policy.

With this policy, VPN companies must remove all sensitive and private user data they receive from user activity logs the moment they receive them. This encourages them to constantly push for better online privacy in internet circles. Users benefit from this, knowing that VPN companies won't share sensitive info with the authorities.

The Pricing Model

The reality is that you’ll spend more by using VPNs than you would with proxies. Most proxy servers are free to use, and when it comes to VPN vs. proxy speed, the proxies often come out on top. But privacy remains a key weakness.

There are free VPNs, but these apps have monthly bandwidth limits, weaker protocols, or fewer servers with slower speeds due to the number of connected users. The majority of VPNs are paid software, and it’s worth forking out that money if you value privacy and convenience.

Total Coverage

Earlier, we mentioned that VPN clients work on the operating system level. In contrast, proxies work on a web and app level. This affects what data the server can reroute. In practice,this means proxies can hide one app or website at a time. On the other hand, a VPN obfuscates the entirety of a user's online activity.

Using a VPN and a Proxy Server Together

When people talk about speed in the proxy server vs. VPN debate, some conclude that combining both types of networks is best. The truth is you don't have to use both a VPN client and a proxy server simultaneously. In fact, this combination can have detrimental results. It means you have to go through additional steps to connect, and both technologies will reduce your overall browsing speed

The one exemption is with transparent proxies. If you want to access sites that are blacklisted by a transparent proxy server, you'll have to use a VPN to bypass those measures.

Choosing Between VPN and Proxy Server

We’ve written about how to tell the difference between VPN vs. proxy. This leads us to the following question: which is better, VPN or proxy? The answer depends on your needs. 

If you need the highest level of privacy and security, then a VPN is the best option. If you only need to bypass internet censorship or access geo-blocked content, a proxy should be enough. In terms of speed and performance, the differences between a VPN and proxy server are minimal.

FAQ
Is a proxy server the same as a VPN?

A proxy server enables you to hide your IP and bypass the geo-blocking measures specific sites and apps use. A VPN does all of this and encrypts all of the data the user receives and sends online. Read our proxy vs. VPN article in full for more details.

Are proxy servers safe?

Proxies are less safe than VPN servers since they do not encrypt sensitive data, which is usually sold to third parties.

Is Tor a VPN or a proxy server?

Tor is neither of these things; it’s a browser that hides online activity from the ISPs.

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