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What's the difference between a VPN and a proxy?

proxy vs VPN
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So you're looking to add an extra layer of privacy online, and have heard the words VPN and proxy being thrown around?

Both allow you to browse the web anonymously and access content that isn’t available in your region. However, they’re completely different in how they work. We're exploring these differences in this article.

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What is a proxy? 

Proxy servers perform the role of an intermediary when you use the internet, communicating between your device and servers of the websites you access. Your internet traffic is forwarded to the proxy, which will retrieve the requested information and send it back to you. 

A proxy serves two main functions. First, you can get around geo-restrictions. If you live in the US or UK, for example, and travel to another country, it's unlikely that you'll be able to use your digital subscriptions - think Hulu or BBC iPlayer (or even your region's Netflix catalogue).

But if you link up to a proxy server based back in your country, you’ll be able to access your subscription as it’ll appear like you’re still in the UK.

Second, proxies enable anonymous web browsing because they hide your IP address and because your internet traffic is stored on the proxy rather than your computer.

You can see the best proxies and free proxies here.

And VPNs?

VPNs are very similar. Like proxies, they mask your IP address and send all your internet traffic to a remote server so that you can access geo-restricted content but also browse the web anonymously.

We go in depth on the ins and outs in our dedicated article answering the question what is a VPN.

So...what's the difference between VPNs and proxies?

The main difference between them is that proxies will only reroute application traffic, while VPNs can do this for the whole operating system.

From a security perspective, proxy servers are generally less safe than VPNs. While they’re great for anonymous web browsing and bypassing geo-restrictions, they won’t encrypt your data as it’s sent to another server and can be vulnerable to cyber attacks. The proxy server owner may also be able to see your data (and even your ISP address) as it’s not encrypted. 

On the other hand, VPNs like ExpressVPN use fully encrypted tunnels and are generally better at protecting your data.

While encryption is definitely a good thing, the time it takes to encrypt internet traffic between your device and a remote server may result in a slower connection. The location of the VPN server can also hamper performance, but premium services tend to solve these issues.

Plus, proxies can also suffer from slow performance. Like VPNs, they’ll need some time to reroute your internet traffic. What’s more, proxy services are often free to download and will likely be inundated with traffic from others. Either way, if you choose to go for a proxy or VPN, it’s definitely worth considering premium, paid-for options as they’re more powerful and have more features - free VPNs serve a purpose but also have their down sides, such as restricted data usage and invasive ads. 

When compared to proxies, VPNs often pack more features. Things like an integrated kill switch, worldwide servers, DNS leak protection and operating system-level security mean they’re more powerful than proxies.

VPNs are the better choice

So, which should you choose? If you simply want to hide your IP address for anonymous web browsing and bypassing geo-restrictions, proxies are fine. That said, it’s worth noting that VPNs are not only more secure but aren’t restricted to an app-level and have an array of other features.

To ensure that you get the best service for your needs - whether that be streaming, torrenting, gaming or anything else - and also the most affordable pricing, check out our guide to the best VPN providers you can get today.

  • Read more: Make the best purchase with our VPN deals list

Nicholas Fearn is a freelance technology journalist and copywriter from the Welsh valleys. His work has appeared in publications such as the FT, the Independent, the Daily Telegraph, The Next Web, T3, Android Central, Computer Weekly, and many others. He also happens to be a diehard Mariah Carey fan!