What is a proxy server and why a VPN is a better alternative

It’s no surprise proxy servers have grown in popularity over the years. With more people looking for ways to defeat internet censorship by hiding their IP address and accessing restricted content, the use of virtual servers, or proxies, is a trend that’s here to stay.

You may have heard the term thrown around a lot recently, but what exactly is a proxy server, and how do they work?

What is a proxy server?

By definition, a proxy server is any type of computer or service that allows a person to access sites or services remotely.  They act as an intermediary between your network and your end destination. People commonly use them to access specific files, attachments, or downloads. 

Proxy servers are extremely popular in countries with heavy censorship of the internet such as China, where people use them to bypass the Great Firewall and access sites like Facebook, Google, and YouTube without restriction. Because you’re able to change your IP address when you go through a proxy, you’re essentially able to browse the web as if you were in a different location.

They’re a useful tool for unblocking content, but not so great if a person wants to boost their online security.

How proxy servers work

Essentially, a proxy acts as a gateway between your browser and specific sites and services you’re accessing.

When your browser sends data to a specific website, the information contained within the data packet goes through a third-party server before it reaches its destination. Normally, a site would verify your IP address before assigning – and loading – a specific page or service, but with a proxy server the verification goes through a third-party.

An easy way to picture this is to think about how Google determines which domain to load based on a person’s location. If someone in the UK types ‘Google’ into their search bar, they’ll automatically be redirected to the google.co.uk domain.

However, when you use a proxy, you’re able to change your IP address, which in turn dictates which sites you’re able to access.

This way, proxy servers make it possible to access the web without broadcasting your IP address, but the proxy owner will be able to see your real IP.

The truth about anonymous proxies

While there are different types of proxy services available, anonymous proxies are the most common and are what people usually use to access content online. Because they offer ‘anonymity’, most people think they’re able to browse privately when they use a proxy. Unfortunately, that’s not entirely true. While the user is able to hide their real IP, they are still browsing with a different IP, meaning everything they do can be traced back to that IP.

More than that, most free proxy servers have also been found to alter web traffic and/or add trackers to follow and record a person’s browsing habits.

Potential risks when using a proxy service

Unfortunately, not every proxy is reliable – malicious proxies have been known to log browser data, as mentioned, or even record various usernames and passwords, inject viruses, and more.

When you use a proxy server you’re willingly handing over your information to an unknown party, which means you’re essentially exposing your own network while connecting to someone else’s. Yes, you’ll be able to access sites and unblock content, but the potential risks involved may not be worth it.

Instead of going via a proxy server, users are encouraged to use VPNs (virtual private networks) to browse the web with more security as well as privacy.

Proxy vs VPN: which is better?

While VPNs and proxy servers both allow you to access the web from a different location, a VPN is much more secure than a proxy server.

Where proxies only secure your web browser, VPNs secure and encrypt your entire online network. That’s because a VPN encapsulates your internet connection, while a proxy only covers the specific site you’re visiting.

Unlike VPNs, which come preconfigured, proxies also require configuration for each application and service you use (think email, sites, streaming services, etc). Therefore, proxy servers need more manual work upfront while providing a less-than-stellar performance, while most VPN apps require little-to-no customization after they’re installed. 

Moreover, VPNs offer more location options to choose from, not to mention most dedicated VPN services provide apps for virtually every device under the sun. And while it’s worth making the distinction between free proxies and paid ones, neither are as useful as a VPN.

Why you should use VPNs instead of proxies

Another major factor to consider when choosing between a VPN and a proxy is privacy. Most VPN providers host their own server networks, which means you won’t have to worry about going through some random IP, like you would with a proxy server. You also won’t have to worry about being tied to a specific random IP address.

More than that, VPNs offer the added benefit of being log-less. Whereas proxy servers often keep detailed user logs, ExpressVPN, NordVPN and other big-name subscription-based VPNs are known for advocating customer privacy, and providing full encryption while keeping users entirely anonymous.

VPNs are also better for people who want to encrypt their connection on public Wi-Fi networks. While proxy servers only hide your IP, VPNs automatically encrypt any and every network connection, instantly turning that potentially insecure cafe Wi-Fi into a secure network.

Finally, proxy servers are traditionally much slower than VPNs. Because proxies require large amounts of bandwidth, load times can be excruciating. VPNs have the luxury of hosting (and updating) their own server locations, so load times are typically much faster, though it helps when you connect to a virtual server location closer to where you are actually physically located.

When it comes down to it, VPNs are superior to proxy servers in every aspect. With added security, better privacy, more locations to choose from, and faster loading times, choosing a VPN over a proxy server is a no-brainer.

Desire Athow
Managing Editor, TechRadar Pro

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website builders and web hosting when DHTML and frames were in vogue and started narrating about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium.