If you're looking to add an extra layer of privacy online, you've probably come across the words VPN and proxy.
Both types of software allow you to browse the web anonymously and bypass geo-restricted content. However, they’re completely different in how they work.
A proxy acts as a gateway when you access the internet, protecting your privacy when browsing the web. While a VPN doesn't only protect your identity by masking your IP and location, but it also encrypts all your data to prevent hackers and snoopers from accessing them.
Read on to understand their differences, similarities and how to choose the best service according to your needs.
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.
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.
However, a VPN service works on the operating system level. This means that it reroutes all your traffic, whether it is coming from your browser or a background app.
By using this service, an extra level of protection shields your online privacy too. All the data shared between the Web and your device are indeed secured in encrypted tunnels. In this way, a VPN prevents your activity from being tracked by your ISP, government and any hackers trying to intercept your device.
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. The most private VPN services also offer strict no-log policies to guarantee that any of your sensitive data is never retained by the provider.
ExpressVPN rated the best VPN right now (opens in new tab)
If you don't have the time or energy to get stuck into comparing features and specs, then maybe you'll just try out our #1 recommendation. ExpressVPN tops the list as our overall favorite thanks to its rapid speeds, varied server locations, friendly apps, brilliant customer support and the ability to unblock loads of streaming services. On top of that, you can try it 100% risk free with its 30-day money back guarantee.
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 and if it feels like a concern, we'd recommend that you obtain the services of the fastest VPN you can.
And 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 downsides, 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.