You don’t have to be a spy or an international person of mystery to use a proxy or a virtual private network (VPN). There are plenty of reasons why the average person might need to mask their IP address or want a little more privacy when browsing the web.
On the surface, it might seem like a VPN and a proxy are two sides of the same coin. After all, both allow you to browse the internet safely while making it appear as if you're connecting from a different location. How different can these two tools that provide the same function really be?
However, the similarities between a proxy server and a VPN stop there. How they accomplish the task of hiding your location and the degree to which they provide you with privacy, encryption, and other security features is extremely varied.
VPN vs. proxy: what’s the difference?
First thing's first: both a VPN and a proxy will block your IP address. While a proxy acts as a gateway and is ideal for basic web functions, a VPN is what you’ll want to use when you need an extra layer of security for your internet use and data.
There are some key differences between the two that you’ll need to be aware of when choosing.
Good for streaming:
Only if able to bypass proxy blocks
Additional security features:
Depending on the provider, VPNs offer WiFi protection, an automatic kill switch, DNS leak protection, and malware protection.
Good for torrenting:
Yes, but not recommended due to lack of security
Ease of use:
Requires some expertise
Speed when browsing:
Can be slower due to the process of encrypting data
Average speed depending on the server
Cost to use:
Will need to buy software
Can either be free or paid
While those are the main differences, there’s a lot to breakdown before you can fully decide which option you should use as you browse the internet.
What is a proxy server?
A proxy is an intermediary server that separates internet users from the websites they’re looking to browse.
Think of a proxy server as the go-between your device and the website you’re visiting. It masks your internet activity and can make it appear that you’re browsing the web from somewhere other than where you’re actually located.
Essentially, your traffic will go through a middle-man called the proxy server, which is a remote machine used to connect you to the host server, also known as the website. The proxy then hides your original IP address so the website only sees the IP of the proxy server.
For example, if you’re browsing the internet in downtown Chicago and you come across a website that is geographically restricted to people who only live in Europe, you can connect to a proxy server located in Italy and then browse that website as you please.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that a proxy server only reroutes the traffic coming from the single application you set up your proxy with, not your entire device. Plus, it doesn’t encrypt your traffic.
Because of this, proxies are ideal for low-stakes internet browsing, like watching a YouTube video or reading a friend’s blog.
Types of proxy servers
The work of a proxy server is conducted by one of three different types.
1. HTTP proxy
The oldest type of proxy server is the HTTP proxy, which is specifically designed for web pages and web-based traffic.
When setting up a browser with an HTTP proxy, you plug the proxy server into your web browser’s configuration file. You can also use a browser extension if your browser doesn’t support proxies. Then, all of your web traffic is routed through the remote proxy.
This type of proxy is most useful for web browsing and accessing websites that are restricted based on geographical locations. Just remember that if you’re using an HTTP proxy to connect to any sensitive information, even something as small as logging into your email address, browse with an SSL certificate enabled since proxies don't encrypt your traffic.
2. SOCKS proxy
A SOCKS proxy, which stands for Socket Secure, isn’t limited to web traffic, but it still works only on the application level. It’s a useful extension of the HTTP proxy system because it’s indifferent to the type of traffic that connects through it.
As an example, this type of proxy can be set up on a game, video streaming app, or a P2P platform. The downside of SOCKs proxies is that they are typically slower than HTTP proxies since they’re more popular and have a higher load. Like HTTP proxies, they don’t provide users with encryption.
3. Transparent proxy
As the name suggests, a transparent proxy is a proxy that a user is unaware of. You may not even know that your traffic is being routed through a transparent proxy since it’s basically invisible.
Additionally, these proxies don’t modify any of your information, like your IP address, so the request to the destination server (the website you’re visiting) will show it’s coming directly from you.
You may be wondering what the point of a transparent proxy is. They’re typically set up by employers or parents who want to monitor online activity and block access to specific websites. You are able to create whitelists and blacklists for users, which would allow an employer or school to block social media websites during working hours.
Public vs. private proxy servers
The different functions and features of a proxy server can also depend on whether it’s private or public.
For instance, a public proxy server, sometimes referred to as an open proxy server, are proxies that anyone can use. This is made possible by the fact that proxies can handle thousands of connections at the same time.
Public proxies, which include HTTP and SOCKS proxies, are free to use. However, they tend to be unstable and can sometimes be overloaded and stop functioning. Your connection could drop and the speed could be relatively slow.
A private proxy server won’t be available for everyone, and you’ll need to buy one to be able to use it. You’ll also need a username and password, and because it’s private, it's much faster and boasts a stronger connection than public proxies.
When would you want to use a proxy?
Now that you have a better understanding of what a proxy is and the types you can choose from, when exactly would you want to use one?
It’s all depends on what you’re doing when you browse the internet. A proxy is ideal when you:
Need to bypass a firewall or a geo-blocked website
Aren’t transmitting sensitive data
Want to reduce bandwidth when browsing
Benefits of a proxy server
There are many benefits to using a proxy server as you browse the web. Some include:
A proxy hides your IP address so you can become anonymous.
A proxy helps you get around web restrictions and mask your online activity.
A proxy provides access to geo-blocks services or websites.
You don’t have to download or install additional software to use a proxy.
There are free proxy options so you can browse on a budget.
Drawbacks of a proxy server
Using a proxy server also comes with some noteworthy drawbacks you should be aware of. Some include:
Your web traffic isn’t private and can be seen by the server owner.
Proxies are configured to specific browsers or programs, not the entire network.
A proxy does not encrypt traffic or any of your data, leaving you at risk.
When using a proxy, you will be vulnerable to malware and other viruses.
Connection speeds can be slow when the proxy server is being used by multiple people. To avoid this, you’ll need to pay for a private proxy server.
What is a VPN?
Like a proxy, a VPN will reroute your internet traffic using a remote server that hides your IP address so websites can’t see your original IP or location. Unlike a proxy, a VPN encrypts your information and secures 100% of your movements as you use the internet.
The added step of encryption means you get the benefit of data security and privacy in addition to anonymity. Because of this, data within your online banking apps or credit score websites are secure through a VPN, whereas they would still be vulnerable to hackers with a proxy.
A VPN also works on the operating system level instead of the application level, which means it redirects all of your traffic regardless if it comes from your browser or a background application.
Types of VPNs
There are two basic types of VPNs. Which one you use is going to depend on what you need the VPN for.
1. Remote access VPN
A remote access VPN allows a user to connect to a private network and access all of its services and resources while being remote.
The connection created between the user and the private network happens through the internet, allowing the connection to be completely private and secure. This type of VPN is typically useful for both home and business users alike.
For instance, a user browsing at home can use a VPN to bypass any regional restrictions on the internet and access blocked websites. An employee of a company who is currently working remotely can use a VPN to connect to their company’s network, allowing them to access files and resources on a private network.
2. Site to site VPN
A site to site VPN, also referred to as router to router VPN, is used mostly by large companies or organizations that have offices in different locations. This allows these companies to connect the network of one office location to the network of another office location.
Think of this as an imaginary bridge between the two networks that connect them to the internet while remaining a secure and private connection. When a site to site VPN is used, one router acts as the VPN client and another router is used as a VPN server since this type is based on a router to router communication. When authentication is complete between the two routers, communication can begin.
When would you want to use a VPN?
If you’ve paid attention to the news lately, you’ve likely noticed that international privacy and data laws vary a lot from country to country. Or maybe you’ve noticed the uptick in data breaches over the last five years.
In either case, a VPN is the ideal solution for anyone looking to encrypt and protect their data. Remember, a proxy will only hide your internet usage, not encrypt it. This means that anyone tech-savvy enough to hack you or access your data can get through proxy servers if they wanted to.
A VPN is more secure because it actually encrypts your internet usage.
You’ll want to use a VPN when:
You’re browsing the web and are about to log in to any sort of account.
You’re using public WiFi that isn’t secure.
You live in a country with censorship and online surveillance.
You need to bypass geo-blocks to access region-restricted content, especially for entertainment purposes.
When you're interested in streaming region-restricted content.
When you're working with sensitive information, like a username and password.
When you want to play a video game with limited anonymity.
When you're browsing the web on a public WiFi connection.
When you're using an older or outdated operating system that limits the software you can use.
When you live in a country with widespread censorship and online surveillance.
When you're a parent interested in filtering out the content your children can access.
The choice is yours
Ultimately, when you’re choosing between a proxy and a VPN, it’s going to depend on what you’re using it for. When you consider how much time you spend using the internet, whether it’s on a desktop or a mobile device, it’s a decision that shouldn’t be taken lately.
If you decided to go with a VPN, learn more about the seven types of VPN protocols and how they could determine which VPN provider you choose to go with.
Mara Calvello is a Content Marketing Manager at G2 with a focus on Human Resources and SaaS Management. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Elmhurst College. In addition to working at G2, Mara is a freelance writer for a handful of small- and medium-sized tech companies. In her spare time, Mara is either at the gym, exploring the great outdoors with her rescue dog Zeke, enjoying Italian food, or right in the middle of a Harry Potter binge.