VPN, DNS, and smart DNS - what’s the difference and which one to choose

When it comes to accessing web content, people will recommend all sorts of things. You’ll keep hearing acronyms like DNS (Domain Name System), smart DNS, and VPN (Virtual Private Network). But what do they do, and are they really what you need? This article will tell you all you need to know about them – and how to choose the right option for you.

Table of contents

    DNS vs. smart DNS vs. VPN at a glance

    We’re taking a quick look at the pros and cons of the trio and diving deeper into the details later in the article.


    Mitigates any issues if your ISPs (Internet Service Providers) DNS service crashes
    Manual setup
    Provides a bit of security while on public Wi-Fi
    No encryption
    Sometimes might provide better speeds
    Doesn’t change the IP (Internet Protocol) address
    Lacks other VPN features

    Smart DNS

    Faster than a VPN
    No IP address hiding
    Can defeat some firewalls and censorship
    No encryption
    Works on devices that don’t support VPN clients
    Manual setup
    Lacks other VPN features


    Hides IP
    May slow down the connection
    Encrypts data
    Not supported by some devices
    Easy to set up
    Can defeat basically any block or restriction
    Additional security features (Kill Switch, split tunneling, etc.)

    What is DNS?

    What is DNS?

    The Domain Name System (DNS) is like a phonebook for computers: when you give them a name (website address), they use the DNS to look up the phone number (website’s IP address). That’s how computers are able to reach them. Most people use the default DNS supplied by their internet service provider (ISP).

    Changing your DNS can help overcome the most basic ISP-level blocks that are carried out at the DNS level.

    For example, the government tells your internet service provider (ISP) to block the website “catguns.edu.” The ISP restricts access to that domain address, so when you enter “catguns.edu” in the browser bar, it tells you that it can’t find the website. If you change your DNS provider, the block won’t work, and you will be able to access “catguns.edu” freely.

    Is changing the DNS legal?

    Yes, changing the DNS is legal. The service is mostly there to provide basic internet functionality. You are not forced to use your ISP’s DNS. That’s why high-profile alternative DNS services like OpenDNS and Google’s Public DNS exist.

    Is it safe to change your DNS?

    Of course, as long as you’re using a well-known service – like OpenDNS and Public DNS – you are not in any danger. Also, you can undo a DNS change as long as you have the data for the original one.

    While we’re on safety, it’s worth mentioning certain cyberattacks target the DNS, but you can mitigate that risk by changing your DNS. A DNS changer allows you to switch to one of the DNS provider’s servers, which enhances your security and privacy.

    What is a DNS leak?

    It’s when your private information is revealed when it shouldn’t be. A DNS leak happens when a privacy app leaves your DNS queries visible to your internet service provider. There are a couple of reasons why and how DNS leaks happen:

    • The Cookie and cache folder. Your browser stores cookies, where a part of the DNS information can be held. It means data might leak through a VPN connection – websites ‘’remember’’ you based on your cookie folder, and they ‘’recognize’’ you even with a VPN. To ensure that doesn’t happen – clear cache and cookies;
    • You might leak info if your network connection interferes with your VPN connection.

    You can always check if you’re leaking data with a DNS leak test

    What is smart DNS?

    What is smart DNS?

    Smart DNS is a service that combines a DNS server and a proxy server. The DNS part of the system picks up when the user wants to access a specific blocked website and then routes that request via the proxy server.

    That proxy server then pings the geo-blocked website you wish to access. This makes the websites believe you are connecting from the proxy server’s location. If that server is in the US, the website thinks you’re also from the US.

    Smart DNS services are usually paid, as developing a product that increases your access and overcomes geographical restrictions needs advanced resources.

    Is a smart DNS proxy legal?

    Proxies are legal, DNS changing is legal, and combining those two is also legal. Some online services might object to using a smart DNS proxy – you should always check the terms and agreements before deciding whether to use it – but there is no law against its use.

    Now you know what a smart DNS is and what it does. Time to learn about VPNs. Good VPNs can combine both of the discussed technologies into one service and provide you with something more.

    What is a VPN?

    What is a VPN?

    A VPN – Virtual Private Network – creates a sense of security and privacy by using such smart tech things as encryption and VPN servers. The most secure connection in the world would be two computers connected by a single wire, as there wouldn’t be a third computer to listen in. The closest you can get to that level of privacy is with a VPN.

    What do VPNs do? They grant unparalleled access to the world of online content by helping you overcome many online restrictions, including DNS blocks, IP blocks, and others. Also, they encrypt the data you send and receive, making your online activities more private.

    This allows VPN to bypass most of the blocks you’ll encounter online.

    Opening up the internet is only half the VPN use. The other is security: it hides your DNS and IP, making it very hard to track you online. The government can force your ISP to record your browsing history, and hackers may try to steal your data. Using a VPN makes those attempts a lot harder – if not impossible. 

    Surfshark does not encourage using a VPN in ways that would potentially violate the Terms of Service of streaming service providers.

    What is the difference between smart DNS and a VPN?

    Both VPN and smart DNS can help overcome regional restrictions, but smart DNS doesn’t offer any security features that a VPN has. A VPN encrypts your data and hides your IP address on top of changing your virtual location, which makes it a far better choice for online privacy and security.

    Is smart DNS better than a VPN?

    A VPN is a more flexible service that is better at almost everything a smart DNS does. Read the following section for a more detailed breakdown of when to use what service. 

    Smart DNS vs. VPN for… Security

    Smart DNS doesn’t do much for your security. The DNS server address might change, which will trick DNS lookups. Yet that still leaves your IP address out in the open and your data unencrypted.

    Smart DNS vs. VPN for… Speed

    A smart DNS has a smaller impact on your internet speed than VPN. That is because a VPN needs to use some bandwidth for encryption. As smart DNS doesn’t encrypt your data, making your connection faster.

    Smart DNS vs. VPN for… Bypassing firewalls

    A smart DNS can’t bypass the IP blocks that workplaces and schools put up – but a VPN can do that and more.  

    Smart DNS vs. VPN for… Covering all devices

    A smart DNS can be set up on devices that don’t always allow a VPN client to be installed. However, if you have a compatible router, you can install the VPN client on it and secure any device that connects to it: your phone, your kids’ tablet, your friends’ phones, a smart lamp, Alexa – you name it. 

    To conclude – get the right tool for the task

    A DNS is a very basic service that enables the internet’s processes. Changing your DNS is a simple way of overcoming mundane blocks. Getting a smart DNS increases your accessibility much more than a simple DNS change, but it isn’t all-powerful. Now, a VPN is matchless when it comes to improving access to websites – and it also comes with many security benefits.

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    Is smart DNS better than a VPN?

    Both smart DNS and a VPN let you modify your network (including overcoming censorship). However, only a VPN can provide internet security by changing your IP and encrypting data traffic.

    Is smart DNS faster than a VPN?

    Yes, because a smart DNS only changes your DNS address while a VPN encrypts data traffic, obfuscates it, and spoofs your location by changing your IP – effectively taking up more of your internet bandwidth.

    Can you use smart DNS with a VPN?

    No, for smart DNS to work, your devices have to be under the same network. A VPN modifies your network so that it’s no longer recognized as the same one.

    Is smart DNS safer than a VPN?

    Not really, a smart DNS only changes your DNS address, but your service provider (ISP) will still be able to see what you do online. VPN’s primary function is to encrypt data which translates directly into online privacy and safety.