Two hands are holding a shield each; one says VPN, and the other Proxy. An IP address hangs over the hands, and the numbers of the address are obscure on the VPN side; while they are readable on the Proxy side.

Hi, stranger! Did you know that a proxy (or a proxy server) and a VPN (Virtual Private Network) are the most common solutions to changing your IP (Internet Protocol) address? Figuring out the difference and which may be better for you requires understanding the fundamentals of each. So without further ado, let’s get into the nitty-gritty.

Table of contents

    What is a proxy server? 

    A proxy server is a computer that hosts a server that’s usually connected to the internet. In general, its primary purpose is to reroute incoming data and give it a different IP address.

    This makes it seem like you’re connecting from the proxy server’s location, effectively circumventing geo-restrictions. But many proxies have different functions and are used for different purposes.

    Types of proxy servers

    Their function describes the difference in proxy servers. And there are a few different kinds of proxies:

    • HTTP proxy server: a simple proxy server (perhaps the most simple you can find) that routes your web traffic. This proxy only reroutes the browser data; 
    • SOCKS5 proxy server: a more powerful proxy server that works on a deeper operating system layer. It’s also considered to be better at penetrating blocks. Together with your browser data traffic, it also reroutes the data of apps that use this proxy;
    • Transparent proxy server: a proxy server that allows certain restrictions to be placed on a network. It’s mostly used by employers, schools, hotels, and public Wi-Fi hosts to limit access to certain websites or monitor internet use; 
    • Forward proxy server: a proxy server that examines any requests over the network before allowing them to go through. Once it allows passage, it forwards the data, ergo the forwarding proxy bit. It’s mostly used for internal networks;
    • Anonymous proxy server: a proxy server, sometimes called an anonymizer, that focuses on making you anonymous online (as you’d guess from the name). It accesses the internet for the user to hide any personal information;
    • High-anonymity proxy server: an HTTP proxy server that builds upon an anonymous proxy and erases any information gathered on the device before connecting to websites. Sometimes it’s referred to as an elite proxy;
    • Distorting proxy server: a proxy server that hides from the websites it accesses by pretending it has a different IP address. This masks your identity as well as the proxy itself; 
    • Datacenter proxy server: a proxy server that exists in a data center somewhere. This usually makes the proxy server provide faster results; 
    • Residential proxy server: a proxy server that gives you an IP address tied to a physical device. Any information requested through this proxy is routed via the same physical device; 
    • Public proxy server: a free proxy server that is accessible to anyone. This option provides many users with their IP addresses at once. However, this also means they are a lot slower than the other options; 
    • Shared proxy server: a proxy server available to several select users simultaneously. This means that all of them are covered under the same IP. It’s usually cheaper than most as the costs are divided between everyone using it. 

    What is a VPN?

    A VPN (Virtual Private Network) refers to an app that encrypts your traffic and routes it to a VPN server. It sounds a lot like a proxy, but here’s what’s happening under the imaginary VPN hood:

    You run a VPN app; it creates a secure and encrypted connection tunnel between your device and the VPN servers. All your internet traffic is rerouted through this tunnel, meaning all the data gets encrypted and assigned a new IP address.

    The encrypted data then leaves the VPN servers, reaches its intended destination at the other end of the tunnel, and gets decrypted. This way, a VPN allows for safe and uninterrupted communication between you and the intended recipient.

    The differences between VPNs and proxies

    In short: the difference is that VPNs do everything that proxies do (and then some) but better. We’ll look at the exact differences in a moment but let’s start with the most important part: many proxy servers do not offer encryption.

    Although a proxy and a VPN will change their users’ IP addresses, that isn’t enough. Cybersecurity comes down to more than just your IP address. With that in mind, let’s compare the two contestants:

    Hides your IP
    Hides your IP
    Encrypts your data
    Doesn’t encrypt your data (unless it’s an HTTPS proxy)
    Protects the entire system
    Protects specific apps
    Prevents ISP tracking
    Doesn’t prevent ISP tracking
    Protects you on public Wi-Fi
    Doesn’t protect you on public Wi-Fi
    Best uses:
    Best uses:
    Bypassing censorship
    Bypassing censorship
    Bypassing network restrictions
    Improving privacy and security
    Hiding your browsing data from spies

    Another critical difference between a proxy and a VPN is that most proxies only handle your browser’s data traffic, while a VPN covers all your device data. That means if someone were to identify you, they could easily do it by checking the data traffic transmitted by your apps connected to the web (i.e., Google Maps).

    An infographic shows how your data stream is treated when you use a proxy and a VPN.

    Bonus: VPNs vs. proxies for downloading files

    Both a proxy server and a VPN client can grant you access to sites blocked by your ISP (Internet Service Provider). Both of them switch out your IP for the one that the server uses. But this is where the similarities end. 

    A key difference between VPNs vs. proxies when downloading files — when you’re using a VPN, your ISP won’t know what you’re downloading. This means two things:

    1. The ISP can’t collect data on your downloads;
    2. The ISP can’t engage in bandwidth throttling when you’re downloading something.

    Security- and privacy-wise, VPNs are far better than proxies.

    Disclaimer: We prohibit using Surfshark services for any unlawful purposes as it is against our Terms of Service. Please be sure to act in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations of streaming service providers.

    Bonus: can I use a VPN and a proxy together?

    Yes, you can use a VPN and a proxy together, but it’s better not to. When you run a proxy and VPN simultaneously, your data traffic is redirected through the proxy servers and those of a VPN. So using both of them together will reduce your speed.

    What is better: a VPN or a proxy?

    In some regard, comparing VPNs to proxies is like comparing oranges to apples — both can be juiced, top your salad, and go into pies. What makes them different is how they’re processed, meaning which one is better depends on what use you put them to.

    If you are an employer looking to monitor internet use through company devices, proxies, like the transparent one, are a better choice.

    A VPN is better if you want to change your IP, circumvent regional restrictions, keep yourself anonymous, and stay safe on the web. In that regard, a VPN offers more features and higher security levels than a simple IP-changing proxy server.

    The bottom line: a VPN is like a proxy, but better

    Despite VPNs and proxies working on roughly the same principles, one of the technologies is definitely more sophisticated and powerful. So when it comes down to functionality, the proxy vs. VPN fight is easily won by VPNs. Now, how about you try one out?

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    Is a VPN the same as a proxy server?

    No. Although the two services may work similarly, they are still two different products with different use cases. Long story short, a VPN is a much more sophisticated and powerful service than a proxy. So, while a virtual private network can replace a proxy, a proxy cannot replace a VPN. 

    Should I use a proxy and a VPN?  

    Not necessarily. If you’re using a VPN, you do not need a proxy. However, if you need to use a proxy (for work or school, for example), it’s best to invest in a good VPN provider. 

    Is it cheaper to use a VPN or a proxy?

    In most cases, a VPN is more expensive than a proxy because it has more features, and its server infrastructure is harder to maintain, while many proxies are free to use.

    Whatever you choose, you shouldn’t go free  — many free proxy servers (as well as free VPNs) are believed to share with or even sell your data to third parties. As the adage goes — If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.