Proxy vs. VPN: What’s the Difference and Which Should You Use?

People use VPNs and proxy servers to hide their privacy, but what’s the difference between them? In the proxy vs. VPN debate, which one is the best for you?

Let’s break down what both of these are and why people use each one.

Why We Compare VPNs and Proxy Servers

First, it’s best to explain why we’re comparing proxies and VPNs in the first place. The reason we compare them is that they both achieve a common goal; they hide your IP address from the websites you visit.

When you visit a website, it can get a rough idea about your location from your IP address. Proxies and VPNs will hide this information by giving the website its own IP address, rather than your own.

As for why people want to hide their IP address, it depends on what the user wants to achieve with their anonymity. This is where the proxy vs VPN debate comes in; while both achieve a similar goal, it’s the way they perform it that decides which is best for you.

Understanding Proxy Servers

A photograph of a proxy server
Image Credit: Funtap/DepositPhotos

What Is a Proxy Server?

A proxy server is a “middle man” that sits between you and the websites you’re visiting. Typically, you find proxy servers online on a website. You click on them, enter the website you want to visit, and it’ll take you there.

Proxy servers work by taking the web address you give it, then connecting to that website and loading its content. It then passes these details onto you, so you can browse the website.

The main benefit of proxy servers is that you don’t connect directly to the website, so it doesn’t see your home IP address. Instead, it sees the proxy server’s IP address, keeping your location a secret.

If you visit a proxy service site, they’ll often ask what country you want the proxy server to come from. This is more than just a novelty; they can be used to fool websites and services into thinking you’re viewing from that country.

If you want to access a website but it’s blocked in your country, you can use a proxy server located in that website’s country instead. When the website checks what country you’re from, it sees the proxy server’s location instead of your own. It then grants the proxy server access to the website and gives it the details, which is then passed onto you.

The Benefits of Proxy Servers

If you just want to unblock a website, a proxy server can do this simply and quickly. No need to install anything; just visit a free proxy website and choose one that’s in the country you want to visit from. This is a great short-term solution for that one website that gives you trouble.

Because proxy servers can be found online, you can use them from any operating system. There’s no need to install any software; just hop online and find a server!

The Drawbacks of Proxy Servers

Unfortunately, if you want to achieve more than just visiting a website anonymously, a proxy server can’t help you. Even if you do only use proxy servers for web browsing, you’ll find that any long-term usage will be slow and aggravating. If you want to anonymize your connection for more than a few websites, you should give proxy servers a miss.

Understanding VPNs

A diagram of a VPN tunnel
Image Credit: vaeenma/DepositPhotos

What Is a VPN?

On the surface, VPNs work very similarly to proxy servers. Your data goes to a server, it passes it onto the destination, then receives the reply and hands it to you. The main difference between a VPN and a proxy server, however, is how your data is passed to the server in the first place.

When you use a VPN, you first install VPN software on your PC. When you switch it on, the software will encrypt the data you send to the VPN server, making your data unreadable to prying eyes. This is called a “tunnel,” and it helps to imagine it like a physical tunnel in the real world.

If you drove your car on the open road, anyone on the side of the road can see who’s in your car, its model, and the number plate. If you drove to your destination through a tunnel the entire way, nobody outside the tunnel can tell who’s driving the car, or what model it is.

The Benefits of a VPN

As you can imagine, VPNs are fantastic for masking your activity online. In contrast, a proxy server doesn’t anonymize your activity until your data reaches the server itself, meaning anyone looking at your data beforehand (such as hackers or your ISP) can see what you’re doing. Because a VPN establishes a tunnel from your PC, nobody—not even your ISP!—can see what you’re sending over.

This means you can have a secure, encrypted connection wherever you like. You may already know about how hackers can steal people’s identity over public networks, but with a VPN, you don’t need to worry about that. If someone does monitor your connection, they’ll see useless encrypted garbage.

The Drawbacks of a VPN

Unfortunately, this luxury doesn’t come cheap. The only VPNs worth using cost money to use, so they’re only worth shelling out for if you plan to do some serious browsing on them.

Not only that, but your PC does need to encrypt all of your data as it leaves. This means that you need to install software on your PC to use a VPN. During use, you may notice a dip in performance as your computer works to encrypt the data before sending it.

Proxy vs. VPN: Which Is the Best for You?

Where Proxy Servers Shine

If you want to access a website that’s blocked in your region and you’re not trying to hide your data from anyone, there’s nothing wrong with using a proxy server. The basic options are free to use, and you can use them on pretty much any computer or device.

While they’re not the best for privacy, they’re great if you’re not performing any sensitive actions; for example, watching another country’s Netflix shows.

Where VPNs Shine

As soon as you want to do long-term browsing, or you want to perform sensitive actions, a VPN is the way to go. These offer a secure, anonymous connection with added layers of protection to keep you safe.

Managing your finances or sending personal information over a public Wi-Fi connection is usually dangerous, but a VPN gives you free rein to do as you please no matter where you are. The ones worth using aren’t cheap, but if you’re serious about keeping yourself hidden online, you’ll find a VPN is a worthy investment.

If you’re stuck for choice, we recommend ExpressVPN, which is reputable, privacy-friendly, and has great performance. Sign up using our link for three free months!

Protecting Your Privacy Online

When it comes to the “best choice” in the proxy vs. VPN debate, there is no clear-cut winner. It comes down to your browsing habits and what you want out of an anonymizing service; once you’ve figured this out, the answer is much easier to find.

If you want to take your privacy even further, why not learn how to send anonymous emails?

Read the full article: Proxy vs. VPN: What’s the Difference and Which Should You Use?

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