VPN vs proxy: what's the difference and which should you get?

Image showing a VPN vs Proxy server
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The difference between a VPN vs proxy can be a little tricky to understand, especially if you're not a super-techy type. However, despite the two performing similar functions, it's very important to understand what sets the best VPNs apart from proxies – especially if you're concerned about your privacy.

In this guide, I'll be running down everything you need to know about the two tools and what the different between them is. I'll also include some advice on the key things to look for when picking one, and which one will be better for you. 

NordVPN: the best VPN overall

NordVPN: the best VPN overall
If you decide that you need a VPN, my recommendation is NordVPN. From my in-depth testing it's proven to be the most reliable and powerful VPN on the market. It offers great privacy, and is excellent for unblocking streaming sites too.

Starting at less than $3.50 a month it's excellent value, and it also offers a 30-day money-back guarantee so you can test it out risk-free.

What is a proxy server?

A proxy is a simple program – often a browser extension – that changes your IP address. You can usually select a IP in a different country, and by doing so you’ll be able to access sites that may be blocked on your home turf.

By routing your Internet traffic through an intermediary server, a proxy also hides your activity from your Internet Service Provider (ISP). This is useful if your ISP blocks you from accessing certain sites, or, for any reason, you don’t want to be tied back to a particular search or activity online. 

Be aware, however, that doing this will only expose your activity to the proxy instead of your ISP. Weighing up which you trust more is important, and while the big-name proxy providers are largely considered safe, it’s important to do your research.

The biggest thing to note is that proxies do not encrypt your traffic, so they should never be used to protect or hide sensitive information. What's more, unlike VPNs, browser proxies only redirect traffic within your browser. If you’re using any other application that connects to the Internet, you won’t be routing through your proxy.

What is a VPN?

VPNs perform all the functions of a proxy – like unblocking sites and changing your location – but also throw some valuable extra features into the mix. For a full rundown, check out my comprehensive what is a VPN guide. 

As a discrete program on your device, a VPN reroutes absolutely all your Internet traffic through its own servers, and away from your ISP’s. This means that as well as your regular browsing, your torrent client, standalone messaging apps like Slack and streaming apps like Spotify will also be rerouted.

The most important difference, though, is the fact that VPNs encrypt your data. While standards have risen in recent years, and the encrypted HTTPS is now used almost everywhere, there are still risks – especially when using public Wi-Fi networks.

With a VPN active, your information is sent through a "tunnel". Essentially, this means that whatever you’re doing is hidden from view, and even if it’s intercepted, it’ll be totally unreadable because it's encrypted.

While proxies may offer a number of different locations, a good VPN will almost always have a better selection. Some providers like NordVPN, ExpressVPN and Surfshark offer thousands of servers – all of which are super fast and reliable.

Finally, a hugely popular VPN use is to unblock streaming sites. With Netflix, for example, you can use a streaming VPN to change your location and watch content that’s exclusive to other countries. Not all VPNs can do this, but picking one that can might make your evening binge-watch a lot more interesting.

VPN on an iPhone

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When should you use a VPN or a proxy?

If all you need to do is quickly change your IP address or unblock sites that are blocked by your ISP, a proxy will do the job. For anything else, we’d highly recommend using a VPN.

It’s widely accepted that encrypting your traffic and changing your IP when torrenting is essential, and a proxy can’t do this. If you’re looking to unblock extra streaming content, again, a VPN is your only choice.

It’s also worth noting that both proxies and VPNs can have an adverse effect on your Internet speeds, but with a fast VPN this difference is negligible. In fact, in my testing for my VPN reviews, a good number of VPNs maxed out my 1 Gbps connection, so if you pick the right one, you're unlikely to feel restricted.

However, since almost all proxies are free services, the servers they access can easily become overloaded with users, meaning connection speeds are likely to be affected more significantly.

Finally, if you’re looking to stay more private online, the encryption of a secure VPN is a real must. While proxies can hide your activity from your ISP, anyone snooping on your traffic won’t be impeded at all. So, for the security conscious, a VPN also wins out here.

VPN vs proxy: which should you get?

It’s clear that VPNs provide a superior service to proxies, and while they’re not quite as reliable, you can even find worthwhile free VPN services that are useful in a pinch.

That doesn’t mean proxies are absolutely useless, though. Pick a good one, and you can change your IP with very little fuss, and you also won’t have to install a standalone app on your PC to get it working. 

But, if you’re able to install programs on your device and want the peace of mind a fully encrypted connection can bring, in almost every situation a VPN is the way to go.

Mo Harber-Lamond
VPN Editor

Mo is VPN Editor at Tom's Guide. Day-to-day he oversees VPN, privacy, and cybersecurity content, and also undertakes independent testing of VPN services to ensure his recommendations are accurate and up to date. When he's not getting stuck into the nitty-gritty settings of a VPN you've never heard of, you'll find him working on his Peugeot 205 GTi or watching Peep Show instead of finally putting up those shelves.