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

Image showing a VPN vs Proxy server
(Image credit: Visual Generation/Shutterstock)

If you’re looking to change your location online and stay a little more private, you may be wondering which is better when it comes to comparing VPN and proxy servers. 

For the casual user, it might seem that both VPNs and proxies perform much the same task. However, dig a little deeper and you’ll learn that the two are aren't quite as similar as you may think.

Here, we’ll be exploring what both VPN and proxies are, why you might want to use them, key things to look for when picking one, and which one will be better for you.

What is a proxy server?

A proxy is a simple program – usually a browser extension – that changes your IP address. You can often 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 don’t provide any encryption benefits, so they’re not ideal to use when dealing with particularly sensitive information. And, unlike VPNs, 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 our 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 biggest 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 some 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 useless.

While proxies may offer a number of different locations, a good VPN will almost always have a better selection. Some providers like our top-rated service ExpressVPN 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 could make your evening binge watch a lot more interesting.

VPN on an iPhone

(Image credit: d3sign/Getty Images)

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 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. Since almost all proxies are free services, the servers they access can easily become overloaded with users, meaning connection speeds could possibly be affected more significantly.

And, 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 powerful, 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 PC and want the peace of mind a fully encrypted connection can bring, in almost every situation a VPN is the way to go.

Mo is eCommerce Editor at Tom's Guide. Day-to-day he oversees privacy and security content, and his product guides help his readers find the best software and products for their needs. When he's not testing VPNs, you'll find him working on his classic car or plugged into a guitar amp.