What's the difference between a proxy server and a VPN?

The Best VPN Services for 2017
The Best VPN Services for 2017

When it comes to internet privacy and security, two terms are commonly tossed around: VPN and proxy. If you're wondering what exactly these words mean, or which one you need, if any, you aren't alone. While these services both provide something similar, it's important to know the differences and similarities so you can decide which one is best for you.

Advertisement

What is a VPN?

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is best described as an encrypted virtual tunnel that shuttles your internet activity between a host server and your PC or phone. Anything you do on the internet, from checking your bank statements to gaming online, won't be seen by anyone but the VPN host server, thanks to the strong encryption. Keep in mind that if your VPN keeps logs, your activity could potentially be scooped up by interested parties (a.k.a. the government).

You can use a VPN to get around geo-restrictions because your IP address will be different, but a VPN does so much more when it comes to privacy. Public Wi-Fi, like the kind you find at hotels and airports, isn't always secure — people can snoop what you're doing if your data isn't encrypted. But it becomes secure when you're using a VPN.

Many companies use VPNs in order for employees to access their own local intranet or corporate network when out of the office. A VPN can be used on any device that has the client installed, so it doesn't matter where you are trying to access from.

For the casual user, though, you'll probably be purchasing a VPN service and connecting to their server in order to browse the internet privately and securely. Set up is generally straightforward, making it a suitable option for many people. Before you rush out and download a VPN client, though, there are some downsides you should be aware of.

What are the downsides of a VPN?

The first and probably biggest downside of a VPN is the price. For example, our top pick for a VPN, ExpressVPN, is about $100 for a yearly subscription and about $13 for a monthly subscription.

See at ExpressVPN (opens in new tab)

Compare this price with the plethora of free proxies out there — many unsafe, but we'll cover that in the proxy section — and you see where someone might be tempted to just temporarily configure a free proxy to watch a YouTube video that is blocked in their country.

Another downside of a VPN is that it can be a bit slow if a ton of people use the same host server. This is especially true when going with a discount VPN option. But the same problem holds true for proxies.

Advertisement

What is a proxy server?

A proxy server is best described as an intermediary for your PC and the internet at large. When you connect to a proxy server, your activity will appear as if it's coming from the proxy's IP address rather than your own. For this reason, a proxy is great at getting around geo-restrictions. This is similar to a VPN, but that's about where the similarities stop.

Instead of the traffic between your PC and the host server being hidden behind an encrypted tunnel, it remains mostly open to any interested parties. This means that anyone with the right tools can have a look at your internet traffic, just as if you weren't using a proxy at all. There are also some instances of Java and Flash causing the proxy to fail when you try to load their elements in a web browser, effectively letting a website see your real IP.

Many free proxy servers are less than reputable, which makes them not recommended for anything more than briefly accessing geo-restricted, non-sensitive content. Because free proxies generally cost something to operate, you will no doubt see ads, and your information that is collected by the proxy service might be sold to a bidder. There is a great tool from haschek solutions that lets you test the legitimacy of any proxy server, whether free or paid.

See the haschek solutions proxy checker

There are two different protocols that proxy servers use to connect with the internet: HTTP and SOCKS.

HTTP proxies

HTTP proxies have been around for a long time, and they're the easiest and fastest to use. This is the type of proxy you will use if you want to browse the internet, as it can only be used to access websites.

When using an HTTP proxy server, your traffic remains completely unencrypted unless you connect using Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) — this is the "s" at the end of "https" in your browser's address bar. Remember, even when connecting to a site that uses HTTPS, you aren't getting the same protection a good VPN can offer.

SOCKS proxies

Socket Secure (SOCKS) proxies are more geared toward internet traffic above and beyond HTTP traffic from your browser. They're popularly used for torrent services (not that we condone them) or for connecting to FTP and web servers.

Because SOCKS proxies have to handle much more data (think Blu-ray rips), they're generally slower than HTTP proxies that only handle browser-based traffic. Much like HTTP proxies, they don't offer any encryption unless you're using SSL.

Is a VPN or a proxy better?

Before working with either of these tools, remember that in this age of eroding privacy, nothing is completely safe.

That being said, in almost all cases a VPN beats a proxy for privacy and security. You get solid encryption on all internet traffic coming from your PC, you can still get around geo-restrictions, and, unless your VPN provider sells you out, your internet traffic should be pretty much completely private. A proxy should, in most cases, only be used for casual, non-sensitive actions if you're truly worried about your privacy and security online.

Wondering which VPN service you should try out? Have a look at our choice for the best VPN available.

See the best VPN on 2017

Advertisement

Cale Hunt
Senior Editor, Laptop Reviews

Cale Hunt is a Senior Editor at Windows Central. He focuses mainly on laptop reviews, news, and accessory coverage. He's been reviewing laptops and accessories full time since 2016, with hundreds of reviews published for Windows Central. He is an avid PC gamer and multi-platform user, and spends most of his time either tinkering with or writing about tech.

25 Comments
  • System admin tip: You can use a proxy to restrict outgoing traffic by website from a server as a secondary option to a web filter.
  • Are there already VPN services also tunneling IPv6 traffic? Last time i checked neighter IPVanish nor expressVPN did.
  • I've been using ExpressVPN for quite a while. Great service and speeds.
  • i was using express but its quite expensive, started using this UK VPN. Perfect speed.
  • About VPN: "Anything you do on the internet, (...), won't be seen by anyone but the VPN host server​"

    That is simply not true...
    ​The VPN encrypts the traffic between your client and the VPN server, basically acting as if you had your own ethernet cable between you and them by configuring a private encrypted pipe on top of TCP. They are considered safe in enteprises because the traffic between your computer and the company's servers, located on the same private network as the VPN, do not get outside to the Internet at all.
    ​A proper quote would be "Anything you do on the company's network won't be seen by anyone outside the company" However, if you access the Internet through a VPN, you're using the gateway from the company's network. From the outside it looks like you're on premises, even if you're in another country, thanks to the pipe acting as your own ethernet cable, but the encryption stops there. Once it leaves their premises, your traffic to a 3rd party Internet server is like any other traffic. ​Let's say for example that you connect to a non-SSL web site and provide your username and password. While the VPN will protect you from snooping eyes from your local governement, hotel or bar staff if you're using a public WiFi, etc, it will not do anything about the traffic between the VPN company's premises and the web server.
    Personally identifiable information could still be found in your unencrypted traffic that links the activity back to you. If the VPN and Web hosting are in the same country, you might be able to limit your unencrypted activity to that country, but it is exactly as secure, and not more secure, than if you were sitting in the VPN's company lobby and using the Internet from there without VPN.
  • Re: Phillippe Majerus,
    Thank you for clarifying. I have never used a VPN. I am interested in learning where and under what circumstances using a VPN would benefit me. Between the article and your comment, I am beginning to understand. Best Wishes
  • I realized there is quite a bit of misunderstanding about these topics, and I believe access to the information is critical to some people in totalitarian countries… and many countries are on the dangerous slope nowadays. So I’m sorry for the length of this post, but if you are looking for more information about these, here’s what I can provide. Hopefully this will help spread the knowledge. It is much easier to understand how a Proxy and a VPN work and what they can do for you if you look at their original goals. They are not designed to hide your location or give you access to geofenced sites, these are simply side effects they have in common. PROXY In the early days of the Internet, backbones connections were relatively slow and expensive. ISPs and organizations with an Internet connection needed a way to both speed up access to commonly visited web sites, and limit bandwidth usage on their backbone uplink.
    If you have 10 users visiting www.windowscentral.com within a single minute, you know they’ll get the same page from the web server. Think of a proxy server as an intermediate http hop. Your browser asks the proxy to fetch a page for it instead of fetching it from the Internet through your router by itself. The proxy will download the page and give it to your browser, but also keep a local timestamped copy. If another browser asks the same proxy server for the same page before it expires, the proxy simply gives the cached copy instead of fetching from the Internet. The fact that the Internet now sees your http requests as coming from the proxy is originally an unwanted but unfixable side effect of the extra hop, as the proxy effectively is the one going out and getting the page on your behalf. Since http requests are delegated to the proxy, they turned out to be the perfect location for extra services like filtering out sites you shouldn’t be visiting (company or gov. policies), scan downloaded files for viruses, checking if you’re posting confidential information on forums, or even reduce pictures sizes to help you if you’re using a slow connection.
    Socks proxies are an improvement to bring these services to other Internet protocols beside http, trying to filter your IM, streaming media, etc… they work in the same way, the client application requests the socks proxy to connect to the server on its behalf, working as an intermediate hop. Connecting through a proxy to fake your geographical location is just a side effect of this. It doesn’t add any security or protect you in any way, it just makes your request go to the proxy before going to the destination, and that makes your destination see your request as coming from the proxy, but still traceable (many proxies add headers with information about the original client they are performing the request for). VPN Now a completely different scenario. Working for a big company that has on-premises servers that are too critical to risk connecting them to the Internet. When working at the office, the Ethernet cable or WiFi connects you to the LAN, which gives you access to on-premises servers, and to the Internet through the router or the proxy. When outside of the office, you need to connect to the company’s network to access these servers. This was performed by having a pool of modems in the company, and you had a modem, dialing into a company’s phone number and authenticating to the remote access server, which would then connect your computer to the company’s LAN. That was pretty slow and expensive, and couldn’t compare to the speed and costs of Internet connections moving to DSL, EDGE, 3G, etc… So we needed the same dial-in experience, which provided you a one-to-one connection between your computer and the company’s remote access server, but without the modems. The trick was to replace the modems by an encrypted tunnel over the Internet connection, the remote access server would have a pool of modems and a pool of virtual devices that listened for similar requests, but coming over the Internet instead of over the phone lines. You would dial into the remote access server, authenticating yourself and getting a one-to-one network connection to the company’s LAN, exactly as you were when using modems, but using a virtual private network connection over a public network, called VPN for short. This means your connection was exactly like with the modem, your own Ethernet cable from your computer to the remote access server (I use that analogy because while slower than Ethernet, it works at the same layer and can be used for other protocols besides TCP/IP). For security reasons, it is very dangerous to have a computer connected to both the Internet and the company’s LAN simultaneously, as it can be zombified and controlled by an attacker to access the company’s LAN. So most of the time the VPN stops routing your Internet traffic through the direct connection and forces all through the company’s LAN, meaning you’re behind the company’s router or proxy and all your Internet activity goes through the VPN, and then through the company’s LAN, exactly as it would if you were on premises. Again, this hides your real geographical location, because your computer has a LAN IP and your Internet traffic goes through the company’s router (or optionally, their proxy), from the destination server’s point of view, you’re physically in that company’s building. Unlike connecting through a proxy over the Internet, a VPN tunnel between your computer and the company’s remote access server is encrypted. People in between (gov., ISP, public WiFi techs, etc…) can see that there is a lot of traffic between you and that remote access server, they could block it, but they cannot see what you are doing with that connection. CONCLUSION Both a proxy or a VPN effectively makes your traffic look like it’s coming from the location where the proxy server or the remote access server is. This lets you work around geographical limitations for some services.
    However, neither hides your real location completely, people running the equipment between you and a proxy can still see everything you delegate to the proxy and the results, while, for a VPN, they cannot see what you’re doing with that “encrypted Ethernet cable”, but they can see that cable, including its other end (the remote access server) and roughly how much data is passing through it. If you’re looking for a way to connect as if you were in another country but doing so isn’t illegal, either could be fine. If you’re trying to access services your government is trying to block, a VPN will help, but remember while they cannot see what you’re doing over that link, they can still see there is an encrypted link. The simple fact that you're using a VPN might be illegal and get you in troubles if they want to control their citizens.
    It is much harder (but not impossible) to notice phone calls used for dial-in access, that is the reason some individuals and companies decided to put pools of modems available for anyone, so people from such countries could again dial-in and access the Internet through them without their gov. knowledge.
  • Opera browsers in built VPN does the trick. Haven't faced issue till now.
  • haha, and whos behind Opera? Is it China, right? And you trust them? I wouldnt.
  • Most the products you use are Made in China, do you trust them :(
  • Opera is not a vpn, but a proxy
  • While I use Opera to browse (and access) MSN portal, the browser lacks some features that Chrome has that I use (such as sound playback amplifier app).  This is ironic because I turned off Windows 10 tracking me and ended up not being able to access MSN portal on my Microsoft Surface!   Regarding VPN, I use CyberGhost at work.  
  • VPN One Touch crashing on Windows 10 Mobile... Can someone plz advise the best free VPN apps?
  • There are no Best free vpn's. IPVanish and Private Internet Access are the best VPN's out there and they are way cheaper than what is recommended in this article. Here is 1 of many sites that review them. https://www.vpnuniversity.com/
  • After an extensive amount of searching, I found this is about as close to an independent information and review site that can be found: https://thatoneprivacysite.net/
  • A good tip: If you have an active Microsoft MSDN Subscription, you can get a lifetime free VPN.
  • I appreciate more information on this.  Many thanks.    
  • https://blogs.msdn.microsoft.com/notime/2013/06/01/how-to-setup-windows-...
  • So not actually free for life as you need to maintain a MSDN subscription and need to maintain Azure services. If you stop paying for MSDN then you have to start paying for the VPN service. It sounds like you're saying "if you currently have a MSDN sub then you get a VPN for free, forever" when it's actually "it's free as long as you have a MSDN sub"
  • Would have liked to see a mention in the article about the point to point tunneling VPN that is built into Windows 10
  • I've been using NordVPN. So far so good. Except their slow serves in India, which I need a lot and of course one of the reasons I bought NordVPN was that they had serves in India; its a good service.
  • Thanks for this information
  • Most newer routers support setting up your own VPN server. This is great as you can set one up at home, and whenever you connect to a wireless hotspot (which you of course don't trust), then just establish a VPN back to you home on your mobile/laptop, etc and these hotspots won't be able to look at or capture your traffic  I also you it when I'm travelling abroad to reach services that require me to "be" in my country of origin (geo specific services). Ps, as mentioned here before - the VPN feature in the Opera browser works very well. You can choose between VPN servers in five different countries now; Canada, United States, Germany, Netherlands and Singapore
  • Anyone else having problems commenting on this forum through Edge?
  • I am not a techie one, although I can say that I love how VPN works and how I prefer it on making my connections encrypted and free to stream geo restricted shows. At first, I only got to know about this FrootVPN just recently thru a recommendation of a friend but he got it all right! I'm paying for less but its really great.