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What's the Difference Between a VPN and a Proxy Server?

Top10.com Staff
How a proxy works
Do you use a proxy server to protect your internet access? If yes, you may not be getting the security you need. A VPN and a proxy server differ in many respects, so understand the difference if you plan on using either.

Comparing Apples to Oranges

Apples and oranges are both fruit, but that doesn't make them the same thing, and that's really where the comparison ends. So too, saying that a VPN and a proxy server are the same thing because they get you to the same destination at the end of the day is making the same mistake. 

Proxy servers and VPNs don’t actually do the same thing, don’t offer users the same advantages, and can't afford users the same capabilities.

How Proxy Servers Work

The way a proxy server handles data is pretty basic. Anyone can connect to it via a web browser, and it hides your IP address. For example, an avid football fan is going to Dubai for one of the biggest games of the season. The problem is that Dubai is not supported by ESPN, so he can’t even stream the game and watch it while abroad. 

All hope is not lost though because this diehard fan has a proxy server. The proxy server acts as a middleman, directing the web traffic through a US server instead of a Dubai server, tricking ESPN into thinking that the subscriber is watching the game at home.

That is the basic explanation of how a proxy server works. It's a simple, convenient device that works well if you’re just interested in hiding your IP address while surfing the internet for things like:

  • Watching geo-restricted videos such as Netflix or YouTube
  • Circumventing content filters such as privacy settings
  • Outsmarting service providers that track your membership via IP addresses such as voting multiple times on a site that limits their count to one vote per IP address

It is a single use case option as well. In other words, you won’t have your entire computer network hooked up to a proxy server. Rather, a single task or website request will run through the proxy server.

The problem with proxy servers is they don’t offer any security, and the basic diversion mechanism used to confuse the website is easily defeated. They also don’t encode your incoming data, so anyone who accesses the proxy server can essentially see all of your information with ease. Proxy servers will also not protect you against malware embedded in programs or WiFi signals to which you’ve connected.

How a VPN server works

How Virtual Private Networks Work

VPNs also hide your IP address, so it appears to be coming from another location. However, a VPN provides actual anonymity and privacy. For starters, these services work as a whole-system solution, setting up shop at the operating system level of your computer. So, whatever actions you take within the VPN will be protected whether you are transferring data, accessing a file, or running a program. If you picture the proxy as a middleman, passing your traffic through their server onto the requested website, view a VPN as a tunnel. All information and activity is shuttled from your computer through the tunnel to the other side. The tunnel is a highly secured, impenetrable area that keeps everything inside anonymous, encoded, and safe.

Additionally, VPNs encrypt all the data that travels through their tunnel. Encryption is invaluable if you are sending important information over the network that you don't want to be revealed to anyone else other than the intended recipient. This can include sensitive work files or important documents, but it can also extend to your credit card number or a bank detail that you don’t want falling into the wrong hands.

VPN vs. Proxy Servers: The Major Differences

Here are the major differences between proxy servers and virtual private networks broken down:

  • Difference #1: Data Handling

A proxy server calls the website you’re requesting and downloads the site’s content for you to view within the browser. The website receives an IP address from the server that it was routed through rather than your own IP address.

The way VPNs handle data is completely different. A service, such as ExpressVPN, encrypts all data and activity within your private network. So, with a proxy server, the data is simply cloaked, which means hackers, brands, government agencies, and other more persistent parties can easily get through that blockade. Once they do, your private information is theirs. Alternatively, a VPN encrypts all your information so even if a nefarious party does intercept something you send over the network, it will be useless nonsense.

And, in case you thought secure data encryption wasn’t really important, even a cursory glance at some of the major headlines of the past year will show you how devastating a data leak can be.

ExpressVPN ExpressVPN Visit ExpressVPN

  • Difference #2: Free vs. Paid

Proxy servers are free, while any quality VPN service is going to require some payment. The reason proxy servers are free is that they are just piggybacking onto a configuration error within a legitimate server. What's the problem with that? Well, aside from the fact that you're siphoning off someone else's server, once the source discovers the configuration error, the server owner will fix the issue, and the proxy server will be shut down. You may have to pay a minimal amount for a VPN service like NordVPN, but it won’t get shut down with no notice whatsoever and leave you high and dry.

  • Difference #3: Global vs. Single-Instance

VPN services are much more far-reaching in what you can do with them. A proxy server simply allows you to visit websites, but a VPN allows you to access anything on the server. This includes running applications that are hosted on the server or making use of any services that are stored there.

Why Privacy Matters

Internet privacy and security has been a major topic in the business world as of late because of the constant scandals that have come up due to a lack of internet security. These headlines didn’t involve small-scale businesses that you would expect to have faulty security. Rather, the articles were about major name brands like Target, Sony, Home Depot, and even Yahoo, which made the general public start to question whether their own internet security was good enough.

The upshot of all these discussions was simple: anyone transferring valuable or sensitive information should use secure channels. Whether you're trying to bypass the 'Great Firewall of China' or posting an album to the family cloud-sharing site, unless you want your information shared publicly, run it through a VPN. This advice applies to any internet connection, and it is even more relevant if you’re using a public WiFi connection.

Bottom Line: Use a VPN

In short, a proxy server is fine if you’re just goofing around on the internet and don’t want to get caught, need to bypass geo or user permissions restrictions, or want to tap into services that have gated content. If you have any reason why you wouldn’t want your information to be seen, however, a VPN is your only choice for anonymity and security. Essentially, VPNs are more valuable services since they provide encryption and varying levels of anonymity (depending on the brand you choose). It's the only real option if you are looking to do more than simple web surfing via your shrouded connection. Browse some of the reliable names in the industry to find a VPN you can trust.

Top10.com Staff
Top10.com's editorial staff is a professional team of editors and writers with dozens of years of experience covering consumer, financial and business products and services.