Proxy vs. VPN

If you’re looking to unblock sites and/or hide your IP address online, you’ve probably come across terms like “proxy server,” “VPN proxy,” "proxy server network," or “free web proxy.” Is there a difference between a proxy and a VPN? Is one better than the other? Read on to find out.

What is the difference between a Proxy and a VPN? Computer screen with a shield with a checkmark on it.
Diagram of a proxy server as intermediary between your computer and the internet.

What is a proxy server?

A proxy server is an intermediary between your device and the internet.

A proxy server can sit on your local router, where it increases network efficiency, authenticates users on your network, and enforces content restrictions. These proxies are typically found on Wi-Fi hotspots in hotels or airports. They require no configuration by the user.

A proxy can also be on a remote server, where it helps the user bypass local censorship or restrictions imposed by your local network’s proxy. These proxies need to be configured by the user and help you hide your IP address and encrypt your traffic.

Diagram of a VPN as an encrypted tunnel between your computer and the internet.

What is a VPN?

A VPN, or virtual private network, provides a secure tunnel between your device and the internet. VPNs help change your location, protect your privacy, increase your security, and unblock censored websites.

While your internet traffic still passes through your ISP, it can no longer be read, nor its final destination be determined. Websites you visit are no longer able to see your original IP address, only the IP address of the VPN server, which is shared by many other users and changes regularly.

What’s the main difference between a proxy and a VPN?

What's the difference between a proxy and VPN?

Technically speaking, a VPN server is a proxy server—the terms “VPN” and “VPN proxy” are interchangeable—although it more commonly refers to HTTPS servers. If the proxy server is using HTTPS (also referred to as TLS, previously SSL), then it is actually very similar to a VPN, although a web proxy would only encrypt web traffic, while a VPN routes and encrypts all kinds of traffic through its servers.

A VPN server needs more permissions on the local device than a simple web proxy and as a result usually requires users to install a separate app. However, to use a proxy, every single application might need to be configured separately, and changing the desired proxy server location might require a complete reconfiguration.

Advantages of a VPN vs. a free proxy

Once you have the ExpressVPN app installed, selecting a location becomes easy and fast, and all your traffic is protected with strong encryption. This helps you bypass threats on your local network and helps you get access to the open and unrestricted internet you expect.

What is a VPN? image.

Not all proxy servers are malicious by nature, but it can be extremely difficult to separate the bad from the merely harmless. One test of over 20,000 proxy services found nearly all of them to inject some form of malware.

Speed is another important consideration. Free proxy servers are usually choked with an avalanche of users trying to get a free ride on what ends up becoming a very slow, congested highway. A premium VPN is like a private tunnel for you and your data, constantly optimized for stability and speed.

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Common types of proxies

Anonymous proxy.

Anonymous proxy

This is a type of proxy that anonymizes a user’s IP address in order to protect their identity. Its main purpose is to make it harder to track internet traffic.

Data center proxy.

Data center proxy

This is a type of proxy that uses physical data centers to initiate and complete anonymized information requests on behalf of a user.

Residential proxy.

Residential proxy

This is a type of proxy that assigns an IP address to, and funnels internet traffic through, a specific physical device. These are generally seen as safe.

Public proxy.

Public proxy

This is a type of proxy that is freely accessible to anybody online that filters traffic through a public IP address. Public proxies are generally slow and unsafe.

Shared proxy.

Shared proxy

This type of proxy is a low-cost option that provides multiple users with IP addresses that are used simultaneously. This type of proxy isn’t the most private.

A magnifying glass takes a closer look at what's happening on the computer.

Why are there free proxy servers?

As with free VPNs, the operators of a free proxy web server need to recover their costs. They can do this by injecting ads into your traffic or by selling your data to advertisers. Either way, there is very little incentive for online proxy sites to keep your browsing fast, secure, and anonymous.

Remember, both paid and free proxy servers should always encrypt their traffic with HTTPS to make sure it is not monitored or altered in transit.

Should I use a free proxy?

Before connecting to a free proxy server, do some research into whether it encrypts its traffic or merely claims to. You may end up sacrificing more than you bargained for in both speed and security.

Frequently asked questions: VPN vs. proxy

Do you need a proxy if you have a VPN?
What is a VPN proxy extension?
How to disable a proxy?
Is a VPN proxy safe?

A risk-free VPN is better than a free proxy

Skip the uncertainty of free proxy servers. Try ExpressVPN’s fast, private, optimized network risk-free. If you’re not completely satisfied within 30 days, get a full refund. It’s that simple.

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