VPN vs. Proxy: What’s the Difference, and What Should You Use?

VPN vs. Proxy: What’s the Difference, and What Should You Use?

You’ve probably heard about VPNs and proxy servers, even if you don’t know exactly how they work or exactly what they’re for. Both VPNs and proxies are both ways of disguising your location when you’re online. The have privacy benefits and can be used to pull off some other neat tricks. But what, if anything, is the difference between a VPN and a proxy? What, specifically, are they used for? And when it comes down to VPN vs. proxy server, which should you use? Let’s take a closer look.

VPN vs. Proxy: What Is a VPN? What Is a Proxy? How Are They Different?

Our article may have “VPN vs. Proxy” in the headline, but these two different tools actually have a lot in common. For starters, they both perform the same basic task: they make you look like you’re accessing the internet from somewhere else.

Let’s back up for a second. When you hop on a computer and access the internet – whether that’s through a web browser like Chrome or a different internet-connected app – your computer isn’t hiding it’s location. For instance, your computer happily informs Google of where it is, so if you search for “movie times” you get local results instead of seeing when Black Panther is showing in Saskatchewan or Timbuktu or something.

But that’s not always good, for reasons we’ll discuss in depth later. So you may want to tell the internet that you’re somewhere you aren’t. To do this, VPNs and proxies send your traffic through a server before it hits the internet. When your traffic arrives in the big, public world of the internet, it appears to be coming out of of that other server – which, of course, it really is! It’s just that your traffic has slyly snuck from your computer to that server before making its internet debut. Tricky stuff, right?

Okay, that’s easy enough: your traffic starts in your computer, hits a server somewhere else, and then arrives on the internet looking like it originated from wherever the server is. That’s how both VPNs and proxies work – so why are we promoting this VPN vs. proxy showdown? Isn’t there a difference?

There is! In fact, there are two major differences. The first is that proxies work on a single application, whereas VPNs have your whole computer covered. If you use a proxy with Chrome, you can still open a different browser or other internet-connected app on the same computer and broadcast your real location. That’s not the case with a VPN.

The second difference is in your security level on the first leg of your internet traffic’s journey: from you to the VPN or proxy server. What happens between you and the VPN server is heavily encrypted. Data sent to the proxy server, however, is not.

So, to recap:

  • Both VPNs and proxies reroute your internet traffic through a server to make you appear as if you’re logging on from somewhere else.
  • VPNs connect your whole computer to a VPN server, and traffic between your computer and that server is heavily encrypted.
  • Proxies send traffic from one application through a proxy server, and your traffic isn’t encrypted at any point.

You can go deeper down the rabbit hole than this, of course. There are different types of proxy servers, like HTTPS proxy servers and SOCKS proxy servers (cool name, right?), and there are lots more technical details to revel in. But, for our purposes, the above is more than enough information.

So now we know the difference. What do they mean for your decision on VPN vs. proxy?

We can safely say that VPNs are more powerful. Proxies can help you look like you’re somewhere else, but they’re less effective at hiding what you’re up to or protecting you from malicious prying eyes. VPNs can pull that look-like-you’re-somewhere else trick just as well, and they’re also great for protecting your privacy.

Why Use a VPN or a Proxy?

We know what VPNs and proxies do, so we have at least some idea of why someone would use them. Proxies make you look like you’re somewhere else, and VPNs make you look like you’re somewhere else while also protecting your privacy. So people who use VPNs and proxies must want to look like they’re somewhere else and/or gain some internet privacy. But that’s not a very satisfying answer, so let’s look at why they want to do those things.

VPN and Proxy User Type 1: Creeps and Crooks

Let’s start with the obvious: not everyone using VPNs and proxies is doing so for the right reasons. VPNs and proxies are used to disguise your identity and location on the internet, so it’s no surprise that they’re popular among some shady characters: you may have heard about them, for instance, in the context of torrenting and illegal downloading. If you’re breaking the law, it pays to use these things.

Illegal downloading is one type of shady activity to hide. Illegal streaming is another. Shady websites and illegal Kodi add-ons are less risky for crooked streamers to use when their identities and locations are hidden. This is one reason it’s so tough for Kodi to stop the tricky people using it for nefarious purposes, much to the frustration of the Kodi team and the many legitimate users of Kodi, which is itself completely legal.

Privacy is probably the key benefit of VPNs (remember, proxies aren’t so good at privacy) for the criminal set. But tricking websites into thinking you’re somewhere else has its benefits, too. Want to watch a movie that is available only in a foreign country’s version of your favorite streaming service? Want to stream a sporting event that a service blacks out in your region? With the click of a button, you can be somewhere else. This is against the rules at best, and may be illegal at worst, but people do it.

All of this is rough, and we haven’t even gotten to the sorts of crimes that have nothing to do with media and entertainment. VPNs are useful for everyone from drug dealers to cyber criminals. Yikes!

VPN User Type 2: Businesses and Governments

If you work in an office, your computer is almost certainly on your office network. Like your network at home, this is a private network: there’s a router (or several) and probably a whole bunch of cables connecting stuff together. You can hit “print” on your work computer and the printer down the hall will print it, because you’ve been communicating over the network. And since it’s a private network, nobody out there on the internet can see that you just printed something or what it was.

And maybe you’ve experienced this: a big snowstorm is hitting tomorrow, so everyone grabs their laptops on their way out of work. The next day, you work from home – but first you have to log into some kind of app thing. It’s a VPN, of course. Now you can send data back and forth with your colleagues just as you normally can, and it all stays on the private network. This time, of course, the private network is virtual – it’s technically on the internet, but heavy encryption effectively walls it off from prying eyes, creating – you guessed it a virtual private network.

This kind of security is essential for big companies. It’s also essential for government agencies. And, at some government agencies, cracking into the other guys’ private networks (virtual and otherwise) is part of the job description, which means that the location-bending function of VPNs is welcome, too. Government authorities are constantly trying to lock down their security while sneaking through VPNs to take a crack at the networks of other governments, criminal enterprises, terrorists, and people who download the new Justin Bieber single.

VPN and Proxy User Type 3: You, Hopefully!

But we don’t endorse any of that illegal stuff here at Cordcutting.com, and I’m not writing for Business Insider here, so why are we talking about VPNs and proxies? Well, because there are plenty of legitimate reasons to use these same technologies, both as streamers and as users of the internet at large.

What sorts of reasons? Well, maybe you’re creeped out by the ads that follow you around the internet. You can disable cookies or turn on an ad blocker, but one way to make sure that you don’t see an ad based on your internet history or location is to convince Amazon and the rest of the ecommerce and emarketing gang that you’re not you at all: you’re some totally different person logging on from Bogata or Uzbekistan or the Florida Keys, thank you very much.

Or maybe you want added security for your everyday internet use, whether that’s uploading photos or entering information on banking websites. We live our lives online these days, and you almost certainly transmit plenty of information on the web that you don’t want to fall into the wrong hands. (This merits a bit more explanation. VPN fans tend to do a bit of hand-waving when they talk about why it’s more secure to use one, so let’s be clear: your traffic is still going to hit the “open internet”at some point, whether that happens the moment it’s sent from your computer or at the point where it leaves the VPN. But sending your traffic to a VPN first makes it harder for some folks to keep track of what you’re doing online, most notably your ISP. And it can make bits of your personal information less useful to the bad guys, since it’s harder for them to identify whose information it is.)

The two reasons above are probably the most common legitimate ones for hopping on a VPN, with the security concerns being the more commonly cited of the two. But there are still other reasons to use VPNs and proxies, from political beliefs to rather specific situations.

Maybe you’re a dyed-in-the-wool libertarian who is determined to keep Uncle Sam (or John Bull, or whatever other anthropomorphic partisan most worries you) from spying on you.

Or maybe your distaste for online ads is a reflection of a deeper fear of tech giants, and you want to stay as off-the-grid as possible.

Maybe you run a hobby shop and want to see if the hobby shop down the road has a better website than you, but – because you’re a tech-savvy small business owner who knows a lot about search engine optimization – you know that a search from a local IP might cause Google to reward your rival with more prominent spot on local searches, so you hop on a proxy. Enjoy your traffic from Le Havre, France, Bob’s Discount Hobby Outlet! Mwahaha.

Maybe you’re a gamer and want to play online with your friends without showing the whole hacker world your Minecraft skills. (The kids are still playing Minecraft, right? This example makes sense?) VPNs are commonly used to connect to the larger internet, but they don’t have to be. You can set up a VPN as a virtual LAN party if you have the know-how.

Replace “Minecraft” with “spreadsheets” and you have one of the most common ways people encounter VPNs: remote work. But we already talked about this way up at the top of this section, and it’s not really super-relevant to why an individual would use a VPN on their private computer, so let’s move on.

VPN vs. Proxy: Which Is Right fr You, and What Service Should You Use?

Alright: we now know what VPNs and proxies are, how they differ, and why you might want one. But should you get one? Which should you choose, a VPN or a proxy? And which service should you use to get it?

The answer to the first question depends on the second, so let’s skip to the showdown we’ve all been waiting for: VPN vs. proxy. We at Cordcutting.com aren’t going to equivocate here: we recommend getting a VPN, not a proxy.

Why? Because VPNs can do everything proxies do, and more. And because VPNs aren’t that much pricier than proxies. And because VPNs have more and more common legitimate uses, whereas proxies are generally a lazy way of accessing region-locked content (users figure, usually correctly, that their crime isn’t important enough to merit covering up with VPN-type security).

So, to return to the first question: yes, yes you should get a VPN. They’re affordable and useful. Even if you don’t use it much, it doesn’t hurt to have a quality VPN service.

But it can hurt to have a bad one, so let’s move on from VPN vs. proxy and start talking VPN vs. VPN. It’s an all-VPN showdown, baby!

Why Having a Good VPN Provider Matters

VPNs are all about privacy. When you use one, what happens between you and your VPN stays between you and your VPN. That’s great, because you trust yourself and you trust your VPN – right?

Well, ideally. But the consequences can be serious if your VPN provider isn’t on the level. Your computer and traffic are pretty exposed to threats from¬†inside the VPN.

VPN companies are generally pretty trustworthy, because their whole business model relies on keeping customers assured of their privacy. But there are two main ways VPN providers can betray your trust. They could mess directly with your computer, using its power to do other stuff or sticking malware on it. This is rare, to say the least. The second danger, while still rare, is a bit more real: the VPN could keep logs of what goes on between it and your computer. Your data is still hidden from the internet at large, but now the VPN folks have all the information you wanted to keep from those other people. That information can be subpoenaed by the government, and who knows what might happen to it if the VPN provider goes out of business or is targeted by hackers.

Don’t let this scare you away from VPNs – just let it scare you away from weird off-brand ones. The shady VPNs out there don’t prove VPNs to be dangerous any more than the guy in the alley selling fake Rolex watches proves that Rolexes are shoddily made. Just do your research and get the real deal from a reliable provider. We can help you there.

Which VPN Services You Should Consider

So what’s the best VPN service to use? It’s a matter of opinion, but hey, we’re just full of opinions here at Cordcutting.com. In fact, we have a few picks for you to consider.

The VPNs we’re going to list here are different in some ways, of course, but they’re all solid and trustworthy choices that perform the same basic function. Here are the best VPNs around, which you’ll find in some combination or order in virtually every “Best VPN” rankings or article.

Use any of the above services, and you should have a very reliable VPN that hides your location and encrypts your data.

And, with that, we’ve covered everything that a typical internet user ought to know about VPNs. Safe browsing, cord cutters!

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About the Author

Stephen Lovely
Stephen Lovely
Stephen Lovely is a freelance writer and a longtime cord cutter with a passion for technology and entertainment. You can find his work on Cordcutting.com and his tweets at @stephenlovely.

4 Comments on "VPN vs. Proxy: What’s the Difference, and What Should You Use?"

  1. Nicely written and very helpful. All the things about VPNs I didn’t know. Thanks.

  2. Thank you, great article. Can someone share a good working VPN service? I want to stream US Netflix, so it’s a must that it would work with it smoothly.

  3. hH, Jodi! if you want to stream Netflix, then try NordVPN. They’re one of the few left that is not blocked by Netflix themselves. If you just want to change your IP – whatever VPN service will do that for you.

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