The difference between proxy and VPN services comes down to the way in which they perform the role of a middleman linking you to the rest of the Internet. Whereas a proxy obfuscates a user’s IP address by rerouting their requests before relaying them to their intended destinations, a virtual private network does that same thing without being limited to a single website or app, and while wrapping the entire process in bulletproof end-to-end encryption.
In other words, VPNs are much more versatile than proxies, though that isn’t to say the latter don’t have their uses in the 2020s.
Comparing apples to fruit markets
Proxies and VPNs have been around for a long while and are essentially as old as computer networking itself. Couple that with the fact that they’re often leveraged for the same purpose of concealing one’s identity online and it’s no wonder many still confuse the two.
Speaking in hyperbolically broad strokes of a tech illiterate, a VPN is a proxy on steroids.
Not only does it hide your online identity, but it also ensures your internet activity can’t be tracked, either. Nowadays, amid all those privacy debacles coming out of Silicon Valley, it’s easy to get lost in the ever-expanding discourse and forget that online privacy and anonymity aren’t one and the same; after all, someone could monitor what you’re doing online without knowing who you are, exactly, and vice versa.
Whereas the effects of a proxy are limited to a single piece of software like an Internet browser, a VPN can work on an OS level, rerouting all device traffic for extra privacy and security points. That advantage of virtual networking dovetails with another one of its key features that sets it apart from simple proxy services – encryption.
A full-fledged VPN scrambles all on-device communications so that even if someone were to intercept them before they got anonymized through rerouting, that trouble would’ve been for essentially nothing, leaving the attacker with nothing more but a bunch of data modern cryptography rendered unintelligible.
VPN services consequently don’t just keep your identity hidden online but also protect you from malicious third parties such as hackers. Proxies simply can’t compare in that regard as their functionality is already fully integrated into VPN solutions and greatly expanded upon in every direction.
For example, besides hiding one’s browsing history and protecting their online personas, VPNs can also be used for accomplishing the exact opposite – user identification. Trying to draw direct parallels between proxy and VPN services is hence like comparing apples to fruit markets; sure, the former are an integral part of the latter but ultimately – we’re talking about wildly different concepts.
Is a VPN faster than a proxy?
As one-sided as this comparison may seem at points, even a proxy on stereoids has its weaknesses. After all, steroids are an all-in bet on power, whereas any indirect speed gains are just a side effect of… ok, enough with the doping analogies – are VPNs inherently faster than proxies? In spite of everything we said so far, the answer is a negative. On the contrary, assuming somewhat similar tech backends, an average proxy will be slightly faster than even a remarkable VPN.
At the same time, VPNs still come out ahead in almost every respect when looking at real-world tests, which further complicates this seemingly straightforward comparison. As to why proxies are faster than VPNs in theory, that’s largely because a proxy has fewer things to do before “releasing” your traffic to its intended destination. Most notably, it does not encrypt data packets.
It stands to reason that this functional difference is hardly something the average demographic attracted to proxies and VPNs would consider a plus. After all, changing your IP address will only get you so far if your outgoing Internet queries and the results they’re returning are still out there for everyone to intercept and read.
Which brings us to our second point – proxies may be theoretically faster than VPNs, but they almost never are in practice. This gap between expectations and real-world performance is most prominently connected to availability and business models associated with the two technologies.
Namely, you’d be hard-pressed to find a quality proxy offering a reliable IP you can call your own in this day and age – even if you were willing to pay for it (unless you’re buying in bulk). Many of the most popular proxies have instead been almost entirely taken over by the deeply flawed freemium philosophy which is less than ideal for privacy-oriented software.
In other words, if you’re using a proxy in 2020, you’re likely doing so via a server that’s simultaneously servicing thousands of other users across the world, which, in effect, significantly impacts the speeds you’re able to get.
On the other hand, even $5 a month can net you a decent dedicated IP VPN which will both encrypt your traffic and anonymize its point of origin faster than a generic proxy server will be able to serve hundreds or thousands of users. Meaning if you’re interested in anything but light browsing and even remotely care about your privacy, you should steer clear of proxies and stick with virtual private network providers.
Following that train of thought, it’s easy to see how a wide range of technological advancements allowed virtual private networks to steadily gaining in popularity since the turn of the century, whereas the same can’t be said of proxy services, as illustrated by the graph below.
The right tool for the job
Even as VPNs are clearly so vastly superior to proxies from a versatility standpoint, comparably banal rerouting protocols still have their place in the Web 3.0 era and beyond. Never underestimate the power of simplicity as figuratively speaking, creations with fewer parts tend to perform more reliably by virtue of the fact they have fewer components that can fail catastrophically.
Not to mention that even when a proxy fails, it’s business as usual in the land of the interwebz.
For example, If you do a Google Search for a free proxy website because you want to watch a YouTube video that’s banned in your country, the worst that can realistically come to pass is that the service doesn’t work, or you see a mildly disturbing adult ad that reawakens your childhood fear of dwarves and clowns.
Other than that, you may learn your email address was snatched and peddled after five Nigerian princes and one Filipino lottery winner with totally unfairly frozen assets write to you for help in these trying times, while a Romanian Apple reseller lets you know you just won a million bucks for being the five billionth person not to have fallen for their low-effort phishing scam.
On the other hand, a major VPN provider doing so much as a stumble is enough cause for a worldwide panic these days. That’s pretty unsurprising seeing how we tend to use VPNs for much more serious business than proxies and hence expect a much higher level of quality from them. After all, you get what you pay for, right?
Which brings us to yet another key differentiator between proxies and VPN platforms – pricing.
The eternal pursuit of value
The straightforward nature of proxies also makes them somewhat more accessible than VPNs, though many virtual private network providers have been working on streamlining their user experiences in recent years.
Still, if circumventing censorship on the Internet is your primary goal, it’s difficult to argue that proxies aren’t a more efficient alternative to VPNs, despite being a technically less effective method of staying anonymous online. The simple purpose they serve can even be sustainably free, whereas keeping any half-decent VPN operational is essentially impossible without charging subscription fees.
The omnipresent proxy-vs-VPN debate can also reach a whole other level when presented to hardcore power users. A small subset of netizens hence argue there’s little point in mulling over the pros and cons of choosing one over the other when one can simply opt to use both simultaneously.
Should you do that just because you can, though? The answer to that question essentially underlines one universal truth about this topic: the core difference between proxy and VPN services can be expressed on a spectrum of functional flexibility, or lack thereof.
“Difference Between a Proxy and a VPN” was written by Dominik Bosnjak, a long-time VPN-user-turned-advocate who spends more time scrutinizing VPN Providers on a daily basis than he’d like to admit. When he isn’t writing VPN Guides and covering general Tech News, he’s probably spending time with his dog, video games, or both. Fun fact: the Shih Tzu in question is the only remaining creature in Dominik’s life who hasn’t told him they’re sick of him talking about Best VPN practices and government-sponsored erosion of digital privacy which made using the Internet less convenient over the years. He occasionally dabbles in video editing, Wall Street memes, and demonstrating a remarkable lack of guitar-playing ability.
If you want more tidbit-sized rants about any of those things, you can find him on Twitter @dddominikk.