VPNs and free proxy servers are both great tools for masking your IP and accessing geo-blocked content. Numerous people refer to them conversely because they help to accomplish similar goals. However, the way they achieve these goals is entirely different.
Proxies and VPNs both use a remote server to mask your IP address and make it appear as if you are browsing from a different location.
While both tools effectively spoof your location, the level of privacy, security, and anonymity, they offer exceptionally.
If you’re looking to unblock a website or hide your IP address and you care about your online privacy and security, you need to be sure you’re using the right tool for the job.
What Is a free Proxy and How Does It Work?
A proxy is a remote server that acts as a middleman between you and the website you’re visiting.
If you’re using a proxy, your internet traffic will flow through the proxy server on the way to the web address you’ve requested. The proxy will connect to the website on your behalf, retrieve the contents of the web page, and then forward it to you.
The main benefit of using a proxy is that you don’t connect directly to the websites you visit. If configured correctly, this means that websites won’t be able to see your IP address. Instead, they will see the free proxy server’s IP address and location, keeping your real location a secret.
This means you can use a proxy server located in a different country to access websites that are geographically restricted. Some proxies even allow you to choose the location you’d like to connect from.
This makes proxies great for simple tasks like watching region-restricted videos or bypassing blocks on a specific website.
Most people use web proxies in their internet browser. You simply enter the URL you want to visit, and it’ll take you there in the same browser window.
A free proxy will:
- Act as a middleman between you and the website you’re visiting
- Hide your IP address from the website you visit
- Bypass geographical restrictions on a specific website
- Bypass IP address blocks on a specific website
Good proxy servers can also improve performance by saving copies of a website locally. This means that if one hundred people ask for the same website simultaneously, the free proxy server only needs to send one request to that website. This process is called proxy caching.
Proxies only work on the application level, meaning they will only reroute the traffic from the browser you’re using the proxy with. More importantly, the majority of proxies don’t encrypt your traffic.
No encryption means you are sending your requests as plain text. Anyone who is watching will be able to collect your usernames, passwords, and browsing activity.
What Is the Difference Between a free Proxy and a VPN?
The main differences between a free proxy and a VPN are:
A VPN will encrypt your traffic to protect you from ISP tracking, government surveillance, and spying on open networks. Most proxies do not encrypt your traffic, so you shouldn’t use them to handle sensitive data.
VPNs are installed on your device and reroute all of your traffic, including any background applications. Proxies usually only reroute the traffic of one specific window.
It’s expensive to maintain a reliable VPN network, so a good VPN service usually comes at a cost. While free VPN services do exist, they often come with data caps, slow speeds, or intrusive logging policies. By contrast, web proxies are mostly free.
Both VPNs and proxies can be dangerous. A poor-quality proxy or VPN can expose you to malicious scripts, malware, and aggressive advertising. Some proxies and VPNs even exist with the sole aim of tracking your online activity. You can learn more about the dangers of free VPN services in our Free VPN Risk Index.
VPN services are usually run by large companies with a financial incentive to offer the best service possible. For this reason, they tend to be more reliable than proxies and often have a strong customer support system. Proxies are typically much smaller operations with no real support network.
Encrypting your data and rerouting your traffic with a VPN can reduce your connection speed somewhat. That said, the fastest VPNs on the market should have a negligible impact. Good proxies can sometimes offer better overall performance thanks to web caching.
VPNs and free proxy servers mostly differ when it comes to privacy, security, and support. A VPN will encrypt all of the traffic sent from your device, while a proxy only redirects the traffic sent from your browser window.
A VPN creates a private and secure tunnel between your device and the website or application you’re visiting.
A VPN will reroute your traffic through a private server of your choice and then on to the website you want to visit. Your IP address will change, and your browsing data won’t be linked to your real location, making everything you do online much more private.
Depending on your VPN provider, you’ll be able to choose from dozens or even hundreds of VPN server locations around the world. This means you can trick websites into thinking you’re browsing from a specific city or country.
Unlike proxy servers, however, a VPN works on the device-level. This means it will protect and redirect all traffic coming from your device, not just the traffic coming from your browser window.
More importantly, a VPN also encrypts your internet traffic and prevents third parties like your internet service provider (ISP) from monitoring your browsing activity. It’s for this reason that VPNs are considered privacy tools first and foremost.
Which Is Better: VPN or Proxy?
Proxy servers are a great option if you need a temporary solution, whereas VPNs have a wider range of long-term privacy and security applications.
If you want to unblock Netflix, for example, you’re better off using a VPN.
Free Proxy Server Disadvantages
- Logging & Malware. Some proxies log user activity and IP addresses, while others make money by injecting ads or malware into web pages. Similarly, a transparent proxy will send the server your IP address and location. You can learn more about this in the final chapter of this guide.
- No Encryption. Most proxies will not encrypt your data. This means your ISP, government, or anyone snooping on your network will be able to see your browsing activity.
- Application-Specific. Proxies are application-specific: they will only reroute the traffic sent from the browser window you’re using.
- No Support. Because most of them are free to use, proxies generally lack the advanced features and customer support network of a high-quality VPN.
- Encryption. VPNs protect your privacy by encrypting your data, making it illegible to your ISP or anyone spying on your network.
- Hides Your IP Address. A VPN will assign you a new IP address in your chosen location. This allows you to circumvent censorship or geographical restrictions on specific content.
- Advanced Features. Many VPNs come with advanced features, including ad-blockers, kill-switches, and obfuscation. These can often help further protect your privacy.
- Network-Wide Protection. VPNs encrypt and reroute all of the traffic sent to and from your device, including any applications running in the background.
- Accountable Providers. Most VPNs come with a dedicated customer support system in case you run into problems.
A good-quality VPN offers better encryption, privacy, and torrenting capabilities than a free proxy server. They also tend to be more reliable and more widely compatible. By contrast, a proxy tends to provide faster speeds, is easier to set up, and is generally cheaper. Both tools are equally good at spoofing your location.