If you want to change your IP address — either because you want to get past a firewall at work or at school, or simply to access another country’s Netflix library — there are two good ways to do so, namely through either a VPN or a proxy.
However, though their goal is the same, these two types of service are very different in the way they work. As a result, depending on what you need to do, using a proxy instead of a VPN could end up yielding no result or, in some cases, even end up getting you into trouble.
Why You’d Use a VPN or Proxy
The main purpose of both proxies and VPNs is to change IP addresses, also called “spoofing.” Simply put, when connecting to the internet, you send a connection request from your device — be it a laptop or smartphone or anything else — to the server of your internet service provider (ISP). Your ISP then makes the connection from its server to the site you’re visiting and it appears on your screen.
When you connect to a site, it requests certain information from you. One of the more important data points is your IP address, which is a set of numbers that determines your approximate physical location. This information is used to determine what language the site should be displayed in, what products are offered to you, as well as tailoring ads to you.
Spoofing Your IP Address
If you want to avoid websites knowing your location, either because you want the site to offer you different products or because you want to avoid targeted ads, you can spoof your IP by using either a proxy or a VPN. Instead of connecting from your ISP’s server to the website, you make a little detour to a server owned by the VPN or the proxy. This gives you another IP, making it appear to the site as if you were browsing from there rather than your own location.
It’s pretty handy, and also is useful for getting around blocks that have been put up. For example, Netflix doesn’t show all content in all countries for copyright reasons. By using a VPN — proxies won’t work, as we’ll discuss later — you can get a fake IP address for another country and watch different shows than you can in your own country.
Bypassing Content Blocks
VPNs and proxies also get you past any blocks put up on the other end, by either your ISP, your school, your work, or even your government. Most of these blocks work by disallowing your connection to a site. If you reroute your connection through a different IP address supplied by a VPN or proxy, you can circumvent the block.
VPN vs Proxy: The Differences
To reroute your connection, a proxy simply slots itself between your ISP and the site, giving you a fresh IP address. They’re free to use and usually require no signup to use: just go to a site, click a button, and you’re good to go.
However, because all it does is reroute traffic, it’s very easy to track down where the connection came from as well as where it’s going. As such, anybody with a vested interest in making sure they know how traffic flows — governments and services concerned with copyright spring to mind — can very easily see what your real IP is by using some very basic tools.
Downsides to Proxies
This means that proxies aren’t really that great except for the most basic kinds of IP spoofing. For example, YouTube has only very basic copyright filters in place, so if a video is blocked in your country, chances are using a basic proxy like that of HideMyAss will unblock it. The same goes for many schools, universities, and workplaces: In many of these places, any internet blocks are there mainly for form’s sake, and a proxy should get you past them.
When to Use a VPN
However, if you’re up against a tougher block, like when a system administrator gets wise to what pupils and colleagues are doing, or because you’re trying to see what Netflix has on offer in other countries, you’re going to need a VPN.
VPNs have several features proxies that not only make them better at spoofing IPs, but also make them a lot safer to use. Their main advantage comes from the so-called VPN tunnel, which is an encrypted connection between the VPN’s server and the website you’re visiting.
What the VPN Tunnel Does
If your ISP or the site tries to look where you’re connecting to, all they see is the server’s IP, and a whole bunch of encrypted text. Unless they can crack the encryption — and since it’s usually a really advanced cipher like AES-256, they can’t — they have no idea what you’re up to.
Because you’re connecting to an otherwise innocuous IP address and there’s no way to see what comes after or before, most blocks will allow you to pass, meaning you can now listen to YouTube playlists while at work.
Beating Regional Restrictions and Censorship
The tunnel also has plenty of other benefits, for one, it makes it so you can torrent movies without getting copyright notices. It’s also good for getting past governmental blocks like those put up by Iran or China, handy for both travelers to those countries, as well as dissidents within them. They’re also great as they add an extra layer of security when on public WiFi networks.
However, the most common use for VPNs is to get past the blocks put up by streaming services like Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, and Netflix. Because of copyright claims in different countries, the libraries of these services differ from place to place (Hulu is even U.S.-only). If you want to watch a specific show and it’s not in your country, you’re going to need to use a VPN to spoof the IP address in a country that does have it.
Though it may seem a little frivolous, it’s a great way to make the most of your streaming subscriptions.
VPN vs Proxy: The Final Word
In short, proxies are unsecured VPNs, or VPNs are encrypted proxies. While proxies are definitely useful little tools when it comes to getting past basic blocks or for simple spoofing, they can’t hold a candle to VPNs. VPNs are a lot more versatile, useful, and secure, so for most people, most of the time, they’re a much better solution than a proxy.