What Are Proxies? Your Go-To Guide in 2021
Learn all about proxies, their types, and main use cases.
By sending all connection requests through itself, a proxy server can help you improve anonymity, unblock content limited to specific locations, run a large number of automated tasks, and filter all traffic that goes through it. It’s a very versatile tool used by anyone from individuals to small businesses to large enterprises.
This guide will give you a brief but comprehensive introduction to proxy servers. It explains how proxy servers work, where they’re used, how a proxy differs from a VPN, and more. Most of the structural parts lead to other articles that uncover the topics in greater detail.
We hope it will come in handy for you. Let’s get started.
Think of a proxy server as a middleman between you and the internet. Instead of connecting to a website directly, a proxy server will route your connection through itself, sending the request on your behalf. It will then return the website’s response, also through itself.
In essence, proxies are different IP addresses you receive when you connect to a proxy server. The server uses them to communicate with websites and other online resources. The terms ‘proxy server’ and ‘proxy’ are often used interchangeably. There’s little harm in doing so outside the most technical circles.
A proxy IP consists of two elements: address and port. An address can be numerical and look like a regular IP address, for example:
188.8.131.52. Or it can be a DNS hostname:
en.proxyprovider.com. A port always consists of numbers and follows the address separated by a colon:
en.proxyprovider.com:10000. The purpose of addresses is to identify a proxy, and ports indicate a channel through which that address can be reached. To use proxies, you need both.
Here’s a short video we’ve made about what a proxy is and how it works:
Proxies are perfectly safe to use, as long as you’re getting them from a reputable proxy provider. Such companies have legal commitments, and it’s in their business interest to keep your data secure. However, you should be very careful with free proxy lists online. They are not safe and can cause much harm: from injecting ads into pages you visit, to outright stealing your personal information.
You can learn more about the dangers of free proxies here.
Are Proxies Legal?
Proxies themselves are legal. While you can’t always be sure where a proxy provider gets its IPs from (especially when it’s residential IPs), the use of proxy servers is not prohibited. What matters is how you use them. For example, ticket scalping is forbidden in the US, and web scraping is a legal gray area; so, you should always read the website’s policies and the robots.txt file before doing something with it.
Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and proxies follow the same principle: they put an intermediary between you and the internet. However, people mostly use proxies for bulk tasks, to establish many connections at the same time. On the other hand, VPNs create one connection with increased privacy and security.
You can read more about their differences here.
First, proxies can improve your privacy by hiding your original IP address. This is an important feature, but it alone hardly justifies choosing a proxy over, say, a VPN.
Second, you can choose proxy IPs from many locations around the world. Some websites serve different information for specific geographic regions. So, being able to change your perceived location can be very useful both for consuming content and achieving business goals, such as verifying ads or doing market research.
Third, and the most important point – you can use several proxies at the same time to run a large number of automated tasks. Price aggregation, data scraping, multiple account management, sneaker shopping, and many other jobs would be much harder or even impossible without proxy IPs.
Finally, a reverse proxy server can filter all incoming and outgoing requests. So, you can use it like a load balancer to improve stability, cache website content to boost performance, or limit access to certain websites like a firewall.
You can read about proxy use cases in greater detail here.
There are several types of proxies with different characteristics. These differences could be what makes or breaks your projects and tasks.
Perhaps the largest distinction is between forward and reverse proxy servers. Forward proxies modify all connection requests leaving your device, while reverse proxy servers intercept all connections reaching a server or a website. Many common proxy use cases, such as web scraping or changing your location, use forward proxy servers.
The second important distinction is based on proxy anonymity. High anonymous proxies (also called elite proxies) hide both your IP address and the fact that you’re using a proxy server. Anonymous proxies hide your IP but reveal that you’re using a proxy. Transparent proxies don’t hide anything. The latter type is often found in airports and other places with public Wi-FI.
The third major distinction shows proxy origin. Datacenter proxies get their IPs from servers in data centers. They’re very fast and stable but easier to identify as proxy addresses. Residential proxies borrow the IPs from real residential users – their desktop and mobile devices.
These are but a few of the many ways to categorize proxies. You can read more in this article on the main proxy types.
The price of proxy IPs largely depends on their type. For example, shared datacenter proxies are the cheapest option – they can cost as little as $.20/IP. Private datacenter proxies are worth several times more, starting from around $1. Their price may depend on the websites you want to target and IP location.
Residential proxies are more expensive still. They also have a different pricing model: instead of IPs, you’ll be paying for the traffic used. A gigabyte usually starts from $10-20, though the proxies can go for as little as $1/GB. Some providers offer unlimited traffic and charge per ports instead, but this model is less frequent.
Mobile proxies are the most expensive option, starting from $30-40 per gigabyte.
You should note that the starting price describes entry plans. In other words, it’s actually the most you’re going to pay for proxies. As you buy more, the price of proxy servers begins dropping sharply, and it’s perfectly normal to have a 3-5 times price difference between the cheapest and most expensive plans.
When choosing proxies, we’d recommend having a solid idea what you’re going to use the proxies for. From here, you can start narrowing down the qualities of proxies that would be the most important for your tasks. Do you need a static IP or a rotating one? Is it better for you to have very fast proxies with several blocks or can you go for slower ones with less of a chance of being blocked?
If you’re still not too sure which proxies would work the best for your project, take a look at our Best Proxies list. We’ve compiled not only the best proxy providers according to types, but also according to use cases.
If you’d like something easier to digest, we’ve made a short video about choosing proxies for some of the most popular use cases:
Unlike VPNs, which have their own app and affect all your connections, you can (and sometimes have to) configure proxies with each application separately. The setup process largely depends on the software you use. We have a page showing how to use proxies with various operating systems, browsers, and apps. You can find it here.
When you get proxies, it’s important to test them. Most providers offer a free trial, or at least a money-back guarantee; use them. Doing so will reveal you several important things:
- If the proxy server works.
- If the IPs can access the websites you need.
- If the proxies make you anonymous.
- If they belong to the country you intended and use the right IP type.
You can learn how to test your proxies here.