Most VPN services provide apps for just about every platform, and many provide extensions for Google’s Chrome browser. Not all these extensions are as powerful as their sibling apps, however, and almost none of them work the same as true VPNs—they function differently and only protect your browser’s traffic.
Most Chrome Browser VPNs (Probably) Aren’t VPNs
With exceedingly rare exceptions, a Chrome browser extension from a VPN service is not actually a VPN. It’s more likely that it’s an encrypted proxy.
While a VPN uses a VPN protocol to encrypt all the traffic coming off your device and route it through a VPN server, a proxy can only encrypt and route the traffic from one app at a time. In the case of a Chrome extension, only the browser traffic is encrypted and routed. This keeps your ISP from seeing what you’re up to (and they can see a lot) and makes you harder to track online by hiding your IP address. Rerouting your traffic can also unblock some websites and sometimes let you access streaming content from other countries.
All the other web traffic generated by your machine—from apps, the OS itself, everything—travels as usual.
If you’re only concerned about unblocking online content or adding additional privacy to your web browsing, a proxy is fine. But it’s not a VPN and shouldn’t be mistaken for one. For more on the topic, you can read our explainer, VPNs vs. Proxies: What’s the Difference?
We confirmed that all the services listed here (with one exception) only encrypt browser traffic. We’ve reached out to the individual vendors to confirm that their Chrome extensions function as proxies.
Irritatingly, most VPNs do not make it clear that their Chrome extensions are anything other than a full-fledged VPN. Most do note that their products will protect your browser traffic, but not all of them say that it will only protect your browser traffic. Granted this distinction is confusing, but VPN services should do a better job of explaining exactly what these tools do.
The one exception to this is ExpressVPN. ExpressVPN’s Chrome extension isn’t a proxy, but it also isn’t a VPN app either. ExpressVPN describes its Chrome extension as a “remote control” for your VPN and that seems pretty accurate. To use the ExpressVPN Chrome extension, you first need to download and log in to the ExpressVPN desktop app. Once you do that, you can use either the desktop app or the Chrome extension to control your VPN connection.
This is a real VPN connection that affects not just your browser traffic, but also all the web traffic from your device. Conveniently, you don’t need the ExpressVPN desktop app open in order to use the Chrome extension. If you want actual VPN protection for your machine controlled by your browser, ExpressVPN is your best option.