DNS vs. VPN vs. Smart DNS: What’s the difference?

Tips & tricks
12 mins

In this guide, we look at what DNS, VPN, and Smart DNS are, so that you can decide which of these technologies to use.

Jump to…

What is a DNS server, and what does it do?
Is changing your DNS legal?
Is it safe to change your DNS?
What is a smart DNS, and what does it do?
Pros and cons of a smart DNS
What is a VPN, and what does it do?
Pros and cons of VPNs
DNS vs. smart DNS vs. VPN: When to use each one?

DNS vs. Smart DNS vs. VPN

While VPNs and Smart DNS are tools you can employ to alter your internet experience, DNS is not—rather, it is simply a part of the internet. Let’s start with a comparison table before delving deeper into the differences.

Main functionTranslates domain names into IP addresses.Selectively redirects DNS queries through a proxy server.Encrypts internet traffic and routes it through a remote server.
PrivacyLimited privacy protection.Limited privacy protection.Strong privacy protection by masking your real IP address.
SecurityNot relevant for security.No significant security enhancements.Enhanced security through encryption.
Data loggingDepends on the provider.Depends on the provider.Depends on the provider.
CostUsually free. Often free, but paid services tend to work better.Sometimes free, but paid services offer better privacy, security, and reliability.
Effects on speedThe DNS server you use can affect internet speeds. Often speeds up internet. Can slow down internet or speed it up by reducing throttling.


VPN, DNS, and smart DNS are quite different tools with distinct purposes. Comparing these three technologies is like comparing apples to oranges. DNS is a foundational element of the internet, VPN is a security tool, and Smart DNS is a workaround for geo-blocking.

What is a DNS server, and what does it do?

DNS, or Domain Name System, is the internet’s address book system, and it’s used whenever you do anything online.

A DNS translates human-readable website names like google.com into machine-readable IP addresses that computers can understand. Without DNS, we would have to memorize long strings of numbers to access every website, making the internet a far more cumbersome place.

If you haven’t changed any settings, you’re probably using the DNS your ISP (Internet Service Provider) supplied.

Yes, changing your DNS server to any public DNS server is legal. This is because DNS is a fundamental part of the internet infrastructure designed to be open and accessible. There are many public DNS servers available, including Google Public DNS ( and, CloudFlare DNS ( and, OpenDNS ( and, and Quad9 ( and

There are a few reasons you may want to change your DNS. For example, you could use a DNS server that is faster or more reliable than your ISP’s DNS server. Consider using a DNS server that is more privacy-focused, such as one that does not collect data about your browsing activity.

In general, there are no restrictions on changing your DNS. There are a few exceptions, such as that some ISPs may block access to specific DNS servers.

Overall, changing your DNS is a safe and legal way to improve your internet experience. However, it is crucial to be aware of the potential risks and to choose a DNS server that is reputable and trustworthy.

Is it safe to change your DNS?

Yes, it is generally safe to change your DNS settings. In fact, switching to a public DNS server like Google Public DNS or Cloudflare DNS can improve your internet experience by making your browsing faster and more reliable.

Public DNS servers are often more reliable than your ISP’s DNS server, which means that you are less likely to experience downtime or errors when you are trying to access websites. There might also be increased levels of privacy. 

What is a DNS leak? 

A DNS leak refers to situations where you don’t want your internet service provider to see your DNS queries (i.e., the websites you’re looking at)—using tools like VPNs, which hide your activity with encryption—but that information is leaked nonetheless. 

There are two main types of DNS leaks:

Standard DNS leaks: These occur when your device sends DNS queries to your ISP’s DNS server, even though you are using a VPN. This can happen if your VPN is not configured properly or if your device is bypassing the VPN.

IPv6 DNS leaks: These occur when your device sends DNS queries over an IPv6 connection, even though your VPN is only configured for IPv4. This can happen if your device is not properly configured for IPv6 or if your ISP is blocking IPv6 traffic from your VPN.

To prevent DNS leaks, you can take the following steps:

Make sure that your VPN is configured properly: Check your VPN settings to make sure that DNS leak protection is enabled. You may also need to configure your VPN to use specific DNS servers, although most reputable VPNs (like ExpressVPN) prevent DNS leaks automatically.

Use a DNS leak testing tool: There are several DNS leak testing tools available online, like BrowserLeaks and DNS Leak Test, that can help you identify and fix DNS leaks. Use these if you want to be 100% sure.

Disable IPv6: If you are not using IPv6, you can disable it in your device’s settings. This will help to prevent IPv6 DNS leaks.

What is a smart DNS, and what does it do?

Smart DNS is a technology that redirects your DNS queries through another server in a different region, making it appear as if you were in another country. It’s like if you were using a phone book from another country to get the IP address you want to get to.

This could help you bypass geo-restrictions on some online content. Unlike Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), smart DNS only reroutes DNS requests, enabling faster speeds and broader device compatibility. However, it doesn’t provide the same level of security and privacy as VPNs.

How does Smart DNS work?

Smart DNS works by selectively rerouting specific DNS queries through a server you wouldn’t normally use, called a proxy server. This primarily serves two purposes:

Access geo-restricted content: Smart DNS can help you access streaming services or websites that are restricted to specific regions. For example, if you are located in the United States, you could use a Smart DNS to access BBC iPlayer, a streaming service that is only available in the United Kingdom.

Improve browsing speed: By routing DNS queries through a proxy server, smart DNS can sometimes improve browsing speed by optimizing DNS lookup times. This is because proxy servers are often located in different geographic locations than your local DNS server, and they may have faster connections to the root DNS servers.

Pros and cons of a smart DNS


  • Can speed up your internet, which is helpful for streaming or gaming
  • Can help you bypass geo-restrictions by making you appear to be in a different country
  • Low cost and sometimes free


  • Usually have to set up manually
  • Not easy to change locations; have to set it up every time you want to change locations
  • Does not offer any encryption
  • Does not replace your IP address

How to use Smart DNS 

Setting up and using Smart DNS is easy, but you generally do have to do it manually. Here’s a step-by-step guide: 

1. Choose a Smart DNS provider 

There are many different Smart DNS providers available, so it is important to choose one that is reputable and has a good track record. ExpressVPN, for example, has MediaStreamer, a DNS service. It comes with an ExpressVPN subscription. You’ll get better security and privacy by using the VPN rather than MediaStreamer, but MediaStreamer comes in handy on devices where you can’t install a VPN.

2. Sign up for a Smart DNS account 

Once you have chosen a smart DNS provider, you must sign up for an account. This will typically involve providing your email address and creating a password. You may also be asked to provide your payment information, if a subscription fee is required.

3. Set up your device 

The specific steps for setting up your device will vary depending on the smart DNS provider you chose and the device you are using. However, the general process is as follows:

  • Log in to your Smart DNS account.
  • Find the device setup instructions for your device.
  • Follow the instructions to enter your smart DNS provider’s IP addresses into your device’s DNS settings and save your changes.

4. Test your smart DNS

Once you have set up your device, you should test your smart DNS to ensure it works properly. You can do this by accessing a geo-restricted website in your area. If you can access the website, then your smart DNS is working properly.

Is a Smart DNS proxy legal?

Yes, using a smart DNS proxy is legal in most countries. Smart DNS proxies simply redirect your DNS queries to specific servers, allowing you to bypass geo-restrictions on certain websites. They do not encrypt your traffic or hide your IP address, and usually, they do not raise any legal concerns.

However, while using a Smart DNS in itself isn’t illegal, what you do while using one could be. For example, it could be a violation of a site’s terms of use to use any method to bypass geo-restrictions on copyrighted content. 

Overall, it is generally legal to use a smart DNS proxy in most countries. However, there are a few exceptions to this rule, and you should be aware of the laws in your country before using a smart DNS proxy to access geo-restricted content.

What is a VPN, and what does it do?

A VPN is an easy-to-use tool to protect your internet traffic by creating a secure and encrypted connection over the internet. Whenever you connect to a VPN server, your data goes through an encrypted tunnel that nobody can see into, including hackers, governments, and even your internet service provider, making it impossible for any third party to observe what you do online.

It also increases your privacy by giving you a different IP address. This change in IP can make you appear to be in a different country, allowing you to break through censorship.

How does a VPN work?

A VPN works by creating an encrypted and secure channel between your device and the server you’re trying to connect to. When you connect to the internet through a VPN, your data is firstly encrypted, and only then it’s transmitted through the VPN server.

This encryption ensures that your online activities can’t be seen by third parties, thereby protecting your data from snoops. Additionally, a VPN can mask your IP address, allowing you to browse the internet with greater anonymity. It also enables users to bypass geographical restrictions by appearing as if they are connecting from a different location of your choosing.

Pros and cons of VPNs


  • Encrypts your connection, keeping your transmissions private from your internet service provider
  • Easy to use, often with an app
  • Changes your IP address, allowing you to appear to be in a different country so you can bypass censorship or restrictions on school or office Wi-Fi
  • Can prevent some cyberattacks, including those over unsecured Wi-Fi


  • High quality ones cost money
  • Can slow down your internet slightly

How to use a VPN service

Using a VPN is a great way to protect your online privacy and security. Here is a step-by-step guide on how to use a VPN. 

1. Choose a VPN provider

There are many different VPN providers available, so it is important to do your research and choose one that is reputable and has a good track record. ExpressVPN, for example, has an extensive network of servers, easy-to-use VPN apps, and a proprietary protocol called Lightway, which ensures strong encryption without sacrificing speeds.

2. Sign up for a VPN account

Once you have chosen a VPN provider, you must sign up for an account. This will typically involve providing your email address and creating a password. You may also be asked to provide your payment information, as most VPN providers charge a subscription fee.

3. Install the VPN app

Once you have downloaded the VPN app, you will need to install it on your device. This is a straightforward process that is similar to installing any other app.

4. Connect to a VPN server

The VPN app will display a list of VPN servers that you can connect to. Choose a server that is located in the country where you want to access content from. For example, if you want to access content that’s only available in the U.S. or Canada, you’d have to pick a server in either of those countries.

5. Check if you’ve connected successfully

You know you’ve been properly connected to the right server when you’re able to access a website or content that’s only available there.

What’s the difference between Smart DNS and a VPN?

Smart DNS and VPNs can both allow you to access content not available in your region. However, they differ in their approach and functionality.

Smart DNS primarily allows you to access content with fast speeds on streaming platforms, social media sites, or gaming networks. It achieves this by redirecting DNS queries for those websites to servers located in regions where the content is not restricted. It can speed up your connection if the DNS servers are faster.

VPN, on the other hand, creates a secure tunnel for all your internet traffic. It encrypts your data and routes it through a VPN server located in a different region. This masks your actual IP address and makes it appear as if you are accessing the internet from the VPN server’s location. 

In other words, a VPN provides privacy and security benefits, while Smart DNS does not.

Smart DNS vs. VPN: When to use each one?

As we’ve covered, a DNS, Smart DNS, and VPN are quite different. However, we can find distinct use cases for each, depending on your specific needs.

It’s best to use Smart DNS for the following cases: 

  • You want to access geo-restricted services
  • The device you want to use to access geo-restricted content isn’t compatible with VPNs
  • You need fast connection speeds
  • You don’t have a particular safety or privacy concern

It’s best to use a VPN for the following cases: 

  • You want an easy way to access all content and enjoy greater anonymity while browsingYou’re connecting from high-censorship countries
  • You want to connect to public Wi-Fi securely
  • Privacy and security are your top priorities

In summary, if you’re looking for a simple solution to access content or websites based on locations, a smart DNS can help you. However, if you’re looking for something more secure and robust, a VPN is a better choice. Many premium providers, like ExpressVPN, also offer smart DNS and other security features like a password manager, providing a more comprehensive suite of tools for a better internet experience.

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