Antivirus Vs. Firewall (Explained for Beginners)

Dropping thousands of dollars on a laptop or home desktop is quite a monetary investment and one that needs to be protected. Trying to figure out the right kind of protection can be tricky if you aren’t familiar with network security devices, particularly when it comes to antivirus software and firewall. 

Antivirus and firewall are both needed protections for your operating system. A firewall acts as a primary line of defense, while antivirus is a secondary safeguard. They have slightly different functions, and neither is superior to the other or sufficient on its own. 

Knowing about the different options out there to protect me and my device is critical in selecting the right software. Hearing terms like antivirus and firewall sound good in theory, but I need to know what they protect and how they go about doing so. That way, I can make a fact-based decision on whether I need both types of protection or just one.

antivirus vs firewall

What is the Difference Between Antivirus and Firewall?

When I got my first computer, I was told that I already had a firewall installed as part of the package I purchased. I had no idea what a firewall did or why it was necessary, but I knew it was meant to protect my device and, by extension, myself. 

Even though antivirus and firewall are used interchangeably, there are notable differences. 

  • Software-based Vs. Software & Hardware-based 
  • Network Security Vs. Internal Threats

I was told that it was worth investing in antivirus software as well, which left me confused because I thought that since I had the firewall, nothing else was necessary. Unfortunately, I did not heed the advice, and I would later come to regret that choice. 

Software-based Vs. Software & Hardware-based

One of the primary differences between my antivirus software and my firewall is that antivirus is strictly software-based, whereas a firewall is both software and hardware-based. Once I found this out, the next question I had was, what does that mean?

It means that the antivirus will come against a threat that will try and destroy my computer system, and a firewall protects the private internet network I’m using and, by extension, my computer system. A private internet network is password-protected internet access, whether that be your own internet or a secure Wi-Fi connection you obtain the password to, like at a coffee shop or other business. 

Network Security Vs. Internal Threats

Another notable difference is what my firewall or antivirus software will protect. A firewall is in charge of network security by monitoring my network traffic. This means it keeps tabs on the amount of data moving across the internet network I’m using at any time. So, when I click on a website, that data comes from a source. 

It gets broken down into data packets, sent over my network and then my computer reassembles the data and shows up on my screen. A firewall prevents any unauthorized intrusion trying to take place on the network I’m using. So, if I click on a website link and something other than that site tries to come through, my firewall will block it. 

An antivirus will scan my entire computer system looking for any threats to the system. Once it detects threats, it will alert me so I can select to remove the threats. This includes viruses, Trojans, worms, etc. 

So, let’s say an external threat gets past my firewall. Maybe through a USB device I connected to my computer, an unfamiliar email I opened, or a website I visited, and now it’s living in my computer system wreaking havoc. Once it’s in your computer system, it becomes an internal threat. Now, I need to run my antivirus software to identify it and remove it so it can no longer do damage. 

Why do I Need Both an Antivirus and a Firewall?

Once I found out the difference between my antivirus and firewall, I saw more clearly why I needed to have both on my device. Each has its limitations and one acts as a second line of defense for the other. 

A firewall is strictly a preventative measure. It can not assist me if a threat somehow bypasses it and ends up in my computer system. That would now make it an internal threat and firewalls do not handle internal threats. Unfortunately, there are ways in which my firewall can be bypassed or hacked. 

My antivirus is that second layer of defense that is needed should an internal threat present itself. It will find it and remove it to protect my computer system and myself. Antivirus is also preventative and can be considered internet security in some sense, but it does not limit the access of outside networks. Only a firewall prevents communication between my computer and other computers using the network and internet I’m on. This is why both are necessary. 

How Can a Firewall be Bypassed?

This simple answer to this question is vulnerabilities. If my operating system or any of my applications have vulnerabilities, they can be exploited; this includes me as the user. 

The most common ways to exploit the user are through a phishing email, posing as a legitimate business I may use, to get my login credentials; or a phone call from a criminal pretending to be an admin for my system requesting access to my computer fix an issue. 

The best way to combat this is to be vigilant, keep my applications and operating system up-to-date, maybe even disable certain applications that have known issues, and install an antivirus. 


Being knowledgeable makes me less vulnerable to attacks against my device and my information. Having both a firewall and antivirus on my computer is a start to that protection. Now I can have the peace of mind I need to use my device without fear of external or internal threats. 

Antivirus software and firewalls represent the first layer of defense against viruses and other malware on your devices. While not an impenetrable shield, installing both can bolster your security against attacks. 

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