Understanding Geolocation: How to Geolocate an IP

If you've ever utilized a GPS map, an app that uses your location, or a smartphone, you've encountered geolocation. Companies and networks use it all the time to gather data and track devices for a variety of purposes. But you can use it, too; if you want to find the location of an IP address or a device, geolocation is the best way. Learn what geolocation is, how it works, and how to geolocate an IP address in this comprehensive article.

What is geolocation?

Geolocation refers to the use of location technologies, like GPS (Global Positioning System) technology, to track the location of a device. Because the location of most devices is associated with the location of the user, geolocation can help locate an individual through the use of their phones or devices.

Both mobile devices and desktop devices can use geolocation. As mentioned, GPS is a primary method of geolocation, but cell towers and cellular networks, WiFi access points, radio systems, and IP addresses are also legitimate and fairly reliable methods for finding out the location of a device.

Geolocation collects two types of data: active user-based information and passive server-based information. User-based information provides data about the specific device or user. Server-based information, on the other hand, indicates where the location of the server or Internet service provider may be. Together, these two data sources allow for cross-referencing, thus providing the most accurate results.

How does IP geolocation work?

IP address geolocation has the same purpose as any other type of geolocation: to determine the approximate location or positioning of a user's device. It uses IP location databases in order to identify where a device currently is. These IP location databases are maintained by third parties, each of which has their own method of determining IP location.
Some use IP trackers and others glean data from ARIN (American Registry for Internet Numbers). It's used for a number of purposes; social media companies and advertisers use it to tailor geographic content, law enforcement agencies use it to help prevent criminal activities, and businesses use it to gather information about their customer bases.

A geolocation map

How to geolocate an IP address

There are a few ways to geolocate an IP address, but for most users, the most straightforward way is through the use of an IP lookup tool or IP geolocation tool. Go to the IP lookup tool on WhatIsMyIP.com and enter the IP address that you want to geolocate into the lookup field. Hit Lookup and you'll receive the following geolocation information:

  • City
  • State
  • Country
  • Postal code
  • Internet service provider (ISP)

Though it can't return an exact street address or specific location, with this data, you can get a better idea of where the device and its user are located. If you want to look up your own IP, find your IP at the WhatIsMyIP homepage.

How to turn on geolocation on mobile devices

If you want to know how to turn on geolocation features on your phone, you can do it in a few seconds by going through your phone's settings. Follow the instructions below to turn on your geolocation for Apple and Android devices.

Turn on Location Services on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch

To turn on Location Services for apps on an Apple device:

  1. Go to Settings > Privacy & Security > Location Services.
  2. Turn Location Services on.
  3. Scroll to find the apps or app that you want to use with Location Services.
  4. Tap the app and select an option. You can choose between four options: Never, Ask Next Time, While Using The App, or Always.
    • Never prevents access to Location Services data at all times.
    • Ask Next Time Or When I Share allows you to choose next time you open the app.
    • While Using The App allows Location Services access only when the app is open.
    • Always allows access to your location at all times, even when the app is only running in the background.

Turn on geolocation settings for Android

To turn on geolocation access for an Android 12 or higher:

  1. Swipe down from the top of the screen.
  2. Touch and hold Location.
  3. Tap Location Services > Google Location Accuracy.
  4. Turn Improve Location Accuracy on or off.

To turn on geolocation access for an Android 11 or lower:

  1. Swipe down from the top of the screen.
  2. Touch and hold Location.
  3. Tap Advanced > Google Location Accuracy.
  4. Turn Improve Location Accuracy on or off.

How accurate is geolocation?

The accuracy of geolocation varies based on the type of geolocation you're using. GPS geolocation, for example, is very precise. Other methods, like IP addresses, may be less accurate depending on the database you draw from.

IP addresses

Locational data for IP address geolocation varies based on database and the information is generally accurate at pinpointing a person’s location coordinates down to the country and city. It consistently retrieves accurate coordinates for general areas, and it works for both IPv4 and IPv6 addresses. But in either case, it can’t tell you an exact street address for an IP. Additionally, the data is sometimes inaccurate.

The reason that IP geolocation accuracy isn’t 100% all of the time is because there is nothing in a search that connects IP addresses to specific physical locations. IP address assignment occurs when users go on the Internet, so that IP location may vary. Additionally, if a user incorporates a virtual private network or proxy into their device usage, it will provide inaccurate IP location results.

There is also no authority keeping track of all IP addresses in the registry.  This would mean there is the potential for invalid data and inaccurate listings. This can lead to occasionally inaccurate listings in the IP geolocation database.

GPS (Global Positioning System) data

GPS data is, in most cases, extremely accurate. For devices enabled with GPS, like smartphones or mapping systems, the systems can usually provide an accurate reading within a few feet of your precise location. Because you can't easily interfere with your physical location like you can with your IP address, GPS tends to provide a more precise and correct data point most of the time.

The geolocation technology relies on communication with GPS satellites in space, which broadcast their signals and retrieve responses. Therefore, GPS is most accurate on days when it is clear and not cloudy outside. The condition of the atmosphere, the condition of the satellite, and the angle at which the satellite is positioned can all have an impact on the accuracy of the data.

Why use geolocation?

Whether you're an individual or a large company, there are many reasons why someone may use geolocation or geolocation services.

Many banks and financial institutions use these services in their mobile apps to match payments and check for fraud. Location services help shut down illegitimate card usage, cutting down on the amount of loss for customers. It also helps bank customers access branch ATMs after business hours.

Businesses with apps, whether it be a restaurant, a gym, or a big-box store, use location services for various purposes. Stores like Target and Walmart can use the services to identify where a customer is, offering them more tailored purchasing options. Gyms and restaurants often use geofencing, which relies on location services, to prompt customers to stop by when they're in the area.

Search engines also use geolocation to provide users with a better, more accurate search results page. Though you can often turn these permissions off in the search engine or browser settings, many users find it helpful to have location services on.

Finally, most of us use geolocation almost daily when we check where a friend is on an app, tag our location in a post on Instagram, or look up our location via GPS or IP address. Geographical location services are in so many aspects of our everyday lives that it's hard to go a day without using them in one of these common use cases.

Frequently asked questions

Is IP geolocation illegal?

No, IP location searches are not illegal. IP addresses are publicly available information. Businesses who gather IP geolocation data may have to comply with regulatory ordinances and various protective laws, but the practice in itself isn't illegal.

What is an example of geolocation?

Many apps showcase great examples of geolocation. If you order food through a mobile app, for example, the app likely uses location services to track your location and identify where you are in order to deliver the food or approximate a pickup time.