IP addresses are essential to the way the Internet operates. They allow us to communicate, connect, and browse online. But the IP system can sometimes seem unclear, and you may not even know exactly what an IP address is. In this easy-to-understand article, we’ll explain everything you need to know about IP addresses in order to know how your own connection operates.
What is an IP address?
In simple terms, an IP (Internet Protocol) address is a uniquely-identifying string of numbers assigned to each Internet-connected device or any device connected to a network. The address identifies and allows these devices to communicate with each other, either on an internal or external computer network. Any device that transmits or receives network traffic gets an IP. 192.168.10.1 is an IP address example; any device with that IP can communicate with other devices across the same network.
How do IP addresses work?
When a device connects to a network, the network assigns an IP to the device. It's usually assigned by a DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) server, router, or Internet service provider (ISP). In any IP system within a network, the device which assigns the IP governs it, whether that be your router or your Internet service provider.
Your Internet activity then goes through your Internet service provider and routes back to you via the assigned IP. Your address isn't permanent, though; it can change based on your connection and the network you choose to connect to.
All governing devices, whether DHCP server, router, or Internet service provider, all use some sort of IPAM (IP Address Management) to prevent the assignment of the same Internet Protocol address to multiple devices. When there exists two devices with the same IP on the same network, an IP conflict prevents data from correct transmission and reception on these devices.
Your Internet Protocol address works, theoretically, as a digital version of your home address. It’s like how you need a home address to receive mail, and the sender must have your correct home number and zip code; you need an Internet Protocol address to connect to the Internet, and any device trying to connect to yours needs the proper IP for a successful connection.
However, this analogy only works up to a point. Though two different houses don’t share a home address, devices from different networks can. For example, 192.168.1.1 and 192.168.1.254 are both private IP addresses used on many devices across many different networks.
As long as the devices are on different networks, it’s possible for two devices to have the same IP. Within the same network, though, they would be unable to transmit and receive data properly as explained above.
What does an IP address tell you?
An IP address contains a lot of information. However, its main purpose is simply to identify your device and your network across different Internet connections.
An IP can indicate which Internet service provider you use and your Internet speed. It also reveals information about your general location. It could indicate your country, state, city, or postal region.
However, you can’t find someone’s exact location from their IP. The information is intended for other devices and networks to identify your device, not for others to track you down. In many cases, the geolocation data associated with an IP address isn’t even completely accurate because each IP geolocation database keeps different records.
Types of IP addresses
It can be difficult for a beginner to fully understand the IP system. If you’re just learning about Internet Protocol addresses, here are a few types of IP addresses and IP terms that will help your understanding.
- Public and private IP addresses – Your Internet service provider assigns your network a public IP for Internet connection. The device assigned your public IP is likely your WiFi router. The WiFi router then assigns separate private, or internal, Internet Protocol addresses to each device when connecting to WiFi. Private IPs communicate locally within your home network.
- Static IP and dynamic IP addresses – IPs are either static or dynamic. ISPs manually assign static IPs, and they never changes. On the other hand, networks assign dynamic IPs. They change periodically depending on the lease time.
- IPv4 and IPv6 addresses – IPv4 and IPv6 refer to Internet Protocol version 4 and version 6 of the Internet Protocol address system, respectively. IPv6 is an updated system that’s currently replacing IPv4 as we run out of IPv4 addresses. You may have an IPv4 or an IPv6. But having one over the other does not affect the user much.
- Shared and dedicated IP addresses - These are website IP addresses. Websites hosting from web hosting providers on the same server use shared IP addresses. However, some websites prefer dedicated IPs, which allow them to run their own FTP servers and access their site via the IP alone.
- Lease time – Though this isn't a type of Internet Protocol address, it's relevant; the lease time is how long it takes for your dynamic IP to expire. After the “lease” expires, the network conclusively assigns a new one.
What is my public IP address?
Your public IP address, which you can see on the WhatIsMyIP.com home page, is the Internet Protocol address logged by various servers or devices when you connect via an Internet connection. All web servers, email servers, and other servers directly accessible from the Internet are candidates for a public IP address.
It’s different from your device’s private IP address, which is individually assigned to each device you use. Your public IP is what the rest of the Internet sees. However, its visibility isn’t a privacy concern; you can’t be tracked by your Internet Protocol address.
Two devices with the same public IP can’t both exist on the Internet. That is why the public and private addressing system is necessary. It allows for each of the devices to locate each other while online in order to connect and exchange information.
Your ISP assigns your public IP as soon as you get an Internet connection. This means you lack control over your specific address assignment.
This difference between your public and private addresses is the reason why you may see a different IP address on the WhatIsMyIP.com home page when looking up your IP than you do when using the ipconfig or ifconfig commands. The home page displays your public IP; the commands may display your private IP.
What is my private IP address?
Your private IP address changes depending on what device you're using on your network. Your router assigns each device on your network a private IP to communicate. Private IPs come in three classes: class A, class B, and class C, depending on how big your network is.
You can use the ipconfig or ifconfig commands on your computer to check your private Internet Protocol address. If on a mobile device or tablet, check the device settings. Learn how to check your device's private IP address in order to find out your local address.
How to hide your IP address
Though you’re not in control of your public IP, you can change it in order to gain privacy or even anonymity online. There are several ways to hide your IP address in order to increase anonymity, security, and privacy online.
Using a VPN hides your IP by routing your connection through their servers, which makes your IP address appear as the server’s IP instead of your own. They also provide greater network security in general and help protect against dangers like IP spoofing. You can also use a proxy server, which performs a similar function; either will mask your IP, which helps with privacy, data protection, and evading network blocks.
You can also contact your Internet service provider in order to change your IP address. This will ensure that all future activity is associated with your new IP rather than your old IP. If you're on a budget, unplugging your router or using a privacy browser like Tor allows you to change or mask your IP while browsing online.
Frequently asked questions
Can I change my Internet Protocol address?
Yes, you can change your IP address. You can change your Internet Protocol address by simply switching networks, but you can also change your IP on the same network by using a VPN or proxy. Browsers like Tor also disassociate your IP from your user, which helps promote privacy and anonymity.
Does an Internet Protocol address change with location?
Your IP changes based on your network, which means that yes, it can change with location.
Can someone track me with my Internet Protocol address?
Someone cannot find your exact location with your IP address, so in that sense, no, you cannot be tracked. However, your IP address is associated with all of your online activity. Websites and Internet service providers are able to see your activity and may be able to identify you with your IP address.