These days your IP address is as important as your cellphone number or your street address. It’s a digital identifier that provides ISPs, law enforcement agencies and – potentially – criminals with information about your location. They can use IP data to track your online activity and in some cases even steal your identity to carry out phishing attacks.

Because of these reasons, many people seek to shield their identity when they download music or stream movies. And VPNs are a popular way to do so. But not everyone understands how VPNs use IP addresses, and they can’t answer the question ‘does a VPN hide your IP address?’

The truth is more complex than you might think, especially if you take the marketing content from VPNs at face value. This blog will look in a bit more detail about what VPNs say, and the extent to which they really do hide IP addresses online.

What is the relationship between VPNs and IP addresses?

First off, when answering the question ‘does VPN hide IP information?’, it’s probably best to agree on a working definition of “IP address”. IP stands for “Internet Protocol”, and the address is a series of numbers which transfer protocols use to communicate with other devices on the net.

Each public IP address is unique, and the most common type of IP consists of four numbers ranging from 1 to 255. They are divided into five “classes”, which can be identified from the first number, and they also use “subnet masks” to determine which devices can communicate with each other.

Most IPs on the web are IPv4, although this standard is likely to fall away as we reach IPv4 saturation, leading to the widespread adoption of the IPv6 format. In other words, at some point there will not be enough IPv4 addresses to go around. However, for now we can talk about IP addresses using IPv4 as the standard.

VPNs conceal the identities of their users by giving them new IP addresses. When you connect with a VPN server, the VPN will assign you a completely different IP, which corresponds to a certain geographical location. So you might choose a server in Hamburg and thus appear to the destination server as a user from Germany.

You can see this in action if you use a VPN. Before you log onto your client, use a tool like this IP Checker and note down the IP address listed. After you’ve loaded your VPN client and routed your traffic through a distant server, head back to the IP checker. You should see a totally different set of numbers – an indication that the VPN is doing what it promised to do – giving you a totally new online persona.

However, don’t be too impressed by this magic trick. It’s the least that good VPNs can do to protect your identity, and it definitely isn’t the whole story. If it was, we would hardly need to ask does a VPN hide your IP address. Of course, the answer would be yes. But that’s sometimes not the case, and privacy-conscious internet users need to be aware of that.

Does a VPN completely hide IP address details?

One of the problems when answering ‘does a VPN hide IP address data?’ relates to perspective. For example, when you are assigned a new IP address and a new identity on the other side of the world, government agencies in your home country will almost certainly struggle to find out who you are. But what about your VPN? Can you count on them not to peek at your IP information?

Your VPN can access your new IP address (and your old one), so they can technically track your online activity and see the sites you visit, the movies you stream, and the files you torrent, not to mention your payment details. If you’ve taken the trouble to evade the gaze of your ISP or the state, why should you trust a VPN?

Some VPNs are known to keep logs of user activity and there have been cases where data has been sold on to marketers or given to authorities. These companies tend to be lower-quality VPNs, and they are often the providers who specialize in free VPN services. So be very wary of great deals when downloading a client. In the world of VPNs, you get what you pay for more often than not. Even more importantly, always read the Privacy Policy – some VPNs offer a strict no-logging policy, which is exactly what you want.

Why it’s essential to find the right VPN provider

In the end, the question isn’t necessarily does VPN hide IP details, but whether you trust your VPN not to provide information to people you wouldn’t want to have access to your personal details.

This makes it really important to select a reliable VPN provider who won’t keep logs. Or, if you prefer a certain company who are open about their record keeping practices, limit your internet usage to low risk activity.

Thankfully, there are plenty of excellent review sites with customer feedback, and the tech press covers security problems with VPNs pretty well. So stay tuned and do a bit of research before committing to any particular provider.

We’ve been talking about how VPNs can see your IP address so far, but there’s another thing to touch on before we end: IP address leakage. Poorly managed VPNs are notorious for leaking IP address details. And some VPN clients haven’t yet plugged holes associated with web browsers and smartphone usage. In these cases, your VPN protection is essentially removed. You might not be able to work around geo-blocking measures, and your IP address is there for all to see. So always check that your VPN of choice has a good track record where IP leakage is concerned.

Overall, there’s no reason to avoid VPNs. Users just need to find a reputable, reliable provider. That way, you can shield your IP address from external agencies and use the web safely. Even if there probably isn’t such a thing as 100% anonymity, you can use VPNs to get pretty close.