How an IP address works
It’s easiest to explain what an IP address (or “IP”) is by using a well-worn metaphor. That’s probably why the metaphor is well-worn…
In the real world, we all have addresses in order to be found. That information is necessary for any number of reasons, chief among which is the noble act of pizza delivery. The primary characteristic of addresses is uniqueness – no two are exactly the same. Similarly, an Internet Protocol address is a unique code used to identify any network device (node), such as your router or fridge (assuming you have a very modern fridge). It’s the number of a digital house on a digital street if you will. Unlike in the real world, having an IP is a mandatory prerequisite for communication between devices.
When you turn on your browser and type “Amazon.com” in the address bar, the first thing your computer must do is convert the domain name (Amazon.com) into a language machines understand – an IP. That’s the job of DNS servers. DNS acts as a virtual phonebook, where your device looks up the destination IP. Once it has the IP, it can open the website. That’s a simple example of how IPs work, but the same is true for any online or on-LAN interaction between devices. Whether you’re browsing the web or using a P2P program, your IP is what makes it possible.
It’s nice to know what something looks like, so here’s an IP:
And here’s another one:
Yes, there are various types of IP addresses. Let’s take it step by step.
Types of IP addresses
IP addresses come in several shapes and sizes. First of all, we distinguish between Public IP addresses and Private IP addresses, as well as Static IP addresses and Dynamic IP addresses. Additionally, each can be one of two versions – IPv4 or IPv6. Let’s untangle this mess:
A Public IP address is the most likely meaning behind the general term “IP Address”. This is your address to the Internet outside your Local Area Network (LAN). As you might guess, it’s actually the address of your entire home network, rather than your personal computer. Every device that connects to the internet through your router has the same address, known colloquially as your IP. Your public IP is assigned to you by your Internet Service Provider (ISP) and cannot be changed.
A Private IP address is an address on LAN, “behind” the router. Each device on your home network has an IP (which is different from your public IP) for communication with each other and with your router. You can change your private IP all you want, as long as the one you choose isn’t occupied by another device on your home network.
Dynamic IP addresses are temporary IPs assigned to new users on a network. This serves several purposes. Primarily, ISPs use dynamic IPs to simplify the management of IP assignments and to minimize resources. When you connect to the internet, a Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) server assigns an IP to your router. Once you disconnect, it can give that same IP to another user, thus decreasing the required number of unique IPs to make connections possible. The truth is most IPs are dynamic. Static IPs are mostly used by businesses, who are more likely to require functionalities dynamic IPs can’t offer. Basically speaking, a static IP is one that remains the same from connection to connection, allowing for such things as hosting.
IP address versions
There are two different versions of IP addresses – IPv4 and IPv6. You’ve seen both already. IPv4 looks like 192.168.0.254 or 4.294.967.296, whereas IPv6 looks like 2001:0db8:0000:0042:0000:8a2e:0370:7334 or fe80:0000:0000:0000:0202:b3ff:fe1e:8329. Obviously, IPv6 is a lot longer and includes letters as well as numbers. This makes a lot more unique combinations possible, which is the entire point. When IPv4 started being used in 1983, no one could foresee how successful and revolutionary the internet would become. People were probably fairly sure that 4,294,967,296 addresses would be enough.
That is obviously not the case anymore, therefore, the new IPv6 was designed to theoretically have 3,402,823,669,209,384,634,674,607,431,768,211,456 unique addresses – quite a few more than is possible to wrap one’s head around. Although IPv6 completely solves the unique IP issue, nowadays most traffic is still routed using IPv4. One issue is that IPv4 and IPv6 don’t communicate with each other, and it’s, therefore, more difficult to make a transition from one to the other. As such, we’ll probably live with IPv4 a bit longer.
What is my IP?
Good question! Finding out will depend on which IP you’re looking for – your public or private one. Finding your public IP will be easier – all you have to do is use one of many online tools. Here’s a few that will help you out: WhatIsMyIPAddress (https://whatismyipaddress.com/), IPLocation (https://www.iplocation.net/find-ip-address), WhatIsMyIP (https://www.whatismyip.com/). You can do this with any device that has a browser, including your phone, tablet, etc.
If you want to find your private IP address, your actions will depend on your platform. Here’s what you would do as a Windows user:
- Open Windows Search and write “command prompt” or “cmd”. This will open a black terminal where you can enter commands.
- Type “ipconfig” and press “Enter”.
- Find your IP address. As a side note, your “Default Gateway” is the IP of your router.
Alternatively, you can find the IP address in the Control Panel:
- Search for “Control Panel” and open it.
- Click “Network and Internet”.
- Go to “Network and Sharing Center”.
- Click on your Private network -> “Properties”.
- Open the IPv4 or IPv6 menu and you will see what your IP is unless it was set to be obtained automatically.
If you are a Mac user:
- Open the Terminal (/Applications/Utilities/).
- Type “ifconfig |grep inet”.
- You’ll see your IP at the bottom (ignore the 127.0.0.1 address).
Alternatively, you can find the IP in System Preferences:
- Enter the “Network” preferences.
- You’ll see your IP on the right.
If you’re using Linux… well, you probably know where to find your IP!
How do I change my IP address and why?
As you might have already gathered, your IP can tell quite a lot about you. For a start, it can tell someone what your ISP and location is, and there’s not much separating your location from your identity. Needless to say, this can be risky for a number of reasons: perhaps you’re a political activist in a dictatorship or perhaps you’re torrenting copyrighted material somewhere in Germany. Whatever the case, leaving your real IP out in the open can bring trouble to your doorstep.
Thankfully, there are ways to solve this problem – tools that will change your IP address and thus your location/identity.
The most important of these are Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). Think of VPN as an alternate Internet Service Provider (ISP). Your ISP functions as the middle-man between your PC or mobile device and the internet. A VPN bypasses all your ISP infrastructure and substitutes it for their own. It also encrypts all the data within their network and makes it impossible to trace the source. Let’s say you live in China. Well, if you connect to a VPN server in the US, you will fool the whole internet into thinking you’re a user in the US. Beyond hiding your IP, VPN will let you access geo-blocked resources (such as Netflix), bypass the Great Firewall of China, and potentially make your connection speed faster (if your ISP is throttling it). If you’re interested, here are our Top 5 best VPN services.
Aside from VPNs, there are also proxy servers. A proxy is essentially a gateway that works at the app level. This means it protects only the data you send using the app that has a proxy connection set up. For example, if you set up a proxy on your browser, it will protect only your browser traffic. Also, not all proxies will encrypt your data and that’s another reason we generally consider VPN services safer. In the end, both have their strengths and weaknesses.