What is an IP address?

Thanks to broadband, internet access is such a seamless process that it’s easy to ignore the mechanics of how online connectivity works. One piece of the puzzle involves your IP address, which helps to facilitate a smooth and efficient connection to websites or online services.

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What does IP address stand for?

IP stands for ‘Internet Protocol’, which is a set of rules regulating how data is transmitted across networks. A device’s Internet Protocol address refers to the unique identifying number assigned to each web-enabled device. 

The purpose of an IP address

To understand the purpose of an IP address, it’s helpful to take a closer look at how digital devices communicate over the Internet. The word ‘protocol’ refers to the way computer programs or specific devices talk to one another. Your computer’s networking software follows pre-set standards, or protocols, to transfer data back and forth. 

When you connect to the Internet, a connection must be established between your computer and the destination you’re trying to access. From checking email to online shopping, your computer’s IP address pinpoints your location on the wider network. It essentially serves as an electronic address for online activity, ensuring data is sent to the correct location.

What does an IP address look like?

An IP address consists of a unique series of numbers or characters. For traditional IPv4 addresses, these are formulated into decimal numbers with full stops between four blocks of integers. Each block contains a numerical value between 0 and 255. 

An IPv4 address would look something like You might occasionally see a number like this appear in the address bar of your web browser, especially if you’re having connection problems.

IP addresses are formulated this way because their numbers are easier for us to remember. However, computers communicate exclusively through binary code, made up of ones and zeros. An example of a binary IP address would be: 11000111.00001100.011111000.10001101. 

A newer format for IP addresses

There are nearly 4.3 billion possible combinations using the public IPv4 standard.  With a global population approaching eight billion, and with many of us using multiple devices to access the internet, the world needs more IP addresses than IPv4 can offer.

Rather than using the binary system outlined above, the latest IPv6 protocol uses hexadecimal. This includes both alphabetic and numerical values, which can be arranged into eight groups to collectively offer trillions of potential IP addresses. An IPv6 address might look like 4569:abcd:0:adb:43:bcde:9876:cd.

What does an IP address tell you?

Now you’ve seen what IP addresses can look like, you may be wondering what these numbers mean. They’re split into sections to create different classes. 

  • Net sections include the first octet, identifying the computer’s network. 

  • Host or Node sections include the last octet, identifying the computer itself. 

These numbers are used to define your computer’s network, location and other relevant data, acting as a unique return address. Think of it as a digital postal address for sending data to.

Types of IP addresses

We’ve already touched on the differences between IPv4 and IPv6, which are different methods for generating unique IP addresses. However, there are other types of IP address to be aware of:

Private IP addresses

When you’re connecting to the Internet using a home broadband or business network, your device will have a private IP address. If multiple devices are connected to a single ISP, this will be different for each device. Private IP addresses are used on the local network, so one device can communicate with another.

Public IP addresses

By contrast, your public IP address is unique to each user. It’s the main IP address that connects your network with the wider internet. It may change depending on the method you’re using to go online. If you use public Wi-Fi or a mobile network, your IP address will be different to your home network, even when a smartphone is switching between them. 

Static IP addresses

If your address is fixed, it’s considered a static IP address. These can be configured manually, and won’t change unless you want them to. Static IP addresses may be private or public. 

Dynamic IP addresses

When you set up a new router, your network will automatically be assigned a dynamic IP address. Internet service providers (ISPs) assign a rotation of addresses, ensuring all users receive a unique number. Like a landline telephone number, an IP address can be reassigned to someone else if it’s not currently in use.

How to find an IP address

If you’d like to find your device’s IP address, there are several techniques that may identify it:

  • You’ll find your IP address listed under your Wi-Fi settings if you’re using a smartphone – simply click on the network’s name, and it should pop up. 

  • Type ‘what is my IP’ into Google, and your public IP address will appear as a search result. 

  • You’ll often find your IP address written on your broadband router. This can be used as an identifying detail to change broadband settings, such as improving security settings. 

  • If you’re using Windows, open the command box, type ‘ipconfig’ and hit enter. 

  • If you’re using macOS, go to the Terminal App in Utilities, type ‘ipconfig’ and hit enter. 

IP addresses and privacy 

Your public IP address gives websites some identifying information about you, including your location and network. A third party could potentially look these up and find out whether you’re using a business broadband or personal home broadband network, what country you’re in, and even roughly where you live. 

If you’re using a static IP address, it stays the same over longer periods of time which allows websites to record each visit. This data is logged regardless of whether or not you’re a registered user of the website.

There are a few workarounds if you want to boost your online privacy:

  • Use a different network: Switch from your mobile provider’s network to your home Wi-Fi and you’ll be assigned a different IP address. 

  • Reboot your broadband router: Switching your router off and on can reset the IP address for your household. This may slow down your broadband and doesn’t always work, so it might be simpler to look up your address using one of the methods described above. 

  • Sign up for a VPN service: Logging onto a Virtual Private Network allows you to exchange your IP for a different one. You can encrypt your connection for an added layer of digital security, making it look like you’re accessing the internet from a different location.

Last updated: 25 November 2020