How Do IP Addresses Work? - IP Addresses Clearly ExplainedUpdated: January 31, 2019
Knowing how IP addresses work will give you a better understanding of how much your online privacy is compromised when you're not using any means to protect yourself.
You probably asked yourself at some point What are IP addresses? and How do IP addresses work?
This is a common question around the online world because, although all of us use an IP address when connecting to the internet, not many know what's the purpose of an IP address. Given that the IP address runs in the background without you needing to do anything about it, it's quite normal to not know much about it. But I'm happy you chose to find out more about IP addresses because this information will aid you take better care of your online privacy from now on.
In this post, I'm going to walk you through what IP addresses are, how they work, how are they assigned to individuals, what an IP address can reveal about you, and how you can change your IP address. Make sure you also check the FAQs section where you'll find the most common questions people have about IP addresses.
The IP address, or the Internet Protocol, is a string of numbers assigned to your device so you can connect to the internet.
An IP address is easiest explained with the following example. When you're online shopping, the delivery guy needs your address to get the package to your house. Same goes when connecting to the internet. So your device receives data from the internet, it must have a specific address for the information to get delivered to. This is the purpose of an internet protocol address (IP). The IP address works similar to your home address, only in the digital world.
There are two standards for IP addresses: IPv4 and IPv6.
IPv4 (or IP version 4) is a protocol that uses 32-bit addresses that are composed of four numbers (or four octets) separated by dots (known as dotted decimal notation). It is still the most used protocol to this day, despite the deployment of its successor IPv6.
Example of IPv4 IP address: 22.214.171.124
The IPv4 supports a maximum of around 4.3 billion unique IP addresses. And because the number of devices increased exponentially over time, IPv4 couldn’t support all of them so an additional method needed to be implemented. That’s how IPv6 came to be.
IPv6 (or IP version 6) uses 128-bit addresses that are composed of eight groups of hexadecimal digits separated by colons (known as hexadecimal notation). If there are groups composed of four zeros, they can be replaced with one colon to simplify the string.
Example or IPv6 address: 2004:0ef7:0000:0043:0000:6b3a:0270:7445
Even though the IPv6 protocol was designed in 1999 by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), it only became an internet standard in 2017. IPv6 was intended to replace the IPv4 because of its number of IP addresses limitations. While IPv4 has limitations when it comes to the number of supported IPs, the IPv6 protocol will, theoretically, never run out of IP addresses. IPv6 can foster a maximum of 340,282,366,920,938,463,463,374,607,431,768,211,456 IPs.
All the devices that are connected to the internet (including PCs, laptops, smartphones, routers, and WiFi connected devices) are assigned a unique identifier (IP address).
Same as people use a certain language to understand each other, the information is sent over the internet in a specific language, following a specific set of guidelines. The communication system for the internet is TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol). All the devices that are connected to the internet, use the same protocol to communicate with each other.
An IP address is composed of two parts:
- The Network ID: The Network ID represents the first three groups of digits from the IP address. It marks the network the devices are connected to. If you have, for example, the IP 126.96.36.199, the network ID is 193.164.2.
- The Host ID: The last group of digits from the IP address labels the specific device. In this example, the host ID would be 35.
For example, in your house, you can have more devices connected to the same network. In this case, each device’s IP address will have the same network ID, but each with a different host ID. You’ll see something similar to this: 188.8.131.52 184.108.40.206 220.127.116.11 18.104.22.168
To understand more about how IP addressed are used, let’s take a look into how they are assigned.
Every device that connects to the internet has its own, unique IP address. But who owns the IP addresses and who distributes them?
ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) is the one responsible for creating and distributing IP addresses. So, ICANN is the initial owner of every IP address. From there, the IP addresses reach IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority), which is a function of ICANN and which is responsible for the global coordination of the DNS Root, IP addressing, and other internet protocol resources.
The IANA distributes the IP addresses to the five Regional Internet Registries (RIRs), one of them being ARIN (American Registry for Internet Numbers). Then, the IP addresses are distributed to companies like ISPs (Internet Service Providers), who assign unique IP addresses to their clients.
Certain blocks of IP addresses are reserved by IANA for specific functions or for future use. For example, 10.0.0.0/8 is reserved for private use and 22.214.171.124/24 is reserved for IETF Protocol Assignments.
There are two types of IP addresses, static and dynamic, which can be either public or private. We’ll go over how static and dynamic IP addresses work in the following chapters.
IP addresses can be either public or private. And now you may wonder how do public IP addresses work and how do private IP addresses work.
Public IP addresses
A public IP address is assigned to a device so it can directly connect to the internet. Any device that can be accessed directly on the internet, being it a smartphone, web server, or email server, has a unique public IP address.
Private IP addresses
Private IP addresses are used in homes or organizations. Your internet router has a public IP address which makes it possible to connect to the internet, but the devices you have around the house like your smartphone or printer can have private IP addresses. Meaning they can only communicate with each other over the same network but someone from the outside is not able to reach them. For example, your printer has a private IP address so only the people in the house can use it for printing.
The difference between static IP addresses and dynamic IP addresses is quite simple. One is static, as in - it doesn’t change, and one is dynamic, as in - it does change. But let’s take a more in-depth look.
How do static IP addresses work?
Static IPs are usually used by bigger organizations or networks administrators and they are assigned upon request. Getting a static IP address means leasing that IP address for a period of time until the contract ends.
When you connect to the internet via a static IP address, that IP will stay the same no matter how many times you reset the connection or the router.
Some of the benefits of using static IP addresses as a large organization are:
- A static IP makes it easier to host servers or to offer remote access on a closed network
- Because the IP never changes, the internet connection is more stable as it doesn’t have to adapt to the new IP address
- It’s easy to administrate a network that keeps the same IPs and to track the traffic
For individuals, these advantages are not enough to use a static IP address over a dynamic one. It actually comes with some disadvantages as it follows:
- Because you have the same IP all the time, you may have limitations on certain websites who track the traffic based on the IP
- It’s easier for your computer to be tracked when you have a static IP address
- The ISPs usually charge extra for a static IP, which makes it more costly
How do dynamic IP addresses work?
As the name suggests, with a dynamic IP address your IP can change at any time. Most of the ISPs (Internet Service Providers) use dynamic IP addresses (this does depend on the country you’re located in). How this works is they have a pool with the IP addresses that have been assigned to them, from which IPs are drawn and assigned to the clients when an IP is requested.
Based on how your ISP manages IP addresses, your IP can change once every few hours or it may not change for whole months. One common behavior is for the IP to change every time you connect to the internet or reset your router.
Some of the benefits of dynamic IP addresses that worth mentioning:
- Geolocating is not as accurate, which makes your computer harder to track than with a static IP address
- It’s the most efficient way for ISPs to manage IP addresses
- Everything is automated, meaning you don’t have to do a thing to set up the IP and connection
How to find out if you have a static IP or a dynamic IP?
The most accurate way to find out what type of IP address you have is to go check the IP you have now and take note of it. Then, reset your router and check the IP again. If you have a dynamic IP that changes every time you reset the router, then the second IP will be different. The downside of this approach is that you might have to keep track of your IP for a longer period of time as it's not mandatory for it to change with every router restart. It can take even months for a dynamic IP to change.
Another way to find out what type of IP address you have, static or dynamic, go to this page and click on “Show me more about my IP”. You’ll get lots of details about your IP address, including if it's a static or a dynamic IP. Keep in mind that this information is not always accurate.
One concern you might have about IP address - what can they reveal about you to snooping eyes or third parties?
Well, because the IP address is the address of your device, there’s no wonder an IP address reveals an approximate physical location of your device (if you’re not using a VPN or proxy). If you go to an IP checker tool, you’ll see that it shows the region you’re in, and often the city and zip code. These details are not always accurate as it may show you being km away from your actual location. Static IPs give a more accurate location than dynamic IPs.
If you’re wondering if someone can trace the IP back to your complete address and name, you don’t have to worry. Hackers can't find out your name based solely on your IP address.
If your device is secured by a firewall, antivirus, and an updated OS, hackers should not be able to hack you based only on your IP address.
Your device can be hacked with the IP address only if there are also other vulnerabilities like an unsecured router, open ports, no firewall, or you’re accessing a website or program that has vulnerabilities. The most common attack using IP addresses is the DDOS attack.
But even though someone might not hack your device using the IP address, he can still find out your location.
How can you keep yourself safe?
The most efficient way to keep yourself safe online is to hide your real IP address. You can easily do this by using a proxy or a VPN service.
Changing your IP address will improve your online security and privacy.
The main ways to change your IP address is by using a proxy server or a VPN service. Using a VPN service is more efficient for changing your IP address than a proxy is.
If you want to learn more about the difference between proxies and VPNs, read our related article.
Why change your IP address?
- It prevents you from having your personal information stolen
- No one can access your browsing history
- No one can know your real physical location
- You travel and you want access to geo-restricted content
Our VPN software provides you with:
If you’re curious to find out more about why you should use a VPN, give our article about the benefits of VPN a read.