What Is an IP Address? A Comprehensive Guide

IP address, short for Internet Protocol address, is a unique identifier of a device or computer connected to the internet or a network infrastructure.

An IP address is a string of numbers that works similarly to a home or email address and ensures that correct data is sent to the right computer. In other words, it’s a communication medium among devices and computers.

Read on to learn how IP addresses work, what their types are, and how to find your IP address. This article will also touch on security threats related to IP addresses and why you need to use a VPN.

How Do IP Addresses Work?

When you visit a website using a computer or mobile phone, the device needs to find where the website’s data is located and retrieve it.

First, the computer connects to a network router usually provided by an internet service provider (ISP). The router will then communicate with the server where the website is stored to access the files that need to be sent back to your computer.

The computer, router, and server each have specific IP addresses that can be recognized by one another. Hence, it’s through those IP addresses that the devices can communicate, retrieve, and send data.

Different Types of IP Addresses

There are two IP versions – IPv4 and IPv6. In addition to that, consumer IP addresses also come in four types – private, public, dynamic, and static.

Plus, there are two kinds of website IP addresses – shared and dedicated. Now, let’s take a look at each of them.

IPv4 vs. IPv6

IPv4 is short for Internet Protocol version 4 and is the most widely used. It is a 32-bit number system divided into four parts (octets) separated by dots. The value of each octet varies from 0 to 255. Hence, there are approximately 4.3 billion unique IPv4 addresses.

Here’s an example of what an IPv4 looks like:

169.89.131.246

All types of systems handle IPv4 routing without problems. Also, IPv4 supports most network topologies because of its simple prefixes. Plus, data in its address packets are well encrypted to ensure safe communication between networks.

However, the most recent version of the internet protocol is IPv6 and is intended to replace IPv4. This is because the number of IPv4 variations is currently running out, mainly due to how fast the internet is expanding.

IPv6 addresses are 128-bit long. This means there are around 340 undecillion unique IPv6 addresses. They’re written in eight sets of 16-bit hexadecimal digits separated by colons. Hence, you will see letters from A to F in an IPv6 address.

Below is an example of an IPv6 address:

2001:3FFE:9D38:FE75:A95A:1C48:50DF:6AB8

Routing is more efficient with IPv6 since it allows internet service providers to reduce the size of routing tables. IPv6 also uses Internet Protocol Security (IPsec), so there’s no need to worry about authentication, confidentiality, and data integrity.

What’s more, the IPv6 does not have an IP checksum, resulting in more efficient packet processing, and it supports multicast. As a result, data flows can be sent to multiple destinations simultaneously, saving network bandwidth.

Private IP Address vs. Public IP Address

A private IP address is the IP address you use to communicate within local networks. So any devices that have a Bluetooth feature or can connect to a network have private IP addresses. It only works within a local area network (LAN) and not the internet. Hence, it’s free to use.

On the other hand, a public IP address is the IP address you use to communicate outside local networks and connect to the internet. This type of IP address is not free because it’s assigned and controlled by internet service providers.

Dynamic IP Address vs. Static IP Address

There are two types of public IP addresses – dynamic and static. Dynamic IP addresses are what an internet service provider gives to its customers.

They change every time a new device is added to the network, when the network configurations change, or when the device is rebooted. Thus, your home IP address doesn’t stay the same.

Dynamic IP addresses are commonly used due to security reasons. Because of the regular changes, it makes it hard for hackers to access the network interface.

In contrast, static IP addresses are considered fixed IP addresses. Therefore, they remain the same unless the network administration changes.

Most end users don’t need to have static IP addresses. However, it’s necessary for devices that require constant access or if you connect to private networks often.

For example, a shared printer must have a static IP address so people in the office can easily connect to it.

Other than that, web hosting companies need static IP addresses because their clients require constant access to their web and email servers. This makes it easier for requests to reach the correct IP address through the Domain Name System (DNS).

Shared IP Address vs. Dedicated IP Address

If you want to register for web hosting and create a website, keep in mind that there are two types of IP addresses.

A shared IP address is an IP address that is shared between multiple domain names. This applies to those who are sharing the network and hardware resources of a server with others. However, note that it’s not limited to shared hosting users.

As you’re not the only one sending data through the IP address, it’s easier to keep the traffic and volume consistent. It also helps maintain the IP address’s reputation with receiving ISPs. Another benefit of a shared IP address is that it’s relatively low-cost.

On the other hand, a dedicated IP address means that the domain is assigned to an IP address that is not shared with other website owners. The advantage is that it’s easier to get an SSL certificate.

Your website can also be accessed by the IP address alone instead of just its domain name. Furthermore, you’re free to run your own File Transfer Protocol (FTP) server.

IP Address Assignments

Private IP addresses are assigned to devices by a router via the Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP). Or, they can be manually set once the devices can communicate with each other through the router.

A public IP address is assigned to a device by an internet service provider. The internet activity goes through the ISP, and it’s routed back to the device using the public IP address.

On a local network, dynamic IP addresses are usually assigned by a network router. For networks that connect to the internet, ISPs assign the dynamic IP address to their clients’ computers.

If you don’t want the router to assign different IP addresses every time you connect to the local network, set static IP addresses on your devices. It’s possible to do it through the operating system’s network settings or the router’s configuration page.

How to Check My IP Address?

There are several ways to find the IP address of your devices. However, to check a device’s private IP address, the steps may vary depending on the platform you’re using.

Mac OS:

  1. Access System Preferences, and click on Network.
Screenshot from System Preferences showing where to find Network
  1. Select the network, for example, Wi-Fi, and you’ll find the computer’s IP address right above the network name.
Screenshot from the Network section showing where to find the IP address

Windows 10:

  1. Open the Command Prompt by typing cmd on the Windows search bar.
Typing cmd in the Windows search bar and finding the Command Prompt app
  1. Type ipconfig and press Enter.
Typing ipconfig in the Command Prompt app
  1. Scroll down until you find the IPv4 Address.
Screenshot from the Command Prompt app showing your IPv4 address

To know your public address, simply search “What is my IP address” on Google. The search result page will immediately show your public IP address.

Googling what is my IP address

Common IP Address Security Threats

It’s crucial to protect your IP address and not share it with anyone. If a hacker or cybercriminal gets hold of it, they can use the IP address for various cyber attacks. Though an IP address doesn’t show sensitive information, it can still be used to:

Track Your Location and Activity

IP addresses show geolocations. A person with bad intentions can identify which city, region, and even the street address you live in through the IP address. This can lead to unwanted stalking, pranks, or worse, thefts.

In addition to that, hackers can view your internet activities. It may include tracking your social media profiles, online purchases, payments, and even credit card information as well. Furthermore, they can sell that data or even steal your identity.

Hack Your Device

Devices connect to the internet through IP addresses and ports. If a hacker knows your IP address, they can brute-force the connections through the ports to take over your computer.

Once a hacker gains entry to the device, they can install malware to access and edit the files. As a result, your passwords, social media accounts, and financial details can be at risk. Plus, they may steal personal photos or videos and use them for blackmail.

Use Your Resources or Frame You

If cybercriminals manage to learn your IP address, they can use it for conducting malicious and illegal activities, framing you in the process.

For example, they could download or upload illegal and sensitive content using your IP address, which may violate the ISP’s terms and conditions. Thus, you might experience a denial of service or even involvement with law enforcement.

Should You Be Using a VPN?

VPN brings you a safer online experience as it hides your actual IP address by redirecting the data traffic through an encrypted tunnel. So, to avoid encountering any of the above threats, a VPN is a very useful tool.

However, remember that a VPN is not a comprehensive security solution as the company can be the one leaking IP addresses. Thus, make sure to choose a reliable provider and check the encryption level they use.

Here are some other situations where you may have to use a VPN:

Blocked Websites and Services

Some countries may block access to specific websites, social media platforms, and streaming services. Additionally, there might also be geo-restrictions. Thus, some content may only be available in certain regions because of licensing, copyright, or moral issues.

So, if you live or are traveling to countries where there are internet restrictions, you may need to use VPN to access blocked websites and services.

Working Remotely

Working from home is currently the norm. Since employees are accessing their company network and resources outside of the office, many businesses are implementing VPN for security reasons.

Since data traffic is encrypted, it reduces the possibility of unauthorized access and security breaches.

Thus, it might be mandatory to use the company’s VPN if you’re working remotely. For example, here at Hostinger, we use NordVPN Teams.

Using Public Wi-Fi

When you’re at a coffee shop or other venue and using public Wi-Fi, a VPN is advisable. Public Wi-Fi is free and readily available, but the network is open to anyone, including hackers. Also, most networks don’t provide user protection or have a strong security layer.

Thus, not only can cybercriminals spy on your data traffic and online activities, but they can also send malware and steal sensitive information.

By enabling a VPN, you’ll be going around the public Wi-Fi’s ISP network, hiding all communication from prying eyes and disguising your identity.

Privacy

A VPN can also come in handy whenever you surf the internet and don’t want to leave footprints on the web. Websites can gather information whenever you visit them, which includes how long you stayed on a page, browsing habits, and the links you clicked on.

Advertising companies can adjust and show ads based on that information. Hence why ads can sometimes feel personal and give the impression that certain websites are following you on the internet.

This may also include enabling a VPN on your mobile phone and other frequently used devices. Your location can be tracked via the IP address even when the GPS or location services are turned off.

Conclusion

An IP address is a unique set of numbers that identify a computer or device in a network. It’s a communication system that sets the rules on how computers connected to the internet exchange data.

The most commonly used version is the IPv4, while its successor is the IPv6. In addition to these two protocols, there are also private and public addresses, which can be either dynamic or static.

Usually, dynamic IP addresses are preferred over static ones, as they offer more security and privacy. However, static IPs might be required in offices and other places where people need constant access to the same device, like a printer.

Also, website owners have the option of using a shared or dedicated IP address. Using a dedicated IP might be more convenient, as it is easier to obtain an SSL certificate for the site.

Keep in mind that it’s not hard for other people to find your private and public IP addresses. Hence, it’s necessary to be aware of cyber threats related to IP addresses and take precautions. For example, using a VPN when connecting to the internet to hide your IP address.

Author
The author

Ratna Siti N.

Ratna is a web hosting expert and content writer at Hostinger. With her experience with all things tech and SEO, she is ever-ready to share. In her spare time, Ratna likes to read a good book or resume her cross-stitch project.