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What is an IP address?

Heard a lot of talk about IP addresses but not exactly sure what they are or why we need them?

Then you’re in luck as we’ve created this handy guide detailing what IP addresses are, how they’re used and the implications they have on your digital privacy. Here’s everything you need to know about IP addresses.

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What is an IP Address?

An IP address is a unique number assigned to any device connecting to the internet by the network that it’s connected to. It can be thought of as a digital road sign that says, “you are here.”

Every device connected to the internet has an IP address, which is represented by four numbers separated by periods (or dots) like this: 192.168.1.1 or 88862222122333344444556556677889900.

IP addresses are usually assigned automatically by an internet service provider (ISP) or other organization providing you with internet access; however, there may be times when a manual configuration might be required.

For example, if you’re using an old router or modem without automatic IP assignment capabilities, your ISP might ask for this information so that they can set up a permanent configuration for them both to use when sending data back and forth between one another (the process known as NAT).

It’s very uncommon for this to happen in today’s age with the automatic IP assignment debuting on Windows 98 and nearly all of the current routers we test supporting it. If you’re on the market for a new one check out our best routers guide, which details our top recommendations.

There are a variety of ways to find out your IP address, though the process varies between different device types. For example, IP addresses can also be found via Command Prompt on Windows machines. Open Command Prompt either through Start > Run > CMD or simply type cmd into the Windows search bar at the bottom of your taskbar:

Then type ipconfig into the command prompt window: which looks like the screen grab below.

CMD Prompt in Windows
Image Credit (Trusted Reviews)

What is an IP Address for?

IP addresses are used to identify any device connecting to a network. Think of it like a phone number – it lets other people know where you are so they can call you. It’s also used by routers and other networking devices to route traffic to the right device.

In both instances, they fulfill vital functions. Locally they act as an identifier that lets devices connected to the same network communicate. For example, they are a key part that lets you stream Netflix from your phone to your TV using a Chromecast. The internet in turn uses them to differentiate between different computers, routers, and websites.

The reason they often get brought up in debates about digital privacy is that IP addresses contain location information, including geolocation, and can be exploited by criminals or law enforcement to track you in some instances.

Can you hide your IP address?

If you are concerned about privacy then there are several ways you can hide your IP address. Specifically, you can hide your IP address by using a VPN, Tor or a proxy server.

A VPN will encrypt all of your internet traffic and send it via an encrypted tunnel to another host in another location, so that no one can see where you’re browsing from. Tor is similar to a VPN but with some differences: it’s slower because it’s a volunteer network, and not as widespread. Proxy servers allow you to connect to the internet through another computer that has already been given permission to access the internet. This means that it will be able to view websites and use services on your behalf while you’re connected through it.

We recommend most private individuals avoid Tor due to the speed issues and the fact it has associations with the darknet and accessing onion sites, which are not visible on the regular surface web most people access day-to-day.

Proxy servers are a cheap option as you don’t need any special software or hardware to get one going on your computer. All you do is configure your browser settings so that it connects through an external proxy server instead of directly (which means that webpages won’t know who exactly is viewing them). However, in most instances the lack of encryption does still leave your data vulnerable as all you’re really doing is moving your digital geolocation.

This is why we recommend most people use VPNs to hide their IP address if privacy is their primary concern. There are a number of different options on the market and based on our latest testing most have wonderfully intuitive UIs for both desktop and mobile that let you hide your IP address in two clicks. You can see a selection of the best free VPN and best VPN services we’ve tested in the attached guides.

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Can you block or change your IP address?

If you change ISP your IP address will automatically change. It’s also possible to change your IP address using a VPN or proxy server.

What is the difference between IPV4 and IPV6?

Looking at IP addresses you may well come across two different types: IPV4 and IPV6.
What does this mean? Well, there are some pretty drastic differences between the two.

IPV4 is the older standard of IP address. It is 32 bits long, which means it can be represented in four octets. The number of unique addresses that can be created by IPV4 is therefore 2^32 = 4,294,967,296 unique addresses per subnet or network.

IPV6 is a new standard that was rolled out in the mid 2000s following concerns we’d soon run out of IPV4 addresses. The new addresses are 128 bits long and use hexadecimal numbers to represent its value (e.g., 2001:0db8:85a3:0000:0000:8a2e:0370:7334).

This gives us an amount of addressable space that’s so large we don’t even need to think about how many possible combinations there are. It would take over nine quintillion years for every single person on Earth to get their own IP address just from IPv6 alone.

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