An IP address is a common term you would have heard whilst using the internet at some point. There’s a slightly more complicated way that IP addresses are determined, and they are one of the founding principles of the internet.
This is not something the everyday user needs to understand in depth. However, everyone should understand what they are.
We have created this guide to help explain the basics.
What is an IP address?
IP stands for Internet Protocol. Internet Protocol refers to the set of rules that has been established to allow data to be shared over the internet.
Put simply – it determines how devices will “talk” to each other.
An IP address is a unique number – made up of digits or letters – that allows a device such as a computer or smart phone – to connect with other devices via a network.
In that sense, it serves a little like a mobile phone number or home address. It is easy to contact someone, or find where they live, if you have this information.
Your device’s IP address allows a server to identify your digital location, by converting your IP address to a binary format. Information can then be shared between your device and others in the network efficiently.
There are instances where IP addresses may be shared by more than one device. Many websites for example may use a shared IP address. This comes with inherent security risks.
How do I find out what my IP address is?
If you’re using a desktop or laptop computer, the easiest way to find out your IP address it to simply ask Google. Simply search ‘what is my is address’.
Your public IP address will be reported as the top search result.
If you are using a smart phone or tablet, you can find your IP address by going to the WIFI settings menu. If you click on the network you are using to connect to the internet, your IP address should be displayed.
You can also find your IP address on your computer manually. If you have a Windows operating system, open the command window and enter “ipconfig” and your IP address will be displayed.
If you have macOS operating system, go to the Utilities icon, locate Terminal and enter “ipconfig” and your IP address will be displayed.
Are there different types of IP addresses?
Yes. There are two main types of IP addresses – IPv4 and IPv6.
IPv4 is the conduit through which most internet traffic currently occurs. It uses a 32-bit form which enables more than 4 billion unique combinations.
An example of an IPv4 is:
IPv6 is the most recent version of the IP protocol. It was designed to address concerns that the IPv4 numbers will eventually be used. It works the same way as IPv4, but uses a 128-bit format.
So far, adoption of IPv6 is small compared to IPv4, but it is expected to grow over the coming years.
An example of an IPv6 is:
If you connect to the internet using a broadband connection – your computer will have a private IP address. A private IP address links to a local network, such as in an office.
A public IP address is your global address that is used to connect to computers and other devices outside of your network.
Dynamic IP addresses
Because of the huge growth of internet use, clever ways have been developed to ensure we don’t run out of IP addresses.
Dynamic IP addresses are automatically assigned by internet providers, like Virgin Media and BT, to their routers.
These IP addresses are assigned on rotation, so if you cancel your contract your IP address will eventually be reassigned to someone else.
Why is an IP address important?
Without IP addresses – connecting to the internet would be almost impossible. When you visit a website, it notes your IP address so that it can share the information with you.
You might be wondering – is this a security risk? The answer is, not really. Although it is sensible to not disclose your IP address to people you do not know.
The truth is IP addresses are ubiquitous across the internet and the damage a hacker could do if they knew yours is minimal. IP addresses are often used by site administrators to restrict access to certain people. For example, on an internet forum member may be banned by blocking their IP address from accessing the site.
Nevertheless, for your broader online safety it is sensible to install a firewall. This protects your network from insecure or risky access.
You can also use a VPN, which works by blocking your IP address from being visible to third parties.