What Is an IP Address and Why Is It Important?

To put things in a nutshell:

An Internet Protocol (IP) address is a return address, but digital.

The end. At least that's what we'd like it to be.

If you're more confused than you were two seconds ago, we apologize. But we want you to understand first that the concept is really that:

Your IP address is like the address you put in the "if not deliverable, return here" field when you're sending an important letter via the post office.

But of course, there's more to this simple concept and that's what we're tempting to explain here. Because let's face it, in a world where teenagers can't possibly go to a WiFi-less place, IP addresses hold a powerful role in your everyday digital life.

So, What IS an IP Address?

Let's say you're opening Google to search for information to copy and paste in your school essay solve the world hunger. As you type your keyword and click enter, you'll expect Google to come back to you with millions of pages of information. 

But... to come back to you, Google must know how to reach YOU, and not your next-door neighbor.

This is where your IP address works its magic. Thanks to it, all the data from the Internet that you wish to download can find their way back to your laptop/smartphone/tablet. Without it, the Internet doesn't know where to return the information you wish to retrieve.

In short, it's your "internet address."

Here are some examples of IP addresses:

8.8.8.8 IP address assigned to Google 

123.45.67.89 IP address for SamsungSDS Inc in South Korea

2a03:2880:2110:df07:face:b00c::1 Facebook Ireland Ltd

Protocols in IP Addresses

As we've established earlier, the IP stands for Internet Protocol.

Yes, this means there is a set of rules that your device's networking software follows to send and receive data.

Because you see, you are NOT directly connected to the internet. First, your computer has to connect to a network that's connected to the Internet itself - for example, your ISP at home or the WiFi router at school. And then, this network needs to grant you access to the Internet.

One of the networking protocols is to make sure your IP address is attached to every request you send to the Internet so you can get data back correctly.

This is the importance of IP addresses and why ALL devices you use to connect to the internet must have one.

Two guys working on laptop

How Can I Know My IP Address?

There are some free tools on the Internet where you can get your IP address, such as WhatsMyRouterIP.comWhatIsMyIP.com, and WhatIsMyIPAddress.com.

Now that you know your IP address, don't get attached to it. You don't have to memorize it or write it down in a secure place. Why?

This is because your IP address is not forever the same. 

1. It depends on the router you're using to connect to the Internet. For example, you have a WiFi router at home that you use to hook up your laptop to the internet. So, when you're home, you'll have an IP address.

BUT if you browse the internet on it using Starbucks WiFi, the IP address of your phone at that particular moment is what the Starbucks' ISP attributes to the router. The same thing happens with when you activate your mobile data. Your IP address is something that your mobile data provider assigns to your phone. 

2. Even when you're using your router at home, your IP address may change from time to time. This can happen when you do something as simple as resetting your router

But even if you never need to reset your router, most ISP nowadays enable DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) for personal routers. While this means you never need to take care of your IP address yourself, this also means that your IP address will stay the same for a small period before changing itself - without you doing anything.

Dynamic Vs. Static IP Address

However, not every IP address is dynamic either. Some are static, meaning that they don't change.

This is the case of most business places nowadays, and this means when you're at work, your IP address is always fixed.

A static IP address requires manual configuration, thus a certain level of tech skill. As a contrast, a dynamic IP address suits newbies as all the ISPs take care of the process.

Other advantages of static IP addresses

- The administrator can decide who gets to have this IP address - more control over the connection.

- There's fewer downtime as the IP never resets.

- It can lead to faster download and upload speed, especially in the case of using your computer as a server. 

- It has more stability as small glitches in the connection will not result in losing all the data being exchanged to the server. 

People checking a map

Can I Hide My IP Address?

Have you tried one of the online tools above to know your IP address?

If yes, you've seen that the tools track your location as well. It may be not accurate by 2-3 miles, but the general location is pretty correct.

So, whenever you are in the world, you are trackable through your IP address. Although it is unlikely to hack you simply by your IP address, it may make you feel uncomfortable knowing that people can track your geographical position. 

For example, if your IP address often starts with 140.247, I'll know that you hang out at Harvard University regularly because that's the IP address assigned there.

This is why many people prefer having an anonymous IP address.

How?

1. Using a VPN software. This is the best way to keep your IP address a secret. Yes, it requires paying a fee, but VPN software does so much more than merely masking your IP address. The benefits far outweigh the price.

2. Using proxies. Open proxies gained notoriety because they're known as the tool to get Netflix in countries where Netflix is not allowed. A proxy server works by taking control of your connection and changing the appearance of it. So, if you connect to a US-based proxy server, you'll be able to access Netflix. 

However, there are some risks: it slows down your internet connection, may be illegal in your country, and some run in compromised machines. 

3. Using TOR for free. The Onion Router assigns you a new IP address just like if you were a VPN client. This process has layers of data encryption, meaning that you're guaranteed with anonymity and privacy.

Although this sounds so cool (plus, it's free!) TOR is known as the big, bad web since many people use it to do and buy extremely illegal stuff. If you use TOR, you can expect to be put in a "watch list" by your government. 

Plus, TOR slows down your connection to the point of making you want to tear your hair out.

Conclusion

All devices you use to connect to the Internet have an IP address - otherwise, it cannot connect. This includes wearable devices, too.

For most users, IP address is not a concern at all as ISPs take care of everything. But as we do everything online, it's still important to know what it is. 

IP addresses have sparked debates about whether they should be considered personal information or not. Although this is a tough question to settle, in the meantime you can opt to mask your IP address by using VPN software (honestly, we don't recommend any other way).

Do you feel more tech savvy now with this information? Is there anything else you want to know? Contact us, and we'll get right back to you.

Serina Rajagukguk

Serina is a writer whose passion includes learning all about new technology and trying to explain it in a layman term. 

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