What is an IP address and how do they work?

IP addresses are being talked about more and more. Chances are, you’ve probably heard that your computer has one, but did you know that phones, and even soda machines have them? What exactly is an IP address?

Breaking it Down – What is an IP Address?

“IP” stands for “Internet Protocol” while “address” refers to a unique serial number assigned to a single computer. This Internet protocol number is linked to all online activity your computer does. In simplistic terms, the IP address is like a computer fingerprint. Just like no two fingerprints are ever the same, no two IP addresses are the same, which distinguishes your computer from the thousands of other computers on the Internet. Every machine connected to the Internet has an IP address, including game consoles like XBox and PlayStation, smart phones, and fax machines.

What do IP Addresses Look Like?

IP addresses come in two common formats: IP Version 4 and IP Version 6. All computers have an IP Version 4 address, which are comprised of four numbers-only segments separated by periods. They look like this:

  • 0.0.1
  • 15.43.22
  • 48.108.101

Some computers have also adopted IP Version 6 addresses, which are more complex. They are comprised of eight segments using both alpha and numeric characters separated by colons. They look like this:

  • 3ffe:1900:4545:3:200:f8ff:fe21:67cf
  • 21DA:D3:0:2F3B:2AA:FF:FE28:9C5A

Following the Rules

Virtually all computers are connected to the Internet, whether it’s through e-mail, web browsing, or streaming videos. An IP address plays a significant role in your computer’s ability to request and receive information from the Internet. A computer’s networking software is wired to follow a list of protocols, rules that enable the computer to connect to the Internet, by swapping information and data back and forth through the network. One of those rules, the Internet Protocol, is responsible for addressing, delivering, and routing online requests accurately. To do that, the Internet Protocol attaches a unique number to every request: the IP address. Computers use the IP address to distinguish itself from the other thousands of computers accessing the same network.

Is your computer’s IP address always the same?

No, in fact, an IP address not something your computer invents for itself. Since an Internet service provider (such as Comcast or CenturyLink) is the company granting your computer access to the Internet, it is the Internet service provider’s responsibility to assign an IP address. This means that when you computer connects to a different Internet network, the IP address changes as the new Internet service provider assigns a new IP address. So if you go to an Internet cafĂ© and use their free Wi-Fi, yo’ll be using a new, albeit temporary, IP address. Your compute’s IP address can even change at home if you do something like reset the modem.

See For Yourself

Luckily, the IP address is assigned automatically which means that you don’t have to “lift the hood”, so to speak, to seamlessly surf the Internet. However, if you’re curious you can go to www.whatismypublicip.com to see your IP address.