What is an IP address and what does it do?

IP address stands for Internet Protocol address. An IP address is a unique series of numbers and letters assigned to every device connected to a computer network, such as the internet. This label identifies and differentiates the billions of devices that use the internet, including computers, mobile phones, printers, and a growing number of so-called Internet of Things (IoT) devices, like smart speakers, refrigerators, home surveillance systems, and more.

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    IP addresses ensure that data transmission goes to the right location. In the same way people and businesses need a home address to send you a letter in the mail, the internet needs a digital address to send you requested data. 

    What can you do with an IP address? Everything! It’s your connection to the websites you visit, the emails you open, and the videos you watch. All these activities connected to the internet are considered “data requests” and require an IP address. Your computer and internet service wouldn’t be able to function without IP addresses.

    IP addresses broken down

    So how are IP addresses assigned and what does an IP address tell you? Let’s start by looking at an IP address example:

    An IP address generally consists of four numbers ranging from 0 to 255, separated by periods. Each of the four numbers does not need to be a complete three-digit number. In the example above, the first number is 172, the second number is 16, the third number is 254, and the fourth number is 1. Together, this dotted-decimal format is called a 32-bit number.

    Simple enough, right? Just a series of numbers and periods that behaves in a similar way to a street address, so that your device can send and receive data from the internet. But wait, here’s a different example of an IP address:


    Woah, a bit more complex. Why are there different types of IP addresses and why does IP address configuration vary so much?

    We’ll get into the different types of IP addresses and the crazy roots of IPv4 and IPv6 a little later (we actually ran out of IP addresses). But first, let’s break down the IP address into two key components, network ID and host ID.

    The network ID is the part of an IP address that identifies which network you’re using to connect to the internet (“172.16.254” in the first example above). This is assigned by an internet service provider (ISP) if you’re connecting from home via a wireless router, a company network if you’re connecting at work, or a public network if you’re connecting at, say, a Starbucks. 

    A network can be as small as two computers connected to each other in order to share data, or as large as the internet itself. The internet is a network. It’s a network of networks!

    The host ID portion of an IP address (just the “1” at the end in the first example above) indicates the particular device you’re using to connect to that network. Let’s say you have the following devices at home, all of which require an IP address to connect to the internet. Their IP address configuration might look like this: 

    Device name: Network ID.Host ID

    Laptop 1:

    Laptop 2:




    For each host on a network, the network part of the IP address is the same, with the final number changing to identify different hosts. A host has only one IP address; a network has many.

    The network ID combined with the host ID creates the IP address. Together, this string of alphanumeric characters allows you to reach the internet.

    The IP addresses of devices connected to a network include a network part that is the same for all devices on the same network and a host part that's unique to each device.Example IP address of various devices connected to the same network.

    How IP addresses work

    IP addresses work as a unique identifier for each online device, similar to a mailing address. Instead of getting physical mail, IP addresses ensure that you get the data you request, such as search results, specific websites, and emails. Understanding how IP addresses work can help you make better decisions about online security and digital privacy.

    To better understand how IP addresses work, we must first take a look at the basic definition of the internet. The internet is a global network of computers which function on the basis of protocols, or rules. These rules define how data is transmitted between electronic devices — or, essentially, how computers talk to each other over a network. 

    When you request something online, the internet “knows” where to send that request thanks to your IP address. For example, when you type a search query into Google, such as “What is an IP address,” the internet retrieves that data (in this case, search results such as a link to this article) and sends it to your device.

    All this happens in a matter of milliseconds.

    Why do we need IP addresses?

    The internet may seem like a wild wasteland of digital desperados. But the internet is actually a very organized system, which is why hiding, changing, and protecting your IP address is important. 

    The purpose of IP addresses is to map the web and send data to the right place. Without this critical protocol address between devices and networks, the internet would not be able to fulfil your data requests. No Facebook. No email. No web browsing at all.

    We need IP addresses to access the internet. Without an IP address, you can't use social media, email, or browse the internet.You need an IP address to use social media, check your email, and browse the internet.

    What else does an IP address do besides behave as a digital home address for your device? It can also give away sensitive information, like revealing your physical location and other details you may want to keep private. It’s not possible to go online without an IP address, but it is possible to change or hide it with a virtual private network like AVG Secure VPN.

    A VPN encrypts your online traffic and reroutes you to a dedicated VPN server before you connect to the public internet. Once you do connect to a website, you’ll appear to be coming from the VPN, so the site will see only the VPN’s IP address — effectively masking your true IP address. 

    Many VPNs have servers in different countries to choose from, so you can also opt to appear to be from different places. This can be very helpful if, say, you’re traveling and want to get the same access to streaming services that you enjoy in your home country. Protect your personal data, stay current with your favorite shows, and keep your online activity private today with a VPN.

    Locating your own IP address

    It’s super simple to find your own IP address. The easiest way is to type “What’s my computer IP address?” into Google and it will show you what it is right there in the search results. While the ease of finding your IP address is convenient, it also shows how easy it is for hackers or other snoops to find you online. That’s why you should consider hiding your IP with a VPN.

    The different types of IP address

    IP addresses vary depending on how devices are connected to the internet. A lot depends on where you’re connecting from (home, office, cafe) and the rules set up by your ISP.


    TCP/IP is the fundamental basis for IP addresses. TCP/IP stands for Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol and is a suite of protocols that make up internet architecture

    These rules define how data is exchanged and communicated over the internet. The rules also specify how data is divided into packets and addressed in order to be transmitted, sent, and received at the final destination. Again, this journey may sound complex, but it happens faster than you can snap your fingers.

    Public and local

    Did you know that devices actually get two different IP addresses? That’s right: your computer has both a public IP address and a local IP address.

    A public IP address, also called an external or global IP address, is used to communicate between hosts and the global internet. It’s a public IP address, often provided for home use by your ISP, which actually connects you to the internet. 

    A local IP address, sometimes called a private or internal IP address, is assigned to your device from within a private network. Local IP addresses are not routed on the internet and are intended to work only within your local network.

    In the same way an office building might have a “public address” of 123 Main Street, Big City, USA, you have a “local address” of Room 123. Mail will be addressed to this public address, and then the office manager (your ISP) will deliver it to your room directly.

    IPv4 and IPv6

    Upon conception, the internet was not what it is today. Its creators did not foresee the accessibility and daily usage by billions of people and devices. As a result, we ran out of numbers. IPv4 is the original internet protocol numbering structure that works on a 32-bit numeric code. 

    This is what an IPv4 IP address looks like:

    The difference between IPv4 and IPv6 IP addresses is that the latter are the second wave of IP addresses created to confront the shortage of IPv4 addresses. Written in a 128-bit hexadecimal format and separated by colons, IPv6 addresses are (in theory) limitless.

    This is what an IPv6 address looks like: 2001:0db8:85a3:0000:0000:8a2e:0370:7334

    The rollout of IPv6 is happening as we speak. Chances are, you’re still connecting to the internet using an IPv4 connection. Currently, Google reports that about 30% of their users are connecting via an IPv6, not an IPv4, IP address. While adoption is steadily increasing, there may be a number of reasons why you would want to disable IPv6. The road to full usage may be bumpy.

    How IP addresses are assigned

    Now that we know about different types of IP addresses, let’s discuss who assigns IP addresses. There are two types of IP address assignment: static or dynamic. How your device is assigned an IP address depends on network practices — by your ISP for instance — and on software features of your device.

    Creating an IP address happens automatically if it’s dynamic, and manually if it’s static. A static address is fixed or permanent while a dynamic address may change each time you connect to the internet. For example, you may be assigned a dynamic IP address every time you restart your computer.

    So the answer to the question “who or what assigns IP addresses” will vary based on your network connection. Broadly speaking, the world of IP addresses is managed globally by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), and then subsequently managed by your local ISP or your router at home.

    Keeping your IP address secure

    Cyber criminals can do a lot of damage with just a fragment of access. Leaving your IP address exposed can serve as a gateway for illegal and damaging activity. That’s why smart internet users often choose to hide their IP address and access the internet securely using a VPN. You can also mask your IP using a proxy or Tor

    A VPN masks your IP address by creating a secure tunnel for your internet traffic.A VPN creates a secure tunnel for your internet traffic.

    AVG Secure VPN lets you hide your IP, so you can avoid the common risks of an exposed IP address. Unprotected IP addresses can be replicated by cybercriminals and used to download illegal content. Worse, they can use your IP address to launch targeted DDoS attacks (distributed denial of services attacks) against your network, which generate massive amounts of fake website traffic in order to crash a server.

    Keep your IP address away from prying eyes with AVG Secure VPN

    Go online with a secure VPN to reap the benefits of digital anonymity. Not only does a VPN hide your IP address, it also encrypts your internet traffic. That means you can bank, shop, and browse in peace without worrying about hackers or anyone else being able to see what you’re doing. And by using a VPN server in the location of your choice, you can stream content from back home even when you’re traveling abroad.

    AVG Secure VPN is your ticket to a safer and more private internet experience. Designed to hide your IP address and protect your anonymity online no matter what device you use, AVG Secure VPN gives you instant access to military-grade encryption and streaming-optimized servers in over 50 locations around the globe. Give it a spin today risk-free with our free trial.

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