While most people on the internet will have heard of IP addresses, there are many misconceptions about what they are, how they work, and if they can be used to identify you. So, what exactly does your IP address do – and should you ever change it?
What IP addresses are used for
Every device that wishes to connect to the internet, whether a desktop computer, a laptop, a phone or an internet-enabled fridge, needs an IP (internet protocol) address. IP addresses are used to identify and locate other devices which you may want to interact with.
For example, when you go to Google.com, your computer is able to locate Google’s servers by asking something called DNS (Domain Name System) servers what Google’s IP address is. Your computer will then send a request to Google, which can then send back the page you want to see.
Websites, game servers, and anything else that you connect to over the internet, will have access to your IP address. This may sound like a security risk, but it’s actually almost never something to worry about, as your IP address can’t be used to identify you as easily as you might think.
ISPs (Internet Service Providers) automatically assign IP addresses to devices that connect to the internet using their network. Your ISP is either your broadband or mobile network provider, depending on how you are connecting to the internet.
Static and dynamic IPs
Unless you have something called a static IP address set up with your ISP, which is usually only the case with business users, you will have a dynamic IP address which means that your ISP can switch it around as it wishes.
Your IP address could stay the same for a year – or it could change every day. When an IP address connects to a website more than once, that website will often target ads and content depending on what the IP’s user did during their last visit.
Your ISP will know who has been using which of their IP addresses at any given time – but without an official request from a judge or a law enforcement agency, it is highly unlikely for your ISP to divulge this information to anyone. What they could divulge are details of your browsing history, as they often do to third-party advertisers, but not the IP address itself.
So if your IP address can’t always be traced back to you, why would you want to change it?
Changing your IP address
While revealing your IP address to websites does not normally pose any security risk, there are still many reasons why you might want to change it. Ironically, IP addresses not being useful for identifying you could be one of these reasons.
IP addresses are required to be unique to a device that is connecting to the internet, but on most Local Area Networks (LAN) all computers, phones, game consoles and other devices will actually share the same IP. How is this possible?
Technically, on most LANs there is only one device that creates a connection to the internet: the router. All other devices on the network simply use the connection created by the router, but to the outside world they are all one and the same.
While routers are useful for acting as a firewall against malicious attacks over the internet, sharing your IP address with other devices can cause major headaches, especially on public WiFi connections.
Getting around IP bans
Internet forums, game servers, and other web services will often hand out ‘IP bans’, blocking requests from the IP addresses of users who abuse their terms of service, or who are simply being an annoyance.
While you are hopefully a respectful member of whatever community on the internet you like to engage with, you may still find yourself banned if someone on your network, such as a family member, a roommate, or a neighbour who’s managed to get on your WiFi, has caused your IP address to be banned.
This is especially an issue if you use public WiFi networks, such as those at coffee shops, libraries or airports. The large number of people using public WiFi increases the chance that someone on the network has managed to get the whole IP address banned from a particular service.
As mentioned earlier, ISPs will change around IP addresses from time to time, so an IP ban may disappear as your IP address gets switched around.
Streaming services will block users who abuse their terms of service, so changing your IP address can help if you’re suffering from an IP block. There is also another, increasingly popular reason why people change their IP addresses: geo-blocking.
Services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime have entirely different catalogues in different countries, due to the local licensing laws and agreements. Many users in the EU, for example, have noticed that Netflix’s selection of movies and television shows is far more limited in their countries than in the US. Other services, such as Hulu, are not available in many countries in the first place.
How do streaming services know which country you are connecting from? You guessed it – from your IP address. By changing your IP address you will be able to get around regional restrictions, and access the streaming catalogue of any country in the world.
How to change your IP address
Since ISP’s assign you an IP address every time you connect to the internet, one simple way to change it is powering off your router and unplugging it. Once you power it up again, there’s a good chance you will be assigned a new IP address – but there’s no guarantee you won’t get the same one. As previously mentioned, sometimes your IP address will stay the same for years and sometimes it will change far more regularly.
To check what your IP address is, and if it has changed, use a free tool like HMA !’s IP address checker.
The only way to change your IP address whenever you want, and to any location you want, is by using a proxy server or Virtual Private Network (VPN).
VPNs act as gateways between you and the rest of the internet, hiding your web traffic behind their servers. Most paid VPNs have servers in many countries, allowing you to choose which country you want your IP to point to. This is useful for getting around geo-blocking – though do make sure that your VPN provider’s IP addresses aren’t themselves blocked from the streaming services you want to use.
Proxy servers work in a similar way, but are much less secure than VPNs as they do not encrypt traffic between your computer and the proxy. They also need to be configured on each application individually, which means you need to set up proxies individually for your browser and for your online games, for example.