IP addresses were created so computers could deliver information back and forth to each other. With an IP attached to each piece of data, it’s easy to locate the source and eventual destination of information, which is ultimately what makes the internet possible. Unfortunately that same marker can be used to trace requests back to their source and identify the origin, turning simple data transmissions into homing beacons for users around the world.
The modern climate of privacy awareness places data security as a high priority. Keeping your IP address secure is the first step in preventing digital surveillance, thwarting hackers and identity thieves, and putting a stop to ISPs who want to track you across the web. One simple preventive measure can make a huge difference in your online privacy, and it comes with a number of other benefits, as well.
What Does an IP Address Do?
An IP address, short for internet protocol address, is a number assigned to devices when they connect to a network, whether that be an at-home network or a larger one such as the world wide web. Every device that logs onto the internet is given an IP address, from computers to tablets, phones, printers, gaming consoles, cameras, even smart TVs and appliances. IPs are used to mark devices for data delivery similar to putting an address on a package and shipping it through the mail.
The most recognizable type of IP address is a public IP address that’s written as a series of numbers separated by decimals (e.g. 123.45.678.9). These are assigned by internet service providers (ISPs) which act as a middleman between you and the internet. When you request a website from your browser, your computer sends that request through your ISP which then pulls the information from the web and sends it back to you. Every request is stamped with your IP address so the ISP knows where to deliver the information.
Most users have a router that allows multiple devices to connect at once, either through wired connections or via Wi-Fi. This is where internal IP addresses come into play. They serve a similar purpose as a public IP, only instead of directing packets of data from internet service providers, they’re used by your router to send information throughout your home. Whenever someone refers to an IP address, it’s almost always the public one, not an internal IP.
How Can IP Addresses Be Abused?
Every packet of data that goes to and from your home network is paired with a public IP address. Without it, nothing could be delivered to your devices. But because an IP address can be traced to your local service provider, it’s extremely easy to look at someone’s IP and know what country and city they live in. Because most of us pay an ISP for access to the internet, our billing address, name, and phone number are on file, making it a surprisingly simple process to track down a person based on their internet history.
IP addresses aren’t necessarily unsafe on their own, but when you combine them with unencrypted data and detailed activity logs, you suddenly have a serious privacy issue. Your internet history can be stored by websites and service providers for months or years, keeping a detailed record of every query along with an associated IP address. Service providers are under no obligation to keep this information private, and some even have the legal ability to sell logs to third parties without your permission. Whether you’re a journalist who needs anonymity or simply an average person who appreciates privacy, this combination of public IPs and raw data logging is a massive problem.
Hiding your IP address, or simply changing it to another IP that isn’t associated with you or your location, has a number of immediate benefits. When you disassociate this public tag with the data you interact with you immediately gain a measure of online anonymity. It’s not perfect, of course, but it’s a step in the right direction.
There are several other benefits of hiding your IP address:
Bypass censored content – Many governments and businesses censor content from their users, making it impossible to access websites they deem inappropriate or illegal. Hiding your IP often allows you to circumvent those restrictions and surf the web with complete freedom.
Prevent tracking and surveillance – ISPs, websites, and eavesdropping hackers can all gain access to your browsing history with very little effort. Because that data is tied to your IP address, it’s possible to trace back to your location. Hiding your IP effectively erases your digital footprint, giving your surfing activities an added measure of privacy.
Access streaming videos blocked in your country – IP addresses are used to geolocate devices connected to the internet. If you connect to Netflix, for example, and Netflix is instructed to block certain movies from customers in your country, you won’t be able to stream those videos. By hiding or changing your IP address you can effectively fool these websites into thinking your location is somewhere else entirely. This allows you to watch videos on Netflix, HBO Go, Hulu, YouTube, and more, all without worrying about region locked content.
Using a VPN to Hide Your IP Address
The simplest and most effective way to hide your IP address is to use a virtual private network. VPNs work like a tunnel between your device and the internet at large. Every byte of traffic is encrypted before it leaves your computer, turning raw data into unreadable packets of information. These travel through your ISP and straight to the VPN provider. The VPN then assigns the data a new IP address, one that isn’t associated with your location or identity. The end result is an internet connection that works just like before, only now you aren’t sharing your information with the world.
Evaluating the Best VPNs
It takes some time to find a good VPN that suits your needs. There are plenty to choose from, all of which offer different plans with different pricing, have different server structures, and push certain benefits over others. We used the criteria below to take some of the hassle out of looking for the best VPN. Each one delivers great performance along with the ability to hide your IP address no matter which device you use to connect to the internet.
Server distribution – VPNs operate wide networks of servers located around the world. Some have a few dozen in major cities, others several hundred or several thousand placed on nearly every continent. The more servers that are available the better chances you’ll have to find a fast connection. It also gives you more options to change or hide your IP.
Device connectability – A common limitation imposed by VPN providers is restricting the number of devices that can access their network at once. If you’re using a phone, desktop PC, and a gaming console, for example, you may not be able to log in with a tablet or laptop unless you disconnect something beforehand. To make sure you can surf anonymously without hassle, we made sure the providers below allow at least three simultaneous devices.
Unlimited server switching – A few VPNs limit the number of times you can switch servers per day. This can be a frustrating feature, as it means you could be stuck with a slow connection or an IP address that doesn’t meet your needs. All of the VPNs below have unlimited server switching, no exceptions.
Kill switches and DNS leak protection – The few moments when your VPN software is reconnecting are crucial. During this time it’s possible that your standard connection will reactivate, sending your real IP across the network and broadcasting your location. To help prevent this, good VPN provider software will lock down the network to ensure your identity is never leaked.
Logging policy – The pillar of VPN privacy is a company’s logging policy. All of your data passes through a VPN’s servers and can theoretically be stored for an indefinite period of time. If third parties or government agencies demand the VPN turn over data, they often have to comply. If no logs are kept, however, there’s no data to share, giving you an extra layer of privacy.
ExpressVPN consistently ranks as one of the fastest and most security conscious VPN providers around. The company deploys a robust network of over 145 servers in 94 different countries. Each server can have thousands of available IPs, which gives you an enormous amount of freedom when it comes to hiding your own IP. You can also switch servers as often as you like and connect up to three devices at a time, including smartphones, tablets, e-readers, and gaming consoles.
Privacy is another of ExpressVPN’s strong suits. The policies aim to keep users safe with DNS leak protection, a kill switch for both desktop and Android devices, and absolutely no logs. Coupled with unlimited bandwidth and no restrictions on traffic types and you’ve got a great VPN service that can hide your IP address and provide a host of other benefits, including regular access from countries like China and Turkey.
It’s easy to get started with ExpressVPN. Plans are priced competitively with discounts applied for longer subscriptions. Sign up for a year of service at only $6.67 per month and get 3 months FREE! They also come with a 30 day 100% money back guarantee!
Privacy is one of VyprVPN’s top concerns. The company owns and operates it entire network of 700 servers spread across 70 locations, ensuring no third party ever has access to the hardware. This also gives VyprVPN the ability to customize their network to deliver superior speed and encryption without sacrificing anonymity.
Hiding your IP address is easy with VyprVPN. The wide server availability gives you plenty of options to choose from, bolstered by the exclusive Chameleon technology that defeats VPN blocking and throttling. This makes VyprVPN an excellent service if you live in a heavily restrictive location such as China or Turkey. This, combined with a strict zero-logging policy, a built-in kill switch, DNS leak protection, and fast overall download speeds makes VyprVPN a great choice for keeping your IP address hidden.
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PureVPN is a great service for quick and easy IP address hiding. It all starts with a network of 750 servers in 141 different countries, covering every corner of the globe with a massive range of IPs to choose from. Unlimited server switching is also available, along with a zero-logging policy, unlimited bandwidth, DNS leak protection, and a quick kill switch to make sure your data and your IP stays safe.
One of the most interesting PureVPN features is the company’s “Virtual Router” software. With this you can turn your Windows desktop or laptop into a virtual hotspot, allowing you to connect up to ten devices at once. This is double the service’s standard offering of five simultaneous devices, which itself is two more than most VPNs on the market. If device connectability is a major concern, you can’t go wrong with PureVPN.
PureVPN’s plans are competitively priced and backed by a seven day money back guarantee for an amazing 73% discount on a two year plan, just $2.95 per month!
IPVanish has two strong selling points that make it an excellent choice for masking your IP. For starters, the company operates over 750 servers in 60 different countries, providing an amazing range of IPs you can switch back and forth between. All of these are backed by 256-bit AES encryption, kill switch and DNS leak protection, and a zero-logging policy for top quality privacy.
Getting the most out of your VPN connection won’t be a problem with IPVanish. Each plan comes with unlimited bandwidth, allows P2P traffic and torrent access, works on a wide variety of platforms, and has a high limit of five devices simultaneously connecting to the VPN. Users in countries like China, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar will need to do a little extra configuring to get IPVanish to work in their region, but otherwise the service is available worldwide.
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Private Internet Access
Activism has been one of Private Internet Access’ focal points since the beginning. The company wants to make the internet freely available for everyone and works hard to ensure that’s possible. Private Internet Access runs a network with 3,250 servers in 25 different countries, all backed by a zero-logging policy, a digital kill switch, DNS leak protection, and a smart IP cloak to ensure your real IP is never seen. Unlimited server switching means you have the freedom to choose the IP you want without having to share your location, and a high limit of five simultaneous connections means you won’t have any trouble getting your entire house online.
Private Internet Access is one of the more affordable VPNs on the market and backs all of its plans with a seven day money back guarantee.
Using a Proxy Service
A common alternative to using a VPN to hide your IP address is to sign up with an anonymous proxy server. These services work something like a VPN, allowing you to choose which country your IP address will be associated with to mask your real location. The proxy then requests web information on your behalf and relays it to you without divulging your true IP.
There are several downsides to using a proxy service, as well. While VPNs have a reputation for being slow, proxies are often slower, all due to the nature of their network structure. Free proxies are even worse and can inject ads, limit bandwidth, and show pop-ups while you’re browsing, which is both invasive and frustrating. Proxies lack the encryption and other privacy benefits VPNs afford, however, making them best reserved for users with other strong security measures already in place.
Using the Tor Network to Hide Your IP
Privacy advocates love talking about Tor. The Tor network works by using what is known as onion routing to encapsulate data in layers of encryption before passing it through a series of computer nodes. Each node pulls back a layer of encryption, revealing the next destination for the packet of information. When the final layer is decrypted the data will reach its location, leaving no trace of the data’s origin or the randomized path it took through the Tor network.
Lots of software uses the Tor network for a basic layer of privacy and anonymity. The most common and most accessible way to utilize it yourself is to download the Tor Browser. This browser works like any other browser, only instead of sending information to and from your computer, it encrypts it and sends it through the Tor network. Every request the browser sends comes back without leaving a trace of your IP, only the random IP addresses of nodes on the network. Simple, easy to use, and remarkably effective.
For more information on the Tor network and the Tor Browser, see the article How to Use Tor: A Guide to Getting Started.
Warning: Don’t Use Free VPNs to Hide Your IP Address
Free VPNs and free proxy services are all over the place. Most browser extension markets and mobile app stores are filled with them, each promising free, fast, and unlimited service. Simply download and start hiding your IP, it all sounds too good to be true! The unfortunate reality is free VPNs and free proxy services often endanger your privacy more than they protect it, making the benefits of hiding your IP not worth the sacrifices.
A business that operates a virtual private network has to make income to stay afloat. Servers need maintenance, workers need salaries, that sort of thing. If customers aren’t providing a stream of revenue, the free VPN company needs to seek income elsewhere. The most common method is to log and sell data collected from its users. All of your browsing history could be shared with third parties without your permission.
Although it’s tempting to use a free VPN service to hide your IP, it’s not worth it in the long run. Even high quality VPNs are competitively priced these days, which keeps extremely affordable.
Low-Tech Way to Hide Your IP: Use a Different Hotspot
You don’t have to use a VPN or a proxy to hide your IP address. Because IPs don’t follow people or devices around, you can change yours by simply connecting through a different hotspot. Any public Wi-Fi network will do, including the local library, an internet cafe, coffee shop, or even a friend’s house. Once you log in you’ll be given a unique IP address that isn’t tied to yourself or your home.
It’s worth noting that using public Wi-Fi isn’t necessarily safe or private. Without a VPN or any sort of encryption active, you’re still sending raw data across networks, divulging your browser history and maybe even sensitive data. It’s also possible to track down your location based on this public IP, it just takes a bit more work. If you need to cover your identity, be sure to use an IP masking service like a VPN or proxy.