MAC Address vs IP Address (What's the Difference?)

Last updated on

August 13, 2020

Denis Graur

You probably heard of IP addresses, but what about MAC addresses? You might hear them mentioned in online articles every once in a while, but what exactly are they? And are they the same as IP addresses, or are they different?

Here’s all you need to know about IP and MAC addresses, and a quick overview of MAC address vs IP address differences.

What Is a MAC Address?

MAC stands for Media Access Control, and it’s essentially hardware that dictates how data travels across a network.

A MAC address is a unique serial number assigned to a network adapter to help identify it on a network. MAC addresses are assigned to hardware by their manufacturers.

MAC addresses use a hexadecimal format which range from 00-00-00-00-00-00 to FF-FF-FF-FF-FF-FF. The first half of the digit is the manufacturer’s ID, while the other half is used to identify the device.

Here’s an example of how a MAC address looks like on Windows 10. In this case, it’s called a Physical Address.

MAC Address Window 10

Since the total number of MAC addresses is limited (roughly 1.68 million for each manufacturer), manufacturers end up reusing them. So when one of their addresses ends in FF-FF-FF, they start again from 00-00-00.

Two devices should never have the same MAC address on a network. If that were to happen, the local network wouldn’t know which device needs to receive which data packets.

What Is an IP Address?

An IP (Internet Protocol) address is a unique identifier assigned to devices on a network. Its job is pretty similar to MAC addresses - identifying devices on a network.

However, IP addresses aren’t assigned by manufacturers. They’re assigned by ISPs and routers every time you connect to a network.

Also, there are two types of IP addresses:

  • Internal IPs - Routers assign them to all devices on a network. Internal IPs help them differentiate one device from the other, so that the router knows where to send the requested web content.
  • External IPs - ISPs assign them to routers, which use them to help web-connected devices on their network communicate with the Internet.

You can easily find out your device’s IP address by using What Is My IP Address. Here’s an example of how it might look:

Nowadays, IP addresses come in two formats: IPv4 and IPv6.

1. IPv4 Addresses

These were the standard for a while - 32-bit, four decimal numbers or a dotted quad. So basically this format: x.x.x.x. 

So or are IPv4 addresses.

We could no longer continue using the IPv4 format because we’re officially out of IPv4 addresses. So ISPs started transitioning to IPv6 addresses.

2. IPv6 Addresses

The IPv6 format allows for way more IP addresses than its IPv4 counterpart - 340,282,366,920,938,463,463,374,607,431,768,211,456 addresses to be exact. Quite the leap from just 4,294,967,296 addresses.

That’s because IPv6 addresses use a 128-bit format written as eight sets of four hexadecimal digits that are separated by colons.

Here’s an example of an IPv6 address: 002:0db7:0000:0000:0000:ff00:0067:7329.

So What’s the Difference Between an IP Address and a MAC Address?

The basic MAC address vs IP address idea can be summed up like this: a MAC address handles local identification, and an IP address is responsible for global identification.

Of course, there are more differences than just that. So we’ll use this table to make them easy to understand:

IP Address vs MAC Address

IP Address

MAC Address

It either has a four-byte/32-bits format (IPv4) or a 16-byte/128-bits format (IPv6).It has a six-byte/48-bits hexadecimal format.
ISPs and routers assign IP addresses.Manufacturers assign MAC addresses.
IP addresses identify your connection on the web.MAC addresses identify your device on a local network.
IP addresses use subnetting (dividing a network into smaller networks).MAC addresses don’t use subnetting.
Changing networks affects your IP address (you get a new one).Changing networks doesn’t impact your MAC address.
Websites can detect your IP address. They shouldn’t be able to detect your internal IP address, though.Websites shouldn’t be able to detect your device’s MAC address. It’s only visible on your network.
You can easily hide your external IP address with third-party tools (VPNs and proxies).You can’t normally spoof MAC addresses because they’re necessary for proper communication over a network. You can override the MAC address on some network adapters, though.

MAC Address vs IP Address - Anything Else to Add?

If you’d like to mention anything else about the difference between an IP address and a MAC address, feel free to leave a comment.

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