It’s difficult to understand the difference between a MAC address and an IP address. A lot of people may ask what is a MAC address, what is an IP address, and why do we need both?

While the answers aren’t simple or quick, we would like to help break these questions down for you as simply as possible. Both MAC addresses and IP addresses are extremely important to routing data throughout the internet, and this article will help you put all the pieces together.

What is a MAC Address?

A MAC address stands for Media Access Control Address. It is the serial number that is assigned to each component on a network. This means if a device or component in a device needs to connect on a network locally, it will have a MAC address

You can check your motherboard, router, or wireless extender to find a device’s MAC address. This is so that other devices on your network can find each other.

Before a device knows another device’s IP address, it must request the IP address from other devices. A device finds an IP address or a MAC address for another device by knowing the MAC address of a device on the network and asking it for the information.

A MAC address is formatted in a set of 12 digits grouped in six groups so of two.

Example MAC addresses:

  • 00-14-22-65-C3-12
  • 49-A5-24-27-76-14

By communicating with MAC addresses, devices are able to request IP addresses. You can think of a MAC address as the direct underground tunnels connecting different houses in your local town. In order to figure out where the next town over is, you would have to go ask other houses through these tunnels in your town how to get there.

If you didn’t ask where the next town was located, you could get lost and never reach the next town over to communicate with them. So for your computer to find anything on a network, MAC addresses are the very initial stages of communication on a network that enable devices to reach a wider network of addresses.

What is an IP Address?

IP addresses are used to route this wider network of addresses stated above. An IP address is an address known to the world wide web and some devices on your local network to find and connect to a device.

An IP address is a group of numbers broken up into 4 octets. The numbers in an IP address will range from 1 to 255, and public IP addresses are all unique.

Example IP addresses:

  • 1.4.63.201
  • 167.172.3.10
  • 99.31.253.67

There are public and private IP addresses to help with routing on a network. The public IP addresses are what everyone knows and can find on the internet by utilizing global routing devices.

A private IP address is one that your local network will use to identify direct paths to devices. It is needed at a local level because it allows certain protocols to function that don’t work using MAC address routing.

Separating public and private IP addresses is to help with security and routing speeds between devices on a network. If you’re curious about what your IP addresses are on your network, you can check out https://setapp.com/how-to/find-ip-address-on-mac to find it on a MAC, and you can check out this information for your Windows devices.

How Does It All Connect?

With a MAC address purely existing to let other devices on a network know what its neighbor’s address is, and an IP address connecting the addresses of the world, there can be some confusion as to what the difference is.

The truth is that they both serve similar functions of providing an address to a device that another device wants to reach. The primary difference is what type of data can travel over a route made with a MAC address and a route made with an IP address.

A MAC address is an address that is hardcoded into a device which serves to identify that device to every other device on a local network. An IP address is a flexible address that can change at any time or be assigned to a different device. IP addresses can be used to send large amounts of data over large distances, whereas a MAC address can only be used to find other devices in your network.

Think of it as a baby and just learning how to find its way around. When first learning how to crawl, it has to go to each and every room to discover what exists there and how it can interact with its surroundings. For this time, the child is limited to its immediate surroundings. During this time, the baby is routing similar to a MAC address. It can only find local rooms and then use those rooms as instructed.

Once the baby grows into a child, it can route across the entire town and the world. This is similar to when your devices discover IP addresses and can access information from anywhere in the world. A computer has to first learn its local network before it can discover anything on the world wide web.

Keep Learning, and It Will All Come Together

When someone asks what is a MAC address and what is an IP address the answers appear very similar at first, but when you dig down deep, the differences are vast. Discovering what a MAC address or an IP address is is just the start of understanding how data travels across your house and across the world.

Feel free to read our other articles explaining how technology works for you. The more you understand and unearth, the more it all fits together.