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MAC Address vs. IP Address: What Is the Difference?


Finding it hard to differentiate between a MAC address and an IP address? You’re certainly not alone, and you’ve come to the right place. These two terms—Mac address and IP address—are easily confused since, as much as they imply the same thing (an address), they have different use cases, and each is unique in its way.

Let’s dive in and help you understand what IP and MAC addresses are and their key differences.

What Is a Mac Address?

MAC stands for Media Access Control. A MAC address is a unique 12-digit hexadecimal identifier given to a network interface controller (NIC). A NIC (also known as a network interface card) helps identify devices connected to a given network. As the name suggests, a network interface card provides the interface upon which your internet-enabled device connects to the internet, via Wi-Fi or through an Ethernet cable.

command prompt ipconfig find mac address

MAC addresses are assigned by Network Interface Controller manufacturers making the identifiers permanent. However, it’s possible to change your MAC address. Since a MAC address is tied to the network interface card, it is also commonly referred to as the physical address.

A MAC address is commonly displayed in six sets of two-digits or characters separated by either a colon (:), hyphen (-), or period (.) for better readability. Here’s an example of a MAC address; 3A:34:52:C4:69:B8. The first three sets represent the organizational identifier, while the last three identify a specific NIC.

example mac address

While the term “MAC” might make you think MAC addresses are related to Apple devices, they aren’t. Any device that can connect to the internet has a MAC address. And by any, we mean, any. So your five-year-old HP laptop, your Google Assistant smart speaker, your smart TV, and any other devices that you can hook on to the internet have a MAC address.


Related: How to Look Up the MAC Address on Your Windows PC

What Is an IP Address?

An Internet Protocol (IP) address is a unique identifier given to a device connected to a local network or the internet. An IP address can be likened to a home address, which is important when sending mail. Similarly, an IP address enables different devices connected to a network to communicate. It is the address from which your computer sends and receives data.

For instance, if you want to send data to a specific computer on the internet, a router will route it to that computer because of its unique identity (IP address). The same applies to websites; every website has a unique IP address.

There are two versions of IP addresses, IPv4 and IPv6. IPv4 includes a set of four numbers separated by periods ranging from 0 to 255. Here’s a sample IPv4 address: Whereas an IPv6 consists of eight sets of four-character strings of numbers and letters with colons in between. A sample IPv6 address is 2001:db8:3333:4444:5555:6666:7777:8888. IPv6 is the latest version of IP addresses.

Differences Between a MAC Address and IP Address

Now that you understand what IP addresses and MAC addresses are all about, let’s dive into how they differ from each other. First, an internet service provider (ISP) provides an IP address, while a Network Interface Controller manufacturer assigns a MAC address. An IP address is either a 32-bit (IPv4) or a 128-bit (IPv6) logical address, while a MAC address is a 48-bit physical address.

MAC addresses operate in the data link layer of the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) model, while IP addresses operate in the network layer. Another difference between a MAC address and an IP address is the latter is temporary while the former is permanent (You can change it, but do it with caution).

Related: How to Find and Change the IP Address on Your MacAlso, two or more devices can’t share a MAC address, while multiple devices can share a single IP address. The key takeaway is an IP address identifies a connection to the network, while a MAC address identifies a physical device hooked on to the network.

Differentiate Between IP and MAC Addresses

With your new knowledge of what an IP and a MAC address are, you now understand that while the two terms may look similar, they each have their applications and differ in various ways. Both are useful in networking, each proving handy in different scenarios, and you can’t substitute one for another at all cost.

iPhone showing mobile IP address information
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