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What is a MAC Address?

By Derek Schauland
Updated May 16, 2024
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A Media Access Control address or MAC address is a unique code assigned to every piece of hardware that connects to the Internet. Internet capable phones, Network Interface Cards for desktop or notebook computers, Wireless Access Cards, and even some memory cards are among the devices that are assigned MAC addresses.

When a manufacturer creates a network capable piece of hardware they will assign the MAC address which will usually begin with a code that is tied to the manufacturer. The code will be unique to every device, even two devices of the same type.

A device’s MAC address is composed of six pairs of hexadecimal numbers. The numbers are separated by colons as in the following example:

6E:51:F5:c1:11:00

MAC addresses are used at the data link layer of the OSI hardware model to allow packets to be passed directly between devices on a network. This helps to ensure that the data is sent to a physical device before being decoded and/or manipulated by a device.

A MAC address is similar to an IP address that the device also receives in that it ensures each device is unique and allows data to be passed among hardware devices. An IP address allows two devices to communicate across a LAN or network environment — normally IP addresses should also be unique and will allow the exchange of data.

Once assigned, the MAC address is used to ensure that each device connected to the LAN or other network is unique. With the recent advances in wireless networking technology, the address from a wireless card can be entered into the configuration pages for a network’s wireless router. From there the router can either allow or deny the device to connect based on its MAC address. This can provide additional security for the network.

Many people who use network connected devices will not ever need the MAC address to use the device. Some service providers will require the address of a device to be registered with them to ensure those who are paying for or are subscribed to the service are the only users who can connect. If this is the case, the MAC address can typically be found on a sticker on the device. If the device is portable, it may be printed inside the battery compartment.

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Discussion Comments
By anon261253 — On Apr 14, 2012

@anon105343: They're totally separate. Your MAC address does not change, your IP does.

By anon105343 — On Aug 20, 2010

how do I convert a mac address to an ipv4 address?

Please, do help.

By plaid — On Aug 02, 2010

The first part of the MAC address contains an ID number of the manufacturer. These IDs are regulated by an Internet standards body. The other part of a MAC address represents the serial number assigned to the adapter by the adapter manufacturer.

By bbpuff — On Aug 02, 2010

@gameaddicted - You actually can change your MAC address. Usually it's through the interface configuration, but it differs depending on what operating system you're using (Linux, Mac, Windows).

By gameaddicted — On Aug 02, 2010

@WalrusTusk - The MAC address is a value linked with your network adapter. MAC addresses are also known as hardware or physical addresses. They are what identifies an adapter on a local connection. So technically in answer to your question you can't.

By WalrusTusk — On Aug 02, 2010

I know that this article touched base on how the MAC address was assigned and stuff, but I was wondering - once assigned, can you change the mac address?

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