How Does Your Browser Determine Your Location?

How Does Your Browser Determine Your Location
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How your browser knows where you are: a brief summary

Your browser uses different types and sources of information to identify your location. These include your IP address, geolocation via HTML5 in your browser, and your PC’s language and time settings.

If you want to completely prevent external parties from determining your location via your browser, use a VPN. A VPN renders your activity on the internet much more anonymous and ensures you won’t have to worry about the settings of your browser or PC. VPNOverview recommends ExpressVPN:

As soon as you’ve installed ExpressVPN, it will be much more difficult for other parties to determine your location. After all, your internet traffic will be directed through a server at a different location. That means the location that’s visible to others, is the location of the VPN server you’re using.

Many websites display your location on their homepage, indicating that they know (exactly) where you are. For example: If you’re on the English version of a website, but your browser recognizes that you’re in France, a popup might show up asking whether you would prefer to visit the French version.

How does your browser know where you are? Is the fact it knows this information problematic? How can you prevent this? These are the main questions we’ll be answering in this article.

How Does My Browser Know My Location?

You might be wondering whether websites can really just find out where you are at any given moment. The answer is probably “yes”. The internet knows exactly where you are unless you’ve taken steps to hide your online location. In fact, your browser probably leaks a massive amount of information about you. Our location tool can show you whether this is the case for you:

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There are several ways in which your browser can determine where you are. Some of these techniques are highly accurate, while others give more of a rough estimation of your location. It also differs per technique how easily you can prevent your location from being identified. We will explain the best-known and most popular techniques below.

HTML5 Geolocation

One of the most frequently used ways in which your browser can see where you are is through HTML5 geolocation. Most well-known browsers use this tool to share your location, so websites can adjust things like advertisements or languages to your location.

The HTML5 geolocation technique works via an Application Programming Interface (API). With the right API, a tool can also be used by another program or another tool. In this case, we’re talking about a location tool. The browsers that want to use this tool communicate with an HTML5 geolocation API. This makes it possible to use location tracking in Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Edge, and other browsers.

This specific API extracts information about your location from various sources. GPS is one of the most important sources for mobile devices. This is the same technology that Google Maps, Apple Maps, and other navigation apps use. However, many PCs and laptops don’t work with GPS, so the API can’t gather this information. You can even disable GPS on your phone, so that this data can no longer be gathered and used on that device, either.

The HTML5 geolocation API uses more than just GPS to track your location. They also read network signals, such as your IP address, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth information, and specific information that’s entered by users themselves. The latter means that you always need to take care of which data about yourself you share while online. Below we will discuss IP addresses, Wi-Fi access points, Bluetooth, and how they give away your location in a bit more detail.

Your IP address gives away your location

Map with location arrowFirstly, your IP address is one of the network characteristics your browser can use to identify your location. IP stands for “Internet Protocol”. An IP address is nothing more than a unique code that is used to identify the internet network you’re connected to.

Your IP address shares the location of your network with websites and other online entities. In other words, if someone has your IP address, they know your location as well. This makes your IP a good source of information for the HTML5 location API. This location can be as accurate as your street and house number, so a website could see you are at number 15, Park Avenue in New York, for instance.

Moreover, websites can identify your IP address, even if you didn’t give your browser permission to use HTML5 geolocation. In other words, your IP address can give your location away to the entire internet even without HTML5 geolocation. After all, your IP address enables communication via the internet. If your IP address isn’t sent to the websites you visit, you won’t be able to access those websites. Does this mean you can’t be anonymous online? Absolutely not. There are ways to hide your IP address, so your location isn’t shared online. We will get back to this later.

If you want to know what your IP address currently says about you, check out our IP address tool. On this page, you’ll see directly what others can gather from your IP address. We’ve established that your IP address provides a lot of information about you, and yet this isn’t the most popular method used in HTML5 geolocation. That honor goes to a combination of GPS and other factors, such as your Wi-Fi information.

Location information based on Wi-Fi access points

Big companies that have their own browsers (with location services), continuously collect information about Wi-Fi Access Points and network IDs (SSIDs). These companies tend to be tech giants such as Google, Apple, and Microsoft. The information they gather can also reveal where you are. This is another tool used in HTML5 geolocation.

All Wi-Fi access points in your vicinity can be picked up by your device, no matter whether they are public Wi-Fi hotspots such as the ones at McDonald’s or in shops, or private networks (e.g. at home). Even if you don’t connect to those Wi-Fi networks, information about them is stored. The Wi-Fi networks you have access to at any time say a lot about your location. To give an example: Even if you pass a McDonald’s on your way to work, your browser can find out where you are!

Big companies like Google can combine information about Wi-Fi networks with GPS information, to find out more about your location. Even the strength of a Wi-Fi signal can say something about your distance to a certain Wi-Fi network. This information can then be compared to the same data of devices of other people who do have their GPS activated. This way, companies can find out where you are, even when you’ve hidden your IP address and your GPS is turned off.

Bluetooth location

In addition to GPS, your IP address, and Wi-Fi networks, your Bluetooth connection can help identify your location as well. As soon as you turn on your GPS, your location data, including active Bluetooth signals in your environment, are transmitted to Google and Apple. The databases in which all of this information ends up are huge. This way, these companies – as well as your browser – can identify your location when your GPS is turned off.

In short, Bluetooth is used for HTML5 geolocation in the same way as Wi-Fi signals. It’s important to note that Bluetooth can give a very precise estimation of your location – with an accuracy of up to five meters.

HTML5 Geolocation Needs User Permission

If you give Google Chrome permission to share your location with a website, that browser sends local network information to Google Location Services. This way, the browser can estimate your location. That estimation is then shared with the website. Your browser can subsequently make a more accurate estimation by combining Wi-Fi access points, GPS, local router(s), and your IP address.

The good news is that it’s fairly easy to stop this process: this accurate estimation can’t be made if you don’t give your device permission to share your location via your browser. This stops the HTML5 geolocation, so your sensitive information can’t be used by websites – so make sure to always have this turned off in your settings. This way you disable the most accurate technique used by browsers to recognize your location.

Revoking permission does not guarantee anything

The developers of the API for HTML5 geolocation have set rules for the use of their technology. Below is a quote from a manual for the HTML5 Geolocation API, from the World Wide Web Consortium:

“A conforming implementation of this specification must provide a mechanism that protects the user’s privacy and this mechanism should ensure that no location information is made available through this API without the user’s express permission.”

In other words: users of the API must protect the privacy of their visitors and make sure that no location information will be made available through the API without the visitor having given express permission. This is a rather clear statement, but still one could have one’s reservations. Does “express permission” mean that each and every website and platform that uses the API should give a notification to ask for permission? Or does it suffice to include the use of the API in the privacy statement?

In addition, the fact remains that even without using HTML5 geolocation, there are other ways to identify your location – like tracking your IP address. Fortunately, there’s a simple way to put an end to this as well, which we discuss below.

Use a VPN for Anonymous Browsing

If you want to be guaranteed that websites won’t be able to see your IP address, you should opt for a VPN to completely shield your internet connection from third parties. A VPN doesn’t just ensure your anonymity but also keeps your data safe. All your internet traffic will be encrypted, making it more difficult for cybercriminals to obtain your data. This also means your browser won’t be able to determine your location based on your IP address as easily.

One of the best VPN services we have tested is ExpressVPN. This is a very safe and trustworthy provider, which also offers simple and user-friendly software. ExpressVPN lets you shield your IP address from spies in just one click. It’s that simple.

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Browser or Operating System Settings

There is another way in which websites can guess in which country you are: they might check your language preferences. When you install a browser on your device and adjust the settings, you choose the language you want to use. As such, websites can guess that users in Spain will opt for Spanish, while users in Sweden will opt for Swedish, etc. Browsers can usually read from your operating system which language you’re using, making it fairly easy to determine your most likely country of residence.

Airplane above planet EarthThe good news is that this has nothing to do with your real location, because you could set the language to Arabic while you are in Denmark, for example. Moreover, there are many languages that are spoken in several countries around the world, such as English and Spanish. Lastly, there are many people who speak a certain language but don’t live in the country where that language is spoken the most. Take US citizens who migrate to mainland Europe, for instance (e.g. France or Spain). As such, this method relies, to a large extent, on guesswork.

Note: if a website asks whether you want to view a certain page in Spanish and you click “yes”, this data may be added to your user profile. This way, third parties will still be able to learn that you speak Spanish and are therefore likely from Spain, Mexico, or another Spanish-speaking country. If you really want to make sure websites don’t use this kind of information, it’s best not to comply with such suggestions on websites.

The time zone on your computer

Another way for your browser to estimate your location is by checking the time zone on your PC. External parties can make an educated guess about where you are due to the fact that your timezone is set to, for instance, Pacific Time.

Websites could estimate the country you’re in, especially if they combine your time zone with your preferred language. This way sites can differentiate between Portuguese-speaking people from Portugal and Brazil, for instance. Collecting and combining these little pieces of information that by themselves seem unimportant is also known as browser fingerprinting.

If a browser can only read your language preferences and time zone, you’re still as good as unrecognizable, because you might as well be in one of the other countries in that time zone. This is especially the case if you have chosen a language that’s widely used, such as English.

Unfortunately, this often isn’t the case. If you want to know more about how you can adjust your computer settings in such a way that websites and other parties get as little information about you as possible, you can read our article about browser fingerprinting.

Operating system settings

You can also turn off location recognition in Windows itself. When you search for “location” in the search bar in Windows 10, you’ll see the option “location privacy settings”. If you click on this and toggle off the option “turn off location”, location recognition will be turned off for your entire operating system.

In macOS, you can turn off location recognition by going to “Privacy” and then “Location Services” in your settings. Then, you can turn off “Location Services” as a whole, or select the option “Never” for every app you don’t wish to reveal your location to.

On a related note, Apple indicates that location services on their mobile devices, such as the iPhone, automatically turn on when you call 911, for instance. This measure is intended to make things easier for emergency services. Of course, this doesn’t apply to laptops, but it does show that turning off location recognition doesn’t mean nobody can ever identify your location.

What Your Browser Knows About You

Your location is one of the characteristics by which websites and online platforms can determine your identity. Do you want to see what your browser, and therefore websites, know about you? Click below to get an overview of the information that is freely available from your device. If you haven’t taken any steps to stay anonymous (yet), your browser will be able to estimate your location very accurately.

Conclusion: How Your Browser Knows Where You Are

There are various ways for external parties to estimate your location online. In addition to your IP address, browsers can see your location via HTML5 geolocation, while some websites even make an estimation based on your preferred language and time zone.

If you want to be safer and more anonymous online, opt for a VPN so your IP address stays hidden and no one can see what you’re doing online. Our top 5 list of the best VPNs right now provides you with an overview of providers that we recommend. If you’re also careful with your settings and browser fingerprinting, your online privacy will be much better protected.

How your browser recognizes your location: frequently asked questions

Do you have a burning question you want answered quickly? Have a look at our frequently asked questions below and your question might just be answered in no time.

There are several ways in which a browser can see your location, but HTML5 geolocation is by far the most commonly used method – especially by well-known browsers like Chrome, Edge, and Firefox. This technology collects information from your IP address and the unique information of the network you’re connected to by using an API. You can read more about how this works right here.

There are several ways to prevent your browser from knowing where you are. Firstly, it’s possible to turn off location recognition in your browser settings; every well-known browser has this setting.

Secondly, you can use a VPN. This is the easiest way to make sure no one can see your IP address – and therefore your location – both within and outside your browser. For more information, read our full article about VPNs.

You can’t always see whether a website knows your location, but some websites give a notification if they think you’re viewing the wrong version of their website. This may occur, for instance, when you’re viewing a Spanish page while an English version of that page is also available. Other sites will even switch automatically to the version of the country where you’re located. One example of this is Google, which automatically shows the British version of its search engine if you’re in the United Kingdom.

You can use our tool to see what information your browser has about you, including your location.

Cybersecurity analyst
David is a cybersecurity analyst and one of the founders of VPNoverview.com. Since 2014 he has been gaining international experience working with governments, NGOs, and the private sector as a cybersecurity and VPN expert and advisor.