Using Private Browsing on iPhone

Private Browsing on iPhone
image credit Gary Waters/Ikon Images/Getty Images

We leave digital footprints everywhere we go online. Whether that's by logging into a website or advertisers tracking us, it's hard to be totally incognito on the web. That's true in your web browser, too. Any browsing session leaves behind information like what sites you've visited in your browser history.

In most cases, we accept that and it's no big deal. But depending on what we're browsing, we may prefer not to have our browsing history saved and viewable by others. In that case, you need Private Browsing.

Private Browsing is a feature of the iPhone's Safari web browser that prevents your browser from leaving some of the digital footprints that would normally follow your movement online. But while it's great for erasing your history, it doesn't offer complete privacy. Here's what you need to know about Private Browsing and how to use it.

What Private Browsing Keeps Private

When turned on, Private Browsing:

  • Does not save any records of your browsing history
  • Does not save passwords entered into websites
  • Does not allow autocompletion of saved usernames and passwords
  • Does not retain search history
  • Prevents some websites from adding tracking cookies to your device.

What Private Browsing Can't Block

While it blocks those things, Private Browsing doesn't offer total, bulletproof privacy. The list of things it can't block includes:

  • Your device's IP address and any related data
  • If you save a bookmark while in a private session, it will be visible in normal browsing mode
  • Anyone who is monitoring the traffic on the network you're connected to may be able to see what pages you visit (this is most likely to happen if you're at work or using a work-issued device)
  • The websites you connect to can see your device and behavior on their site
  • The servers that those websites reside on can see your device and behavior
  • Your ISP see your device and behavior with it (and, thanks to new laws, can sell that information)
  • If your device includes monitoring software (most likely to happen on a device supplied by your company), Private Browsing will likely not stop that software from recording your activity.

Given these limitations, you may want to explore the iPhone's security settings and other means to prevent spying on your digital life.

How to Turn On Private Browsing

About to do some browsing that you don't want saved on your device? Here's how to turn Private Browsing on:

  1. Tap Safari to open it.
  2. Tap the new window icon in the bottom right corner (it looks like two overlapping rectangles).
  3. Tap Private.
  4. Tap the + button to open a new window.

You'll know you're in private mode because the Safari window surrounding the web page you're visiting turns gray.

How to Turn Off Private Browsing

To turn off Private Browsing:

  1. Tap new window icon in the bottom right corner.
  2. Tap Private.
  3. The Private Browsing window disappears and any other windows that were open in Safari before you started Private Browsing reappear.

One Major Warning in iOS 8

You use Private Browsing because you don't want people to see what you've been looking at, but in iOS 8 there's an important catch.

If you turn on Private Browsing, view some sites, and then tap the Private Browsing button to turn it off, all the windows you had open are saved. The next time you tap Private Browsing to enter that mode, you'll see the windows left open during your last private session. This means that anyone can see the sites you left open—not very private.

To prevent this, always make sure to close your browser windows before exiting Private Browsing. To do that, tap the X in the top left corner of each window. Only after they're all closed should you exit Private Browsing.

This issue only applies to iOS 8. In iOS 9 and up, the window is automatically closed when you turn off Private Browsing, so there's nothing to worry about.

A Smaller Warning: Third-Party Keyboards

If you use a third-party keyboard on your iPhone, pay attention when it comes to private browsing. Some of these keyboards capture the words you type and use that information to make autocomplete and spellcheck suggestions. That's useful, but they also capture words you type during Private Browsing and may suggest them in normal browsing mode. Again, not terribly private. To avoid this, use the iPhone's default keyboard during Private Browsing. 

Is It Possible to Disable Private Browsing?

If you're a parent, the idea of not being able to know what sites your child is visiting on their iPhone may be worrisome. So you may be wondering if the Content Restriction settings built into the iPhone can prevent your kids from using this feature. Unfortunately, the answer is no.

Restrictions can allow you to disable Safari or block explicit websites (though this doesn't work for all sites), but not to disable Private Browsing. 

If you want to prevent your kids from keeping their browsing private, your best bet is to use Restrictions to disable Safari and then install a parent-controlled web browser app like:

How to Delete Your Browser History on iPhone

Forgot to turn on Private Browsing and now have a browser history full of things you don't want? You can delete your iPhone's browsing history by following these steps:

  1. Tap Settings.
  2. Tap Safari.
  3. Tap Clear History and Website Data.
  4. In the window that pops up from the bottom of the screen, tap Clear History and Data.

When you do this, you'll delete more than just your browser history. You'll also delete cookies, some websites address autocomplete suggestions, and more, from both this device and all other devices linked to the same iCloud account. That may seem extreme, or at least inconvenient, but this is the only way to clear your history on iPhone.