Using Private Browsing on iPhone

Go dark in Safari to protect your privacy

Hands holding an iPhone in bed next to a nightstand

Tero Vesalainen / Getty Images

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Most people leave digital footprints everywhere they go online when they log in to a website or when advertisers track them with cookies. It's hard to stay incognito on the web. That's true in a web browser, too. Any browsing session leaves behind information such as the sites visited in the browser history. To prevent your browsing history from being saved and viewable by others, use Private Browsing. Here's what you need to know about Private Browsing and how to use it.

Instructions in this article apply to iPhones running iOS 12.

Illustration of a man in a ninja suit with an iPhone.
Lifewire / Theresa Chiechi

What Private Browsing Keeps Private

Private Browsing is a feature of the iPhone Safari web browser that prevents the browser from leaving many of the digital footprints that normally follow your movement online. However, while it's excellent for erasing your history, it doesn't offer complete privacy.

When turned on, Private Browsing mode in Safari:

  • 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 the device.

What Private Browsing Doesn't Block

Private Browsing doesn't offer total privacy. The list of things it can't block includes:

  • The IP address of the device and any related data are visible.
  • Bookmarks saved while in a private session are visible in normal browsing mode.
  • Anyone who monitors the traffic on the network you're connected to may be able to see what pages you visit. This mostly happens at work or when 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 sees your device and behavior (and, due to new laws, can sell that information).
  • If your device includes monitoring software (most likely on a device supplied by your company), Private Browsing does not stop that software from recording your activity.

Given these limitations, explore the iPhone 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 to be saved on your device? Here's how to turn on Private Browsing:

  1. Tap Safari to open it.

  2. Tap the new window icon in the lower-right corner (it looks like two overlapping rectangles).

  3. Tap Private.

  4. Tap the Plus (+) button to open a new window.

    Three iOS screens showing Open New Window button, Private browsing, and Plus button in Safari
  5. While in private mode, the top and bottom of the websites you visit in Safari turn dark gray.

How to Turn Off Private Browsing

To turn off Private Browsing:

  1. Tap the new window icon.

  2. Tap Private.

  3. The Private Browsing window disappears and windows that were open in Safari before you started Private Browsing reappear.

    Three iOS screens showing new window, private browsing, and Plus buttons to drop out of Private Browsing mode

One Major Warning

You use Private Browsing because you don't want people to see what you've been looking at, but in iOS 8 and later there's a catch. If you turn on Private Browsing, view some sites, then tap the Private Browsing button to turn it off, the windows that were open are saved. The next time you tap Private Browsing to enter that mode, the windows that were left open during your last private session display. This means that anyone with access to your phone can see the sites you left open.

To prevent this, always close browser windows before exiting Private Browsing. To do that, tap the X in the upper-left corner of each window. Only exit Private Browsing after each window is closed.

A Smaller Warning: Third-Party Keyboards

If you use a third-party keyboard with your iPhone, pay attention when it comes to private browsing. Some of these keyboards capture the words you type and use that information to generate autocomplete and spell-check suggestions. That's useful, but these keyboards 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 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 children visit on their iPhones is worrisome. The Content Restriction settings built into the iPhone do not prevent kids from using Private Browsing. Restrictions allow you to disable Safari or block explicit websites (though this doesn't work for all sites), but not to disable Private Browsing. 

To prevent your kids from keeping their browsing private, use Restrictions to disable Safari, then install a parent-controlled web browser app such as:

How to Delete Your Browser History on iPhone

If you forgot to turn on Private Browsing, you may have a browser history of things you don't want. Delete the iPhone browsing history by following these steps:

  1. Tap Settings.

  2. Tap Safari.

  3. Tap Clear History and Website Data.

  4. Tap Clear History and Data.

    Three iOS screens showing Safari, Clear History and Website Data, and confirmation dialog in Settings app

This deletes more than the browser history. This deletes cookies, some website address autocomplete suggestions, and more, from both this device and other devices linked to the same iCloud account. That may seem extreme or at least inconvenient, but it is the only way to clear the history on an iPhone.