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

If you're like most people, you leave digital footprints everywhere you go online by logging into a website or advertisers tracking you. It's hard to stay incognito on the web. That's true in your web browser, too. Any browsing session leaves behind information such as the sites you visited in your browser history.

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

Instructions in this article apply to iPhones running iOS 12.

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

Private Browsing is a feature of the iPhone's Safari web browser that prevents your 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. 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 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 your device

What Private Browsing Doesn't Block

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

  • Your device's IP address 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 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 sees your device and behavior (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 does 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 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 bottom right corner (it looks like two overlapping rectangles).

  3. Tap Private.

  4. Tap the + button to open a new window.

    Three iOS screens showing Open New Window button, Private browsing, and Plus button in Safari

You know you're in private mode when 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 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.

    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 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 see the windows left open during your last private session. This means that anyone with access to your phone can see the sites you left open — not very private.

To prevent this, always 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.

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 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 children visit on their iPhones is worrisome. Unfortunately, the Content Restriction settings built into the iPhone do not prevent your 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. 

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? 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.

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

When you do this, you delete more than just your browser history. You 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 it is the only way to clear your history on iPhone.