What is private browsing? How to use it on any browser

A woman looking up from laptop after researching how to use private browsing.

Major web browsers offer private browsing or incognito modes. But what does “private” really mean? Find out here.

Want to research a medical condition without worrying that others might stumble upon your search history? Maybe you're researching a gift and you don't want your significant other to discover your recent website views, spoiling the surprise. Or maybe you want to browse YouTube without influencing the recommendations that the site gives you the next time you log on. 

A private browser can help. All web browsers give you the option to use a privacy mode when you're searching the web. This includes Incognito mode on Chrome; Private Browsing on Firefox, Safari and Opera; and InPrivate in Microsoft Edge.

And these private browser options will keep your online activity hidden. If your someone else logs onto your computer after you’ve closed your private browsing window, they be able to see what websites you visited or videos you watched. 

Just don't make the mistake of believing that a private browser keeps you completely anonymous when you're online. It doesn't. Plenty of people and organizations can still track your online activities even if you are using a private browser. 

So what is private browsing? Here's a look at when using this service makes sense and what protection it offers.

What a private browser does

When you search the web in a private mode, your browser won't store a history of the sites you've visited, videos you've watched or online forums you’ve posted to. The private browser also won't store any cookies – codes that track the sites you've visited – or remember any usernames or passwords that you've entered during your online session.

That sounds reassuring. But there is a catch: While private browsing does keep others, such as anyone who logs onto your laptop or computer after you've finished using it, from seeing what you've been doing online, it doesn't provide complete privacy. Far from it, in fact. Everyone from your employer to government agencies can still see your browsing activity.

If you want more privacy while browsing the web? You'll need to use more sophisticated tools. 

A private browser might be as private as you think

While private browsing does hide your immediate past online activity, it doesn't offer complete anonymity. If you're using a work computer, your employer can still see your online activity. Your internet service provider, too, can track what sites you've visited and files you've downloaded.

Private browsing also doesn't keep your online activity a secret from government agencies. And hackers can still spy on your browsing, especially if you are relying on public Wi-Fi to connect to the internet.

Finally, private browsing doesn't protect you from downloading a virus or malware. You can still infect your devices even after turning private browsing on.

This doesn't mean that private browsing doesn't have its uses. 

When to use a private browser 

Private browsing modes don’t offer complete privacy online, but still offer benefits. Here’s a sample:

  • Using a computer at a library or hotel? A private browser allows you to use a shared computer or someone else’s device while preventing your passwords, search records, and browsing history from being saved on that device. It also means that other hotel guests or library patrons won’t be able to see what you searched for or watched when  you were online. 
  • Logging into multiple email accounts? You can open a tab in private browsing mode and log into several email accounts without the inconvenience of logging off from one account and logging into another.
  • Gift shopping? You can keep your purchases a secret.
  • Researching a delicate topic? A private browser may save you from embarrassment or revealing a health concern. 
  • Booking travel accommodations? If you’re looking for cheap airfares or hotel bookings, a private browser may help by disabling web tracking — which means ticket sellers are less likely to hike those fares. 

How do you use private browsing?

Do you want to activate private browsing? Several major web browsers offer this feature to help keep your temporary browsing history private from other users. Here are some examples: 

Private browsing in Chrome

Google Chrome’s Incognito Mode was designed to make it easier to share computers in public places such as the office. Chrome won’t save your browsing history, cookies, site data, or information you enter on forms. It will keep files you download and your bookmarks. 

How to turn on Incognito Mode on your computer, Android, iPhone, or iPad:

  1. Open Chrome. Click on the tools menu (three vertical dots on Mac or three stacked lines on Windows) in the upper right corner.
  2. Choose “New Incognito Window” to open a new private browsing window.
Private Chrome

If you’d rather use a keyboard shortcut, you can press Control+Shift+N to open a new incognito window. 

Private browsing in Safari

Safari’s private browsing mode removes temporary files — browsing history, form data, and cookies — by default when the window is closed.

To enable private browsing on a Mac:

  1. Open Safari. Navigate to the menu bar and choose “File.”
  2. Click on the “Private Window” option to open a private window.
Private Safari

For a keyboard shortcut, press Shift+Command+N to open a private browsing window in Safari.

To enable private browsing on Safari while on an iPhone or iPad:

  1. Tap the new tab icon in the lower right corner of the screen.
  2. Click “Private” in the lower left corner to open a private window.
Private Safari Ipad

Private browsing in Firefox

The Mozilla Firefox Private Browsing mode is similar to the others, but it offers an additional feature in the form of tracking protection. With this feature, Mozilla helps protect your browsing history from being gathered by third parties.

How to access private browsing in Firefox:

  1. Open Firefox.
  2. Go to the menu in the upper right corner (three horizontal lines) and click “New Private Window.” 
  3. A new private window will appear with a purple mask icon in the top right of the Firefox window.
Private Firefox

You can also use the keyboard shortcuts: Control+Shift+N for Windows or Command+Shift+N on a Mac.

Your Firefox private window has a purple band across it, and from there you can turn on an additional tracking-protection feature.

InPrivate browsing in Internet Explorer

Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Edge offer an InPrivate browsing window that provides the same features as the others. While using this feature, the browser won’t save the pages you visit, form data, or web searches. But keep in mind, files you download and your bookmarks will be saved on your computer after you close the InPrivate window. 

To access InPrivate browsing on Internet Explorer:

  1. Open Internet Explorer.  Click on the gear icon in the upper right corner.
  2. Choose “Safety” from the drop-down menu.
  3. Then choose “InPrivate Browsing” to open a private window.
Private Explorer

For an Internet Explorer keyboard shortcut, you can press Control+Shift+P.

To access InPrivate browsing on Microsoft Edge:

  1. Navigate to the menu (three dots in a row) in the upper right corner.
  2. Choose “New InPrivate window” to open a private window.
Private Edge

While in this private mode, the browser tabs will say “InPrivate.”

Private browsing in Opera incognito

While Opera’s private browsing mode offers the same temporary data privacy as the others, an additional feature enables you to turn on its own VPN connection that could further protect your browsing activities.

To enable Opera incognito:

  1. Open the Opera browser. Click the menu in the upper left corner.
  2. Choose “New Private Window” to open a private browsing window.
Private Opera

FAQs about private browsing 

Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about private browsing. 

What is private browsing?

All browsers provide privacy mode to turn on and help keep your online activity hidden while searching the web. 

Does private browsing keep you anonymous?

Not entirely – employers can see your browsing activity on company-owned devices. Government agencies and internet service providers can also see sites visited and files downloaded. 

Does private browsing protect you from viruses?

No. You can still download malware to your devices even if you're browsing in private mode.

When should you use private browsing?

If you are using a computer in a public space or if searching sensitive information on a home device, private browsing will prevent other users from seeing what sites you've visited.

What's a better option for privacy?

If you want greater online protection and anonymity, a virtual private network, better known as a VPN, can help. 

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Alison Grace Johansen
  • Alison Grace Johansen
  • Freelance writer
Alison Grace Johansen is a freelance writer who covers cybersecurity and consumer topics. Her background includes law, corporate governance, and publishing.

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