What is private browsing mode, and how to use it

The most common misconception about private browsing or incognito mode is that it makes users invisible online. Incognito will make your browsing more private on your device. However, it will not make you anonymous to your internet service provider (ISP) or the websites you are visiting.

Read on to find out why. We’ll also give you precise instructions on enabling incognito mode on your desktop and mobile browser.

Understanding private browsing (incognito) mode

Incognito, from Italian, means having one’s identity concealed. Also called private browsing mode, it’s a privacy feature available in web browsers that allows users to surf the internet without their browsing history, search history, and other personal data being recorded on their device.

How does private browsing work

When you enable private browsing, also known as incognito mode, your web browser operates in a way that offers enhanced privacy. This mode prevents the browser from saving specific data and providing a temporary session separate from your regular browsing mode.

Let’s look at what exactly is kept private during a private browsing session:

  • Browsing history: The URLs of the websites you visit are not recorded in your browser’s history.
  • Search history: Your search queries entered into search engines are not saved.
  • Session cookies: Some temporary files containing login details, site preferences, and tracking information may be restricted.
  • Form data: Information entered into online forms, such as login credentials or personal details, is not saved.
  • Permissions: Permissions granted to websites, like access to your camera or microphone, are not retained after you exit incognito mode.

Web browsers call this private browsing with different names: 

Web browserName for “private-browsing mode”
Safari Private Browsing
ChromeIncognito mode
FirefoxPrivate browsing mode
EdgeInPrivate browsing
BravePrivate browsing
DuckDuckGoNone (it’s private by default)

Is private browsing actually private?

No, it’s not. While private browsing prevents your local browsing history, some cookies, and form data from being saved on your device, it does not protect you from tracking. Your ISP can still monitor your activity, and there may be traces of your browsing left in your device’s domain name system (DNS) cache. We discussed why private browsing mode is not really private and why it can easily be traced.

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Let’s break it down and explain each of these limitations individually.

Third-party cookies and cross-site tracking

Incognito mode does not effectively block the third-party cookies often used for cross-site tracking. While it may prevent some cookies from being saved locally on your device, many websites employ tracking methods beyond cookies, such as browser fingerprinting. These techniques can still be used to monitor your online behavior and link it across various websites, limiting the privacy offered by incognito mode.

ISP access to your online activities

When you use incognito mode, your internet service provider (ISP) can still see your online activities. While your local browsing history might not be stored on your device, your ISP can track the websites you visit and the data you transmit. This aspect of incognito mode does not shield your online behavior from your ISP’s surveillance.

DNS cache

Incognito mode does not fully clear your DNS cache, which stores records of the websites you’ve visited. These records can persist even after you exit incognito mode, potentially leaving traces of your browsing history accessible on your device. Although accessing this information may require technical expertise, your browsing is not entirely private.

What is private browsing used for?

Use private browsing to hide your browsing from other people who use the same device. With incognito or private browsing, the websites you visit do not appear in your search history, and your searches will not be saved.  

One good reason to use incognito mode is to hide the fact that you’re searching for a gift for someone with whom you share the device. Private browsing will keep your purchase secret. Another scenario is using a shared computer in a public space, say a library. Your search history will not be recorded if you use incognito mode.

Lastly, browsing “privately” may help you get a fairer price when booking a flight or a hotel. Flight and accommodation companies are known to use cookies to track user behavior and may raise prices if they detect repetitive searches for the same destination. 

Enabling private browsing mode on your browser

All major web browsers offer private browsing modes. Depending on the browser, they may be named differently and provide extra features. In this section, we’ll tell you how to activate private browsing in today’s most popular browsers, both on desktop and mobile.  Read how to open a private browser on Mac here.

Using incognito mode on Google Chrome

Google wasn’t the first to introduce private browsing mode, but it was the first to call it incognito mode. The name became so popular that it’s now used interchangeably with private browsing.

Opening incognito windows on desktop Chrome

To open a new incognito window on Chrome, click on the three dots in the upper right corner of the browser and select “new incognito window.” Alternatively, you can use a keyboard shortcut:

On Windows, Linux, and Chrome OS, press Ctrl + Shift + n. On Mac, press Command + Shift + n.

A new window will pop up. You are now browsing in incognito mode. Make sure to toggle on the option “block third-party cookies” for a more private experience. Close the window to exit incognito mode.

Incognito mode in Chrome on your mobile device

Opening an incognito tab on Chrome mobile is just as easy. Tap the three dots in the bottom right corner of the screen and select “new incognito tab.”

Using InPrivate on Microsoft Edge

Private browsing mode is called InPrivate on Microsoft Edge and resembles Chrome’s incognito mode.

How to access InPrivate browsing on a desktop

Open Microsoft Edge and click the three dots in the upper right corner to open a drop-down menu. Select “new InPrivate window.” 

An Inprivate window will open. 

We recommend you toggle “always use strict tracking prevention when using InPrivate browsing mode.” This option will block most trackers across sites.

To exit InPrivate browsing on Microsoft Edge, click “InPrivate” in the upper right corner and select “close InPrivate window.”

InPrivate browsing on mobile

To open a new InPrivate window on your mobile device, open Microsoft Edge and tap the hamburger menu in the lower right corner. Then tap “new inPrivate tab,” and an InPrivate browsing tab will appear. 

To leave the mode, tap “exit InPrivate mode.”

Private browsing on Firefox

Like all other major web browsers, Firefox offers a private browsing mode that does not save browsing information. In addition, thanks to its Enhanced Tracking Protection feature and Anti-Tracking policy, Firefox also prevents third-party cookies and hidden trackers from collecting your data. Here’s how you can access it.

Firefox private browsing mode on desktop

To open a Firefox private window, click the menu in the upper right corner and select “new private window.” You can also use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + Shift + P.

Alternatively, you can view any search result in private browsing mode by right-clicking it and selecting “open link in a new private window.”

To turn the Firefox private mode off, click the Firefox button and then “stop private browsing.”

Firefox incognito mode on mobile

To access Firefox private browsing mode on your mobile phone, open the browser, tap and hold the tab button, and select “private browsing mode.” Once done, a small purple mask icon indicates you are browsing privately. 

Tap the x to close the tab.

Private browsing on Apple’s Safari

Safari’s private browsing mode works like other browsers’ incognito mode: the search history is not saved. In addition, the mode blocks known trackers and minimizes fingerprinting. Here is how to open it.

How to access private browsing on the Safari desktop browser

To open a new private browsing window:

  1. Click on “file” on the menu bar in the upper left corner.
  2. Select “new private window.”
  3. If you prefer a keyboard shortcut instead, use Shift + ⌘ + N.

You will see a note saying “private browsing enabled,” the search tab will change color to gray. 

To exit the incognito mode on Safari, close the window.  

Opening Safari’s private browsing mode on your iPhone

Open Safari and tap and hold the tabs icon in the bottom left corner of the screen to open a menu. You can press “private” to go incognito on the already open tab or tap “new private tab” to open a new one.

Your private browsing sessions on Safari will look like this:

To leave the private browsing mode, tap on the tabs menu again (this time without holding) to see your currently open tabs. Then tap “private” and select “start page” from the menu.

Using private windows on Opera

Opera is another browser that gives you the option to browse “privately.” Here’s how to do it on desktop and mobile.

Incognito mode on desktop Opera browser

Go to “file” and select “new private window.” The keyboard shortcut is Ctrl + Shift + N for Windows and Command + Shift + N for Mac.

You’ll know that you’re using incognito mode by the color of the search bar.

Turning on private mode on Opera’s mobile browser

To enable incognito mode on your phone, open the Opera browser and tap the hamburger menu in the lower right corner. Then select “private mode.”

Use several tools instead

Private browsing offers a convenient way to prevent your local browsing history, cookies, and form data from being saved on your device. It can be handy when sharing devices, searching for surprise gifts, or avoiding paywalls. However, it’s not a silver bullet for online privacy as your ISP, employer, or even some very determined advertisers will still be able to check what you’ve been up to.

Switch to a privacy focused browser (our recommendations here). Add a secure search engine and a VPN (virtual private network) like Surfshark on top for a truly private browsing experience.

FAQ

Should private browsing be on or off?

You can turn private browsing on if you don’t want your browsing session to be recorded by your browser. It may also prevent tracking of your browsing activity to some extent. That said, even with incognito mode, your IP address will still be exposed, and not all cookies will be blocked. The method to turn off private browsing depends on the browser you are using, whether it’s Safari, Google Chrome, or another one. Refer to our article for a detailed guide on enabling and disabling private browsing across multiple browsers.

How do I know if I am in private browsing?

Most browsers display a distinctive icon when in private browsing mode. Usually, when you’re in incognito mode, the color of the search bar or the entire browser window will differ from the one used for regular browsing activity.  

Can my wife see my private browsing?

Yes, your wife will see your private browsing if she knows how to access the cookies log, which will give away on which websites you accepted cookies. She could also check your web searches on the router log you were connected to when browsing incognito unless you used a VPN.

Can I be tracked if I use private browsing?

You can be tracked when using private browsing because incognito mode doesn’t prevent online tracking. Your IP address remains visible, and tracking methods like tracking pixels and browser fingerprinting can still monitor your site activity.

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