Everything You Need to Know About Safari Private Browsing

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Everything You Need to Know About Safari Private Browsing: Summary

Ever wondered what Safari Private Browsing does exactly? Chances are it might not be giving you the level of online privacy you expect. Safari Private Browsing does have some perks, including:

  • Stopping Safari from remembering the websites you’ve visited
  • Not storing any new usernames, passwords, payments cards, and other information you input into private browsing
  • Forgetting any search engine queries you’ve run
  • Allowing you to save money by avoiding marketing cookies that might inflate prices

However, this is pretty much all the privacy that you’ll get with Safari Private Browsing. This incognito mode won’t cloak your IP address, encrypt your internet traffic, or make you safe on public Wi-Fi. Private browsing still leaves you pretty exposed to a lot of the risks that come with connecting to the internet.

For true online anonymity, you’ll need to use a VPN to change your IP address. We’re big fans of ExpressVPN, one of the fastest VPNs in the industry.

Below, you’ll find more information on how to use Safari Private Browsing on all your Apple devices, as well as more details on how this incognito mode does and doesn’t protect your privacy.

If you use a Mac, iPhone, or iPad, then chances are you’ve encountered Safari Private Browsing before. Whether you’re shopping for a partner’s gift or want to snoop on a long-lost colleague’s LinkedIn, there are many reasons why you might want to use private mode in Safari.

In this article, we answer the question, what is Safari Private Browsing? We’ll also tell you what this handy tool can’t do to save you any embarrassment or risk to your online security.

What is Safari Private Browsing?

Private mode goes by many different names — Private Browsing, Incognito, or InPrivate — depending on the browser you’re using.  The basic principle is the same: fire up a private window in your browser, and it won’t log or save any activity during the session.

There’s a little more to this method of browsing than meets the eye, but we’ll go into specifics further down in this article. The point is, for a more private experience, you can use Safari’s incognito mode. You’ll be logged out of all accounts, and Safari won’t autofill user logins, passwords, or payment information. When you turn on private browsing, Safari won’t remember:

  • Your search engine history
  • Webpages you’ve visited
  • Browsing activity or history

You should, however, be aware of a major drawback of this tool on Macs: your browsing activity likely isn’t as hidden as you might think. Websites you visit can still see who you are and what you’re doing. You can read more about this in our general incognito mode article.

With Macs, Private Browsing information is logged in a different place, as well: your Terminal archive.

Beware the Mac Terminal archive

On Macs, there’s something called the Terminal archive, and it’s as scary as it sounds — well, for fans of privacy at least. It’s a treasure trove for snoops. The Terminal archive contains all of the websites you visit, whether you’re using Safari Private Browsing or not. This is because your Mac stores static images and other files when you visit a website for the first time. This makes future visits to these sites and page loading much faster, as your Mac pulls the relevant files from the Terminal archive.

This command-line function also lets you make systemic changes to your Mac. For most users, there’ll never be a need to make any changes in the Terminal archive, and you shouldn’t if you don’t know what you’re doing. You could end up breaking something critical in your computer’s operating system if you tinker with the Terminal.

Screenshot of iOS user interface, Access Terminal app

Screenshot of Mac DNS cache command

However, it is good to know that, even when you’re using Safari’s Private Browsing mode, your online activity is logged here.

Make your Safari Private Browsing truly private

By now, you might be asking yourself: how do I clear the cache on my Mac? Well, today’s your lucky day.  Below, you’ll find a brief, step-by-step guide to clearing the cache on a Mac. Just make sure not to do anything else while inside the Terminal.

  1. Open “Finder,” then search for “Terminal” in the search bar.
  2. Run the Terminal application.
  3. Paste the following text into the Terminal and hit enter: sudo killall -HUP mDNSResponder

You may have to enter your Admin password to proceed. This is going to flush the DNS cache.

Remember that you shouldn’t do anything else inside of the Terminal application unless you know what you’re doing. It only takes a short command to nuke files or entire directories in this app forever! So, tread carefully.


Why You Should Use Safari Private Browsing on Macs and iOS

We can hypothesize all we want, but you’ve probably got a good idea of why you use private browsing. According to a 2018 research study, the most common reason people use private browsing is so others that are using a shared device can’t see what they’re doing. This comes down to protecting two things from other users of your device:

  1. Their personal data
  2. Their browsing activity

Fortunately, these are two things that Safari Private Mode manages to do wonderfully. Below, you can read more about what else Safari Private Browsing does for you.

Online privacy

Private Browsing can only give you so much in the way of online privacy, but it’s a great start. We’ll explain what we mean by that later, but for now, here’s how Safari Private Browsing can improve your online security:

  • Your browser won’t remember what websites you’ve visited. Anything you browse while you’re in private browsing mode won’t be remembered by Safari. So, if you start shopping online for gifts or a product that you find embarrassing, you won’t usually have to worry about your friends or family coming across your browsing history.
  • Safari won’t suggest usernames, passwords, credit card numbers, and so on. You’ve probably noticed that Safari can remember usernames, passwords, credit cards, and other information when you use it for the first time. If you tell your Mac, smartphone, or tablet to remember those details, they’ll be automatically filled in the next time you visit the website. With Safari Private Mode enabled, these kinds of details won’t be stored: you won’t be prompted to save or autofill them at all.
  • Your search engine queries won’t be remembered. If you’ve been shopping for gifts or trying to self-diagnose, you probably don’t want other users of the computer to see what you’ve searched for. Normally, you’ll see suggested searches popping up in search engines like Google. Based on your past searches and clicks, some links might be colored purple instead of blue, too. In private browsing mode, these won’t appear, nor will any new searches be stored.

How to pay less with Safari Private Browsing

There’s more to private mode options than just online security. You could also save money with Safari Private Browsing, as you won’t be quoted higher prices for products you’ve already viewed. When you visit a website, cookies (small text files) are stored on your computer by your browser.

These kinds of cookies aren’t delicious or rewarding at all. Instead, they allow the site to track you and figure out that you’re interested in, for example, a particular holiday destination. This can result in you seeing higher airfares, hotel booking fees, and more. Just turn on Safari’s Private Browsing to stop cookies from being stored on your browser and avoid hiked prices.


How to Go Incognito on Safari

Safari Private Browsing is supported on more than just the Mac. You can also enable private browsing on iPhones and iPads. Below, you’ll find a step-by-step guide for turning on private browsing in Safari for both desktop and mobile Apple devices.

Safari Private Browsing on a Mac

Using Safari Private Browsing on a Mac is simple. If you’re reading this on a Mac, you can skip step one in our step-by-step guide below:

  1. Open Safari on your Mac.
  2. Click on “File” in the menu bar at the top of the screen.
  3. Select “New Private Window.” This will open a new private tab, but you can open as many private tabs in your tab bar as you need.

Screenshot how to open a New Private Window on Safari

It’s that simple. Now, any new tab you open within this new private browsing window will be a private browsing tab. Give it a whirl by opening some new private tabs and navigating to a website you frequently log into. You’ll notice that your username and password aren’t suggested for autofill as they usually would be.

Also, you’ll know that you’re in private browsing, as the URL bar will have a gray background rather than the usual white. Just remember to ignore or close your existing browser window if you had any open. If in doubt, check the background color of the URL bar.

Finally, to turn off private browsing in Safari, simply click the red cross in the corner of the browser window as you usually would.

Safari Private Browsing on an iPhone

Using Safari’s private browsing mode on an iPhone or iPad is fairly straightforward and could increase your privacy on an iPhone. If you’re running iOS 14 or earlier, simply follow the steps below:

  1. Open Safari on your phone.
  2. Tap on the “Tabs” button. That’s the two small squares in the bottom-right corner of your Safari window on iPhone.
  3. A new option called “Private” should appear.
  4. Tap “Private” and you’ll be taken to a blank screen confirming that you’re using Private Browsing Mode. You’ll notice that it’s using the same gray color scheme as Safari for Mac.
  5. Lastly, click on the small “+” (plus) icon to launch a private browsing window.

Screenshots of iOS Access Private Browsing mode

If you’re using Apple’s latest iPhone update, iOS 15.1.1, you’ll need to follow a slightly different (and hey, we’ll say it — more confusing) set of steps:

  1. Open Safari on your phone.
  2. Tap on the “Tabs” button.
  3. Tap where it says “X Tab(s)” – this number will reflect the number of windows you have open.
  4. Tap “Private.”
  5. Now, you’re in Private Browsing mode and can click the small “+” (plus) icon to launch a new private window.

Screenshots of iOS Access Private Browsing mode latest Apple update

Again, turning off private browsing in Safari for iPhones or iPads is simple. Just press the same “Private” button that you used to enable the feature. Don’t forget, if you have multiple private tabs open, they won’t close automatically. Swipe each tab closed before you exit private mode if you want to leave no trace.


How to Set Safari Private Browsing as the Default

If you’d rather always browse privately, you can also set Safari Private Browsing as your default, so that it opens automatically whenever you open a new tab or window. Check out the step-by-step instructions below for a Mac:

  1. Make sure your active application is Safari, then select “Safari” from your Mac’s toolbar at the top of your screen. Click on “Preferences” next, which can also be accessed using the keyboard shortcut “Command” + “,” (that’s Command, plus a comma).
  2. Now, you should see the Privacy window for Safari. Click on the “General” tab.
  3. Next to “Safari opens with”, select “A new private window” from the drop-down list.

While you can’t automatically use Safari Private Browsing by default on mobile, there are some options for minimizing what’s remembered, stored, or recommended. Here’s how you get there:

  1. Open the “Settings” application.
  2. Scroll down until you see “Safari” and tap on that option.

Now, you’ll have the choice to use a number of features. You can:

  • Disable search engine suggestions
  • Disable Safari suggestions specifically
  • Turn off autofill for Safari, either for personal information, payment information, or both
  • Disable “Favorites“, which you can save in your Safari app’s home screen
  • Turn off “Frequently Visited Sites“, which appear below your favorites

In this menu, you can also prevent cross-site tracking and block all cookies on the websites that you visit. In the event that you forget to launch Safari Private Browsing, these options should give you at least a little more privacy whenever you go online.


Is Safari Private Browsing Safe?

Whether you can consider the Private Browsing option safe, depends on your definition of “safe.” Safari Private Browsing will give you greater privacy in certain situations. However, it won’t protect you from certain other online threats. When you use Safari Private Browsing, or any private browsing mode for that matter, you’re not anonymous online. Your browsing activity will still be visible to anybody with access, like your employer, school, ISP (Internet Service Provider), or even hackers.

That last risk is surprisingly common on public Wi-Fi networks too. Bear in mind that private browsing doesn’t protect you against malware (malicious software) either, nor does it protect your payment information or other personal details. For true online anonymity and to improve your online security, you should give serious thought to using a VPN (Virtual Private Network).

How to use a VPN with Safari Private Browsing

Using a VPN along with Safari Private Browsing should give you the online security you’re looking for. In addition to avoiding any logged browsing history or search history, you’ll be much harder to track and enjoy greater online anonymity. You can check out the many advantages of a VPN for more information. Want to get started right away? The following steps will only take a few minutes of your time:

  1. Choose a VPN provider and create an account. We recommend checking out our list of the best VPNs if this is new ground for you. Alternatively, ExpressVPN is a market-leading VPN provider that we’re always happy to recommend.
  2. Download and install the VPN software onto your Mac. You can also download ExpressVPN for mobile on your iPhone. Other premium providers like NordVPN, CyberGhost, and Surfshark all offer really slick mobile apps for iOS, too.
  3. Log into your account, either in the desktop software or the mobile app.
  4. Choose a VPN server in a country of your choice. If you’re purely interested in online security, then the location you choose isn’t too important (though some will be faster than others). However, if you want to save money on subscriptions, for example, you should give it some more thought.
  5. Connect to the VPN server. When you connect, you’ll be changing your IP address to mirror the VPN server’s IP. It’s safe, legal (in most countries), and best of all, it’ll give you far greater online security than simply using Safari Private Browsing alone.
Visit ExpressVPN

Conclusion

Safari Private Browsing is perfect for hiding those Christmas or birthday purchases from your family before the big day. It’s also a great way to save money on flights, hotels, or other purchases. However, it won’t do much for your online security. If you want truly private browsing, then use a VPN along with Safari private mode.

Everything You Need to Know About Safari Private Browsing: Frequently Asked Questions

Do you want to know how to enable private browsing on Safari? Are you wondering how much privacy Safari Private Browsing actually gives you? You’ll find these answers and more in our frequently asked questions below.

To turn on Private Browsing in Safari for Mac, follow these simple steps:

  1. Make sure Safari is the active application that you’re using.
  2. Click on File in the menu bar along the top of the screen.
  3. Click on New Private Window to switch to private browsing mode.

To turn on Private Browsing in Safari for iPhone or iPad, the process is much the same:

  1. Open the Safari application.
  2. Tap on the Tabs icon (the two small squares in the lower-right corner of your screen).
  3. Tap on Private to switch to private browsing.
  4. Click on the small + (plus) icon to open a new private browsing tab.

Check out our full article for more information on Safari Private Browsing.

No. Safari Private Browsing, like any browser’s private mode, won’t protect you against a lot of online threats. Your IP address will still be visible to many third-party individuals and organizations. For example, your ISP will know what websites you’ve visited, and hackers could determine your location using your IP (though some private modes do limit location tracking). For true online privacy and anonymity, you’re safer using a VPN like ExpressVPN.

With Private Browsing, it’s more difficult for websites to track you, since cookies are cleared the moment you close the browser — but it’s not impossible. Your ISP (Internet Service Provider), employer, school, or college could still see your internet history. That is, unless you use a VPN along with the incognito mode.

Yes. The owner of an internet connection can absolutely check up on your browsing session if they have the right technical knowledge. Some routers can be set up to remember all URLs a device accesses. So, if you’re trying to fly under your parents’ radar, for example, they could potentially bust you using the family router, even if you’re exclusively using private browsing modes.

For true anonymity, you’ll want to use a VPN. With a VPN connection, all of your internet traffic is encrypted, which gives you far better anonymity and privacy than using private browsing on its own.

Cybersecurity journalist
Chris is a tech journalist with many years' experience covering the latest news in online privacy and cybersecurity. He's also a published author and works as a Product Manager for some of the most innovative software development companies.
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  1. Hi Chris ,
    I’m finding while using private mode in safari my sound is being cut out and I have not been able to find a way to reconnect it. I use it on a iPad with a vpn and trend anti spam for protection as much as it can in private mode. I have not been able to find any reason as to why this is happening.

    • Hey Wayne,

      I’ve done a bit of digging, and I’ve found something that might be worth a try. It seems that recent versions of Safari have a built-in feature that can prevent audio from playing when you visit a website; it’s enabled by default too. Give this a try and let me know if the issue goes away:

      1. Open the Safari menu and click preferences
      2. Click on the websites tab
      3. Look for the setting: “When visiting other websites”, which has a drop-down selection beside it
      4. Change this setting so that it allows websites with media to play sound.

      You can alternatively add individual websites to this list if you’d rather have control over which ones can play sound by default.

  2. Hi Chris
    Just tried your Terminal Commands, I am running macOS Monterey
    The Terminal Commands Below are not working

    dscacheutil -cachedump -entries Host

    dscacheutil -flushcache

    • You’re right. Thank you for pointing it out to us! There is a new terminal command you’ll now need instead: “sudo killall -HUP mDNSResponder”. We’ve adjusted the article to reflect this. Hope this helps!

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