Many web users prefer to keep their browsing history secret and private - from loved ones, colleagues, even total strangers and advertising companies.

There are a few ways to protect your privacy. You could delete your history at the end of every browsing session, or use a VPN to stay anonymous online (our recommendation is NordVPN but we have a separate roundup of the best Mac VPNs). But for a simple and free solution, we recommend the use of private browsing mode.

For similar advice relating to phone and tablet, see How to use private browsing on iPhone & iPad.

Why your browsing history is at risk

Many of us share our Macs with other people, and you don't want to worry about any embarrassing websites you've been looking at being discovered by your spouse or flatmate.

The classic excuse is that you've been 'researching an anniversary present' and don't want to spoil the surprise, but if you've been seeking medical advice or applying for jobs online it would be entirely reasonable to want to keep that information to yourself. And, all joking aside, porn users are entitled to their privacy too, particularly if they have kids and don't want them to stumble across any adult sites.

If you're thinking of having one machine for sharing and another for the private stuff, bear in mind that it's not as simple as you might think. Safari features such as Top Sites, Frequently Visited and the Smart Search Field automatically display your history as you use the browser, and iCloud syncs this information between your Apple devices. If you look at a website on your Mac it could pop up when somebody uses your iPhone or iPad or vice versa.

Even if you trust people not to bother searching through your history, they could still accidentally discover what you've been looking at when the browser offers it as an autocomplete suggestion.

iCloud privacy

If you're looking for more things to worry about, there were reports in 2017 that Apple hadn't been removing deleted Safari web histories from iCloud. We believe the company has since tackled the issue, but it's another example of the ways in which browsing histories can leak out unexpectedly.

According to ElcomSoft, the data might have disappeared from the devices, but it was still on iCloud and easily recoverable.

"We discovered that deleting a browsing history record makes that record disappear from synced devices," said company spokesperson Vladimir Katalov. "However, the record still remains available (but invisible) in iCloud... We were able to pull additional information about Safari history entries including the exact date and time each record was last visited and deleted!"

What is private browsing?

Private browsing is an optional mode available in most web browser software where no record is kept of the sites you visit. If you're looking at a website and you'd rather keep it to yourself, you should turn on private browsing before entering the URL.

Apple has included private browsing as a feature in macOS and iOS since way back in Safari 5.1 (in Mac OS X Lion) and iOS 5.

Private browsing in Safari

The way private browsing works varies from browser to browser. We cover the four most popular Mac browsers individually, but if you're using one of the more obscure ones, don't despair: just check the File > menu and look for mention of a private window or similar. (Shift + Cmd + N often works too.)

The key thing with private browsing mode(s) is that it can be applied to certain windows only, so be careful. The fact that you opened a private window doesn't mean you'll still be covered if you go back to an old window you had open before (or a new one you open without private browsing applied).

In Safari, you open a new private window by Choose File > New Private Window (Shift + Cmd + N).

How to use private browsing on Mac: Safari

You'll now be viewing a window in private browsing mode. Safari won't remember any browsing or search history. Once again, it's important to know that this only applies to this window that you have opened. You can tell it's a private window because the Smart Search Field will be a dark grey colour.

If you open a new tab within the private window it will also be private. But if you open another window using the standard File > New Window (Cmd + N), it will not be a private browsing window. So be careful to use just the private window(s) for your browsing session.

Private browsing in Chrome

Chrome's private browsing mode is called Incognito, but it's otherwise the same idea. Select File > New Incognito Window, or press Shift + Cmd + N.

How to use private browsing on Mac: Chrome

You'll notice that Chrome's Incognito windows are a totally different colour to its normal ones.

Private browsing in Firefox

Select File > New Private Window, or press Shift + Cmd + P.

How to use private browsing on Mac: Firefox

Private browsing in Opera

Select File > New Private Window, or press Shift + Cmd + N.

How to use private browsing on Mac: Opera