Most web users prefer to keep their browsing history secret and private - from their loved ones and colleagues, and from the advertising companies that would seek to make money from their digital interests. Whether you've been researching a gift online and don't want to spoil the surprise, seeking medical advice, applying for jobs or looking at adult websites, it would be entirely reasonable to want to keep that information to yourself.

What you could do is simply delete your history at the end of every browsing session; but there's a more sophisticated solution. In this feature we're going to show you how to turn on and use private browsing on your iPhone or iPad, as well as explaining why using an 'incognito mode' makes sense.

Who can see your browsing history?

Under normal circumstances, browsing the web on your phone or tablet leaves a trail - of the sites you've visited and the searches you've run. If someone borrows your phone and checks the history (by opening the bookmarks and then tapping the clock icon at the top right) they'll see all the things you've been looking at recently.

How to use private browsing on iPhone & iPad: View history

That might not sound too scary: what sort of a monster checks the history on a borrowed phone? But it's a bit more complicated than that.

You've also got to take autocomplete into consideration. If your friend innocently starts typing a website into Safari's bar and it happens to share an opening few letters with an adult site you frequent, it may offer to complete the URL, leading to embarrassment. The following is an example that would only be embarrassing if you were ashamed of your interest in cricket:

How to use private browsing on iPhone & iPad: URL autocomplete

These revelations don't even have to take place on the device that you did the browsing on, because Safari (the default browser on iPhone) syncs bookmarks and data about frequently visited sites between devices, including Macs. You could look at something on your phone, then have it pop up as an autocomplete suggestion on the family iMac, if they're logged into the same accounts.

The simple truth is that your browsing history can be leaked out in all sorts of ways that you may not have considered. Tracking software is rife across otherwise respectable sites; in theory this data will just be used for more effective ad targeting, but there's always the chance of a rogue actor.

Even Apple itself, protector of privacy rights that it genuinely is, at one point was guilty of unwittingly contributing to the problem. Back in 2017, it was reported that the company 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.

What is private browsing, and when should I use it?

Apple has included private browsing as a feature in its iPhone and iPad software since way back in iOS 5. As long as private browsing is active, the browser won't keep a record of the sites you visit and the searches you run: if you'd rather keep your browsing habits to yourself, you should turn on private browsing first.

How to turn on private browsing on iPhone or iPad

  1. Open Safari.
  2. Tap the pages icon (two overlapping squares) at the bottom right.
  3. Tap Private.

How to turn on private browsing on iPhone & iPad

You're now in private browsing mode (you can tell this because the URL bar is black). An alert tells you that Safari won't remember the pages you visit, your search history or any AutoFill information after you close a tab in this mode.

Any tabs you had open already will disappear (temporarily!), but you can open new tabs and browse normally. Tap the search field to search for a website, or the plus sign icon to enter a URL or browse from your bookmarks.

How to use private browsing on iPhone & iPad: Macworld in private browsing mode

Note that your non-private tabs are still open. To see them, tap the two-squares icon again, and then tap Private again. Just remember that you're now having your browsing history tracked once more.

Use a VPN for more privacy

It's important to note that, while you're not recording any of your browsing history in private mode, your internet service provider is still able to see the websites you are visiting.

If you want to be truly private, you might want to use a VPN. These services create a virtual private network that stops snoopers from being able to track your web browsing activity.

Among the best VPN options for iOS users are NordVPN and ExpressVPN, both of which are versatile and reliable; we're also keen on PureVPN, a great all-rounder with plenty of features.

You can find out more about VPNs and how they work, and read in-depth reviews of the best options, in our Best VPN for iPhone and Best VPN for iPad articles.

And that concludes our advice on preserving your privacy on iPad and iPhone. In a separate article, however, we show how to use private web browsing on a Mac.