What Is the Difference Between Incognito Mode and a VPN?

By
&
Aliza Vigderman
Gabe TurnerChief Editor
Last Updated on Mar 17, 2021
By Aliza Vigderman & Gabe Turner on Mar 17, 2021

All of the major browsers (Chrome, Safari, Firefox, etc.) have some version of an incognito mode, whether it’s called Private Window, InPrivate, or what have you. However, incognito mode isn’t as effective at granting you internet privacy as a VPN. In this article, we’ll compare and contrast incognito mode and VPNs so you can make sure you’re as private as possible when surfing the web.

What Is the Difference Between Incognito Mode and a VPN?

While incognito mode is ideal for hiding from other users of your device, VPNs hide your web traffic from everyone in the world.

Differences

  • What it hides: In other words, incognito mode hides your browsing history on the actual device you’re using, so if your mom is going to use your laptop after you, she’ll have no idea that you’ve spent the last five hours reading “Glee” fanfic. However, your internet service provider (ISP) will still be able to see this information and your device’s IP address. VPNs, on the other hand, hide your web traffic and IP addresses from everyone, including your ISP, so they are much more private than incognito mode.
  • Pricing: Incognito mode is a free feature of all browsers, while VPNs typically cost money (although there are free VPNs as well as VPNs with free trials available).
  • Limitations: Aside from general privacy reasons, people use VPNs to bypass government, school, or work internet censorship; to stream on other countries’ servers; and to torrent files without getting in trouble. As incognito mode only hides your history on the device itself, you can’t change your region on Netflix, go on restricted websites, or torrent off the record. Read more reasons why people use VPNs in our research on VPN usage.

Similarities

  • Hidden browsing on the device: Both VPNs and incognito mode will not keep your search history on the device itself, granted that you close your web browser when you’re done.

What Is Incognito Mode / Private Browsing?

Let’s take a step back and talk about what incognito mode (otherwise known as private browsing) is and does.

Definition

Incognito mode is a method of browsing online that hides browsing history on the physical device itself. When you surf the web in incognito mode, your history and cache will be deleted whenever you end your session.

How It Works

Incognito mode doesn’t actually encrypt any web activity; it simply deletes it when you close the browser.

What It Protects

Incognito mode hides your browsing history and cache from the next user of your device, but not from ISPs or any hackers looking to steal your PII (personally identifiable information).

Pros
  • Public device protection: Incognito mode is useful when you’re using a public device, or when you’re using someone else’s device and want to hide your web activity from them.
  • Free: As all major browsers have some form of incognito mode, you won’t have to pay extra to use it.
  • Easy: You can turn on incognito mode in a couple of steps, and it doesn’t require you to install additional apps or browser extensions.
Cons
  • Doesn’t hide from ISP: If you want truly private browsing, incognito mode doesn’t cut it beyond your physical device.
  • Can’t bypass restrictions: Many people use VPNs to get around school, work, or country restrictions on the internet. Since incognito mode doesn’t change your IP address, firewalls will remain effective.
  • Can’t stream in other countries: Want a VPN for streaming libraries of foreign countries? With incognito mode, you’ll be stuck with the IP address of the country you’re in, which for us is a U.S. IP address. That means you can kiss those international libraries goodbye.

What Is a VPN?

If you’re thinking, “What is a VPN in the first place?”, we’ve got you covered.

Definition

A VPN is a virtual private network that creates an encrypted tunnel between your device and its network.

How It Works

VPNs route your device IP address and web traffic through their encrypted tunnels.

What It Protects

Since your web activity and IP address will be encrypted, using a VPN hides your browsing history.

Pros
  • Full coverage: Aside from other users on your device, your ISP and any hackers won’t be able to see your browsing history.
  • Foreign streaming: By using a VPN for Japan, for example, you can access hundreds of Japanese movies and TV shows even from the U.S. That’s because VPNs hide your IP address, making you seem like you’re in a different location.
  • Bypass restrictions: The legality of VPNs depends on what country you’re located in; for example, China bans VPNs completely. Or maybe you work in a place that restricts you from watching Netflix on the job (hey, we’ve all been there). Whatever the block, VPNs can help you get around them by bypassing firewalls. Hello, binge-a-thon!
Cons
  • Often paid: Free VPNs exist, but they usually restrict the number of devices you can connect to, the length of time you can use them for, the amount of data you can use while connected, and more. For the most part, you’ll need to pay for VPNs. Learn more about how much VPNs cost.
  • Requires app or browser extension: Unless you connect to a VPN manually (which is even more complicated), installing a VPN will require an app or browser extension, as they aren’t built into browsers like incognito mode is.
  • Slowdowns: Extra encryption means decreased speeds, while incognito mode shouldn’t slow down your browsing at all.

The more you know: By changing your IP address, you can trick streaming services into thinking you’re in other countries, unlocking thousands of hours of new content. However, some streaming services block certain VPN IP addresses, so make sure to get the right VPN for Netflix, VPN for Hulu, VPN for Prime Video, etc.

How To Use VPNs

The easiest way to set up a VPN is through an app. While each VPN has its own setup process, it will generally adhere to the following steps:

  1. Download the app either from the official app store or from the company’s website.
  2. Create an account on the app or the website.
  3. Sign in to the VPN app.
  4. Choose a server.
  5. Click Connect.

How To Use Incognito Mode

If incognito mode suits your needs more than a VPN, here’s how to get it started.

Note: Although different browsers have different names for incognito mode, they all work the same way — by clearing your history and cache as soon as you end your session.

Chrome (Mac/Windows)

Incognito Mode on Chrome
  1. Chrome
  2. More
  3. New Incognito Window

Chrome (Android)

  1. Chrome
  2. More
  3. New Incognito Tab

Chrome (iOS)

  1. Chrome
  2. More
  3. New Incognito Tab1

Firefox

Incognito Mode on Firefox
  1. Menu
  2. New Private Window2

Safari

Incognito Mode on Safari
  1. File
  2. New Private Window3

Edge

Incognito Mode on Microsoft Edge
  1. Settings And More
  2. New InPrivate Window4

Opera

Incognito Mode on Opera
  1. File
  2. New Private Window5

How To Use VPNs and Incognito Mode Together

To use a VPN and incognito mode, simply follow the above steps for each; there’s nothing special you have to do when you set up a VPN and incognito mode at the same time.

How To Stay Private Online

Aside from using VPNs and incognito mode, here are a few other ways you can stay as private as possible online.

Delete Incognito History on Windows?

If you want your history deleted before your Windows session ends, follow this sequence of clicks:

  1. Microsoft Edge / Internet Explorer
  2. Settings And More
  3. Settings
  4. Privacy, Search and Services
  5. Clear Browsing Data For Internet Explorer
  6. Choose What To Clear
  7. Choose the types of data you want to delete.
  8. Delete6

Delete Incognito History on Android

The same goes for Androids, macOS and iOS devices.

  1. Chrome
  2. More
  3. History
  4. Clear Browsing Data
  5. Choose a time range.
  6. Check Browsing History
  7. Clear Data7

Delete Incognito History on Mac

  1. Safari
  2. History
  3. Clear History
  4. Choose a time length8

Delete Incognito History on iOS

  1. Settings
  2. Safari
  3. Clear History And Website Data </citation]

Use an Encrypted Browser

Browsers like Tor and Vivaldi will encrypt your web activity automatically; however, they won’t encrypt other web apps aside from the browser itself, so a VPN is a more comprehensive option.

Use a Proxy Server

Comparing VPNs to proxy servers, VPNs come out on top again, as proxies only encrypt web activity on a single application versus the entire operating system. However, in the never-ending battle of proxy vs. VPN, proxy servers have the advantage of being free (although they might sell your data in exchange for this freeware).

Read Privacy Policies

Given the GDPR, which affects any websites that European Union residents use, most company websites need to include clear and easily accessible privacy policies that state the following:

  • What data they collect
  • How they collect this data
  • How they share or sell this data
  • How they protect this data to prevent data breaches

Although it may be tedious, read the privacy policy before you download an app and make an account so you can maintain control of your PII.

Limit Data

Have you ever heard the expression “give them an inch and they’ll take a mile”? This definitely applies to app permissions. Many apps will try to get you to share as much data as possible, including cookies, which track you online. Opt out whenever you can, unless it’s necessary to use the app or website.

Use Fake Information on Forms

Government or medical forms aside, don’t be afraid to use throwaway names or email addresses on forms. Those marketing emails have to go somewhere, and it might as well not be your inbox.

Block Trackers

These are some of the many browser extensions that block ads and trackers:

  • HTTPS Everywhere
  • uBlock Origin
  • Privacy Badger
  • Ghostery

Learn more about how to remove adware from your devices for a smoother browsing experience.

Opt Out of Data Sharing

Once websites and apps collect your data, they share it with and sell it to each other to create (you guessed it) even more targeted advertising. Unfortunately, there’s no way to stop this practice completely, barring federal legislation. However, the website Simple Opt Out can greatly reduce the sharing that goes on, opting you out of sharing from 50 companies, including Amazon and 10Mastercard9.

Limit iOS Mobile Device Identifiers

Aside from information like your email and name, apps can collect your device identifiers like your model, make, operating system, and browser type. If you have an iOS device, you can block device identifiers by clicking:

  1. Settings
  2. Privacy
  3. Advertising
  4. Limit Ad Tracking

Limit Android Mobile Device Identifiers

Similarly, on an Android, head over to:

  1. Google Settings
  2. Ads
  3. Toggle on Opt Out Of Our Internet-Based Ads.

Turn Location Off on iOS

Location Services on iOS

Only apps like Uber need to know your location. Otherwise, turn off location on your iOS device by clicking:

  1. Settings
  2. Privacy
  3. Location Services
  4. Toggle on Don’t Allow.

Turn Location Off on Android

Pull out your Android phone and hit:

  1. Settings
  2. Location
  3. Turn off User Location.

Recap

Incognito mode is great for privacy from the other users of your devices, while VPNs provide more comprehensive protection. But which VPN is right for you? Read our guide to the best VPN services to learn more.

FAQs

You thought we were done, didn’t you? Not just yet.

  • Is a VPN better than incognito mode?

    A VPN is better than incognito mode because it encrypts all of your web activity data and device IP address from everyone except the VPN provider itself, including your internet service provider (ISP). Incognito mode, on the other hand, only hides your browsing history on the device itself; your ISP will still be able to see what you’re doing online.

  • Does incognito mode hide your IP address?

    Incognito mode does not hide your IP address; it only hides your browsing history on the device itself.

  • Can you be tracked in incognito mode?

    You can be tracked in incognito mode, as it only hides your web activity from other users on your device and not from your ISP, hackers, etc.

  • Is Google Incognito a VPN?

    No, the Google Chrome browser’s incognito mode is not a VPN. It doesn’t encrypt your web activity or IP address as a VPN does; it simply hides your browsing history from other users on your device.

Citations
  1. Google Chrome. (2021). Browse in private.
    support.google.com/chrome/answer/95464?co=GENIE.Platform%3DiOS&hl=en&oco=1

  2. Mozilla. (2021). Private Browsing – Use Firefox without saving history.
    support.mozilla.org/en-US/kb/private-browsing-use-firefox-without-history

  3. Apple. (2021). Use Private Browsing in Safari on Mac.
    support.apple.com/guide/safari/use-private-browsing-ibrw1069/mac

  4. Microsoft. (2021). Browse InPrivate in Microsoft Edge.
    support.microsoft.com/en-us/microsoft-edge/browse-inprivate-in-microsoft-edge-e6f47704-340c-7d4f-b00d-d0cf35aa1fcc

  5. Opera. (2021). Browse incognito: How to open a private window in Opera for computers.
    blogs.opera.com/news/2014/10/how-to-open-private-window-opera-for-computers/

  6. Microsoft. (2021). Clear Internet Explorer browsing data using Microsoft Edge.
    support.microsoft.com/en-us/microsoft-edge/view-and-delete-browser-history-in-microsoft-edge-00cf7943-a9e1-975a-a33d-ac10ce454ca4#:~:text=In%20Microsoft%20Edge%2C%20select%20Settings,Select%20Delete

  7. Google Chrome. (2021). Delete your Chrome browsing history.
    support.google.com/chrome/answer/95589?co=GENIE.Platform%3DAndroid&hl=en-GBm

  8. Apple. (2021). Clear your browsing history in Safari on Mac.
    support.apple.com/guide/safari/clear-your-browsing-history-sfri47acf5d6/mac

  9. Apple. (2021). Clear the history and cookies from Safari on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch.
    support.apple.com/en-us/HT201265

  10. Simple Opt Out. (2021). Opt out of all the data sharing you wouldn't opt in to..
    simpleoptout.com/