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Though total anonymity is practically impossible while browsing, smart use of a VPN in combination with incognito mode will go a long way. However, VPNs don't make your browsing completely anonymous, and there are drawbacks to using them too.

You’re being watched while on the internet. Marketers want to slurp whatever data you generate, while some governments want to make sure you don’t visit sites they don’t like. Let’s go over a few tips for anonymous browsing so you can avoid this surveillance.

Use a VPN to Anonymize Your Connection

Most surveillance, be it by marketers or governments, tracks you in several ways. One of the main ways they do so is by using your IP address—the set of numbers that is your internet connection’s “home”—to determine who you are and where you’re from. From this follows that if you were to use another IP address, you’re harder to track.

Enter virtual private networks. The way VPNs work is that they reroute your internet connection through a server they own. Doing so gives you two advantages: first, you assume the server’s IP, called “spoofing,” making it look like you’re somewhere else. The second upside is that the VPN also encrypts your connection, making it much harder for anybody to track you.

Though VPNs are by no means a silver bullet, they’re an important first step if you want to start browsing anonymously. However, they come with some downsides—the most important of which is that the best VPNs all cost money.

There are free VPNs, but most of them are terrible. The few that aren’t (like Windscribe or PrivadoVPN) will usually cap your usage—called bandwidth—meaning you generally can’t use them to download large files or anything.

The Best VPN Services of 2023

Best Overall VPN
ExpressVPN
Private Internet Access
Best Budget VPN
Private Internet Access
Best Free VPN
Windscribe
Proton VPN
Best VPN for iPhone
Proton VPN
Best VPN for Android
Hide.me
Best VPN for Streaming
ExpressVPN
Best VPN for Gaming
TorGuard
Best VPN for Torrenting
IVPN
Best VPN for Windows
NordVPN
Best VPN for China
VyprVPN
Mullvad VPN
Best VPN for Privacy
Mullvad VPN

VPN Alternatives (What About Tor?)

There are some good alternatives to VPNs you can use for anonymous browsing, though all of them focus on just spoofing your IP; none can encrypt a connection the way a VPN does. However, the upside for most of them is that they’re either free or a good deal cheaper than VPNs.

The first option is Tor, or The Onion Router, a specialized browser that reroutes your connection through a decentralized network maintained by your fellow users. It’s a great option for spoofing your IP, but there are doubts about how anonymous and safe Tor really is. That said, it’ll work fine in a pinch, and it’s entirely free to use.

Decentralized VPNs, or dVPNs, are another option. These aim to be the evolution of both VPNs and Tor. Supposedly, they use decentralized networks like Tor does but employ VPN levels of encryption. That said, it’s a little unclear right now how secure they really are, so for now we would recommend some caution when using dVPNs.

Finally, there’s a cool little tool called Shadowsocks. Developed as a way to bypass Chinese censorship, it can spoof your IP address while looking just like an ordinary connection to anybody snooping on your connection. It works really well in dodging detection, but requires some setup to use as well as access to a server. We have a Shadowsocks installation guide that has more details.

Use Incognito Mode to Increase Anonymity

As great as VPNs are, hiding your IP address is only part of the anonymous browsing equation. There are other ways in which you can be tracked, many of which can be stymied by using another free tool you’re almost certain to already have: incognito mode. Also called private browsing, this handy in-browser tool and a VPN together make you much harder to track.

Where VPNs hide your IP address, incognito mode does a number of other things to obstruct anybody trying to track you. First, the incognito session doesn’t save your browsing history, meaning that any sites you visit or information you transmit isn’t stored. This makes it so nobody uses the computer after you can see what you were doing online.

Besides not storing your history, incognito mode also doesn’t store browser cookies. These help your browser “remember” where it has been and what it has done, meaning that without them, your browser may take a little longer to load certain pages. However, cookies have also been used to track users, so without them you’re one step ahead of the marketers.

The final great advantage to using private browsing is that it logs you out of all your online accounts—even ones you didn’t realize were active. This is great because these online accounts, especially those of Google and Facebook, track you while online. If you’re signed out of your account, though, they can’t do that.

Is Completely Anonymous Browsing Possible?

Between incognito mode and a VPN—or its alternatives—you’re a lot more anonymous than before. However, there are still other ways to track you, like browser fingerprinting, which are almost impossible to completely block.

On top of that, you may find using incognito mode kind of annoying, especially if you do it all the time. You won’t have access to saved passwords, for example, and no information you ever entered is saved, so expect to do a lot of typing. As a result, you may only want to use it when absolutely necessary.

The upshot is that in everyday use complete anonymity isn’t really possible. The sad fact of the matter is that the web makes it very easy to track people, and there’s no way to avoid it completely. Using the tools outlined above, you can seriously minimize it, however.

To do so, you should use services that put privacy first. Among VPNs, these are IVPN and Mullvad. When choosing a browser, you could consider using privacy-conscious browsers like Brave or Vivaldi. Between these services, you should be able to move around the web a lot more quietly than before.

Profile Photo for Fergus O'Sullivan Fergus O'Sullivan
Fergus is a freelance writer for How-To Geek. He has seven years of tech reporting and reviewing under his belt for a number of publications, including GameCrate and Cloudwards. He's written more articles and reviews about cybersecurity and cloud-based software than he can keep track of---and knows his way around Linux and hardware, too.
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