This story was originally published in 2019 and has been updated.
If you want to instantly improve your digital life, take a sticky note, write “delete browsing history” on it, and place it near your computer so you never forget it. Web browsers keep track of your past activity because it comes in handy if you want to find a funny article again, return to your favorite photo of the kids, or if you want to restore a tab you accidentally closed. At the same time, some people find this constant tracking a little on the creepy side. Not to mention that, if you share a computer with others, you might not want them to find out about a gift you secretly bought them, your interest in 1970s folk-rock, or your more private Google searches.
Fortunately, all of today’s web browsers make it easy to erase your web browsing history and wipe away your tracks online.
What your browser saves
Before you roll up your sleeves and start blitzing all the data stored in your browser, you should know what that information is and what it does. After all, on some occasions, you might want to clear specific types of files and not others. When you dive into a browser’s settings, you’ll see references to these different types of data, though the terms might vary slightly depending on the program.
First of all, our primary concern: your browser history. This is the list of sites and pages you’ve visited in the past. This log helps you retrace your steps, bring back pages you want to refer to again, and reach your favorite sites more quickly. Many browsers draw from your history to suggest specific URLs as soon as you start typing addresses in the search bar.
Browsers also track your download history, which is just a list of files you’ve downloaded. Don’t confuse this history with the actual files themselves, which live somewhere on your computer. It’s simply a list of references to them, which can help when you can’t find a file you downloaded, or if you want to download it again.
Next up are cookies: little bits of code websites use to recognize who you are. They come in a variety of forms. For example, if you go to a weather website and it instantly shows you the cities you previously searched forecasts for, that’s a cookie in action. If you return to a shopping site and you find the items you left in the shopping basket are still there, that’s cookies at work again. These files won’t harm your computer, but some users don’t like this kind of tracking and prefer to delete them on a regular basis.
While you’re looking at cookies, you might see that your browser distinguishes standard cookies from those from third parties. Third-party cookies track behavior across multiple sites and they’re usually in the ads rather than in the actual page code of a website. You can blame this type of cookie for personalized ads: If you’ve spent some time searching multiple sites for tents and you start seeing tent ads everywhere, third-party cookies are responsible.
[Related: You should start using a password manager]
Finally, browsers keep a “cache,” which contains local copies of graphics and other elements that your browser uses to load pages more quickly. If you head back to a site you’ve just visited, for example, the browser can draw site images from the cache rather than pulling them from the web again. This reduces the amount of data your browser has to download each time and speeds up the whole page-loading process. While it can provide snoops with a few hints about your browsing history, you need a certain amount of technical know-how to understand it properly.
When you decide to clear browsing data, most browsers will list all these types of data separately. You can decide to clear everything out, which lets you start all over again—as if you had a new browser on a new computer—or you might decide to keep certain types of files, like the cookies and cache, to make your browsing life more convenient.
Private or incognito mode
For those worrying about privacy, modern browsers allow you to surf in a mode called private or incognito. Simply open a window in private mode, browse as you please, and close it when you’re done. As soon as the window shuts, all the browsing history and stored cookies from that session will automatically disappear. So, if you want to secretly shop for presents on a family computer, incognito mode is a good way to do it without leaving a trace.
However, this mode won’t erase everything you do. If you log on to a site like Facebook or Amazon in incognito mode, those pages will recognize you and record your browsing activity. In other words, your browser won’t remember what you’ve been up to, but any sites you log into will. This means you might see evidence of your private browsing in ads that appear later. And if you download files, private mode won’t wipe them either, though it will clear out your download history.
How to erase your history in any browser
No matter what browser you prefer, they all make it relatively easy to delete your history within a few minutes.
In Google Chrome, click the three dots to the right of the address bar to open the menu, then choose Settings. On the sidebar, go to Privacy & Security, then Clear browsing data. Make your choices from the list, set the time period you’d like to clear, then click the Clear data button. Note: If you’ve set the browser to sync with other computers via your Google account, clearing your history will also erase data across all the other devices where you’ve signed into Chrome. Clicking on Advanced will give you more options for deleting data including the saved passwords you have in your browser.
Those using Mozilla Firefox should click the three horizontal lines to the right of the address bar to open the Firefox menu, then pick Settings. Click Privacy & Security and then scroll down to the Cookies & Site Data section. Here, you can clear your data completely or manage your data to have more control over what you delete. You can also check the box that clears your browsing data every time you close Firefox if you don’t want to have to worry about doing it manually.
If you’re using Apple Safari on macOS, you can blitz your browsing history by opening the Safari menu and clicking Clear History. Choose the time period you want to erase from the drop-down menu, then click Clear History to confirm the action. When you clear your history in Safari, you won’t get the option to delete different types of data, so it will wipe your cookies and cached files along with your history.
Windows 11 users who are using Microsoft Edge browser a whirl can also clear their browsing history. Click the three dots to the right of the address bar, then pick Settings from the menu that appears. In the Privacy, search and services tab, find Clear browsing data and click Choose what to clear. Next, make your choices from the list, which includes browsing history and cached data, then click Clear now.
Finally, in the popular third-party browser Opera, click the quick settings icon to the right of the address bar—it looks like a stack of three dials. On the emerging menu, scroll down to Privacy & Security and next to Browsing data click on Clear. This will open the browser’s full settings page, and you’ll be able to choose your types of data and specify your time period. When you’re done, click Clear data.