iCloud Private Relay doesn’t work the way you think it does

Key Takeaways

  • iCloud Private Relay is a basic VPN that only works in Safari, so it won’t protect you in other apps or browsers.
  • A regular VPN offers broader support and finer controls, allowing you to choose server locations and bypass regional restrictions.
  • If you only use Safari and are only concerned about web activity, iCloud Private Relay is fine. Otherwise, get a VPN app for broader protection.

For a few years now, iCloud Private Relay has been available as an exclusive perk to iCloud+ subscribers. This feature, from afar, may appear as a VPN service baked into iOS 17 on a system level. However, some core differences exist between regular VPN services and Apple’s solution. While they share a couple of aspects, they cater to different types of customers and use cases. So, let’s clear these common misconceptions and clarify what iCloud Private Relay really does.

What’s iCloud Private Relay?

It’s a very basic VPN that only works in Safari

iCloud Private Relay is a feature that hides your original IP address on iOS, iPadOS, and macOS. This makes it harder for websites to track and profile you based on the pages you visit. However, notably, it only works in Safari.

I’ve come across multiple people who were under the impression that Private Relay always works in the background and impacts web traffic sent through other apps. While the service works automatically in the background, it only functions in Apple’s Safari.

So, if you’re using a third-party web browser, then iCloud Private Relay won’t protect you in any way. Similarly, when you use apps that connect to online servers, such as social media, then iCloud Private Relay won’t hide your IP address either.

How iCloud Private Relay differs from a regular VPN

A fully-fledged VPN service offers broader support and finer controls

While a typical Virtual Private Network (VPN) also hides your IP address when using Safari, its functionality extends beyond that. For starters, it works across all web browsers and apps. So, it’s not just protecting your online activity in Safari. Additionally, it usually allows you to choose the server’s location, which may unlock regionally-banned websites and geo-restricted digital content, such as streaming apps’ exclusive catalogs. Furthermore, you can switch between multiple servers of the same country if the one you’re connected to is slow due to user overload.

Meanwhile, iCloud Private Relay only allows you to switch between two server types. The first assigns you an IP address with the same general location. This would maintain the accuracy of localized search results without revealing your exact IP address. If you’d rather further conceal where you’re located, you can opt for the second option, which maintains your country and time zone but not the exact neighborhood.

As a result, you can’t use iCloud Private Relay to bypass regional web restrictions. And, if the server you’re connected to is slow, you can’t switch between multiple ones as you’d do with a VPN to get a faster connection. As such, iCloud Private Relay doesn’t replace dedicated VPN services for most use cases.

Which service should you use?

Private Internet Access VPN connected on Mac

If you’re subscribed to iCloud+ for the extra cloud storage, you already have access to Private Relay. In this case, there’s no harm in leaving it on, as its servers don’t slow down as often as they used to when it first launched. So, relying on iCloud Private Relay in Safari likely won’t impact your browsing experience negatively, and it should be able to smudge your online fingerprint.

However, if you use a different web browser or want to hide your IP address from other apps, then iCloud Private Relay is quite literally purposeless. Similarly, if you’re trying to access blocked content, then iCloud Private Relay won’t be useful either. So, if you are only concerned about your web activity and rely on Apple’s web browser, then Private Relay is fine. Otherwise, get a VPN app for your Mac, iPad, and iPhone.

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