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What is Apple Private Relay and is it a substitute for a real VPN?

Verified by Amy Reeves

Apple Private Relay, unveiled in 2021, is a Safari feature that’s only available for iCloud+ subscribers and acts similarly to a virtual private network (VPN). The browser-based encryption tool is designed to provide an added layer of security and privacy when using any of Apple’s products. Apple Private Relay masks the user’s IP address and encrypts internet traffic, but if you’re hoping to use Private Relay with Chrome on your Mac, sadly, it only works with Safari.

We’ve compared Private Relay and VPNs features, and it’s clear which one provides the best privacy and security.

What is Apple Private Relay?

Apple Private Relay, also known as iCloud Relay, enables users to browse the web without revealing their real IP address – just like a VPN would. The feature is part of Apple’s iCloud+ subscription and is designed to protect your privacy when on the web using Apple’s Safari browser.

How does Apple Private Relay work?

Apple Private Relay is, in some respects, easier to use than a standard VPN. Any iPhone, iPad or Mac with an iCloud+ subscription can enable Apple Private Relay within their settings. 

Once enabled, Private Relay uses two different proxies to hide your information – instead of tunnelling your data, like a VPN would. 

When you access Safari and go to a website, your device connects to the first server, which is run by Apple. The first proxy won’t know the website you’ve visited and Apple won’t be able to see your online activity. Your location will also be disguised and an approximate one assigned – this location can be widened by country or time zone within the Private Relay settings. 

Via an encrypted connection, the first server sends your data to the second server – run by a third-party provider. The second server decrypts the information and directs you to the correct website. It doesn’t know your real IP address, so it selects a random IP address from your approximate location. 

Simply put, the first server knows your IP address but doesn’t know the website you’re trying to access. The second server understands the content you want to access, but not your IP address. 

Is Apple Private Relay a VPN?

While Apple Private Relay has similarities to a VPN, such as masking your IP address and encrypting internet traffic, it is not a VPN and that is where its features stop. A VPN provides a much more comprehensive level of security with privacy features.

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Apple Private Relay vs VPN

Private Relay works similarly to a VPN, in the sense that it conceals your real IP address and encrypts your internet traffic, but there are plenty of security and privacy features missing that a VPN for iPhone or VPN for Mac would provide. Apple Private Relay can be used in conjunction with a VPN. If a VPN service is turned on, Private Relay won’t interfere – instead, it will identify the internet traffic and allow it to pass through the relay.  

A VPN has features, such as a kill switch – to automatically disconnect you from the internet if the VPN connection drops – and split tunnelling, which allows you to choose which internet or app traffic to route via the VPN and have everything else run outside of the encrypted tunnel. 

Also, most VPNs follow a no-logs policy, which means that the provider doesn’t log or store any of your user data including web sessions, websites visited and IP addresses. Most providers will also have this independently audited to assure customers that their data is safe and secure. Apple Apple Private Relay operates a minimal logging policy, but it claims none of the data stored can be used to identify account holders and is only intended for maintenance and trouble-shooting purposes.  

We’ve compared the general features that come with a VPN to what you get with Apple Private Relay. 

Feature Apple Private Relay VPN
Masks your real IP address
Encrypts internet traffic
Kill switch
Split tunnelling
No-logs policy
Uses AES-256 bit encryption
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Apple Private Relay pros and cons

With any VPN, there are always upsides and downsides to the service; the same goes for Apple Private Relay. 

What is Apple Private Relay good for?

  • Masking your IP address: Private Relay provides you with a different IP address and conceals your real one from Apple and other third-party websites and applications
  • Simple to use: The service is simple for Apple-product users to use and there is no need for downloads or payments 
  • Allows customers to create an anonymous email address: The service can send an email to the recipient using an automatically generated email address – keeping your email anonymous and private 

What it isn’t good for? 

  • Security and privacy features: With Private Relay, there are no added security features. Unlike VPNs, the service doesn’t have a kill switch or split tunnelling 
  • Choosing a server location: You can’t change the server location. Although you can widen your approximate location, this does not give you access to worldwide locations, like you would have with a VPN
  • No-log policy: Through Private Relay, your IP address is hidden, along with your data and web activity – no third party or Apple can see this information. However, Private Relay’s privacy policy says it logs minimal user data, but claims none of it can be used to identify account holders. Still, governments could potentially request this data from Apple in the event of a criminal case.
  • Unknown level of encryption: Though Private Relay encrypts your Internet traffic, it’s unknown which level of encryption is used by Apple
  • Only for iCloud+ subscribers: Users will need to pay for an iCloud+ account to access Apple Private Relay

How to set up Apple Private Relay

screenshot of mac interface setting up apple private relay
Setting up Private Relay requires an iCloud+ subsciption.

For iCloud subscription customers, Apple Private Relay can be used on iPhones, iPads and Macs. Setting up the service for the devices can be actioned in just a few steps. 

Set up for iPhone and iPad:

Step 1: 

Open the settings app and tap your name. 

Step 2: 

Tap iCloud and select Private Relay.

Step 3:

To turn Private Relay on or off, tap Private Relay.

Step 4:

Click IP address location, then choose a setting for your IP address

  • To view localised content in Safari while your IP address remains hidden – tap Maintain General Location
  • To choose a broader location for your IP address, still, within your country and time zone, tap Use Country and Time Zone

Set up for Macs:

Step 1: 

Choose the Apple menu and go into System Settings

Step 2:

Click your name, then select iCloud

Step 3:

Scroll down until you see iCloud+ – under that, click Private Relay 

Step 4: 

Click to turn Private Relay on or off

Step 5: 

Click IP address location first, then choose a setting for your IP address:

  • To view localised content in Safari while your IP address remains hidden – tap Maintain General Location
  • To choose a broader location for your IP address, still within your country and time zone, tap Use Country and Time Zone

Summary

Overall, while there are downsides to Apple Private Relay when compared with a VPN, the service itself can protect your identity online and disguise your web activity. 

Private Relay provides the user with a different IP address and encrypts all internet traffic when using Safari. The service also ensures that none of your web activity is revealed to third parties or Apple itself. 

However, a VPN provides so much more than just concealing your IP address and encrypting traffic. With a VPN you have the option to use privacy features, such as a kill switch or split tunnelling. VPNs also come with a higher degree of security if they have a no-logs policy which has been independently audited. 

It really depends on why you require online security. If you don’t need a high-level, Apple Private Relay could be well-suited. For many, Private Relay won’t be of use, not just because it has limited privacy features, but simply for the fact it cannot be activated in Chrome on Macs. 

Frequently asked questions

Apple’s Private Relay is similar to a VPN in the way that it keeps your data and sensitive information safe while online and gives you an added layer of privacy. However, Private Relay is not a VPN. Private Relay, when turned on, encrypts the traffic leaving your device and is sent through two separate internet relays.

Apple Private Relay works by protecting your online identity. Just like a VPN, it encrypts your internet traffic and hides your real IP address while using Safari. Private Relay uses two different proxies to conceal your IP address and web activity, unlike a VPN, which uses an encrypted tunnel. 

Private Relay allows customers to use an anonymous email address. The Private Relay email service routes all emails between you and the user. The service will send an email to the recipient using an automatically generated email address. Access your Private Relay ID email within your Apple ID settings. 

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rachel

Rachel Sadler

Home Tech Writer

Rachel is a seasoned writer who has been producing online and print content for seven years. 

As a home tech expert for Independent Advisor, Rachel researches and writes buying guides and reviews, helping consumers navigate the realms of broadband and home security gadgets. She also covers home tech for The Federation of Master Builders, where she reviews and tests home security devices. 

She started as a news and lifestyle journalist in Hong Kong reporting on island-wide news stories, food and drink and the city’s events. She’s written for editorial platforms Sassy Hong Kong, Localiiz and Bay Media. While in Hong Kong she attended PR events, interviewed local talent and project-managed photoshoots. 

Rachel holds a BA in English Language and Creative Writing and is committed to simplifying tech jargon and producing unbiased reviews.

Amy Reeves

Editor

Amy is a seasoned writer and editor with a special interest in home design, sustainable technology and green building methods.

She has interviewed hundreds of self-builders, extenders and renovators about their journeys towards individual, well-considered homes, as well as architects and industry experts during her five years working as Assistant Editor at Homebuilding & Renovating, part of Future plc.

Amy’s work covers topics ranging from home, interior and garden design to DIY step-by-steps, planning permission and build costs, and has been published in Period Living, Real Homes, and 25 Beautiful Homes, Homes and Gardens.

Now an Editor at the Independent Advisor, Amy manages homes-related content for the site, including solar panels, combi boilers, and windows.

Her passion for saving tired and inefficient homes also extends to her own life; Amy completed a renovation of a mid-century house in 2022 and is about to embark on an energy-efficient overhaul of a 1800s cottage in Somerset.