If you want to feel like a secret agent online, one of the easiest ways is to change your browser’s user agent. The Internet is not the static entity it once was — once upon a time, websites didn’t care which browser you were using, and simply showed you their pages.
In today’s world with so many different operating systems, browsers, and mobile screen sizes, however, this doesn’t cut it. Browser agents tell websites about your computer and which browser you’re using, but they can be easily manipulated.
So you can change your browser’s user agent, but why would you want to? After all, you can always go install another browser if you want to use it, right? Here are some situations where changing your user agent could prove to be fun, useful, or just plain convenient.
How to Switch Your User Agent
We’ve already covered in detail how to switch your browser agent on Chrome and how to change browser agents on Firefox, as well, so I’ll only mention briefly how to get it up and running here. If you’re not impressed with the initial choices in one of these extensions, note that most of them allow you to import more profiles.
Browser extensions are the easiest way — User-Agent Switcher for Chrome is popular but doesn’t offer many options. The similarly-named User-Agent Switcher for Google Chrome gives more choices but has been reported to hijack affiliate links, so it is not recommended as it steals revenue from those who rightfully deserve it. If you need the extended options, User-Agent Switcher is a good choice, though it’s not as polished as the others.
For Firefox, User-Agent Switcher or User Agent Overrider are both good choices. Note that User Agent Switcher (the name is quite similar to the one I recommend) comes from the same developer as the extension that hijacks affiliate links in Chrome, so you should avoid this one.
If you’re developing a website (or just learning about website development), it’s important to make sure your site looks good and functions properly in a variety of browsers. While swapping your agent can’t accommodate every possible real-world situation, it lets you get a lot of testing done in a fraction of the time.
You can test Chrome, Firefox, Edge, and Internet Explorer just fine on your own, but what about if you don’t have a Mac to test Safari on, or you don’t have an Android tablet to test mobile versions of the page? Further, if backwards compatibility is important for your page, swapping your agent to IE 6 is a lot easier than installing a copy of IE 6 or other ancient browsers manually.
Rediscovering the ancient joys of developing for IE 6.
— Alex Dieulot (@Dieulot) December 1, 2013
Whether for efficiency or because you don’t own some of the devices needed to test your site, seeing how your site looks in a variety of browsers can be done easily using this method.
View Mobile Sites on Limited Connections
On a lot of sites, the mobile version offers a slimmed-down amount of content so not to overwhelm those using a mobile data connection. Many mobile browsers offer you the option to view the full desktop site instead, but it’s not as common to see a desktop page offer you their mobile flavor.
The default settings on Windows 10 gives you such a crappy experience on a limited internet connection, no wonder people complain.
— Paul Silisteanu (@sol_prog) September 28, 2015
By changing your user agent to act as a mobile browser, you can force this change the next time you’re using your phone as a mobile hotspot or on an otherwise limited connection. Browsing mobile versions of pages ensures you only get the basics and aren’t wasting data on multimedia or other large items being downloaded. Try it out and see if it saves you some data!
Get Around Stupid Browser Restrictions
It’s not as common as it used to be, but at times you’ll come across websites that tell you Chrome doesn’t work with their site, or you have to be using IE, or similar warnings. If you know the site works just fine in whatever browser you’re using, you can swap out the agent for one of those to oblige the website and keep doing what you were doing.
At one time, another use for this could have been viewing the Apple event livestream, which was previously only available for those using Safari. Recently, though. Apple has made them available to Windows 10 users running Edge, meaning that this isn’t as much of a problem anymore. You’ll know that you’re armed if you do encounter a stubborn site, though.
Our internal website "works best with Internet Explorer" (ie. some things only work with IE). I'm also sending this tweet from 1995.
— And You Will Know Us By The Length Of The Name (@jason0x21) June 2, 2016
Note that this doesn’t work if a website is truly IE-only because it uses archaic ActiveX controls or something similar. For those times, you’ll want to use IETab to run IE inside of Chrome.
Better OS Compatibility
In the reviews for user agent switching extensions, you might see a few people complain that they use the apps to get around sites that block specific operating systems! While this is completely ridiculous, you might run into a site or two that complains about you using Linux. If this happens, you can just slip right into your Internet Explorer disguise and the site will think you’re on Windows.
@ThreeUKSupport check account balance on the website doesn't work on linux chrome, but works on android chrome (which is weird)
— ?'????? ???????????? (@volandil) October 28, 2015
If you’re still using Windows XP despite over two years of it being unsupported, you might see sites alert you that Windows XP is unsupported or maybe your browser has become out of date since it’s not being updated for XP anymore. We recommend jumping ship to a modern operating system, but you could try swapping your user agent to squeeze a little more life out of Windows XP.
See a Different Perspective/Fun
Are the above options too boring for you? If so, you can still use agent switching just to have a bit of fun.
Tip: If you can't access desktop Twitter on your mobile device, download 1Password and change the 1Browser User Agent to Chrome.
— Avery Magnotti (@citrusui) November 3, 2015
If you’ve used Windows all your life, you can jump around some sites and see if they look any different when using Mac or Linux. Or, go around and see how many sites still support IE 6 and how many block you from using the outdated browser.
Some browser-switching agents even allow you to pose as Googlebot, the robots Google uses to crawl and index the Web. It could be interesting to see what content sites serve to the bots!
Seeing the web from a different perspective could be enjoyable once in a while, even if you can’t get much practical use out of it.
Get Your Disguise Out
So there are a few reasons for your to switch your user agent, after all. They won’t all be relevant for everyone and it’s not something you’ll probably need to do often, but it comes in handy at times. Don’t let webpages assume anything about you if you don’t want them to — you have the power to change that!
Interested in more web spoofing? Learn how to create fake website screenshots in just a few minutes.
What are your favorite reasons for switching your user agent? Add your methods in the comments below to make the list even better!