What are Headless browsers and how do they work?

Oct 27, 2023

Headless browsers are web browsers without a graphical user interface (GUI). They can load web pages, execute JavaScript, and interact with the page content programmatically through a command-line interface (CLI) or application programming interface (API). Headless browsers are commonly used for web scraping, automated testing, and rendering web pages in environments without a display.

How Headless Browsers Work

When a headless browser loads a web page, it follows these steps:

  1. Sends a request to the web server

  2. Receives the HTML document in response

  3. Parses and renders the page

  4. Executes any JavaScript code

The main difference between a headless browser and a standard browser is that a headless browser does not visually render the web page. Instead, it provides access to the page content and functionality through APIs or CLIs.

Examples of Headless Browsers

Some popular headless browsers include:

  • Chromium (and browsers based on it, like Edge and Brave)

  • Google Chrome

  • Firefox

  • WebKit (Apple Safari)

  • Splash

These browsers can run in headless mode, allowing them to be controlled programmatically.

Libraries for Controlling Headless Browsers

To simplify the interaction with headless browsers, developers often use specialized libraries, sometimes called drivers. These libraries encapsulate the browser's API into a more user-friendly format. Some popular libraries include:

  • Playwright: An open-source library built by Microsoft to automate Chromium, WebKit, and Firefox browsers with a unified API. It supports multiple programming languages, including JavaScript (Node.js), Python, and Java.

  • Selenium: An open-source suite of tools to automate web browsers across multiple platforms. It has a large community and is widely used.

  • Puppeteer: An open-source Node.js library that automates Chromium and Chrome. It is maintained by people close to the Chromium team.

Here's an example of using Puppeteer to control a headless Chrome browser:

import puppeteer from 'puppeteer';

const browser = await puppeteer.launch({ headless: true });

const page = await browser.newPage();

await page.goto('https://example.com');

await page.screenshot({ path: 'screenshot.png' });

await browser.close();

Web Scraping with Headless Browsers

Headless browsers are particularly useful for web scraping because they can:

  • Load and execute JavaScript, allowing the scraping of dynamic content

  • Interact with the page programmatically (click elements, fill in forms, etc.)

  • Render the page content without needing a physical display

However, some websites employ anti-scraping measures to detect and block headless browsers. To overcome this, you can:

  1. Modify the user-agent header to mimic a regular browser

  2. Change the browser fingerprint to avoid detection

Libraries like Crawlee, which builds on top of Puppeteer and Playwright, can help automate these tasks and provide additional anti-blocking features.


Headless browsers are powerful tools for web scraping, automated testing, and rendering web pages in environments without a display. By using libraries like Playwright, Selenium, or Puppeteer, developers can control headless browsers programmatically and interact with web pages efficiently. While some websites may attempt to detect and block headless browsers, techniques like modifying the user-agent and changing the browser fingerprint can help overcome these challenges.

Let's get scraping 🚀

Ready to start?

Get scraping now with a free account and $25 in free credits when you sign up.