The Best Password Managers to Secure Your Digital Life

The Best Password Managers to Secure Your Digital Life

PASSWORD MANAGERS ARE the vegetables of the internet. We know they’re good for us, but most of us are happier snacking on the password equivalent of junk food. For seven years running that’s been “123456” and “password”—the two most commonly used passwords on the web. The problem is, most of us don’t know what makes a good password and aren’t able to remember hundreds of them anyway.

Now that so many people are working from home, outside the office intranet, the number of passwords you need may have significantly increased. The safest (if craziest) way to store them is to memorize them all. (Make sure they are long, strong, and secure!) Just kidding. That might work for Memory Grand Master Ed Cooke, but most of us are not capable of such fantastic feats. We need to offload that work to password managers, which offer secure vaults that can stand in for our faulty, overworked memories.

A password manager offers convenience and, more important, helps you create better passwords, which makes your online existence less vulnerable to password-based attacks. Be sure to also have a look at our guide to VPN providers for more ideas on how you can upgrade your security, as well as our guide to backing up your data to make sure you don’t lose anything if the unexpected happens.

Why Not Use Your Browser?

Most web browsers offer at least a rudimentary password manager. (This is where your passwords are stored when Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox ask if you’d like to save a password.) This is better than reusing the same password everywhere, but browser-based password managers are limited.

The reason security experts recommend you use a dedicated password manager comes down to focus. Web browsers have other priorities that haven’t left much time for improving their password manager. For instance, most of them won’t generate strong passwords for you, leaving you right back at “123456.” Dedicated password managers have a singular goal and have been adding helpful features for years. Ideally, this leads to better security.

WIRED readers have also written me asking about Apple’s MacOS password manager, which syncs through iCloud and has some nice integrations with Apple’s Safari web browser. There’s nothing wrong with Apple’s system. In fact, I have used Keychain Access on Macs in the past, and it works great. It doesn’t have some of the nice extras you get with dedicated services, but it handles securing your passwords and syncing them between Apple devices. The main problem is if you have any non-Apple devices, you won’t be able to sync your passwords to them, since Apple doesn’t make apps for other platforms. All in on Apple? Then this is a viable, free, built-in option worth considering.

How We Test

The best and most secure cryptographic algorithms are all available via open source programming libraries. On one hand, this is great, as any app can incorporate these ciphers and keep your data safe. Unfortunately, any encryption is only as strong as its weakest link, and cryptography alone won’t keep your passwords safe.

This is what I test for: What are the weakest links? Is your master password sent to the server? Every password manager says it isn’t, but if you watch network traffic while you enter a password, sometimes you find, well, it is. I also dig into how mobile apps work: Do they, for example, leave your password store unlocked but require a pin to get back in? That’s convenient, but it sacrifices too much security for that convenience.

 

No password manager is perfect, but the ones below represent the very best I’ve tested. They’re as secure as they can be while still remaining convenient and easy to use.

Best Overall

1Password

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What sets 1Password apart from the rest of the options in this list is the number of extras it offers. It’s not the cheapest (see our next pick for that), but in addition to managing passwords, it will alert you when a password is weak or has been compromised (by checking against Troy Hunt’s excellent Have I Been Pwned database).

 

Like other password managers, 1Password has apps that work just about everywhere, including MacOS, iOS, Android, Windows, and Chrome OS. There’s even a command-line tool that will work anywhere, and the company recently launched a client for Linux in beta. There are plugins for your favorite web browser too, which makes it easy to generate and edit new passwords on the fly.

1Password recently announced a new version of its apps, 1Password 8, and I’ve had a mixed experience. On one hand, it finally works with Windows laptops running on ARM architecture. But on MacOS Monterey, I’ve had problems with autofill not working, keyboard shortcuts stopping until I relaunch the browser, among other issues. The problems so far are not enough to make me change our top pick, but it’s definitely something I am keeping an eye on. The company also recently reduced its free-trial period from 30 days to 14 days.

If you frequently travel across national borders you’ll appreciate my favorite 1Password feature: Travel Mode. This mode lets you delete any sensitive data from your devices before you travel and then restore it with a click after you’ve crossed a border. This prevents anyone, even law enforcement at international borders, from accessing your complete password vault.

In addition to being a password manager, 1Password can act as an authentication app like Google Authenticator, and for added security, it creates a secret key to the encryption key it uses, meaning no one can decrypt your passwords without that key. (The downside is that if you lose this key, no one, not even 1Password, can decrypt your passwords.)

1Password also offers tight integration with other mobile apps. Rather than needing to copy and paste passwords from your password manager to other apps (which puts your password on the clipboard at least for a moment), 1Password is integrated with many apps and can autofill. This is more noticeable on iOS, where inter-app communication is more restricted.

Best Free Option

Bitwarden

a computer and 2 phones showing a screen of the Bitwarden password dashboard

Bitwarden is secure, open source, and free with no limits. The applications are polished and user-friendly, making it the best choice for anyone who doesn’t need the extra features of 1Password.

Did I mention it’s open source? That means the code that powers Bitwarden is freely available for anyone to inspect, seek out flaws, and fix. In theory, the more eyes on the code, the more airtight it becomes. Bitwarden has also been audited for 2020 by a third party to ensure it’s secure. It can be installed on your own server for easy self-hosting if you prefer to run your own cloud.

There are apps for Android, iOS, Windows, MacOS, and Linux, as well as extensions for all major web browsers. Bitwarden also has support for Windows Hello and Touch ID on its desktop apps for Windows and MacOS, giving you the added security of those biometric authentication systems.

Another thing I like is Bitwarden’s semiautomated password fill-in tool. If you visit a site that you’ve saved credentials for, Bitwarden’s browser icon shows the number of saved credentials from that site. Click the icon and it will ask which account you want to use and then automatically fills in the login form. This makes it easy to switch between usernames and avoids the pitfalls of autofill we mention at the bottom of this guide. If you simply must have your fully automated form-filling, Bitwarden supports that as well.

Bitwarden offers a paid upgrade account. The cheapest of the bunch, Bitwarden Premium, is $10 per year. That gets you 1 GB of encrypted file storage, two-factor authentication with devices like YubiKey, FIDO U2F, Duo, and a password hygiene and vault health report. Paying also gets you priority customer support.

Best Full-Featured Manager

Dashlane

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I first encountered Dashlane several years ago. Back then, it was the same as its competitors with no standout attributes. But recent updates have added several helpful features. One of the best is Site Breach Alerts, something other services have since added as well. Dashlane actively monitors the darker corners of the web, looking for leaked or stolen personal data, and then alerts you if your information has been compromised.

Setup and migration from another password manager is simple, and you’ll use a secret key to encrypt your passwords, much like 1Password’s setup process. In practice, Dashlane is very similar to the others in this list. The company did discontinue its desktop app earlier this year, moving to a web-based user interface, which is a little different than 1Password and Bitwarden. (The desktop apps will officially shut down on January 10, 2022.) I primarily use passwords in the web browser anyway, and Dashlane has add-ons for all the major browsers, along with iOS and Android apps. If a desktop app is important to you, it’s something to be aware of. Dashlane offers a 30-day free trial, so you can test it out before committing.

Best DIY Option (Self-Hosted)

KeePassXC

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Want to retain more control over your data in the cloud? Try using a desktop application like KeePassXC. It stores encrypted versions of all your passwords into an encrypted digital vault that keeps you secure with a master password, a key file, or both. The difference is that instead of a hosted service like 1Password syncing it for you, you sync that database file yourself using a file-syncing service like Dropbox or Edward Snowden’s recommended serviceSpiderOak. Once your file is in the cloud, you can access it on any device that has a KeePassXC client.

Why do it yourself? In a word: Transparency. Like Bitwarden, KeepassXC is open source, which means its code can be and has been inspected for critical flaws.

 

Password Manager Basics

A good password manager stores, generates, and updates passwords for you with the press of a button. If you’re willing to spend a few dollars a month, a password manager can sync your passwords across all your devices. Here’s how they work.

Only one password to remember: To access all your passwords, you only have to remember one password. When you type that into the password manager, it unlocks the vault containing all of your actual passwords. Only needing to remember one password is great, but it means there’s a lot riding on that one password. Make sure it’s a good one. If you’re having trouble coming up with that one password to rule them all, check out our guide to better password security. You might also consider using the Diceware method for generating a strong master password.

Apps and extensions: Most password managers are full systems rather than a single piece of software. They consist of apps or browser extensions for each of your devices (Windows, Mac, Android phones, iPhone, and tablets), which have tools to help you create secure passwords, safely store them, and evaluate the security of your existing passwords. All that information is then sent to a central server where your passwords are encrypted, stored, and shared between devices.

Fixing compromised passwords: While password managers can help you create more secure passwords and keep them safe from prying eyes, they can’t protect your password if the website itself is breached. That doesn’t mean they don’t help in this scenario though. All the cloud-based password managers we discuss offer tools to alert you to potentially compromised passwords. Password managers also make it easier to quickly change a compromised password and search through your passwords to ensure you didn’t reuse any compromised codes.

You should disable auto form-filling: Some password managers will automatically fill in and even submit web forms for you. This is super convenient, but for additional security, we suggest you disable this feature. Automatically filling forms in the browser has made password managers vulnerable to attacks in the past. For this reason, our favorite password manager, 1Password, requires you to opt in to this feature. We suggest you do not.

Don’t panic about hacks: Software has bugs, even your password manager. The question is not what do you do if it becomes known that your password manager has a flaw, but what do you do when it becomes known that your password manager has a flaw. The answer is, first, don’t panic. Normally bugs are found, reported, and fixed before they’re exploited in the wild. Even if someone does manage to gain access to your password manager’s servers, you should still be fine. All of the services we list store only encrypted data and none of them store your encryption key, meaning all an attacker gets from compromising their servers is encrypted data.

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