Keep your logins under lock and key. We picked our favorites for PC, Mac, Android, iPhone, and web browsers.
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.
With more of us now working from home, outside the office intranet, the number of passwords you need may have significantly increased. If you can memorize strong passwords for every website you visit and every app you use, by all means do it. Assuming you're using secure passwords—which is, first and foremost, shorthand for long passwords—this is the most secure, if slightly insane, way to store passwords.
It might work for Memory Grand Master Ed Cooke, but most of us are not ready for 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 importantly, 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 some more ideas on how you can upgrade your security, and our guide to backing up your data to make sure you don't lose anything if the unexpected happens. Updated August 2020: Several of our recommended services have released major updates, so we've retested and updated this guide.
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 now. Ideally, this leads to better security.
SCREENSHOT: 1PASSWORD 1Password began life as an Apple-centric password solution, but it has since broadened its offerings to include iOS, Android, Windows, and ChromeOS. There's even a command-line tool that will work anywhere, and the company just announced a preview release of a native client for Linux. There are plug-ins for your favorite web browser too, which makes it easy to generate and edit new passwords on the fly. What sets 1Password apart is the number of extras it offers. In addition to managing passwords, it 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.)
Another reason 1Password offers the best experience is its tight integration with other mobile apps. Rather than needing to copy and paste passwords from your password manager to other apps, 1Password is integrated with many apps and can autofill. This is more noticeable on iOS, where inter-app communication is more restricted.
The other reason I like 1Password is its Travel Mode, which allows you to 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. 1Password has a 30-day free trial, so you can test it out before committing.
1Password costs $3 per month ($36 per year, $60 a year for families) After signing up, download the app for Windows, MacOS, Android, iOS, ChromeOS, or Linux. There are also browser extensions for Firefox, Chrome, and Edge.
Best Free Option
Bitwarden has become a popular choice among open-source software advocates. After using it for a few months, I can see why. It's free with no limits, and it's every bit as polished and user-friendly as our top pick.
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, plus less common options like Opera, Brave, and Vivaldi (which all support Chrome extensions). Bitwarden also recently added support for Windows Hello and Touch ID to its desktop apps for Windows and macOS, giving you the added security of those biometric 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 fill 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.
Bitwarden is free ($10 per year for families) After signing up, download the app for Windows, MacOS, Android, iOS, or Linux. There are also browser extensions for Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Edge, Vivaldi, and Brave.
Best Full-Featured Manager
I first encountered Dashlane several years ago. Back then, it was the same as its competitors, with no standout attributes. But recent updates, especially Dashlane 6, have added several features not found elsewhere. One of the best is Site Breach Alerts. 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.
The desktop client is easy to navigate, and the mobile apps make accessing your data everywhere a cinch, though there is no syncing between devices without buying the Premium version ($5 per month). Still, it's simple to set up and uses a secret key to encrypt your passwords, much like 1Password's setup process.
We also like the option not to store any password data on Dashlane's servers. If you use this feature, you are responsible for managing and syncing your password vault between devices. It's less convenient, but your passwords stay with you. This isn't possible with 1Password or LastPass. The Premium plan has other nice extras you won't find with other services, like a free VPN. Dashlane Premium costs $5 per month ($60 per year) for individuals, $7.50 per month for the family plan (up to five users). There's also Premium Plus, which costs $10/month ($120 per year) for individuals and $15/month for the family plan. The upgrade gets you some identity-theft and recovery tools.
Dashlane offers a 30-day free trial for either plan, so you can test it out before committing.
Best DIY Option (Self-Hosted)
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 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 service, SpiderOak. 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.
Download the desktop app for Windows, MacOS, or Linux and create your vault. There are also extensions for Firefox and Chrome, but not Edge. It does not have official apps for your phone. Instead, the project recommends KeePass2Android or Strongbox for iPhone.
The New Kid on the Block
PHOTOGRAPH: NORDPASS NordPass is a relatively new kid on the password manager block, but it comes from a company with significant pedigree. NordVPN is a well-known VPN provider, and the company brings to its password manager much of the ease of use and simplicity that made its VPN offering popular. The installation and setup process is a breeze. There are apps for every major platform (including Linux), browser, and device.
The free version of NordPass is limited to one device; there's no syncing available. There is a seven-day free trial of the premium version, which lets you test device syncing. But to get that for good, you'll have to upgrade to the $36-a-year plan. (Like its VPN service, NordPass accepts payment in cryptocurrencies.)
Like our other favorites, NordPass uses a zero-knowledge setup in which all data is encrypted on your device before it's uploaded to the company's servers. Other nice features include support for two-factor authentication to sign in to your account and a built-in password generator (which has plenty of options to handle those poorly designed sites that put weird requirements on your password).
The company also recently introduced a personal information storage feature to keep your address, phone number, and other personal data safe and secure, but easy to access as well. NordPass is free, though we suggest upgrading to a premium plan ($36/year)
Password managers are not a one-size-fits-all solution. While we think our top picks cover most use cases and are the best choices for most people, your needs may be different. Fortunately, there are plenty of very good password managers. Here are some more we've tested and liked.
LastPass (free, $36 per year for premium): LastPass is one of the most popular and well-known password managers. It works on nearly every platform and device available, though it recently dropped its macOS stand-alone app, citing changes in Apple's developer tools. LastPass has had a number of high-profile, critical bugs and some data breaches. Overall though, LastPass remains a good choice for those on a tight budget. The company recently introduced a monitoring service that will let you know if any of your credentials have been compromised.
RememBear ($36 per year): RememBear does everything you'd expect of a password manager, and it has bears! Password managers are possibly the most boring software on your device, plus just the idea of them is stressful to some people. RememBear counters this by entertaining with bear puns and smoothing out anxiety with its friendly, lovable bear mascot. For beginners, RememBear has everything you need and a clever, approachable user interface. It's missing some features that advanced users might want, like two-factor authentication (RememBear supports 2FA for logging in to sites, but not for the app itself), and a password strength checker. There's a free trial that will let you test the app, but the free plan doesn't sync. A premium account is $36 per year and includes syncing with end-to-end encryption, secure backups, and priority customer service. Sadly, you don't get an actual bear.
Enpass (free, $12 per year, or one-time $60, for premium): Like KeePassXC, Enpass does not store any data on its servers. Syncing is handled through third-party services like Dropbox or NextCloud. Enpass doesn't do the syncing, but it does offer apps on every platform. That means once you have syncing set up, it works just like any other service. And you don't have to worry about Enpass being hacked, because your data isn't on its servers. If you're comfortable setting up the secure syncing yourself, Enpass makes a great password manager.
Keeper Password Manager (free, $36 per year for premium): Keeper offers a variety of security-related tools, including a password manager. Keeper works much like 1Password and others, storing only your encrypted data, and offers two-factor authentication for logging in to your account. Like Dashlane, Keeper has a lot of extras, including dark-web monitoring, meaning Keeper will check publicly posted data to make sure yours isn't available.
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.