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 nearly a decade, 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.
The safest (if craziest) way to store your passwords 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 memory.
A password manager offers convenience and, more importantly, helps you create better passwords, which makes your online existence less vulnerable to password-based attacks. Read 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.
Updated March 2023: We’ve reorganized this guide, added some notes about why self-syncing options might be a better bet, and noted yet another LastPass security breach.
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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. In recent years, Google has improved the password manager built into Chrome, and it's better than the rest, but it's still not as full-featured or widely supported as a dedicated password manager like those below.
The reason security experts recommend using 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 asked 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 that 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.
Passkeys, FIDO, and the “Death of the Password”
A concerted effort to get rid of passwords began roughly two days after the password was invented. Passwords are a pain—you’ll get no argument here—but we don’t see them going away in the foreseeable future. The latest effort to eliminate the password comes from the FIDO Alliance, an industry group aimed at standardizing authentication methods online.
It’s still early days, but Apple has implemented the FIDO protocols in what the company calls passkeys. Passkeys are generated cryptographic keys managed by your device. You don’t need to do anything. Apple will store them in iCloud’s Keychain so they’re synced across devices, and they work in Apple’s Safari web browser. Passkeys have been available since iOS 16 and MacOS Ventura, but there are some limitations. Websites and services need to support the FIDO Alliance’s protocols, which, at the moment, most don’t. We expect that to change rapidly though. Google has already rolled out Passkey support in Android and Chrome. Passkeys will eventually also function with systems by Microsoft, Meta, and Amazon.
Since Passkeys are generated key pairs instead of passwords, there's nothing to remember. If you are familiar with GPG keys, they're somewhat similar in that there's a public and private key; the website you want to log in to has a public key and sends it to your device. Your device compares that to the private key it has and you're signed in (or not if the keys don't match). While passkeys aren't a radical departure, they're still an improvement by virtue of being pre-installed for people who aren't going to read this article and immediately sign up to use one of the services below. If millions of people suddenly stop using 12345678 as a password, that's a win for security.
That said, there are some significant downsides to what the FIDO Alliance has come up with so far. The biggest is that you are going to be putting all your eggs in a single basket, as it were. Passkeys are managed by your device, which means the tech company behind your device–namely Apple, Google, and Microsoft. That is a single point of failure, which, historically in the tech world, does not bode well. We're hoping to see FIDO expand its current plan to allow third parties to generate and manage keys as well.
In the meantime, if you're savvy enough to be reading this article, we suggest you stick with a good password manager. Most of them are slowly rolling out support for Passkey logins anyway, so it's not like you'll be behind the curve just because you didn't jump on the first Passkey opportunity that passed by.
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 on MacOS, iOS, Android, Windows, Linux, and Chrome OS. There’s even a command-line tool that will work anywhere. 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 app, 1Password 8, and I’ve had a mixed experience with it. On the one hand, it finally works with Windows laptops running on ARM architecture. But on MacOS Monterey, I’ve had problems with autofill not working and 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.
Bitwarden is secure, open source, and free with no limits. The applications are polished and user-friendly, making the service 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. Bitwarden recently introduced passwordless authentication support, meaning you can log in with a one-time code, biometric authentication, or security key.
I like Bitwarden’s semiautomated password fill-in tool. If you visit a site 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 that we mention at the bottom of this guide. If you simply must have your fully automated form-filling feature, 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.
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 on this list. The company doesn’t offer a desktop app, but 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.
NordPass is a relatively new kid on the password manager block, but it comes from a company with significant credentials. 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, and 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.)
NordPass uses a zero-knowledge setup in which all data is encrypted on your device before it’s uploaded to the company’s servers, like our picks above. 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). There’s also a personal information storage feature to keep your address, phone number, and other personal data safe and secure but easy to access.
NordPass also offers an emergency access feature, which allows you to grant another NordPass user emergency access to your vault. It works just like the same feature in 1Password, allowing trusted friends or family to access your account in the event you cannot.
Best DIY Options (Self-Hosted)
Want to retain more control over your data in the cloud? Sync your password vault yourself.
The services below do not store any of your data on their servers. This means that attackers have nothing to target. Instead of storing your passwords, these services use a local vault to store your data and then you sync that vault using a file-syncing service like Dropbox, NextCloud, or Edward Snowden’s recommended service, SpiderOak.
There are two services to to keep track of in this scenario, making it a little more complex. But if you’re already using a file-syncing file service, this can be a good option.
Enpass does not store any data on its servers. Syncing is handled through third-party services. 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. Enpass supports syncing through Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, iCloud, Box, Nextcloud or any service using WebDAV. Alas, SpiderOak is not currently supported. You can also synchronize your data over a local WLAN or Wi-Fi network.
All the features you expect in a password manager are here, including auto-generating passwords, breach-monitoring, biometric login (for devices that support it), auto-filling passwords, and options to store other types of data, like credit cards and identification data. There’s also a password audit feature to highlight any weak or duplicate passwords in your vault. One extra I particularly like is the ability to tag passwords for easier searching. Enpass also makes setting up the syncing through the service of your choice very easy.
Enpass is free to use on Windows, Mac, and Linux. The mobile version syncs up to 25 items in one vault for free. For more than that, you’ll want to sign up for the paid service (which is 50 percent off for the first year).
KeePassXC works like Enpass above. It stores your passwords in an encrypted digital vault that keeps you secure with a master password, a key file, or both. You sync that database file yourself using a file-syncing service. Once your file is in the cloud, you can access it on any device that has a KeePassXC client. Like Bitwarden, KeepassXC is open source, which means its code can be and has been inspected for critical flaws. If you’re an advanced user, comfortable handling your own issues and support, KeePassXC makes a great choice.
The downside to KeePassXC is that it doesn’t have official mobile clients. There are third-party apps on both iOS and Android.
Download the desktop app for Windows, MacOS, or Linux and create your vault. There are also extensions for Firefox, Edge, and Chrome. It does not have official apps for your phone. Instead, the project recommends KeePass2Android or Strongbox for iPhone.
Password managers are not a one-size-fits-all solution. Our top picks cover most use cases and are the best choices for most people, but your needs may be different. Fortunately, there are plenty of good password managers out there. Here are some more we’ve tested and like.
Keeper Password Manager ($35 per Year for Unlimited): 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 it offers two-factor authentication for logging in to your account. Like Dashlane, Keeper has a lot of extras, including dark-web monitoring, meaning it will check publicly posted data to make sure yours isn’t available.Roboform ($24 Per Year, $48 Per Year for Five-User Family Plan): Roboform has most of same features as the rest in this list, but it lacks some of the things that differentiate our top picks, like 1Password’s travel feature or Bitwarden’s open source aspect. I’ve been testing the free plan for a while and haven’t run into any problems. There are apps for every common platform, and it’s easy to use. That said, Roboform hasn’t published a full, independent security audit.Pass (Free): Pass is a command-line wrapper around GPG (GNU Privacy Guard), which is to say, this is only for the nerdiest of users. It has support for managing encrypted .gpg files in Git, and there are third-party mobile apps available. It’s definitely not for everyone, but since people always ask, it’s what I use.What About LastPass?
LastPass used to be our favorite free password manager, but then it changed its free plan so you are limited to a single device. If you’re looking for a free service, Bitwarden is a far better choice. More worrying, LastPass has had more bad security breaches than any other service on this page, which led us to remove it from our top picks. We do not recommend using LastPass.
How We Test
The best and most secure cryptographic algorithms are all available via open source programming libraries. On the 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. No password manager is perfect, but the ones above represent the best I’ve tested. They’re as secure as they can be while remaining easy to use.
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 of your devices. Here’s how they work.
Only one password to remember: To access all of 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 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 to you do if it becomes known that your password manager has a flaw, but what 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.