You’re probably wondering if password managers are really necessary.
The short answer: Yes.
The long answer: You may no longer be using the same easy-to-guess combo of your hometown and the year you graduated high school as a password for everything from your bank account to Neopets, but that doesn’t mean you have strong password game.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve perfected your Sherlockian mind palace, you’ll never be able to beat a computer when it comes to remembering long, random strings of letters, numbers, and special characters — and long, random strings of letters, numbers, and special characters are what makes strong passwords.
This doesn’t mean you should entrust your passwords to the first program that asks for it, however. Your browser’s built-in password manager, for example, probably isn’t particularly secure — especially if extra security steps, such as two-factor authentication (2FA) are opt-in — nor is it robust. Some built-in password managers, such as Apple’s iCloud Keychain, force you to use 2FA and are therefore more secure. But Keychain only works on select platforms — spoiler, mostly Apple. There is a Keychain extension for Windows, but it sends approximately 500 requests for 2FA per hour (I uninstalled it after a week).
A third-party password manager solves all your problems. The best password managers are extremely secure, protecting your data via 256-bit AES end-to-end encryption, zero-knowledge technology, and both 2FA and multi-factor authentication. They have apps and extensions for all major platforms, mobile devices, and web browsers. They also do more than just save passwords; they’re packed with additional tools and features, including password generators, security audits, and secure cloud storage, that will take your security from “the 11-year-old across the street could hack you” to “not worth the effort.”
So, which password manager should you be using? There’s no simple answer; it varies, based on your individual situation. After all, the biggest, and most unpredictable, variable in security is always you.
Picking the Best Password Manager For You
- Cross-platform performance: It’s not difficult to find a password manager that works with your chosen platforms, as most support a surprisingly wide range of desktop and mobile operating systems and browsers. But the best password manager won’t just work on your platforms, it will work well. What works for you will depend on both the platforms you use and your personal tolerance for different quirks and inconveniences.
- Local or cloud-based storage: The best password managers store your passwords in one of two places: The cloud, aka remotely, on their own super-secure servers; or locally, on your own (super-secure?) server. Cloud-based storage is the best option for most people: It’s much more secure than anything you could hope to rig up, it’s backed up in the event something happens to your device, and you can conveniently sync your passwords across multiple platforms. There are local-storage-only services if you’re particularly paranoid and/or a security wizard. If you just want an offline backup of your passwords in addition to cloud-based convenience, many cloud-based password managers offer this as well.
- Industry-standard security protocols: The best password managers all follow the same industry-standard security protocols. This includes 256-bit AES encryption, end-to-end encryption, and zero-knowledge technology. This means all data is encrypted and decrypted locally, and can only be unlocked with your master password — which nobody, not even the password manager, knows. You’ll also want to make sure your password manager protects logins via 2FA, multi-factor authentication, and/or biometric authentication; is active and up-to-date; and submits to regular third-party security audits.
- Password generator: The best password managers are proactive about password integrity, and include robust password generators that effortlessly create and save strong, unhackable passwords and passphrases. A good password generator has lots of options, and can create passwords that adhere to a variety of parameters — including your own, e.g., “easy to read.” It should also be easy to access (on all platforms) and work seamlessly with the rest of the service.
- Not just passwords: Password generators usually store other types of information in addition to passwords. This includes credit card numbers, bank info, shipping addresses, and a variety of other forms, documents, and IDs. Most of the best password managers have “secure notes” for storing strings of text, and many come with 1GB or more of secure cloud storage.
- Recovery options: Your master password is unknown and unrecoverable — but you might still be able to regain access to your account. There are a variety of recovery options — everything from SMS and biometric authentication to a designated emergency contact — depending on the service. Make sure the recovery options for your chosen password manager are options you can use — and set them up before you lose your master password.
- Extra features: Premium plans on the best password managers often include extra security tools and service, such as password auditing and breach/dark web monitoring. A password audit analyzes the credentials in your password vault and finds compromised, reused, and otherwise weak passwords, and directs you to change those passwords or update/delete the credentials. Some audits also check for expired passwords and websites with optional 2FA. Breach/dark web monitoring tracks data breaches and alerts you if it finds passwords or personal info.
- Price: Many of the best password managers have a free plan; most of these free plans are so strictly limited that they’re unusable for the average multi-device person. But you don’t have to pay — Bitwarden’s free plan has no limits on the number of passwords you can save or the number of devices you can sync across. Many password managers offer 14 - 30 day free trials of their premium services — it’s worth pointing out these trials are often automatically applied and you may not realize what you’ll no longer be able to access once the trial period is up. Family plans give premium service to five or six users and usually cost just a dollar or two more (per month) than an individual plan. All family members get individual secure password vaults (often with extended sharing options); family members can’t access each others’ data unless it’s explicitly shared.
Best Password Managers: Free and Paid
LastPass is one of the most well-known and widely-used password managers, and for good reason: Its cross-platform experience is superb, so long as you’re willing to pay for it.
LastPass has three tiers: free, premium (individual), and family. Up until about a year ago, free users were able to sync their password vaults across unlimited devices. But in March 2021, the company announced that free users would now be limited to syncing on one device “type” — desktop or mobile. Free users also lost access to LastPass’s security dashboard, as well as email customer support.
LastPass Premium is priced competitively at $36 per year; if you’re already considering a paid plan, this might be the best password manager for you. Premium users can sync across unlimited devices (and device types ), and also get access to LastPass’s security dashboard, dark web monitoring services, one-to-many sharing, emergency access, multi-factor authentication, and 1GB of secure cloud storage.
LastPass also offers a family plan, which includes everything the premium service has to offer and costs $48 per year for up to six people. This is one of the cheaper family plans; competitors 1Password and Keeper charge $59.88 and $74.99 per year, and only cover five people.
LastPass’s interface isn’t perfect, but the part that’s most important — capturing, storing, and filling passwords and credentials — just works. This, plus a smooth, consistent cross-platform experience, makes LastPass a snap to get used to — and a password manager you don’t think twice about using is one that keeps you secure.
Read: Last Pass Review
Bitwarden does it all — for free. It’s open-source, with no restrictions on password storage, cross-platform syncing, and 2FA for all users. Bitwarden even offers a free “org,” or two-person family plan, which is perfect for couples or roommates who might need to share passwords or other credentials in bulk (individual plans can share items one by one).
If you’re looking for more features, Bitwarden’s budget-priced premium plan costs $10 per year and adds multi-factor authentication, security checkups and password audits, 1GB of secure storage, and the option to add an emergency contact who can access your vault if something happens to you. Bitwarden does offer a family plan, which costs $40 per year for six users, and includes unlimited sharing, collections, and organization storage between members.
Bitwarden’s interface is a little less polished than its competitors’, and has some annoying quirks — you can’t create new folders from the browser extension, nor can you drag-and-drop items into folders from the desktop app. It also syncs infrequently between desktop and mobile (but this is still better than not syncing at all).
Bitwarden has an excellent security reputation: In addition to the industry-standard security protocols, Bitwarden also regularly submits to third-party security audits and makes its code open-source. Bitwarden can also be self-hosted on a local server — which, again, is not necessarily more secure, but is an option for those who want full control over where their data is stored.
Read: Bitwarden Review
1Password is a premium password manager: It offers paid plans for individuals and families, and does not have a free option beyond the initial 14-day trial period. If you’re looking for a paid password manager and you’re not totally sold on LastPass (for whatever reason), 1Password is an excellent alternative with similar cross-platform fluidity.
1Password costs $35.88 per year for individuals and $59.88 per year for a five-person family plan. 1Password offers syncing across unlimited devices, secure one-to-one sharing, multi-factor authentication, and 1GB of secure cloud storage. Users also have access to “Watchtower,” which refers to 1Password’s collection of security services, including vault analysis/password auditing, dark web monitoring, and “Travel Mode.” Travel Mode lets you temporarily remove selected passwords or other stored credentials while traveling (to prevent your data from being compromised in certain situations, such as border crossings).
Most of the major password managers follow the same industry-standard security protocols, including end-to-end 256-bit AES encryption, zero-knowledge technology, and 2FA or multi-factor authentication. 1Password goes one step further than some of its competitors (e.g. LastPass) in several cases, choosing security over convenience. The first time you login to any device with 1Password, you’ll need both your master password and a secret key (received at signup) — it’s less convenient but it’s also much safer than password managers that only require your master password (after all, you can use a different password management system to save a master password).
1Password’s family plan is more expensive than LastPass’s, but it also offers additional features that might be useful for actual families. 1Password allows you to designate multiple family organizers; family organizers can grant emergency access to other family members’ vaults (good for kids or anyone prone to forgetting passwords) and can create shared vaults with limitations on who can access them. 1Password family plans also allow up to five guest accounts.
Read: 1Password Review
Keeper is a premium password manager with a well-designed interface, and is competitively priced (plus, it frequently has sales) at $34.99 per year for an individual. Keeper does have a free plan, but the free plan is limited to just one device, so it won’t be useful for most people.
Keeper three account tiers: free, premium (“Keeper Unlimited”), and family, plus add-ons and packages with additional features. Keeper’s premium plan includes syncing across unlimited devices, secure sharing, emergency access, and multi-factor authentication. For the individual premium plan, secure cloud storage and access to Keeper’s BreachWatch (which includes dark web monitoring) are add-ons, which makes the individual plan a little less appealing than its competitors who include those services in their base price.
Keeper’s family plan costs $74.99 per year for up to five people; it’s more expensive than some of the other family plans, but it does include 10GB of secure cloud storage (others include 1GB for individuals and families), plus you can purchase additional storage (up to 1TB). BreachWatch is still an add-on, however.
In addition to a well-designed interface and a smooth cross-platform experience, Keeper also has one of the easier-to-use import tools, which is useful if you’ve got your passwords stored somewhere other than your brain. This might not seem like much, but it’s one area in which no password manager is perfect, and most are downright awful. Keeper also has excellent, 24/7 customer support — another area in which many password managers are surprisingly lacking. Support includes walk-through, guides, and video tutorials, as well as live chat, email, and phone support.
Both Keeper’s desktop app and mobile app feature “offline mode,” which allows you to access your vault when you’re not connected to the internet (your password vault is saved locally, but is still encrypted). I’ve found this to be especially useful on mobile — for some reason I always end up needing passwords when I’m traveling and not connected to a network.
Read: Keeper Review
Other Password Managers We Tested
In our quest for the best password managers, we tested a number of other well-known services. Most of these were, in a word, passable, but not good enough to be listed among the best.
NordPass offers a relatively usable free plan: You can store unlimited passwords and sync across unlimited devices, but you can only be logged into one device at a time. This means you’ll need to login every time you switch devices, but once you do you can access your vault from anywhere.
NordPass also uses a different encryption algorithm than do most of its competitors: XChaCha20, which is more modern than 256-bit AES encryption, and doesn’t require hardware acceleration to run. NordPass has paid premium plans for both individuals and families (up to six users), and while its service is slightly pricier than competitors’, it does offer multi-year discounts.
But NordPass’s biggest drawback is its poor performance on mobile: It has trouble capturing credentials and filling out forms, which is…most of what password management is. It also limits you to six simultaneous logins, which will seem like plenty for some people and not nearly enough for others.
Read: NordPass Review
Dashlane is a well-known, secure password manager with free, paid, and family plans. The free plan limits users to 50 saved passwords on one device, which makes it one of the most limited free plans we’ve seen (free users do get access to Dashlane’s password health tools, which includes an audit of your existing passwords). The paid individual and family plans offer unlimited syncing, secure notes, dark web monitoring, multi-factor authentication, 1GB of secure cloud storage, and Hotspot Shield’s VPN service.
If you’re not swayed by the VPN service, Dashlane’s premium plans will seem pretty pricey: The premium plan for individuals costs $59.88 per year, while the family plan costs $89.88 per year (for up to six users).
Read: Dashlane Review
RememBear is the most beginner-friendly password manager we’ve seen, with a simple, clean (and cute) interface; clear step-by-step instructions; and a much-needed injection of humor. This password manager fully commits to its cute bear theme with puns and graphics that will hook you long enough to get you through the initial tediousness of setting up a password manager. It’s a great intro for someone who’s never used a password manager, but it’s also just a password manager: It lacks the extra tools, services, and security features of its competitors (while being on the pricier side, to boot).
That said, RememBears is so beginner-friendly it might still have been among the best password managers if not for this red flag: Its mobile apps haven’t been updated in over two years. An email to the company confirmed that the service is still in business, but the best password managers update regularly to stay ahead of new and developing security threats.
Read: RememBear Review
There’s a delicate balance between security and convenience. A password manager can be 100% locked down and secure, but if it’s difficult or frustrating to use, people will take shortcuts that compromise that otherwise perfect security. And that’s if they continue to use the service at all. That’s why it’s especially important to take your particular needs — the platforms and devices you use, the types of credentials you need to store, the extra tools you find most useful — into account when choosing the best password manager for you.