The best password managers of 2019 and how to use them

The best password managers of 2019 and how to use them

Stop trying to come up with clever, cryptic passwords that you struggle to keep in your head. With a secure and easy-to-use password manager, you can manage your login credentials across all your devices, keeping your passwords safe and automatically filling in forms and syncing your data across Windows, MacOS, Android phones and iPhones and iPads.

Simply, a password manager is an encrypted digital vault that stores the login information you use to access websites, apps and other services. Besides keeping your credentials, identity and sensitive data safe, a password manager can generate unique, strong passwords to ensure you aren’t reusing them across your services. With all the recent news of security breaches and identity theft, using unique passwords can go a long way to ensuring that if one site gets hacked, your stolen password can’t be used on other sites.

And with a manager, you don’t have to remember the various pieces of login information, such as credit-card information or shipping addresses. With just one master password — or in some cases a PIN or even your fingerprint — you can autofill a form or password field. Some also feature online storage and an encrypted vault for storing documents. 

All our best password manager picks come in free versions, which usually lets you securely store passwords for one device (although our pick for best free manager can be used across multiple devices). Our picks also feature subscription options that let you sync your log-in information across all your devices, share credentials with trusted family and friends and get access to secure online storage. And if transparency is important to you, several of our picks are open-source projects. We also look at what a password manager is and the basics of how to use one.

Note that these services are independently chosen by our editors. CNET may get a share of the revenue if you buy anything featured on our site.Best free password managerLastPassSarah Tew/CNET

  • Offers free version
  • Base price beyond free: $36 per year
  • Works with: Windows, MacOS, Linux, Android, iPhone and iPad. Browser extensions for Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Internet Explorer, Edge and Opera. 

Some of our other picks have a free option, but most lock you to just one device if you don’t pay up. The free version of LastPass stands out by giving you the ability to store passwords, user login info and credentials and sync all of it wherever you want — across desktop, mobile and browsers. 

You can also share a login item with another person. For $36 a year, you can purchase the Premium version to share passwords, logins, memberships and other items with trusted emergency contacts, multifactor authentication through YubiKey and a fingerprint scanner and 1GB of encrypted storage. 

And with a $48 annual subscription, you can sign up for the Families plan that gives you six individual accounts, shared folders and a dashboard interface for managing the accounts and keeping an eye on your account’s security.

No, LastPass isn’t flawless: A vulnerability privately reported in September 2019 was a scary flaw that could potentially compromise passwords. But the company patched it before it was known to be exploited in the wild.SEE AT LASTPASS

  • Offers trial version
  • Base price: $35.88 per year
  • Works with: Windows, MacOS, Linux, Chrome OS, Android, iPhone and iPad. Browser extensions for Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Edge and Opera. 

If you’re looking for a trusted password manager app to keep your login information private and secure, 1Password is up to the task, letting you access your accounts and services with one master password. It’s available for Windows, MacOS, Android, iOS, Linux and Chrome OS. 

The nicely designed manager lacks a free version, but you can try for free for 30 days before signing up. An individual subscription runs $36 a year, and comes with 1GB of document storage and optional two-factor authentication for additional security. A travel mode lets you remove your 1Password sensitive data from your device when you travel and then restore it with one click when you return. 

On Macs, you can use Touch ID to unlock 1Password, and on iOS devices, you can use Face ID, too. For $60 a year, you can cover a family of five, sharing passwords, credit cards and anything else among the group. Each person gets their own vault, and it’s easy to control who you share information with and what they can do with it. 

You can also create separate guest accounts to share Wi-Fi connection passwords, for example, or home alarm codes with guests.SEE AT SEE AT 1PASSWORD

Other free and paid options worth considering

Both LastPass and 1Password are solid, affordable password keepers, and in a straw poll of CNET staffers, they were about neck-and-neck in use — though the latter may include some taking advantage of the 1Password for Journalism initiative that offers free service to us hacks. But if you find neither of our two recommended password managers works quite how you want, a handful of other apps are worth considering. These all have free versions available.


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GitHub

Bitwarden

  • Offers free version
  • Base price beyond free: $10 per year 
  • Works with: Windows, MacOS, Linux, Android, iPhone and iPad. Browser extensions for Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Edge, Opera, Vivaldi, Brave and Tor Browser. 

Bitwarden is a lean, open-source encryption software password manager that can store and autofill your passwords across your devices and popular browsers — including Brave and Tor — for free. It lacks some of the bells and whistles of our picks, but for $10 a year, you can add 1GB of encrypted file storage.SEE AT BITWARDEN


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Dashlane

Dashlane

  • Offers limited free version (50 passwords on one device)
  • Base price beyond free: $59.88 per year
  • Works with: Windows, MacOS, Android, iPhone and iPad. Browser extensions for Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Internet Explorer, Edge and Opera. 

Dashlane provides a simple and secure way to manage your passwords and keep other login information stored. Just for managing passwords, we like it as much as our picks, but the free Dashlane app limits you to one device and 50 passwords, and the Premium subscription is $60 a year, more than similar plans from 1Password and LastPass. SEE AT DASHLANE


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Keeper

Keeper

  • Offers limited free version (unlimited passwords on one device)
  • Base price beyond free: $25.49 per year (usually $29.99)
  • Works with: Windows, MacOS, Linux, Android, iPhone and iPad. Browser extensions for Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Internet Explorer, Edge and Opera. 

Keeper is another password service than helps you manage login info on Windows, MacOS, Android and iOS devices. A free version gives you unlimited passwords on one device. The step-up version costs $25 to $30 a year and lets you sync passwords across all your devices. For $60 a year, you can get 10GB of secure file storage.SEE AT KEEPER


KeePassXC

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KeePass
  • It’s free
  • Donations accepted
  • Works with: Windows, MacOS, Linux, Chrome OS, Android, iPhone and iPad, BlackBerry, Windows Phone and Palm OS. Access via the web plus popular browser extensions. (Except for the official Windows version, KeePass for other platforms are unofficial ports.)

KeePass, another open-source software, started on Windows and has been ported over using the same code base to other platforms, including MacOS, Android and iOS. On the plus side, it’s totally free and endorsed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. On the other side, it’s really for advanced users only: Its user interface takes a bit of fiddling to get all the independently built versions of KeePass to work together.SEE AT KEEPASS


Password manager basics

Still need more info on what password managers are, and why they’re better than the alternatives? Read on.

How does a password manager work? 

To get started, a password manager will record the username and password you use when you first sign in to a website or service. Then the next time you use visit the site, it will autofill forms with your stored user login information. For those websites and services that don’t handle automatic filling, a manager lets you copy the password to paste into the password field.

If you’re stuck picking a good password, the manager can generate a strong password for you and watch that you aren’t reusing any across services. And if you use more than one device, you want a manager that is available across all your devices and browsers, so you can access your passwords and login information — including credit-card and shipping information — from anywhere through the manager app or its browser extension. Some provide secure storage so you can store other items too, such as documents, say an electronic copy of your passport or will.

Take note: Many password managers keep the master password you use to unlock the manager locally and not on a remote server. Or if it’s on a server, it’s encrypted and not readable by the company. 

This ensures your account stays secure in case of a data breach. It also means that if you forget your master password, there may not be a way to recover your account through the company. Because of that, a few password managers offer DIY kits to help you recover your account on your own. Worse case scenario, you start over with a new account and manually reset your passwords at each specific destination site and account and start again.

What makes for a secure password?  

A good password should be a long string of capital and lowercase letters, numbers, punctuation and other nonalphanumeric characters — something that’s difficult for others to guess, but a snap for a password manager to keep track of. And despite what you may have heard, once you select a good password, you don’t really need to change it periodically.

Can I use a web browser to manage my passwords and login information? 

You can certainly use Chrome, Safari or Firefox to manage your passwords, addresses and other login data. You can even set up a master password to unlock your credentials within a browser. And while using an online browser’s password tool is certainly better than not using a password keeper at all, you can’t access your passwords and other login info outside of the browser, the browser isn’t much help in generating strong passwords and you can’t share login info with others you trust. 

What about iCloud Keychain? 

Through iCloud Keychain, you can access your Safari website usernames and passwords, credit card information and Wi-Fi network information from your Mac and iOS devices. It’s great if you live in Apple’s world. But if you venture outside and have a Windows or Android device or use the Chrome or Firefox browser, iCloud Keychain comes up short.

  • David Gewirtz contributed to this story

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