How to use iCloud keychain, Apple’s built-in and free password management

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Your iPhone, iPad and Mac all have a free password manager made by Apple called the iCloud Keychain. How to use it, configure two-factor authentication and never have to remember a password again.

Apple has stepped up its game of password management thanks to new features in iOS 15, macOS Monterey and its other 2021 software releases. In the past, iCloud Keychain was a background password manager that popped up from time to time, usually to the user’s confusion, to offer a strong password or autofill something. Now it scans for password breaches, warns of repeated passwords and offers two-factor authentication (2FA) keys in a dedicated settings window.

Many iPhone and Mac users turn to third-party password tools without realizing that Apple is fully-featured and may even be more secure than some of the market’s popular options. Here’s how to get iCloud Keychain up and running on your devices and how to keep your passwords up to date.

iCloud Password Manager on iPhone

Using the password tool on iOS

Using the password tool on iOS

Apple built the iCloud keychain to be invisible during daily use. If you are on a website or in an app that uses a sufficiently coded password field, a prompt will appear instead of your keyboard.

If you have already entered a username or email, the web form for the password will trigger an automatically suggested password. This is by default a series of twenty characters with two hyphens, uppercase and lowercase letters and a symbol. You never have to remember the complex password, so accept the suggestion and select “remember login” when prompted in the next window.

This username and password will be saved and automatically linked to that app or website. For future logins, automatic password filling will be displayed instead of the keyboard, and a Face ID or Touch ID prompt will ensure that you are the one entering the password.

The new login information is synced across iCloud using end-to-end encryption, so you do not have to worry about your password being stolen by unauthorized users during transit. To see the passwords you have saved, check for security warnings or delete a password, navigate to the password section in the Settings app.

It is also possible to add two-factor authentication codes.

How to get a dedicated password app icon

There is no app for Apple’s iCloud Keychain, but the password manager is located inside the Settings app. If navigating to this is not ideal every time you want to manage your passwords, you can always create a custom shortcut and add it to your home screen with a direct link.

  1. Open shortcuts
  2. Press “+” in the upper right corner
  3. Name the action “Passwords”
  4. Tap “add action” and search for “URL” to add that action
  5. Insert “prefs: root = PASSWORDS” in the URL field
  6. Search for “Open URL”, add the action, and select “URL” in variables in the action
  7. Add the home screen shortcut using the settings icon in the upper right corner

Once you have selected an icon or custom image, the new password shortcut will appear on your Home screen, giving you quick access to your passwords with a single tap. There is also always the option to tell Siri to “show passwords.”

iCloud Password Manager on Mac

Using the Password Tool on Mac

Using the Password Tool on Mac

An older tool built into macOS called “Keychain Access” acts as a catch-up app for authentication certificates, passwords, and other security messages. But starting with macOS Monterey, there’s a more user-friendly option in the System Preferences app.

Keychain access is not for the faint of heart. It is located in the appstarter folder “Other” by default and displays password information in a list format. While users can access their passwords from here, we recommend using the “Passwords” System Preferences tool instead.

Just like on iOS, the password tool is a simple list of all saved sites, the login information for each, and alerts for duplicate or compromised passwords. There will not be much need to access the password tool in System Preferences during daily use. Instead, all sites should automatically fill in the password or offer strong passwords automatically.

Setting up two-factor authentication

Passwords and 2FA are entered automatically with Face ID and Touch ID

Passwords and 2FA are entered automatically with Face ID and Touch ID

The latest addition to Apple’s iCloud keychain is the ability to automatically populate two-factor authentication codes. Instead of using a third-party tool dedicated to 2FA, users can rely on the built-in secure and reliable system.

Generating a 2FA code can be cumbersome, but it is one of the best security features when properly implemented. Some may be aware of 2FA through the sms codes sent when confirming your phone number, but these are not secure.

Instead, many websites and apps have turned to a system that generates tags based on a time signature and text key. Users can see this code updated in the password tool every thirty seconds.

This can be done automatically if the website is coded to offer a 2FA key to a password administrator, but otherwise users will have to set up the code manually.

To configure 2FA using iCloud Keychain on iOS and macOS:

  1. Open the password tool
  2. Select the login you are adding 2FA to
  3. Select “Configure verification code”
  4. Select “Enter Setup Key” if you have a text string
  5. Otherwise, scan the QR code on the iPhone or right-click on the code on the Mac
  6. Enter the key on the website to confirm that it is configured correctly

Like passwords, the 2FA key will appear above the keyboard on sites that are adequately coded for this system. Otherwise, users will have to navigate to the password tool to copy and paste the code manually as needed.

Looks beyond keychain on Mac, iPad and iPhone

Apple’s iCloud keychain is not the only option out there, but it may be the most suitable for most users. The built-in solution does not cover edge cases and business applications for password administrators.

The iCloud keychain even has Apple’s implementation of a Windows app and Chrome extension for passwords so you’re not locked into a single ecosystem.

Some password managers are free and offer cross-platform options, but they are usually dependent on a specific browser or add-on. Google’s password tool is an excellent option for those looking for something outside of Apple’s ecosystem.

If the iCloud keychain does not suit your needs, there are also plenty of payment options on the market. 1Password is a popular choice for companies or groups that need to share a central set of passwords.

However, for a casual user or a family member, we will always refer them to iCloud Keychain first for simplicity and accessibility.

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