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How to use iCloud Keychain, Apple's built-in and free password manager

How to use iCloud Keychain

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Your iPhone, iPad, and Mac all have a free password manager made by Apple called iCloud Keychain. Here's how to use it, set up two-factor authentication, and never have to remember a password again.

Apple has stepped up its game in password management thanks to new features in iOS 15, macOS Monterey, and its other 2021 software releases. Previously, 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 Apple's 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 Passwords tool on iOS
Using the Passwords tool on iOS

Apple built the iCloud Keychain to be invisible during everyday use. If you're on a website or within an app that uses an adequately coded password field, a prompt will appear in the place of your keyboard.

If you've already typed in a user name or email, the web form for the password will trigger an auto-suggested password. This is, by default, a series of twenty characters with two dashes, upper case and lower case letters, and a symbol. You'll never have to remember that complex password, so accept the suggestion and select "remember login" when prompted on the next window.

This user name and password will be saved and automatically associated with that app or website. Upon future logins, the password auto-fill will appear instead of the keyboard, and a Face ID or Touch ID prompt will ensure you're the one entering the password.

The new login information will sync across iCloud using end-to-end encryption, so don't worry about the password being stolen by unauthorized users during transit. If you want to view the passwords you've saved, check for any security alerts, or delete a password, navigate to the passwords section in the Settings app.

Adding two-factor authentication codes is also possible.

How to get a dedicated Passwords app icon

There isn't an app for Apple's iCloud Keychain, but the password manager is located inside the Settings app. If navigating to this each time you want to manage your passwords isn't ideal, you can always create a custom Shortcut and add it to your Home Screen with a direct link.

  1. Open Shortcuts
  2. Tap the "+" in the top right corner
  3. Name the action "Passwords"
  4. Tap "add action" and search "URL" to add that action
  5. Paste in "prefs:root=PASSWORDS" into the URL field
  6. Search for "Open URL," add the action, and select "URL" in variables within the action
  7. Add the Shortcut to the Home Screen using the settings icon in the top right corner

After choosing an icon or custom image, the new Passwords shortcut will appear on your Home Screen, giving you quick access to your passwords with a single tap. There's also always the option of telling Siri to "show passwords."

iCloud Password Manager on Mac

Using the Passwords tool on Mac
Using the Passwords tool on Mac

A legacy tool built into macOS called "Keychain Access" acts as a catch-all app for authentication certificates, passwords, and other security prompts. However, as of macOS Monterey, there's a more user-friendly option within the System Preferences app.

Keychain Access isn't for the faint of heart. It is located in the app launcher folder "Other" by default and shows password information in a list format. While users can access their passwords from here, we'd recommend using the System Preferences "Passwords" tool instead.

Like on iOS, the Passwords tool is a simple list of all saved websites, the login information for each, and alerts for duplicate or compromised passwords. There will be little need to access the Passwords tool in System Preferences during everyday use. Instead, all websites should auto-fill 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 auto-fill two-factor authentication codes. Rather than use some third-party tool dedicated to 2FA, users can rely upon the built-in safe and reliable system.

Generating a 2FA code can be a pain, but it is one of the best features for security when appropriately implemented. Some may be aware of 2FA through the text message codes sent when verifying your phone number, but these aren't secure.

Instead, many websites and apps have turned to a system that generates codes based on a time signature and text key. Users can see this code refresh within the Password tool every thirty seconds.

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

To set up 2FA using iCloud Keychain on iOS and macOS:

  1. Open the passwords tool
  2. Select the login you're adding 2FA to
  3. Select "Set Up Verification Code"
  4. Select "Enter Setup Key" if you have a string of text
  5. Otherwise scan the QR code on iPhone or right click the code on Mac
  6. Enter the key on the website to verify it has been setup properly

Just like passwords, the 2FA key will appear above the keyboard on websites that have been adequately coded for this system. Otherwise, users will have to navigate to the Passwords tool to copy and paste the code manually as needed.

Looking beyond Keychain on Mac, iPad, and iPhone

Apple's iCloud Keychain isn't the only option out there, but it may be the best suited for most users. The built-in solution won't cover edge cases, and business uses for password managers.

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 usually rely upon 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 iCloud Keychain doesn't suit your needs, there are plenty of paid options on the market as well. 1Password is a popular choice for businesses or groups who need to share a central set of passwords.

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