If you’re doing research on password managers and need some help understanding how password managers work, you’re in the right place. The first step is to recognize their value, but next is understanding how they function and how you’ll use them in the real word.
Passwords aren’t easy to remember (at least good secure passwords aren’t!) and this is why we decide to make that jump over to password managers.
A password manager is a piece of software that manages your digital security by helping you create strong and unique passwords for your online accounts. The app then acts like a vault to store and retrieve the passwords safely and securely.
There are a number of great password manager apps to choose from, but my goal here isn’t to point you toward any particular app. Rather, I want to provide a basic understanding for how you’ll end up using this kind of software on your desktop and mobile devices.
For the purpose of this explanation, I’ll be using 1Password and Dashlane as examples, since they are two of the most popular password manager apps on the market today. However, I’ve used multiple services before and the general framework is the same.
Note: Some of the links below may be affiliate links, which means that at no extra cost to you, I may be compensated if you choose to use the recommended services. I only share what I personally use and enjoy, however, and I appreciate your support of this free website!
Using a Password Manager App on Desktop Computers
To start, I’m going to show you the desktop application for both 1Password and Dashlane.
As you can see, the desktop apps are pretty similar and offer you the ability to see details for each of your online accounts as well as save secure notes, credit card info, IDs and other documents.
I use the app to make any edits that I want or to check up on the health of my security profile (password manager apps tell you how secure your online logins are).
Logging into the desktop software of a password manager is as simple as typing in your master password or using one the biometric options (fingerprint or Face ID).
Your Master Password is the password you create when you first sign up for a password manager app and it unlocks access to the password vault.
The truth is, though, I rarely open up the desktop app for 1Password (which is my preferred app). Most of the time, it operates behind the scenes as I’m logging into one of my online accounts.
This is made possible through the browser extensions you’ll end up using.
Using Internet Browser Extensions
More often than not, your daily interaction with a password manager app will be done through what is known as a browser extension. These are available for all browsers including Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Safari, Edge, etc., and they are essential to how password managers work.
Quick Note: Browser extensions are different than the managers that come native with some browsers, such as the Google Chrome password manager. For most people, I recommend using a separate service from your internet browser.
Once you’ve signed up for a service like 1Password or Dashlane, they’ll instruct you how to download and install the browser extension. Once you’ve done that, you’ll start to see prompts come up when you come across an online login page. I’ll use Facebook for an example here.
The first time you log on after turning on your computer (even from sleep mode), you will get a message from the extension telling you to log in to your account.
In this case, you see that I’m told to press “Command+Period” to access this unlock option. When I do that, I see the following screen where I’ll input my master password.
After I’ve input the master password, I’m shown all the password options that I’ve already created for Facebook. If I don’t have any options, I can create a new one.
There are two things I’d like to point out about how password managers work when you start using browser extensions:
- You only need to sign in once per computer session. After I’ve unlocked the app, the browser extension will autofill the passwords for each new login. However, once I close my computer or log out, I’ll have to re-enter the master password.
- The beauty of a password manager is that it gives you notifications about best practices. As you see above, 1Password is reminding me that Facebook offers 2-factor authentication and they’re reminding me to use it. Similar notifications are given for weak passwords or passwords that need to be changed.
This is pretty much the foundation of how a password manager works on a desktop. However, many people tend to use these apps most on their mobile devices.
Using a Password Manager on a Mobile Device
Although there are a number of great free password manager apps, the benefit of paying for a premium subscription is the ability to sync your passwords between both desktop and mobile apps.
Of course, this also means that you’ll be storing your secure vault in the cloud. If this is cause for concern for you, I encourage you to read more about whether password managers are safe, which includes an awesome little trick you can use to ensure security.
Most major password manager services offer dedicated apps for both Android and iOS. To fully answer the question “How do password managers work”, you can’t forget about the mobile apps.
This is what 1Password and Dashlane look like after you log in:
Again, as you can see in the above example from these recommended iOS password manager apps, the two look and feel almost identical. You have options to view your various logins, notes, identities and secure documents.
Every time you open the app, you’ll have to either type out your master password or use your Fingerprint or Face ID scans.
As with the desktop app, though, I rarely log in to the app itself. Most of the time, I’m using the auto-fill function in my mobile browser app. The most popular is Google Chrome, but I prefer a more secure internet browser like Firefox.
I’m going to use Facebook again as an example. When I come to the login page, I can click on the “Passwords” text above the keyboard to access my auto-fill function. This requires login via my fingerprint (or Face ID)
Once I’ve logged in, I’m shown my login options and once I’ve made my choice, it auto-fills both my username and password.
Unlike the desktop app, every login requires authentication either by master password or your fingerprint/Face ID. You can’t stay “logged in” on your mobile device, but honest, it’s not that bad.
Final Thoughts | How Do Password Managers Work
Hopefully the above explanation has given you a good understanding of how a password manager works both on a desktop and mobile device. It’s not as scary as it may seem and adds a whole new layer of security for your online profiles.
When it comes to securing your online identity, these small little steps like using a password manager app or connecting to a VPN over unsecure networks make you an undesirable mark for the average hacker or identity thief. They tend to look for easy, low-hanging fruit.
As you can tell in the explanation above, I prefer using and recommend 1Password, but really it doesn’t matter which one you choose. They’re all pretty good.