What Is Two-Factor Authentication and Why Should You Use It?

No one wants the fallout of an online security attack. Two-factor authentication may be the tool you need to avoid a data breach.
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You likely rely on technology for a huge part of your everyday life. You could have social media, online banking, and other internet accounts that may contain your data. People increasingly use online tools and smart devices for work and leisure. But anything online can be hacked or breached. Two-factor authentication is one of the tools people use to keep their accounts secure.

Two-factor authentication requires identity verification beyond simple login credentials, providing more protection from potential hacks. It gives you an extra layer of data protection that can mean the difference between identity theft and a safer online experience. In our guide, we’ll show you how two-factor authentication can increase your data security.

In this article
What is two-factor authentication (2FA)?
How does 2FA work?
Why is 2FA important?
Is 2FA secure?
Should I use 2FA?
How do I enable 2FA?
Two-factor authentication FAQ
Bottom line

What is two-factor authentication (2FA)?

Two-factor authentication (2FA) verifies your identity using two forms of identification before you can access certain accounts or resources. It’s a safeguard feature that gives you more security and control over your data. This method is a type of multi-factor authentication (MFA) because you must provide at least two factors to access a device or system resources. For instance, to log in, you might have to scan your fingerprint and enter a password.

You may have experienced 2FA without even noticing, for example when logging into your online banking. It often comes as a text code you must enter with your password to access your account. The extra step can be annoying, but also means it’s more difficult for hackers too.

How does 2FA work?

2FA works by using a combination of two different authenticators. It may be a password and a text or email code sent to your device. Alternatively, you may use your fingerprint and a password. With this tool, you’ll use two of three authentication factors to access resources. Factors could be things you know, things you are, and things you have. Different kinds of 2FA may be used. We’ll go into more detail about these below.

Authentication factors

Authentication factors are simply bits of information required to verify your identity. If you’ve ever used authenticator apps, you’re familiar with this process, as it generates a code that’s available to be used within a specific timeframe, usually less than one minute.

For instance, an authentication factor would be something you know, like a password. It may be something you possess, like a smartphone, or something you inherently have that no one else does, like a retina pattern or fingerprint.

An easy way to remember 2FA is that it requires a combination of two or three second factors, such as:

  • Something you have, like a badge, key fob, or mobile phone.
  • Something you know, such as a password or personal identification number (PIN). These are also called knowledge factors.
  • Something unique to you, like a fingerprint or voice recognition.

Two-factor authentication methods

There are different types of two-factor authentication you can use, but they all rely on the factors we’ve discussed. You will need a combination of two of the following to access your data.

  • Hardware tokens are a physical token, like a USB device inserted into your computer before you can log in. Some tokens will display a code to enter before accessing a resource.
  • SMS and voice 2FA include text or voice messages sent to your phone number that contain a code you enter to access your account. These are one-time passwords (OTP) that expire after a set period of time.
  • Software tokens must be downloaded. The website will send a code to that app that you enter before logging into the site.
  • Push notifications are downloaded to an app on your phone. You’ll enter your login information to access a website, and a push notification gets sent to your device for you to enter before granting access.
  • Biometrics verifies your identity with a physical attribute, like your fingerprint or facial recognition.
  • Location means if you create an account in one state and then a login is attempted in another, 2FA could require a location factor. These factors alert you and send a code to verify your credentials. If verification is not made, your account might get locked.

Why is 2FA important?

Because of security risks like email phishing and other online scams, it’s crucial to find ways to keep your data secure. Using only passwords as a means of data protection is a weak way to keep your information safe. When internet hackers are trying to find a way to get your data, it’s more important than ever before to add extra protection where you can.

At first, you may think it’s a bit irritating to add another step when you log into your account. Remember, without it, you won’t have another layer of data protection and it could result in your information getting compromised.

Two-factor authentication is a quick process once you get accustomed to it. Enter your login credentials, then receive one of the authentication factors mentioned above. Once you enter the code or use a biometric means of identification, you’re all set. A couple of minutes can be a lifesaver when keeping your information safe.

Is 2FA secure?

Two-factor authentication is secure. Does that mean there’s no way a hacker can bypass the system and access your data? Unfortunately, it’s still possible for criminals to hack your online accounts.

For example if you use a password recovery method that sends you a new password to an email address, it can bypass 2FA and fall into the wrong hands. Still, 2FA boosts your protection, and we recommend it for the extra layer of safety it gives you. If you’re a Google aficionado, the best Chrome password managers will also increase account security.

While using two-factor authentication, you can stay safe by having an authenticator app and relying on safe practices like not choosing to let 2FA remember a device in case you lose it or are using a public computer. Also, security keys are one of the strongest forms of 2FA because they expire quickly and don’t use credentials hackers can obtain.

Should I use 2FA?

There are times when using 2FA may not be up for debate. For better security, many employers have implemented the use of two-factor authentication. If you have an option and are wondering if you should use 2FA, it may depend on a few factors.

If you’re concerned about a data leak, it makes sense to use two-factor authentication for the added layer of safety. Also, if you use social media, these platforms can make it easy for hackers to get your personal information and guess your passwords. There are also things to consider like the dark web and email phishing that can be huge cybersecurity issues.

2FA isn’t perfect, though, and you may not want to use it because it isn’t always convenient. It can sometimes be a pain to verify your identity every time you log into a device. Also, if you’re going to use SMS-based authentication, you may want to reconsider. There are weaknesses associated with this factor like the codes not being encrypted.

Overall, 2FA does increase your online security. If you’re not too bothered by the extra steps to access your accounts, it’s worth the time to get the added protection.

How do I enable 2FA?

Each website and app will have different directions for setting up two-factor authentication, but they should be pretty similar. You can activate 2FA through the account for some websites, and others give you the option to toggle on the 2FA feature in your settings menu under your privacy options.

You can also download authenticator apps, such as Microsoft Authenticator or Google Authenticator, to your Android or Apple iPhone. These apps generate unique, time-based passcodes that change every 30 seconds or so. Using two-step verification with an authentication code helps prevent man-in-the-middle attacks that may try to intercept a verification code sent by voice or text message.

You’ll know 2FA is set up correctly because the lock icon should be turned on showing that it has been enabled. You can also test it out and try to access the websites and see if you must use a second step to verify your identification.

Two-factor authentication FAQ


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What’s the difference between MFA and 2FA?

2FA requires you to show two forms of authentication whereas MFA asks for at least two, but could require more types of authentication. In essence, 2FA is also MFA, but the reverse may not be true.


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What is an example of 2FA?

An example of 2FA could be when you try to use a credit card online and are prompted to enter your billing zip code before you can make a purchase.


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What is the most common 2FA?

SMS authentication, or text messages sent to your mobile device, is the most common form of 2FA.


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Can I disable 2FA?

In most cases, you can disable 2FA in the same section you enabled. You access your security settings and toggle the access button to the off position. You may also need to enter your password to confirm the selection.

Bottom line

Many popular websites enable 2FA for better security protection. With account breaches being a huge problem these days, taking the extra step to enable two-factor authentication makes sense. Although it’s not 100 percent secure, it increases account strength and gives you more protection than passwords alone. By adding two or more levels of protection to your online accounts, you get a boost of security, making it harder for cybercriminals to steal your data.

If you want to increase your online security, you should consider implementing 2FA and using a password manager for a more convenient way or storing multiple passwords. In addition, password authenticators provide better security than using passwords.

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Author Details
Patti Croft is a seasoned writer specializing in technology, with three years of experience. With a B.S. in Computer Science and a background as a technical analyst and security specialist, she covers a range of topics like data security and parental control software.