What is Two-Factor Authentication and How Does it Work?

The benefits of setting up two-step verification

Two-factor authentication (2FA) is a security feature that adds another layer of protection to your account. Instead of just needing a username and password, two-factor authentication requests a verification code, which you receive via text, email, or through a third-party app. 2FA is also known as two-step authentication or two-step verification.

What is Two-Factor Authentication?

When you log into a website, you must provide a username and a password. Once you enter those credentials, you are allowed into your account. It’s easy, but also somewhat insecure.

Two-factor authentication helps secure your login with a second code you need to obtain before you can log in.

How Two Factor Authentication Works

Here's how to use two-factor authentication after you set it up.

  1. Open the app or go to the website of the account you want to use.

  2. Enter your username and password.

  3. You will then get a prompt to input or generate a 2FA code.

    Authenticator code prompt.
  4. Once you’ve entered the proper 2FA code, you will be allowed entry into your account.

If you do not have a code for your account, you will not be allowed access, which is why two-factor authentication is an essential additional step for security. Each code is time-based. You have limited time to use the code before it expires; once it does, you have to request another one. Once a code is used, it cannot be used again. So even if a hacker has your username and password, without the ability to get an associated 2FA code, they cannot access your account.

Getting Verification Codes

There are two different methods to get a verification code:

Here's how the codes work:

  1. Enable 2FA authentication for your online account.

  2. Select the method of 2FA you'd like to use, if applicable; some accounts offer only one option.

  3. If you choose the authenticator app method, you need to add this account to it. When you need a code, open the app and input the number listed under this account. (Codes automatically generate after a specific time interval.)

  4. If you choose the SMS text method, you'll have to associate your account with a phone number. When you log into an account, you'll need to generate a code, which you'll receive by text message.

Of the two methods, the app route is the more secure for receiving verification codes. If a hacker knows your username, your password, and your phone number, they can (using specific tools) intercept the transmission of the SMS 2FA code and then use it to gain access to your account. Because of this, it is always best to opt to go the 2FA app route, whenever possible.

Drawbacks of Two-Factor Authentication

There is only one downside to using 2FA for your accounts: convenience. There's more typing involved and the process is a bit more time consuming. You will also have to have your mobile phone at the ready and powered up (so you can retrieve the necessary 2FA code), which can be difficult when traveling abroad or in a dead zone.

Adding this extra layer of security is well worth the inconvenience. Although two-factor authentication isn’t perfect, it is considerably more secure than an account protected only by a username and password.