Dedicated password managers promise to secure and sync your login information across all your devices, but chances are, you probably don’t need to pay for one. Plenty of clients like NordPass can get the job done for free, so it just comes down to what features you want, your security needs, and your budget.
To help you choose a password client, we’re going to do an overview of browser-based password managers, free solutions like Bitwarden and NordPass, and paid password clients like 1Password and Dashlane. We’ll learn what clients can do and why one solution might work better for you than another.
By the way, most password managers have import/export buttons so you can quickly transfer passwords from one client to another. You can even export passwords from Chrome, Edge, or Firefox to a dedicated client to get things set up quickly.
With that, let’s get to it.
Update, 6/1/22: Ensured all text and links up to date.
At its core, a password manager is just a tool that helps you generate and store passwords. So why over-complicate things with a premium password manager when you already have baked into your browser?
Well, dedicated password managers offer more security and quality-of-life features than their browser-based counterparts. They also work on any operating system or browser, so you aren’t stuck using Chrome or Firefox on every device you own. Dedicated password clients are much better at their job than browser-based managers, and because there are free options for dedicated password managers, it’s hard to find a convincing reason to stick with a browser-based solution.
Not to mention, browser-based password software is vulnerable to malware. Using one may put your most valuable accounts at risk, even if you use a unique password for every site and set up a “master password” to keep away prying eyes. I suggest avoiding your browser’s password manager if you regularly access sensitive information (such as work accounts), or at the very least, tell your browser not to remember sensitive login data.
Here are some features that are common in browser-based password managers:
- Save and Sync: You can sync passwords across all devices, so long as you use the same browser on each device.
- Generate Passwords: Browsers will ask if you want to generate unique passwords when signing up for a website. (Dedicated password managers give you more control over the length and content of randomly-generated passwords.)
- Credit Cards and Addresses: You can save your credit cards and addresses to a browser-based password manager for quick checkout.
- Master Password: You can program your browser to ask for a master password before it provides access to your saved passwords. This option is rarely enabled by default, and it isn’t available in Microsoft Edge at the time of writing.
- Google and Apple: Google Password Manager and Apple Keychain are the most robust browser-based password managers, as their capabilities expand into Android/Chrome OS and iOS/macOS respectively for software and app support. Better yet, these password managers can use your fingerprint scanner (or Face ID on iPhone) as a “master password.”
- Special Features: Some browser-based password managers have special features that are usually reserved for paid software. A standout example is Google’s Password Checkup, which can alert you to weak, repeated, or compromised passwords.
Again, web browsers don’t have the best track record for security (Chrome and Firefox used to store passwords in plaintext), and the lack of forced security measures in browsers, such as two-factor authentication, suggests that these browsers prioritize convenience over security. For better peace of mind and password syncing across all your devices and applications, you’ll need a dedicated password manager. Thankfully, dedicated password managers aren’t all that expensive, and free versions of clients like Dashlane may suit your needs just fine.
If you want to access your passwords from any browser or OS but don’t want to pay a monthly fee, then it’s time to sign up for a free password manager. Yeah, you’ll miss out on some of the fancy features that come with a paid client, but the free versions of NordPass, Bitwarden, and other password managers are much more robust (and potentially more secure) than their browser-based counterparts.
Here are some features that are common in free password managers:
- Save, Sync, and Generate Passwords: Free password managers have all the basic password storage and generating features that you get with a browser-based manager, along with a few extra features, like the option to choose a generated password’s length or content.
- Credit Cards and Addresses: Like browser-based password managers, free password managers can store your payment info for easy checkout.
- Store Other Private Info: Your dedicated password managers can store more than just passwords. It can also keep Wi-Fi passphrases, private notes, bank account numbers, or important files, like tax documents.
- Sharing: Some free password managers allow you to share your login information through secure encrypted links. But this feature is more common with paid clients, which are often geared toward families.
- Password Auditing and Alerts: Free password managers alert you when passwords are compromised and warn you when you reuse passwords.
There are many free password managers out there, but options like Bitwarden or NordPass will probably appeal to the most people. Some can store an unlimited number of passwords or secure notes (like credit card info) and support one-to-one secure password sharing (paid password managers allow you to share your information with groups, sort of like a Dropbox link).
Those who are tech-savvy should consider using Bitwarden, an open-source password manager that allows you to store an unlimited number of passwords or secure notes on a local server. You can also use Bitwarden to store data in the cloud, of course.
You could also ask your employer if they pay for a password manager “business plan,” which could grant you free access to a premium password client. And if you’re a journalist, you can net a 1Password family plan for free.
Premium password managers don’t reinvent the wheel; they use the same password-generating and storing features that you get with many free memberships. If that’s all you need, I suggest trying a free password manager to see how you like it. Premium services only come into play when you want added account security, a password client for your whole family, fancy features like dark web scanning, or a faster, more intuitive user interface than what NordPass has to offer.
Here’s what you get with a premium password manager:
- Enhanced Security: Password and Dashlane are our favorite paid password managers because they require a complex “security key” when logging into a new device and force two-factor authentication. Select other password managers lack this feature.
- Store Everything: Store as many passwords and secure notes as you want. Premium password managers are also good for storing and sharing important documents, although they usually only offer a few gigabytes of storage space.
- Share Everything: Paid password clients allow you to safely share an unlimited number of passwords, secure notes, and documents.
- Family Support: Most paid password clients have a “family” or “business” tier to help keep your loved ones safe on the web. Everyone on your family plan has their own account, although you can choose to share certain passwords or documents across all accounts.
- Password Auditing: Premium password managers alert you when a password is compromised or when you reuse a password. They can also scan the dark web to see if bad actors are sharing or selling your private information.
- Emergency Access: Premium password managers allow you to set up a sort of emergency contact—someone who can access your passwords and secure notes in the event of a catastrophe.
- Special Features: Every premium password manager comes with unique special features. 1Password has a “travel mode” that keeps important data off of your phone or laptop while you go through airports, and Dashlane comes with a free VPN.
- Improved Interface: In our experience, free password managers have a less intuitive and less responsive interface than premium alternatives. We recently found that 1Password and Dashlane require less hand-holding and accurately autofilled passwords more often than NordPass and other clients.
Paid password managers cost just a few dollars a month, but provide all of the features that you and your family need to secure your passwords and private data. Still, they aren’t that different from free password managers. If you don’t need any premium features like password sharing or family support, then there isn’t much of a reason to pay for one of these clients.
We recently did a roundup of our favorite password managers, highlighting 1Password for its low price, advanced security features, spotless track record, and user-friendly interface. Dashlane’s premium subscription is similarly great and includes a VPN, which can help you access region-restricted content and secure your information from public Wi-Fi networks.
While browser-based password managers offer the basic password storage and generating features that you need to safely navigate the internet, we encourage you to use a dedicated password manager for increased security and convenience. Start with a free membership—from the likes of NordPass, for example—to secure and share your passwords and credit cards across all devices, or upgrade to a paid service like 1Password or Dashlane for enhanced security and family features.