How I Use Bitwarden

My advice for using Bitwarden safely, securely and reliably.

Password managers can be secure and convenient but they’re also dangerous tools in a couple of important ways:

  1. By encouraging you to put all your passwords and other sensitive information in one place password managers create the possibility of a catastrophic compromise if an attacker gains access to your vault.
  2. By enabling you to use a different impossible-to-remember password for every single account, password managers create the possibility of catastrophically locking yourself out of all your accounts at once if you lock yourself out of your password manager. This is especially true if one of the accounts with an un-memorisable, password manager-generated password is the email account where you receive password reset emails for all your other accounts.

As well as choosing a well-known, reputable password manager that you can trust you also need to use your password manager in a careful way that is:

  1. Secure, to make sure your vault never gets cracked.
  2. Safe, to make sure you never get locked out of your password manager.
  3. Convenient, so you keep the habit of using the password manager for everything.

Here’s how I use Bitwarden in a way that tries to achieve those three aims:

Have a ridiculously strong master password

I recommend a 20-word passphrase generated using Bitwarden’s password generator. The main motivation for this is to make any encrypted copies of your vault that get stolen from Bitwarden’s servers impossible to crack.

My concession to convenience here is that I recommend using Bitwarden’s passphrase generator rather than their password generator, but setting it to the maximum length of 20 words. Here’s an example of the kind of passphrase that it generates:


Notice that there’s also a number inserted at the end of a random one of the words. It can also include capital letters but it doesn’t seem to add much entropy (it just capitalises the first letter of every word).

These word-based passwords have less entropy than sequences of truly random characters. But at 20 random words plus a number randomly inserted I think it’s very strong and words are a lot easier to read from a piece of paper and type in.

This master password is going to be impossible to remember and inconvenient to type in, so below I’ll cover how to avoid doing either.

Print your master password

A master password like the one above is impossible to remember so print it onto a sturdy, laminated card and keep it in your wallet. For easy reading you can print it in large type and nicely formatted (three words per line).

Maximise your KDF iterations

There’s a KDF iterations setting in your Bitwarden account settings and increasing it makes your vault harder to crack. You can change this under Account settingsSecurityKeys in the Bitwarden web vault. I set it to the maximum possible value of 2,000,000. Ignore Bitwarden’s warning that setting it too high could result in poor performance, even at 2,000,000 it doesn’t take more than a second or two to log in and unlock my vault on any of my not-particularly-modern devices.

Enable two-step login

This means that an attacker who cracks your master password (or gets their hands on the printed copy) still can’t access your account without your second factor or a recovery code.

Two-step login doesn’t provide any additional protection against someone trying to crack a copy of your vault stolen from Bitwarden’s servers.

Print your two-step login recovery code

If you lose your second factor you won’t be able to log in to your Bitwarden account. It’s as bad as losing your master password. So print out your two-step login recovery code and keep it on a piece of paper at home. Don’t store your recovery code in the same place as your printed master password.

Avoid having to type your master password: store it in your vault

Keep a copy of your Bitwarden master password in your Bitwarden vault. This is convenient because you can often copy-paste your master password instead of typing it:

Avoid having to type your master password: unlock with biometrics

On devices that support it (e.g. iOS devices and macs) you can enable Unlock with Biometrics in the Bitwarden mobile app, desktop app or browser extension’s settings after logging in once with your master password and second factor (it’ll be called something like Unlock with Touch ID or Unlock with Face ID in your Bitwarden app or extension’s settings, depending on what form of biometrics your device supports).

Now you can access your vault on these devices with just your fingerprint or face, without needing your master password or second factor. This doesn’t seem to expire: I can still unlock the Bitwarden app on my phone with Touch ID even after not using it for days or after restarting the phone.

Avoid having to type your master password: unlock with PIN

On devices that don’t support unlock with biometrics you can enable Unlock with PIN instead. “PIN” (personal identification number) is a poor name for this feature because it suggests that your PIN should be a short numeric code like 2301. In fact a Bitwarden PIN is just another password: it can be any length of numbers, letters and special characters and you should choose something reasonably strong.

Choose a PIN that’s reasonably secure but also memorisable and reasonably easy to type. I recommend using another passphrase from Bitwarden’s password generator but with maybe 4 words instead of 20. 1Password’s advice for choosing an account password is also good and applies to choosing a Bitwarden PIN.

Store a copy of your PIN in your vault so that you can read it if you forget your PIN and need it to decrypt your offline backup (see below).

I believe that Unlock with PIN stores a local copy of your vault that’s encrypted with just your PIN. So if an attacker compromises your device and gets access to this local copy they’d only need to crack your PIN to decrypt it, they wouldn’t need your master password or second factor. It must also store some sort of PIN-protected key that enables the client to sync new versions of the vault up and down with the Bitwarden API.

I use the same PIN for all my Bitwarden clients (and also for my offline backups, see below). It’s a reasonably simple password and I type it often, so I’m able to memorise it.

For convenience I set the vault timeout in all of my PIN-locked clients to 4 hours which is the longest option. So each Bitwarden client will re-ask me for my PIN every four hours. Being asked to type in my PIN fairly often helps me to keep it memorised. I wouldn’t want to set the vault timeout to Never because of this warning from the Bitwarden UI:

Are you sure you want to use the “Never” option? Setting your lock option to “Never” stores your vault’s encryption key on your device. If you use this option you should ensure that you keep your device properly protected.

I also leave the Lock with master password on restart option enabled because of this warning in Bitwarden’s docs about turning it off:

If you turn off the Lock with master password on restart option, the Bitwarden application may not fully purge sensitive data from application memory when entering a locked state. If you are concerned about your device’s local memory being compromised, you should keep the Lock with master password on restart option turned on.

This does mean that after restarting a browser or Bitwarden app you have to log in again with your master password rather than your PIN. I often have multiple Bitwarden clients installed on the same computer, for example both the desktop app and the browser extension. Because I keep a copy of my master password in my vault I can copy-paste it from one client into another. For example after restarting Chrome I can copy my master password from the Bitwarden desktop app and paste it into the Chrome browser extension to log back into the extension. I enable the desktop app’s Close to tray icon option for this purpose: the app stays open (minimised to the tray) even if I close the window. It will lock itself with my PIN after 4 hours, but it won’t ask me for my master password.

I do need to re-type my master password after logging out of the desktop or restarting the computer though. On an Apple computer it may be possible to use Universal Clipboard to copy-paste the master password from the Bitwarden app on your phone into your computer (I haven’t tried this), but an Apple laptop or desktop computer might have Touch ID anyway.

Enable emergency access

This is useful for your trusted contact to get access to your Bitwarden account through theirs if something happens to you. It can also be used as a last resort to access your account without your master password or second factor if you’ve locked yourself out. If an attacker gains access to your trusted contact’s account and tries to use emergency access to get into your account as well you’ll have seven days (by default) to deny the request.

Use maximum-strength passwords for all your accounts

This is a password actually generated using Bitwarden’s password generator:


It’s random, but five lower-case letters isn’t a secure password. If you’re using a password manager you’re always going to be auto-filling your passwords or at least copy-pasting them, never typing them in manually. Always use Bitwarden’s password generator to create the passwords for all your accounts, turn on upper-case letters, numbers and special characters and set the length to the password generator’s maximum of 128 characters (or the maximum that the site will accept, many sites have a maximum password length that’s actually less than 128). You want all your passwords to look like this:


Also use 2FA for as many accounts as possible

You should also enable two-factor authentication for as many of your accounts as possible, not just your Bitwarden account. This protects you if one of your passwords gets leaked somehow and it means that even if an attacker gets access to your Bitwarden vault they still can’t log in to your accounts that have 2FA.

Use a third-party 2FA app. Don’t use Bitwarden’s built-in 2FA support (Bitwarden Authenticator), it means that an attacker who gets access to your Bitwarden vault also gets the 2FA for all your accounts.

Bitwarden recommend using Authy for your 2FA app for its encrypted backup feature which protects you against losing your 2FA app.

Since losing your second factor can lock you out of your account you should always print the 2FA recovery codes for every account that you enable 2FA on and keep them all in a safe place at home.

Back up your vault to an external USB drive

I make my own self-encrypted backup of my Bitwarden vault to an external USB drive.

The main security feature here is that the drive is usually disconnected and offline. It’s only connected to my computer briefly each time I want to update or read the backup. The backup is also encrypted using a GPG key that’s protected with my Bitwarden PIN as a passphrase.

This backup is a safety feature. You can use it to recover passwords that you accidentally changed or deleted in your vault (if you can’t recover them from Bitwarden’s password history or trash). Or to recover your passwords if you lose access to your vault: the backup can be read with just the GPG key and its passphrase, you don’t need your Bitwarden master password or second factor.

See How to Make Your Own Encrypted Backup of Your Bitwarden Vault for the technical details of how I make these backups.

What if an attacker gets your backup?

An attacker won’t be able to read the encrypted backup without the GPG key. My GPG key is stored on a computer in the same room as the USB drive that contains the backup. But that computer is locked with full-disk encryption and the GPG key is also protected with my Bitwarden PIN (which I don’t add to the operating system’s keychain).

What if you lose your master password?

If you lose the one printed copy of your master password you won’t be able to log in to your vault in the normal way, but there are still a number of ways that you can get in:

What if an attacker gets your master password?

Since you enabled two-step login an attacker who cracks your master password (or gets their hands on the printed copy) still won’t be able to access your account without your second factor. Don’t store your printed two-step login recovery code in the same place as your printed master password.

Someone finding your printed master password also won’t know what it is: the piece of card isn’t labelled “My Bitwarden Master Password” and doesn’t have your log in email address on it.

I think a stolen copy of your master password would enable an attacker to decrypt a copy of your encrypted vault stolen from Bitwarden’s servers, assuming they knew what they had stolen and which Bitwarden vault it belonged to.

What if you forget your PIN?

You can always log in to Bitwarden with your master password and second factor instead of your PIN, you never actually need your PIN to log in. So if you’ve forgotten your PIN just log in with your master password and read the copy of the PIN that you stored in your vault.

If you use your PIN to encrypt your backups as I do then you’ll no longer be able to decrypt those backups if you’ve forgotten your PIN but again as long as you still have your master password and second factor you can log into your vault and read your PIN.

What if an attacker gets your PIN?

They could log in to any of the Bitwarden clients that’re locked with your PIN and access your vault. But they’d need to have access to one of your devices with a PIN-locked Bitwarden client on it and be able to log in to or unlock the device.

The PIN is only used to protect data stored locally on devices with PIN-locked clients. An attacker can’t use your PIN to access your online Bitwarden account or decrypt a copy of your vault stolen from Bitwarden’s servers.

An attacker could also use your PIN to decrypt your offline backup if they also had access to both the backup and the PIN-protected GPG key that encrypts it.

What if you lose your second factor?

As with losing your master password you won’t be able to log in to your vault, but there are a number of ways that you can still get in:

What if an attacker gets your second factor?

An attacker who gets your second factor or the printed copy of your two-step login recovery code still won’t be able to access your account without your master password. Don’t store your two-step login recovery code in the same place as your printed master password.

Excluding PIN-encrypted vaults from system backups

Do you do backups of your computer to an external drive and/or cloud storage? If so those backups may contain copies of the local, PIN-encrypted copies of your vault made by your Bitwarden clients.

Your main line of defence here is having any system backups be securely encrypted as they always should be. Any cloud backup accounts should have a secure password (from Bitwarden!) and 2FA. Any keys that’re used by backup scripts or programs to access your cloud storage or encrypt your backups should be handled securely. Storing these in your Bitwarden vault can be a good idea and backup scripts can use Bitwarden CLI to read keys from your vault and pass them directly to backup and encryption commands without ever storing the keys in a local file or even in an environment variable (remember to always call bw lock to re-lock your vault after using Bitwarden CLI).

It’s probably also a good idea to try to exclude Bitwarden directories from your system backups. See Bitwarden’s Storage page for the locations.