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Yubikey vs Google Authenticator: Which 2FA is the best for you?

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As someone who has been using both Yubikey and Google Authenticator for over 4 years, I’m well aware of the benefits and limitations of each solution.

In this blog post, I will be taking a closer look at Yubikey and Google Authenticator and comparing them in terms of security features, pros, and cons.

By the end of this post, you will have a better understanding of which solution is best suited to your needs and preferences.

Whether you are looking to enhance the security of your personal accounts or your organization’s network, you will find this comparison informative and helpful.

What is Two-Factor Authentication?

Two-factor authentication (2FA) is a method of confirming a user’s identity by requiring them to present two different forms of identification.

This is typically something the user knows (such as a password) and something the user has (such as a security token or a mobile phone).

This added layer of security makes it more difficult for an attacker to gain unauthorized access to an account or system, as they would need to have both forms of identification.

By using 2FA, even if an attacker knows the user’s password they would still be unable to access the account without the second form of identification.

Yubikey and Google Authenticator – How do they work?

Yubikey is a physical security token that is inserted into a USB port to authenticate the user. Certain more advanced models are also capable of authenticating using NFC technology.

Either way, the device uses the FIDO U2F and FIDO2 protocols to authenticate users to web-based services.

My YubiKey gold disk flashing yellow
My Yubikey 5C NFC inserted into my computer USB port.

Google Authenticator, on the other hand, is a mobile app that generates time-based one-time passwords (TOTP) to be used as the second factor in 2FA.

Google Authenticator app UI
User Interface of the Google Authenticator application on my Android device.

It uses the open standard for TOTP generation, which is widely supported by many online services.

Both Yubikey and Google Authenticator are widely used and have proven to be effective in enhancing the security of users’ accounts and systems.

Comparison.

Yubikey and Google Authenticator are both two-factor authentication solutions, but they offer different security features and use different methods for authentication.

Yubikey:

  • Yubikey uses the FIDO U2F and FIDO2 protocols for authentication, which are considered to be more secure than the traditional TOTP method used by Google Authenticator.
  • Yubikey is a physical token, so it can’t be easily duplicated or stolen like a mobile phone can.
  • The Yubikey can be used to securely store private keys, certificates, and other sensitive information, which can be used for authentication and encryption.

You can easily check which YubiKey is right for you by answering a few questions on the YubiKey website.

Google Authenticator:

  • Google Authenticator generates time-based one-time passwords (TOTP) using an open standard which is widely supported by many online services.
  • With some limitations, Google Authenticator can be used on multiple devices, which can be useful for users who frequently switch between phones.
  • Google Authenticator is a mobile app, which can be easily installed and configured on most smartphones.

In summary, Yubikey offers a higher level of security with its use of FIDO protocols and being a physical token, while Google Authenticator offers the convenience of being able to use it on multiple devices and ease of setup.

Both solutions are effective in enhancing the security of users’ accounts and systems, but they may be more suitable for different types of users depending on their needs and preferences.

Pros and Cons of each option.

Yubikey:

Pros:

  • Yubikey uses the FIDO U2F and FIDO2 protocols for authentication, which are considered to be more secure than the traditional TOTP method used by Google Authenticator.
  • Yubikey is a physical token, so it can’t be easily duplicated or stolen like a mobile phone can.
  • The Yubikey can be used to securely store private keys, certificates, and other sensitive information, which can be used for authentication and encryption.
  • Yubikey can be used for both online and offline authentication.

Cons:

  • Yubikey is a physical device, so it can be lost or damaged, which can be an inconvenience for some users.
  • Yubikey is not as widely supported as Google Authenticator, so users may not be able to use it with as many services.
  • Yubikey is a physical device and can be expensive to purchase depending on the model while Google Authenticator is free to use.

Google Authenticator:

Pros:

  • Google Authenticator generates time-based one-time passwords (TOTP) using an open standard which is widely supported by many online services.
  • Google Authenticator can be used on multiple devices, which can be useful for users who frequently switch between devices.
  • Google Authenticator is a mobile app, which can be easily installed and configured on most smartphones.
  • It’s free to use.

Cons:

  • Google Authenticator is a mobile app, and it relies on the security of the mobile device, if the device is lost or stolen, it can be used by an attacker to access the user’s accounts.
  • Google Authenticator does not offer the additional security features such as private key storage that Yubikey does.
  • Moving the (TOTP) codes to other applications like Authy, 1Password, or LastPass is complicated and requires the extraction of Secret Keys from the Google Authenticator QR codes.

Both Yubikey and Google Authenticator have their own unique set of pros and cons, while Yubikey offers a higher level of security and additional features, Google Authenticator offers convenience and wide support, it ultimately depends on the user’s specific needs and preferences.

When to use one over another?

Yubikey:

  • Yubikey is particularly well-suited for users who need to access sensitive information or systems that require a high level of security. For example, Yubikey can be used to protect access to corporate networks, VPNs, and cloud-based services.
  • Yubikey can also be used for offline authentication, this can be useful for users who need to authenticate in situations where there is no internet connection available. For example, for users who are traveling or working in remote areas.
  • Yubikey can also be used for passwordless authentication, which eliminates the need for users to remember and type in a password.
  • Yubikey is also a good option for users who want to keep their private keys, certificates, and other sensitive information secure.

Google Authenticator:

  • Google Authenticator is particularly well-suited for users who frequently switch between devices or need to access multiple accounts. For example, users who use both a personal and work phone can easily transfer their authenticator to their new device. (Although the lack of synchronization between devices requires the user to add new accounts to each device with Google Authenticator installed.)
  • Google Authenticator can be used with many online services, such as email, social media, and financial services, making it a convenient option for users who need to authenticate with multiple services.
  • Google Authenticator is also a good option for users who want a simple, easy-to-use 2FA solution that requires minimal setup.
  • Google Authenticator is also a good option for users who are looking for a free 2FA solution.

In summary, Yubikey may be more suitable for users who need a high level of security, offline authentication, and passwordless and private key storage, while Google Authenticator is more suitable for users who need convenience, wide support, easy setup, and are looking for a free solution.

Which option to choose?

Based on the comparison and analysis discussed above, the following recommendations can be made for different types of users:

  • For users who need a high level of security, such as those who work in sensitive industries or need to access sensitive information, Yubikey is likely the best choice. Its use of FIDO protocols and physical token form factor provides an added layer of security and features such as offline authentication and private key storage.
  • Google Authenticator is likely the best choice for users who frequently switch between devices, such as those who use both a personal and work phone, or need to access multiple accounts. The ease of setup makes it a convenient option.
  • For users who are looking for a free 2FA solution, Google Authenticator is the best choice.
  • For users who want passwordless authentication, Yubikey is the best choice as it offers passwordless authentication.

It’s important to keep in mind that both Yubikey and Google Authenticator are effective in enhancing the security of users’ accounts and systems, and the best choice will depend on the specific needs and preferences of each user.

Summary.

Yubikey and Google Authenticator are both popular options for two-factor authentication.

Yubikey is a physical security token that uses the FIDO U2F and FIDO2 protocols for authentication, while Google Authenticator is a mobile app that generates time-based one-time passwords (TOTP) using an open standard.

Both solutions are effective in enhancing the security of users’ accounts and systems, but they have their own unique set of features and trade-offs.

Yubikey offers a higher level of security with its use of FIDO protocols and being a physical token, it also offers additional security features such as private key storage, offline authentication, and passwordless authentication.

On the other hand, Google Authenticator offers the convenience of being able to use on multiple devices, ease of setup, and wide support, it’s also free to use.

Users must take into consideration their specific needs and preferences when choosing between Yubikey and Google Authenticator.

My Favorite Software and Hardware.

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you found it helpful. Here is the list of the software and hardware I am personally using, which I believe you may also find useful. These are affiliate links, so if you decide to use any of them, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. But in all honesty, this is the exact software I have installed on my computer and the hardware I have been using to secure my online accounts or store my passwords.

1Password Password Manager - I have been using 1Password for over three years now, and in my opinion, it is the best Password Manager yet. You can try 1Password for free or check the latest deals on the 1Password website.

YubiKey - This is a hardware authentication device that you can use to protect your online accounts or even computers. If you are thinking of getting one, I will highly recommend Yubikey 5C NFC, which, thanks to the NFC, can also be used with your phone. If you are an Apple user, the YubiKey 5Ci is the best next choice, in my opinion.

Bitdefender Total Security - I had tried other Anti-Virus software whenever my Bitdefender license was about to expire. However, at the end of the day, this is still my favorite Anti-Virus. You can check the latest offers on the Bitdefender site.