Two-factor authentication (2FA) is one of the best and easiest ways to protect your online accounts. They work by issuing an authentication code on your phone when someone tries to access your account; if that person does not have the code, they (or you) will not enter. By using a 2FA app, like Google Authenticator or Authy, you can prevent someone from accessing your data by getting your password. (You can get a code for yourself, but it is considered much less secure due to the increase in so-called SIM hacking.)
There is, of course, a catch. Because 2FA uses a key that is specific to your phone, you can not just reinstall the app on your new phone and continue from there if you drop or break the phone. You need to transfer the key code for that phone as well as the app itself.
Different authentication apps handle this in different ways. In this article, I̵7;ll look at Google Authenticator, including the easiest way to transfer the app to a new phone if you have access to the old one and how you can prepare for a possible problem (like a broken phone).
With Google Authenticator, you can create 2FA by using your phone to scan a QR code generated by the app on a separate device or by entering a key code. It’s a relatively simple process – unless you find that you need to move the app to a new phone.
Because 2FA uses security keys specific to each hardware, you can not just reinstall Google Authenticator on your new phone and use it to sign in. Instead, you need to transfer the keys to your new app.
The easiest method, especially if you use 2FA with multiple apps, is to use the Authenticator app’s dedicated transfer feature to move your keys from one phone to another. However, there are several assumptions here: first, that you need access to both the old and the new phone, and second, that you need Android devices. If any of these assumptions do not work for your situation, there are other methods you can use, which we will address next.
Transfer your authentication keys via Android
If you have two Android phones, you can transfer your accounts to a new phone by exporting them via a QR code generated by the Authenticator app.
- Open Google Authenticator on your older phone
- Click on the three dots at the top right of the screen and select “Transfer Accounts”
- Select Export Accounts. You may be asked to verify your identity via a fingerprint, password or any other method.
- Select which accounts you want to export by unchecking them. Press “Next”.
- You will receive a QR code
- Go to your new phone. Follow the instructions above, but select Import Accounts.
- You will receive instructions on how to export your accounts from the older phone. Since you already know how to do it, just select “Scan QR Code.”
- Scan the code on your old phone with your new phone
Option 1: Use your backup codes
When you create an app to use Google Authenticator, before the process is complete, you are given a set of four backup codes and prompted to print them or otherwise save them. (In fact, Google will ask you to enter one of the codes in a field before the installation is complete, just to make sure that you have saved them.)
And you definitely want to save them; print them and place them securely or create a PDF and save it where no one else can access it. If your phone goes south, these codes will be a good way to re-establish authentication on your new phone – provided, of course, that you have not placed the codes incorrectly.
This is also a way to reset your keys on a new iPhone.
Alternative method no. 2: Take a screenshot of the barcode
One way to create a backup if you lose your phone is to take and save a screenshot of the barcode created for each 2FA-secure app. If you have incorrectly entered your backup codes, but you have saved a screenshot of the QR barcode that you originally used to create the app’s authentication, you can use that screenshot to create your data on a new phone.
Just throw the screenshot onto your computer, install Google Authenticator on your new phone and use the plus sign in the app to scan the barcode. (You can also enter the setting key code if that’s what you saved.) Do this for each of your apps and you’ll be done.