Two-factor authentication (2FA) is one of the best and easiest ways to keep your online accounts secure. They work by issuing an authentication code on your phone when someone tries to access your account; if the person does not have the code, they (or you) will not enter. By using a 2FA app, such as Google Authenticator or Authy, you can prevent someone from accessing your data by obtaining your password. (You can get a code sent to you, but it is considered far less secure due to the increase in so-called SIM hacking.)
It’s a catch, of course. Because 2FA uses a key specific to your phone, you can not just install the app on your new phone and continue from there if you lose or damage your 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 I will 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 to prepare for a possible problem (like a broken phone).
Google Authenticator allows you to establish 2FA by using your phone to scan a QR code generated by the app on a separate device or by entering a key code. It̵
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 the keys from one phone to another. However, there are several assumptions here: First, you need access to both the old and the new phone, and second, you need Android devices. If one of these assumptions does not work for your situation, there are other methods you can use, which we will cover 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
- Tap the three dots at the top right of the screen and select “Transfer Accounts”
- Select “Export Accounts.” You may be asked to confirm your identity via a fingerprint, password or other method.
- Select which accounts you want to export by checking them. Press “Next”.
- You will see 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 the new phone
Option 1: Use your backup codes
When you set up an app to use Google Authenticator, before the process is complete, you will receive a set of four backup codes and you will be 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 you have saved them.)
And you will definitely save them; print them and put them safely or create a PDF and save it where no one else has access to it. If the phone goes south, these codes will be a good way to restore authentication on your new phone – provided of course that you have not placed the codes incorrectly.
This is also a way to recover the keys on a new iPhone.
Alternative method no. 2: Take a screenshot of the barcode
One way to make a backup in case you lose your phone is to take and save a screenshot of the barcode created for each 2FA-secured app. If you entered incorrect backup codes but you saved a screenshot of the QR barcode you originally used to create the app’s authentication, you can use the screen to establish your credentials on a new phone.
Just throw the screen up on your computer, install Google Authenticator on your new phone, and use the plus sign on the app to scan the barcode. (You can also enter the setup key code if that’s what you saved.) Do this for each of your apps and you’ll be ready to go.