Four ways to backup your Google Authenticator

Four ways to backup your Google Authenticator

Table of Contents

What is Two-Factor authentication?

‘Two-Factor authentication’ or  ‘2 Factor Authentication’ (2FA) is a term you will see more often online. Especially when you use cryptocurrency exchanges, on other websites and with banks, it is an extra verification process to ensure the privacy protection of your personal information upon entering your password.

At your bank, you probably already use this as an SMS or a device to secure your debit card information safely. This form of extra security has become very important. Hacks, scams, and data breaches happen almost daily, leaking your password. If you have 2FA enabled on a website or app, the hacker won’t be able to access it easily.

Criminals are always looking for ways to access your account, but with the 2FA, you can make it very difficult for them!


Google Authenticator

Google Authenticator is the most widely used 2FA mobile app in the cryptocurrency world. Every good website, app, exchange and wallet will encourage you to set up 2FA when registering an account. You protect your account from access by third parties, which is also in their interest. It prevents support tickets, reputational damage, and the loss of customers or investors.

If someone knows your email address and password, they can access your personal information, including your bank account. When 2FA is activated, that person also needs physical access to your phone to log in. If a website accepts 2FA, it is advisable to use it as well. Google Authenticator is a widely used application to use for 2FA, but there are also other solutions. Protecting multiple accounts is no problem at all. The app is available for iOS (iPhone) and Android devices.

This is an example of the Google Authenticator, which generates the 2FA codes:

Google Authenticator Example
Source: Google Play Store

How to activate 2FA using Google Authenticator?

When you turn on 2FA on a website, a QR-code is displayed to scan with the Google Authenticator app. Usually, there is also a code to enter manually on your phone as an alternative method. If you enter the response code in the app on the website, 2FA is activated.

Here is an example:

Activate Google Authenticator

My phone is broken… now what?

The biggest disadvantage of the Google Authenticator is that it doesn’t have a backup function. Not in the app itself, nor on your Gmail account. This is undoubtedly a conscious decision by Google, but it can be a serious problem if your mobile phone is broken or lost. The iPhone makes it easy to restore an iCloud backup to a new phone. However, you will find out that the Google Authenticator app is empty.

You will no longer have access to all the sites where you have activated 2FA. You will then have to prove your identity per website via their support to reactivate your Google Authenticator. With crypto exchanges, it can sometimes take weeks!

What are the Google Authenticator backup options?

Before you finally activate 2FA by entering the response code, it is important to back up the QR code and the written secret code. How to back up Google Authenticator in case you lose your smartphone or when buying a new phone? Here are the four backup options with their advantages and disadvantages.

#1 Screenshot

Make a screenshot of the QR code and the written code (if shown). With a new phone, you can rescan or re-enter the code to gain back access.

Making a screenshot on Windows can be done with the ‘print screen’ button on your keyboard to paste it in Microsoft Paint (mspaint.exe) or otherwise with the snipping tool, which can be found in the start menu. 

Making a screenshot on Apple (macOS) can be done by pressing COMMAND+SHIFT+3 for a full-screen screenshot or with COMMAND+SHIFT+4 for selection. The files are usually stored on your desktop with a file name like ‘Screenshot + date.PNG’.

Advantage: it is easy and quick.

Disadvantage: the secret code is stored on your computer, where a hacker or a virus could find it.
Tip: move the files to a USB stick.

Make a screenshot

#2 Print

Print the page where the QR code and the written code are displayed. Scan the QR code from the paper to test if it works. Also, keep it in a safe and dry place.

Advantage: the secret code is no longer present on the computer, which solves the disadvantage of option 1.

Disadvantage: you do need a printer. Fewer and fewer people own one these days. In addition, you must store the printed page in a secure and dry place to prevent unauthorized people from gaining access to it and ensure it remains readable.

Four ways to backup your Google Authenticator - Print

#3 Extra mobile phone

Do you still have a second mobile phone at your disposal? For example, one from your work, your partner’s, or an old one lying around? Then you can also use that mobile phone to scan the QR code or enter it manually.

Advantage: you are back up and running quickly. And it is very practical if you want to log in. Just take one of the nearby mobile phones that are nearby!

Disadvantage: if you often have both phones together, they can be stolen or broken due to a calamity.

Four ways to backup your Google Authenticator - Extra Phone

#4 Write it down

Write the code down the good old-fashioned way with pen and paper!

Advantage: you don’t need a printer or a second mobile phone, and it’s 100% secure. Tip: double-check whether you have written the code down correctly, and make sure you can read your handwriting!

Disadvantage: some websites only display the QR code. You cannot write those down. Fortunately, more and more websites show both versions: QR & secret code.

Four ways to backup your Google Authenticator - Write it down

Activated 2FA, but forgot to backup or lost it?

If the 2FA with the Google Authenticator is completely set up on a website, you will need to re-activate it to make a backup. Usually, a website does have the possibility to turn off the 2FA. This will only be possible if you still have access to the mobile that is connected to it.

When you turn it off, you will be asked for the code generated on your mobile, just like when you log in. After this, you can re-activate it and make the backup using the options mentioned above.

Transfer Google Authenticator to a new phone (Android only)

For Android users, there is a new method to transfer all your 2FA codes to a new phone. This is a great and convenient feature that will save you a lot of time because it will transfer all your codes all at once.

Before this feature was released, the only option is to add each code on your new phone manually. That is either done by scanning the QR-code you saved when creating a screenshot or typing in the written code, which is very frustrating if you have a lot of codes.

How does it work? The app can generate a special QR-code containing all the 2FA backup codes you choose to transfer. Once you scan this QR-code on the new Android phone, the codes will be moved over.

Step-by-step guide (Android)

  1. First, download the Google Authenticator app on your new phone.
  2. Open the Google Authenticator app on your old phone.
  3. Go to the settings, which usually look like 3 dots or 3 lines (aka hamburger).
  4. Choose the option ‘Transfer accounts’ (see screenshot below).
  5. Select the option ‘Export accounts’
  6. You might be asked to verify it’s you by entering your phone’s pin code or fingerprint.
  7. Now select the accounts you want to transfer and tap ‘next’.
  8. On your new phone, go to settings like in step 3 and choose ‘Import accounts’.
  9. Finally, scan the QR code on your old phone, and the selected codes will be transferred.
Google Authenticator - Transfer accounts
Source: Google Authenticator App

Accounts exported warning

You might see a notification on your old phone saying, ‘Accounts were recently exported’.This is to warn you that this happened because if you did not do it yourself, somebody now has all your codes!

Although they still need your password for each website or app to access it, you need to take action. The best approach is to change your password and reset the 2FA everywhere.

Transfer Google Authenticator to a new iPhone

Warning: the following instruction will only transfer the token to your Google account. This method also works on Android phones.

It is rather easy to move your Google Authenticator to another phone via their website.

For all the other accounts, you will need to go through the process of disabling and re-enabling the 2FA again.

Step-by-step guide (iPhone)

  1. First, go to the Google 2FA page.
  2. Click the ‘Get started’ button.
  3. Choose the Google account you want to use and enter your password.
  4. Find the section ‘Authenticator app’ and click ‘Change phone’, see the screenshot below.
  5. Now either scan the QR-code on your new phone to finish it or enter the ‘secret key’ that appears after clicking ‘Can’t see it?’

Step 4:

Change phone on the Google 2 Factor authentication page

Step 5:

QR-code to transfer accounts on Google Authenticator

Source: Google Authenticator 2FA page and the App

All of the above operations are at your own risk, so take your time, double check everything and test what you are doing.

Is there an alternative to the Google Authenticator?

If you are looking for an alternative authentication app, Microsoft Authenticator and Authy are both popular choices. Both apps offer similar features, including generating one-time passwords and approving login requests from a notification.
They are also available on multiple devices and offer additional security features.

Microsoft Authenticator is free on the App Store and Google Play, while Authy can be downloaded from the App Store, Google Play, and the official website for a desktop version.

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