What Is 3FA? Three-Factor Authentication for Beginners

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Darko Jacimovic
Written by
Darko Jacimovic

Updated · Jul 31, 2023

Darko Jacimovic
SEO Specialist | Joined April 2023 | LinkedIn
Darko Jacimovic

Darko founded WhatToBecome.com, a comprehensive career guidance platform for beginners in various po... | See full bio

Girlie Defensor
Edited by
Girlie Defensor


Girlie Defensor
Joined June 2023
Girlie Defensor

Girlie is an accomplished writer with an interest in technology and literature. With years of experi... | See full bio

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Cyber attacks have increased by 10% in the past year. A whopping 95% of that is due to human error. 

One of these human problems is reusing the same password across multiple accounts and platforms. You’re prone to account hijacking and identity theft if you're guilty of this.

Luckily, computer systems have improved to match some human errors. Authentication methods such as Three-Factor Authentication or 3FA now exist to combat security breaches. 

With Three-Factor Authentication or 3FA, password vulnerability becomes less risky. 

So what is 3FA? And how does it save you from potential attacks online? Here’s a beginner-friendly guide that can help you understand.

What is a 3FA (Three Factor Authentication)?

Authentication is the process that determines whether a user is who they say they are. Since cyber attackers can be anyone, computer systems implement authentication to protect their users. 

Authentication methods use factors– unique kinds of security credentials that confirm a person’s identity. This is why you have to input credentials like usernames and passwords to websites like Facebook and Gmail. 

Three-Factor Authentication uses three types of credentials to get into a system. These could be a password, a one-time password (OTP), or a fingerprint scan. 

Since it involves more factors, 3FA is more sophisticated than just entering a code once. It also has more layers of protection, boosting security. It is most useful for institutions that house sensitive data.

Factors That Makeup 3FA

Three-Factor Authentication isn’t possible without the factors that establish the legitimacy of a user. These factors are categorized into three types: something you know, something you have, and something you are.

Factor No. 1: Something You Know

The first authentication factor is the Knowledge Factor. More commonly, it’s called “Something you know.” And it’s the most recognized of the three.

Knowledge Factor involves elements that the user must know, like their username, ID, password, PIN, number passcode, an answer to a security question, or PIN (Personal Identification Number).

Only using the knowledge factor is convenient. It’s easy to remember and quick to input. The major limitation, however, is that it’s easy to break into. Anyone can get into an account with just one security wall stopping them.

Factor No. 2: Something You Have

The Possession Factor or “Something you have” comprises what a user owns– something you have that generates a fixed code. 

Key fobs, SIM cards, one-time codes, authenticator apps, and security keys can be classified as a Possession Factor. 

Of course, this factor increases an account’s security. But a user must go through the extra step of doing one more authentication method to sign in, thus consuming more time.

Factor No. 3: Something You Are

The third authentication factor involves biological traits that can be scanned and confirmed when logging in. That’s why it’s called Inherence Factor or “Something you are.”

This factor type utilizes user biometrics such as fingerprints, facial scans, retina scans, voice recognition, hand configurations, or DNA.  

An inherence factor can’t be transferred to other people, so it can be a great option to protect your privacy. 

How Does 3FA Work?

Simply put, a system uses authentication to know who is accessing it. And an authentication’s reliability depends on the kind and the number of factors implemented. 

3FA uses all three-factor types to provide a higher level of security. So it combines something you know, something you have, and something you are. And you’ll only be given access if one factor is present or correct.

For example, when logging in to your account, the website could ask you to do the following:

  • Step 1. Initialize the login and provide a password (Knowledge Factor)
  • Step 2. Launch a separate authenticator app on a mobile device, but it has to scan your fingerprint to open (Inherence Factor)
  • Step 3. Generate a one-time code from the app and input it into the system (Possession Factor)

Difference Between 2FA and 3FA

The difference between Two-Factor Authenication (2FA) and 3FA is the number of unique authentication factors each process uses. 2FA only requires two factor types, while 3FA needs three.

A system must strictly have at least one element from each factor type arranged to have true Three-Factor Authentication.

Let’s take the 3FA example from above. Each of these elements belongs to one-factor type:

  • a password (Knowledge Factor)
  • a fingerprint scan (Inherence Factor)
  • a one-time code from an app (Possession Factor)

But if you replace the fingerprint scan with another one-time code sent to an email address, the Inherence Factor is eliminated. The three authentication elements from just two categories are now considered 2FA.

For decades, 2FA provided a resilient security wall against hackers. But unfortunately, according to Screen Rant, cyber attacks have evolved so much that they can now counter 2FA.  

3FA is more secure than 2FA because it asks the user to provide one more proof of identity, more specifically, biometrics. This is evident in how they’re often used. 

2FA is implemented in social media and some bank websites. But 3FA is used in institutions that need high security, like businesses, government agencies, airports, terminals, and big organizations.

Benefits of Setting Up 3FA

As mentioned, 3FA can significantly improve a system’s security. It’s the most robust authentication available. But what are the specific advantages that it brings? 

Here are the key benefits of using 3FA:

  • It provides more resistance to cyber-attacks. Hackers will have to hurdle three varying proofs of identification. So if your email and mobile phone have been compromised, there’s still one more layer of protection that a hacker may not break.
  • It eliminates password risks. Passwords are the most vulnerable security feature. Anyone can crack or guess them. 3FA erases this risk by adding two more identification processes manifesting when a password has been entered. 
  • It increases security with third parties. Large institutions have third parties accessing their systems. They also have hundreds of employees logging in and out every day. 3FA creates a layered security measure for everyone. 
  • It uses an inherence factor which is non-transferrable and too difficult to copy. Biometric identification is hard to fake or steal. After all, it utilizes an individual’s uniqueness. No one in the world has a face or fingerprint like yours.

It’s customizable to suit your security needs. You can customize which element from each factor type you want to use depending on the level of security you require.

Wrap Up

The power of a single password isn’t what it used to be. Now, they’re insufficient, not enough to protect your data from attacks. That’s especially true if you reuse the same passwords for multiple accounts.

3FA provides an extra layer of protection for your data. It’s a headache for account hijackers but assurance for you.

Inputting two or three more credentials when signing won’t take you long. It just takes a few minutes of your time–  precious minutes that may make the difference between security and stolen money and identity.


What is an example of 2FA authentication?

There are many examples of 2FA. But the most commonly used 2FA method is using a password and sending a one-time code to a user’s mobile phone via text.


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