KeePass Help Center KeePass Home | Downloads | Translations | Plugins | Donate 
Help Center Home | Forums | Awards | Links 

Master Key

Details about components of a master key.

Your KeePass database file is encrypted using a master key. This master key can consist of multiple components: a master password, a key file and/or a key that is protected using the current Windows user account.

For opening a database file, all components of the master key are required.

If you forget/lose any of the master key components (or forget the composition), all data stored in the database is lost. There is no backdoor and no universal key that can open your database.

Master Password

If you use a master password, you only have to remember one password or passphrase (which should be good!) to open your database.

KeePass features a protection against brute-force and dictionary attacks; see the security help page for details.

Key File

A key file is a file that contains a key (and possibly additional data, e.g. a hash that allows to verify the integrity of the key). The file extension typically is 'keyx' or 'key'.

A key file must not be modified, otherwise you cannot open your database anymore. If you want to use a different key file, open the dialog for changing the master key (via 'File' → 'Change Master Key') and create/select the new key file.

Two-factor protection. A key file is something that you must have in order to be able to open the database (in contrast to a master password, which you must know). If you use both a key file and a master password, you have a two-factor protection: possession and knowledge.

Location. As mentioned above, the idea of a key file is that you have something. If an attacker obtains both your database file and your key file, then the key file provides no protection. Therefore, the two files must be stored in different locations. For example, you could store the key file on a separate USB stick.

Hiding the location. The key file content must be kept secret, not its location (file path/name). Trying to hide the key file (e.g. by storing it among a thousand other files, in the hope that an attacker does not know which file is the correct one) typically does not increase the security, because it is easy to find out the correct file (e.g. by inspecting the last access times of files, lists of recently used files of the operating system, file system auditing logs, anti-virus software logs, etc.). KeePass has an option for remembering the paths of key files, which is turned on by default; turning it off typically just decreases the usability without increasing the security.

Backup. You should create a backup of your key file (onto an independent data storage device). If your key file is an XML file (which is the default), you can also create a backup on paper (KeePass 2.x provides a command for printing a key file backup in the menu 'File' → 'Print'). In any case, the backup should be stored in a secure location, where only you and possibly a few other people that you trust have access to. More details about backing up a key file can be found in the ABP FAQ.

Formats. KeePass supports the following key file formats:

  • XML (recommended, default). There is an XML format for key files. KeePass 2.x uses this format by default, i.e. when creating a key file in the master key dialog, an XML key file is created. The syntax and the semantics of the XML format allow to detect certain corruptions (especially such caused by faulty hardware or transfer problems), and a hash (in XML key files version 2.0 or higher) allows to verify the integrity of the key. This format is resistant to most encoding and new-line character changes (which is useful for instance when the user is opening and saving the key file or when transferring it from/to a server). Such a key file can be printed (as a backup on paper), and comments can be added in the file (with the usual XML syntax: <!-- ... -->). It is the most flexible format; new features can be added easily in the future.
  • 32 bytes. If the key file contains exactly 32 bytes, these are used as a 256-bit cryptographic key. This format requires the least disk space.
  • Hexadecimal. If the key file contains exactly 64 hexadecimal characters (0-9 and A-F, in UTF-8/ASCII encoding, one line, no spaces), these are decoded to a 256-bit cryptographic key.
  • Hashed. If a key file does not match any of the formats above, its content is hashed using a cryptographic hash function in order to build a key (typically a 256-bit key with SHA-256). This allows to use arbitrary files as key files.

Reuse. You can use one key file for multiple database files. This can be convenient, but please keep in mind that when an attacker obtains your key file, you have to change the master keys of all database files protected with this key file.

KeePass 1.x Only
In order to reuse an existing key file, click on the button with the 'Save' icon in the master key creation dialog and select the existing file. After accepting the dialog, KeePass will ask you whether to overwrite or reuse the file (see screenshot).

KeePass 2.x Only
In order to reuse an existing key file, click on the 'Browse' button in the master key creation dialog.

Windows User Account

KeePass 1.x Only
KeePass 1.x does not support encrypting databases using Windows user account credentials. Only KeePass 2.x and higher support this.

KeePass 2.x Only
KeePass can make the database dependent on the current Windows user account. If you enable this option, you can only open the database when you are logged in as the same Windows user when creating the database.

Warning Be very careful with using this option. If your Windows user account gets deleted, you won't be able to open your KeePass database anymore. Also, when using this option at home and your computer breaks (hard disk damaged), it is not enough to just create a new Windows account on the new installation with the same name and password; you need to copy the complete account (i.e. SID, ...). This is not a simple task, so if you don't know how to do this, it is highly recommended that you don't enable this option. Detailed instructions how to recover a Windows user account can be found here: 'Recover Windows User Account Credentials' (a short technical tutorial can be found in a Microsoft TechNet article: 'How to recover a Vault corrupted by lost DPAPI keys').

You can change the password of the Windows user account freely; this does not affect the KeePass database. Note that changing the password (e.g. a user using the Control Panel or pressing Ctrl+Alt+Del and selecting 'Change Password') and resetting it to a new one (e.g. an administrator using a NET USER <User> <NewPassword> command) are two different things. After changing your password, you can still open your KeePass database. When resetting the password to a new one, access usually is not possible anymore (because the user's DPAPI keys are lost), but there are exceptions (for example when the user is in a domain, Windows can retrieve the user's DPAPI keys from a domain controller, or a home user can use a previously created Password Reset Disk). Details can be found in the MSDN article 'Windows Data Protection' and in the support article 'How to troubleshoot the Data Protection API (DPAPI)'.

If you decide to use this option, it is highly recommended not to rely on it exclusively, but to additionally use one of the other two options (password or key file).

Instead of backing up the Windows user account, you can alternatively create an unencrypted backup of the key using the 'Windows User Account Backup and Restore Utility'. As such a backup is not encrypted, it must be stored in a secure location.

Protection using user accounts is unsupported on Windows 98 / ME.

For Administrators: Specifying Minimum Properties of Master Keys

Administrators can specify a minimum length and/or the minimum estimated quality that master passwords must have in order to be accepted. You can tell KeePass to check these two minimum requirements by adding/editing appropriate definitions in the INI/XML configuration file.

KeePass 1.x Only
The value of the KeeMasterPasswordMinLength key can contain the minimum master password length in characters. For example, by specifying KeeMasterPasswordMinLength=10, KeePass will only accept master passwords that have at least 10 characters.

The value of the KeeMasterPasswordMinQuality key can contain the minimum estimated quality in bits that master passwords must have. For example, by specifying KeeMasterPasswordMinQuality=64, only master passwords with an estimated quality of at least 64 bits will be accepted.

KeePass 2.x Only
The value of the Security/MasterPassword/MinimumLength node specifies the minimum master password length (in characters). For example, by setting it to 10, KeePass will only accept master passwords that consist of at least 10 characters.

The value of the Security/MasterPassword/MinimumQuality node specifies the minimum estimated quality (in bits) that master passwords must have. For example, by setting it to 80, only master passwords with an estimated quality of at least 80 bits will be accepted.

The Security/MasterKeyExpiryRec and Security/MasterKeyExpiryForce nodes can be set to an XSD date or an XSD duration (see XSD Date and Time Data Types). If the master key has not been changed since the specified date or if the time span between now and the last master key change exceeds the specified duration, KeePass recommends/forces to change it. These settings apply to all databases that are opened with this KeePass instance; a master key expiry can also be configured for each database individually (in 'File' → 'Database Settings' → tab 'Advanced').

By specifying KeyCreationFlags and/or KeyPromptFlags (in the UI node), you can force states (enabled, disabled, checked, unchecked) of key source controls in the master key creation and prompt dialogs. These values can be bitwise combinations of one or more of the following flags:

Flag (Hex)Flag (Dec) Description
0x00 Don't force any states (default).
0x11 Enable password.
0x22 Enable key file.
0x44 Enable user account.
0x88 Enable 'hide password' button.
0x100256 Disable password.
0x200512 Disable key file.
0x4001024 Disable user account.
0x8002048 Disable 'hide password' button.
0x1000065536 Check password.
0x20000131072 Check key file.
0x40000262144 Check user account.
0x80000524288 Check 'hide password' option/button.
0x100000016777216 Uncheck password.
0x200000033554432 Uncheck key file.
0x400000067108864 Uncheck user account.
0x8000000134217728 Uncheck 'hide password' option/button.

The values of KeyCreationFlags and KeyPromptFlags must be specified in decimal notation.

For example, if you want to enforce using the user account option, you could check and disable the control (such that the user can't uncheck it anymore) by specifying 263168 as value (0x40000 + 0x400 = 0x40400 = 263168).

Get KeePass