For many years, a password was the only way to log into Windows. Starting with Windows 7, some machines supported fingerprint scanners, but a traditional password has dominated until Windows 8 and 10.
In Windows 10, Microsoft provides several ways to authenticate your account beyond a password. These include facial recognition and fingerprint scanning, but those aren’t available on some machines. Anyone can use a PIN (personal identification number) to protect their account, though.
Let’s take a look at the differences between a PIN and password, how to set them up, and which you should use.
Account Types: PIN vs. Password
You can sign into Windows 10 in two different ways. You can use either a local account (tied only to that PC) or a Microsoft account. There are pros and cons to signing in with a Microsoft account. It’s required to use many Microsoft services, and syncs your preferences across devices.
If you use a Microsoft account to sign into Windows, your PC password and your Microsoft account password are identical. Depending on how deep you are into Microsoft’s ecosystem, this could also be your Skype, Xbox, or Outlook password.
If you use a local account, you can decline to set a password (which is terribly insecure). Assuming you set a password, it’s applied for only that machine and is not tied to any Microsoft resources. We’ve shown how to convert a Microsoft login to a local account if you’re interested. You can also change the email address associated with your Microsoft Account.
No matter if you use a Microsoft or local account, you can supplement your password with a PIN. A PIN (don’t say “PIN number”) is a series of digits that’s easier to type than a full password, especially on a touch-screen device. Microsoft requires that your PIN be at least four digits, but you can make it as long as you like.
How Do I Set These Options Up?
For either option, you can access your password and PIN settings by visiting the Settings app in Windows 10. Type password into the Start Menu to open the Sign-in options tab. Here, you’ll find every setting you could need on passwords, including Windows Hello and picture passwords.
To change your current password, click the Change button under Password. When using a Microsoft account, this will change your password for all its services. If you’re using a local account, this only changes that password.
You can add a PIN by clicking Add under the PIN header. You’ll likely be asked to confirm your Microsoft account password before setting a PIN if applicable. Four digits is the minimum, but for security you should choose at least six.
— Damn Interesting (@DamnInteresting) December 1, 2016
Of course, you shouldn’t set any old PIN here. Don’t pick something stupid, like 0000 or 1234, and don’t choose an obvious date like your birthday. You should also avoid duplicating any other important PINs, such as banking PINs. For best results, choose a random set of numbers and commit them to memory.
Which Option Should I Choose?
Protecting an account, like most security matters, comes down to a trade-off between convenience and security. A PIN of 1234 is super convenient, but completely insecure. Likewise, a 100-digit PIN won’t be cracked for years, but it’s a bit inconvenient to enter. When used correctly, however, a solid PIN is a great compromise between the two values.
PINs Are Local
It’s important to note that when you set a PIN in Windows 10, it applies only to that device. Thus, if you set a PIN on your home PC and someone were to steal it, they couldn’t access your account unless they had physical access to your device. In addition, your PIN can’t sign into any of your Microsoft accounts like your password can.
Thus, using your Microsoft password to sign into your PC is more of a risk. If you have to type that password to log in every time, it might tempt you to make it simpler and weaker. Should someone steal your password, they could also log into your Outlook email, your Xbox account, or any number of other Microsoft services.
Use a PIN and a Strong Password
If you’ve used a password manager to set a secure password for your Microsoft account, it’s probably much too complex to type every time you log in. Logging in with a PIN solves this problem — you just need to make sure it’s a good one.
Our recommendation for most people is to set a strong password for your Microsoft account, and use a good PIN for signing into your computer. This keeps your email and other resources protected, while also allowing you to conveniently sign into your PC. There’s really no downside to setting a PIN. Don’t forget that you can boost the protection on your Microsoft account with two-factor authentication for even more security.
Those using a local account can also set a PIN, and the same rules apply. Since a local account only applies to your particular machine, a PIN is simply an alternate means of logging in. It doesn’t offer the benefits of obscuring your Microsoft account password.
Ready to Use a PIN?
That’s all you need to do, and your PIN is ready! Next time you log into Windows, the system will prompt you for your PIN, not your password. To sign in with your password instead, look for the Sign-in options link below the text entry field.
Your Windows 10 PIN code is more secure than password because it's part of 2-factor authentication with the hardware itself.
— Ginny Caughey (@gcaughey) December 10, 2015
If you need to change your PIN, you can return to the Sign-in options menu of the Settings to do so. You can also click I forgot my PIN here to reset it. You’ll be prompted to enter your account password to reset the PIN.
Looking to secure your phone, too? Check out the pros and cons of using a fingerprint or PIN to lock your smartphone.
Are you using a Microsoft or local account on your system? Do you have a PIN set on your PC account? Let us know if you added a PIN after reading this article!