How to protect your Thunderbird accounts with a primary password (and why you should)


If you don’t type the password, Thunderbird will open but will continue to prompt for the password (all the while, refusing to download any new messages).

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I often receive emails with embargoed or sensitive content. Not only that, but I tend to be a bit on the overprotective side when it comes to my communications. To that end, I don’t ever want anyone to access my email client and send a contact a message, posing as me. On top of that, I tend to save my account passwords in Thunderbird, which means any time that application is open, it’s receiving email.

These types of scenarios are more common than you might think, which is why some email clients add an additional layer of protection. In the case of Thunderbird, that extra protection comes in the form of a Primary Password. 

This feature is very similar to that of Firefox’s Primary Password, which encrypts all of your saved passwords. When you open Firefox, it will first prompt you for your Primary Password. Until you successfully type that password, Firefox will not have access to any of the passwords you’ve saved.

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Thunderbird takes the same route. Once you’ve set a Primary Password, any time you open the app, it will first prompt you for the password. If you don’t type the password, Thunderbird will open but will continue to prompt for the password (all the while, refusing to download any new messages). Until that password is correctly entered, Thunderbird is unusable.

If that sounds like something you need to add to Thunderbird, read on. If you’re not using Thunderbird, and this sounds like a feature you’d like to have, I would suggest downloading and installing the Thunderbird email client on your operating system of choice. 

Let’s set a Thunderbird Primary Password, so your communications are better protected.

How to set the Thunderbird Primary Password

What you’ll need: To make this work, you’ll need a working instance of the Thunderbird email client and at least one email account configured. It doesn’t matter what platform you use for Thunderbird (it’s available for Linux, MacOS, and Windows), as the process is the same. That’s all you need. Let’s set the password.

The first thing for you to do is open the Thunderbird email client. How you open the app will depend on the operating system you are using (and, in the case of Linux, what desktop environment).

Click the three-horizontal-line menu button near the top right and click Settings (not Account Settings).

The Thunderbird menu.

Make sure to click Settings and not Account Settings.

Screenshot by Jack Wallen/ZDNET

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Once Settings opens, click Privacy & Security in the left navigation, and scroll down until you see the Passwords section. From there, click the checkbox for Use a Primary Password.

The Thunderbird Settings window.

You can also view your saved passwords but once you set a Primary Password, they’ll be encrypted and will require you to enter the Primary Password before you can view them.

Screenshot by Jack Wallen/ZDNET

In the resulting window, type and confirm your new Primary Password. I would suggest not using the same password you use to log into your desktop. As well, make sure the password is strong and unique. Once you’ve typed and retyped your Primary Password, click OK.

The Primary Password configuration window.

Since you haven’t already set a Primary Password, leave the Current field blank.

Screenshot by Jack Wallen/ZDNET

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Close and re-open Thunderbird. When the app opens, you’ll see a prompt for the Primary Password. Type the password you set and click Sign in. If you successfully typed the password, Thunderbird will open and give you access to your accounts. If you fail, Thunderbird will still open but will, once again, prompt you for the Primary Password. Until you successfully type the password, you will not be able to interact with the email client.

The Thunderbird Primary Password prompt.

Thunderbird will not be usable until you successfully type your Primary Password.

Screenshot by Jack Wallen/ZDNET

And that’s all there is to protect your email accounts in Thunderbird. I would highly recommend doing this, especially if you work or live in an environment where multiple people could easily access your email accounts.

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