Set up SSH 2FA with Google Authenticator

This article goes over installing google authenticator on an Ubuntu server to enable 2FA authentication when performing SSH.

Note: It's recommended that you try setting up 2FA on a test server first, so you are not locked out of your server in case something goes wrong. It's also important to fully test the authentication before going live since a misconfiguration could leave your server less secure.

Install Google Authenticator

sudo apt install libpam-google-authenticator -y

Run the google-authenticator command and follow the on-screen prompts


First, it will ask you about time-based tokens. Say y to this question:

Do you want authentication tokens to be time-based: y

You will now see a big QR code on your screen, scan it with your Google Authenticator app to add it. You will also see your secret and a few backup codes looking like this:

Your new secret key is: IRG2TALMR5U2LK5VQ5AQIG3HA4
Your verification code is 282436
Your emergency scratch codes are:

Record the emergency scratch codes somewhere safe in case you need to log into the machine but don't have your 2FA app handy. Without the app, you will no longer be able to SSH into the machine!

Finally, it will ask you for some more parameters; the recommended defaults are as follows:

Do you want me to update your "/<username>/.google_authenticator" file: y
Do you want to disallow multiple uses of the same authentication token: y
By default... < long story about time skew > ... Do you want to do so: n
Do you want to enable rate-limiting: y

Configure OpenSSH

sudo vim /etc/pam.d/sshd

Add to bottom of pam sshd file

auth required

Update SSH

sudo vim /etc/ssh/sshd_config

Make sure to have these settings enabled

KbdInteractiveAuthentication yes # This is called `ChallengeResponseAuthentication` in versions prior to Ubuntu 22.04
UsePAM yes

Add to bottom of sshd_config file

AuthenticationMethods publickey,keyboard-interactive:pam

Restart SSH service

sudo systemctl restart sshd.service

Disable Google Authenticator

These steps are not meant to be executed during server setup. These are meant as instructions in the event that you want to disable the Google Authenticator.

sudo vim /etc/pam.d/sshd

Comment these lines so it looks like this

# auth required

Update SSH

sudo vim /etc/ssh/sshd_config

Change AuthenticationMethods to only allow publickey

AuthenticationMethods publickey

Restart SSH service

sudo systemctl restart sshd.service

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