Multi-factor authentication for Microsoft 365

Passwords are the most common method of authenticating a sign-in to a computer or online service, but they are also the most vulnerable. People can choose easy passwords and use the same passwords for multiple sign-ins to different computers and services.

To provide an additional level of security for sign-ins, you must use multi-factor authentication (MFA), which uses both a password, which should be strong, and an additional verification method based on:

  • Something you have with you that is not easily duplicated, such as a smart phone.
  • Something you uniquely and biologically have, such as your fingerprints, face, or other biometric attribute.

The additional verification method is not employed until after the user’s password has been verified. With MFA, even if a strong user password is compromised, the attacker does not have your smart phone or your fingerprint to complete the sign-in.

MFA support in Microsoft 365

By default, both Microsoft 365 and Office 365 support MFA for user accounts using:

  • A text message sent to a phone that requires the user to type a verification code.
  • A phone call.
  • The Microsoft Authenticator smart phone app.

In both cases, the MFA sign-in is using the “something you have with you that is not easily duplicated” method for the additional verification. There are multiple ways in which you can enable MFA for Microsoft 365 and Office 365:

  • With security defaults
  • With Conditional Access policies
  • For each individual user account (not recommended)

These ways are based on your Microsoft 365 plan.

Plan Recommendation Type of customer
All Microsoft 365 plans Use security defaults, which require MFA for all user accounts.
You can also require MFA on a per-user account basis, but this is not recommended.
Small business
Microsoft 365 Business Premium

Microsoft 365 E3

Azure Active Directory (Azure AD) Premium P1 licenses
Use Conditional Access policies to require MFA for user accounts based on group membership, apps, or other criteria. Small business to enterprise
Microsoft 365 E5

Azure AD Premium P2 licenses
Use Azure AD Identity Protection to require MFA based on sign-in risk criteria. Enterprise

Security defaults

Security defaults is a new feature for Microsoft 365 and Office 365 paid or trial subscriptions created after October 21, 2019. These subscriptions have security defaults turned on, which:

  • Requires all of your users to use MFA with the Microsoft Authenticator app.
  • Blocks legacy authentication.

Users have 14 days to register for MFA with the Microsoft Authenticator app from their smart phones, which begins from the first time they sign in after security defaults has been enabled. After 14 days have passed, the user won't be able to sign in until MFA registration is completed.

Security defaults ensure that all organizations have a basic level of security for user sign-in that is enabled by default. You can disable security defaults in favor of MFA with Conditional Access policies.

You enable or disable security defaults from the Properties pane for Azure AD in the Azure portal.

Picture of the Directory properties page.

You can use security defaults with any Microsoft 365 plan.

For more information, see this overview of security defaults.

Conditional Access policies

Conditional Access policies are a set of rules that specify the conditions under which sign-ins are evaluated and allowed. For example, you can create a Conditional Access policy that states:

  • If the user account name is a member of a group for users that are assigned the Exchange, user, password, security, SharePoint, or global administrator roles, require MFA before allowing access.

This policy allows you to require MFA based on group membership, rather than trying to configure individual user accounts for MFA when they are assigned or unassigned from these administrator roles.

You can also use Conditional Access policies for more advanced capabilities, such as requiring MFA for specific apps or that the sign-in is done from a compliant device, such as your laptop running Windows 10.

You configure Conditional Access policies from the Security pane for Azure AD in the Azure portal.

Picure of menu option for Conditional Access

You can use Conditional Access policies with:

  • Microsoft 365 Business Premium
  • Microsoft 365 E3 and E5
  • Azure AD Premium P1 and Azure AD Premium P2 licenses

For small businesses with Microsoft 365 Business Premium, you can easily use Conditional Access policies with the following steps:

  1. Create a group to contain the user accounts that require MFA.
  2. Enable the Require MFA for global admins policy.
  3. Create a group-based Conditional Access policy with these settings:
    • Assignments > Users and groups: The name of your group from Step 1 above.
    • Assignments > Cloud apps or actions: All cloud apps.
    • Access controls > Grant > Grant access > Require multi-factor authentication.
  4. Enable the policy.
  5. Add a user account to the group created in Step 1 above and test.
  6. To require MFA for additional user accounts, add them to the group created in Step 1.

This Conditional Access policy allows you to roll out the MFA requirement to your users at your own pace.

Enterprises should use Common Conditional Access policies to configure the following policies:

For more information, see this overview of Conditional Access.

Azure AD Identity Protection

With Azure AD Identity Protection, you can create an additional Conditional Access policy to require MFA when sign-in risk is medium or high.

You can use Azure AD Identity Protection and risk-based Conditional Access policies with:

  • Microsoft 365 E5
  • Azure AD Premium P2 licenses

For more information, see this overview of Azure AD Identity Protection.

You should be using either security defaults or Conditional Access policies to require MFA for your user account sign-ins. However, if either of these cannot be used, Microsoft strongly recommends MFA for user accounts that have administrator roles, especially the global administrator role, for any size subscription.

You enable MFA for individual user accounts from the Active user pane of the Microsoft 365 admin center.

Picture of Multi factor authentication option on Active users page

After being enabled, the next time the user signs in, they will be prompted to register for MFA and to choose and test the additional verification method.

Using these methods together

This table shows the results of enabling MFA with security defaults, Conditional Access policies, and per-user account settings.

Enabled Disabled Secondary authentication method
Security defaults Can’t use Conditional Access policies Can use Conditional Access policies Microsoft Authenticator app
Conditional Access policies If any are enabled, you can’t enable security defaults If all are disabled, you can enable security defaults User-specified during MFA registration
Legacy Per Person MFA (not recommended) Overrides security defaults and Conditional Access policies requiring MFA at each sign in Overridden by security defaults and Conditional Access policies User-specified during MFA registration

If security defaults are enabled, all new users are prompted for MFA registration and the use of the Microsoft Authenticator app at their next sign-in.

Ways to manage MFA settings

There are two ways to manage MFA settings.

In the Azure portal, you can:

  • Enable and disable security defaults
  • Configure Conditional Access policies

In the Microsoft 365 admin center, you can configure per-user and service MFA settings.

Your next step

Set up MFA for Microsoft 365