403 Forbidden vs 401 Unauthorized HTTP responses – Dev

The best answers to the question “403 Forbidden vs 401 Unauthorized HTTP responses” in the category Dev.

QUESTION:

For a web page that exists, but for which a user does not have sufficient privileges (they are not logged in or do not belong to the proper user group), what is the proper HTTP response to serve?

401 Unauthorized?
403 Forbidden?
Something else?

What I’ve read on each so far isn’t very clear on the difference between the two. What use cases are appropriate for each response?

ANSWER:

Edit: RFC2616 is obsolete, see RFC7231 and RFC7235.

401 Unauthorized:

If the request already included Authorization credentials, then the 401 response indicates that authorization has been refused for those credentials.

403 Forbidden:

The server understood the request, but is refusing to fulfill it.

From your use case, it appears that the user is not authenticated. I would return 401.


ANSWER:

A clear explanation from Daniel Irvine:

There’s a problem with 401 Unauthorized, the HTTP status code for authentication errors. And that’s just it: it’s for authentication, not authorization.
Receiving a 401 response is the server telling you, “you aren’t
authenticated–either not authenticated at all or authenticated
incorrectly–but please reauthenticate and try again.” To help you out,
it will always include a WWW-Authenticate header that describes how
to authenticate.

This is a response generally returned by your web server, not your web
application.

It’s also something very temporary; the server is asking you to try
again.

So, for authorization I use the 403 Forbidden response. It’s
permanent, it’s tied to my application logic, and it’s a more concrete
response than a 401.

Receiving a 403 response is the server telling you, “I’m sorry. I know
who you are–I believe who you say you are–but you just don’t have
permission to access this resource. Maybe if you ask the system
administrator nicely, you’ll get permission. But please don’t bother
me again until your predicament changes.”

In summary, a 401 Unauthorized response should be used for missing
or bad authentication, and a 403 Forbidden response should be used
afterwards, when the user is authenticated but isn’t authorized to
perform the requested operation on the given resource.

Another nice pictorial format of how http status codes should be used.

ANSWER:

  +-----------------------
  | RESOURCE EXISTS ? (if private it is often checked AFTER auth check)
  +-----------------------
    |       |
 NO |       v YES
    v      +-----------------------
   404     | IS LOGGED-IN ? (authenticated, aka user session)
   or      +-----------------------
   401        |              |
   403     NO |              | YES
   3xx        v              v
              401            +-----------------------
       (404 no reveal)       | CAN ACCESS RESOURCE ? (permission, authorized, ...)
              or             +-----------------------
             redirect          |            |
             to login       NO |            | YES
                               |            |
                               v            v
                               403          OK 200, redirect, ...
                      (or 404: no reveal)
                      (or 404: resource does not exist if private)
                      (or 3xx: redirection)

Checks are usually done in this order:

  • 404 if resource is public and does not exist or 3xx redirection
  • OTHERWISE:
  • 401 if not logged-in or session expired
  • 403 if user does not have permission to access resource (file, json, …)
  • 404 if resource does not exist or not willing to reveal anything, or 3xx redirection

UNAUTHORIZED: Status code (401) indicating that the request requires authentication, usually this means user needs to be logged-in (session). User/agent unknown by the server. Can repeat with other credentials. NOTE: This is confusing as this should have been named ‘unauthenticated’ instead of ‘unauthorized’. This can also happen after login if session expired.
Special case: Can be used instead of 404 to avoid revealing presence or non-presence of resource (credits @gingerCodeNinja)

FORBIDDEN: Status code (403) indicating the server understood the request but refused to fulfill it. User/agent known by the server but has insufficient credentials. Repeating request will not work, unless credentials changed, which is very unlikely in a short time span.
Special case: Can be used instead of 404 to avoid revealing presence or non-presence of resource (credits @gingerCodeNinja) in the case that revealing the presence of the resource exposes sensitive data or gives an attacker useful information.

NOT FOUND: Status code (404) indicating that the requested resource is not available. User/agent known but server will not reveal anything about the resource, does as if it does not exist. Repeating will not work. This is a special use of 404 (github does it for example).

As mentioned by @ChrisH there are a few options for redirection 3xx (301, 302, 303, 307 or not redirecting at all and using a 401):

  • Difference between HTTP redirect codes
  • How long do browsers cache HTTP 301s?
  • What is correct HTTP status code when redirecting to a login page?
  • What’s the difference between a 302 and a 307 redirect?

ANSWER:

Something the other answers are missing is that it must be understood that Authentication and Authorization in the context of RFC 2616 refers ONLY to the HTTP Authentication protocol of RFC 2617. Authentication by schemes outside of RFC2617 is not supported in HTTP status codes and are not considered when deciding whether to use 401 or 403.

Brief and Terse

Unauthorized indicates that the client is not RFC2617 authenticated and the server is initiating the authentication process. Forbidden indicates either that the client is RFC2617 authenticated and does not have authorization or that the server does not support RFC2617 for the requested resource.

Meaning if you have your own roll-your-own login process and never use HTTP Authentication, 403 is always the proper response and 401 should never be used.

Detailed and In-Depth

From RFC2616

10.4.2 401 Unauthorized

The request requires user authentication. The response MUST include a WWW-Authenticate header field (section 14.47) containing a challenge applicable to the requested resource. The client MAY repeat the request with a suitable Authorization header field (section 14.8).

and

10.4.4 403 Forbidden
The server understood the request but is refusing to fulfil it. Authorization will not help and the request SHOULD NOT be repeated.

The first thing to keep in mind is that “Authentication” and “Authorization” in the context of this document refer specifically to the HTTP Authentication protocols from RFC 2617. They do not refer to any roll-your-own authentication protocols you may have created using login pages, etc. I will use “login” to refer to authentication and authorization by methods other than RFC2617

So the real difference is not what the problem is or even if there is a solution. The difference is what the server expects the client to do next.

401 indicates that the resource can not be provided, but the server is REQUESTING that the client log in through HTTP Authentication and has sent reply headers to initiate the process. Possibly there are authorizations that will permit access to the resource, possibly there are not, but let’s give it a try and see what happens.

403 indicates that the resource can not be provided and there is, for the current user, no way to solve this through RFC2617 and no point in trying. This may be because it is known that no level of authentication is sufficient (for instance because of an IP blacklist), but it may be because the user is already authenticated and does not have authority. The RFC2617 model is one-user, one-credentials so the case where the user may have a second set of credentials that could be authorized may be ignored. It neither suggests nor implies that some sort of login page or other non-RFC2617 authentication protocol may or may not help – that is outside the RFC2616 standards and definition.


Edit: RFC2616 is obsolete, see RFC7231 and RFC7235.