The Complete Guide to API Tokens 

Table of contents

Woman writing on white board about  API tokens

The use of APIs has rapidly been on the rise over the last several years. In fact, data shows that nearly 90% of developers are using APIs and REST APIs in some capacity. APIs or application programming interfaces refer to functions that allow applications to access data and interact with external software components, operating systems, and microservices. Essentially, the main goal of an API is to enable multiple applications to communicate with one another as APIs. While APIs are great tools for software development purposes, they are also often the weakest link when it comes to a business operation's cybersecurity. Without the proper precautions in place, APIs can actually become a major security risk. That's where API tokens come into the picture.

API tokens are also referred to as access tokens. They are similar to a password as they enable business operations to ensure API users authenticate an API with set credentials before performing any new actions. 

Understanding API Tokens 

When it comes to API tokens, the key point to understand is that API tokens are one of the most popular methods that API developers utilize to ensure that API assets are secure.

In order to understand how API tokens work to keep APIs secure, it's important to know that API tokens are just small collections of code that store pertinent info about API users. These snippets of code hold a lot of data, ensuring that only authorized users can make changes to an API.

Related reading: "7 Must-Know Factors in API Development."

Common Structure and Key Elements of API Tokens 

API tokens work to transmit a ton of data with just a few bytes. While there are various structures that can be utilized for API tokens, the most common structure of an API token is: 

  • Header: The header lets the API know what format the access token is in. This ensures that the API will know what to expect. 
  • Payload: The payload is the body of the API that contains all of the relevant user data like permissions and expirations. 
  • Signature: The signature contains all of the data for user verification. In addition, signatures are usually hashed, which makes them difficult to counterfeit. 

Overall, the most important element of an API token is the payload. The payload is like the passkey for the API or simply an API key. A user would need the API token payload for authentication. If the payload passkey is not there or is incorrect, the user won't be able to access the API or make any changes.

Related reading: "APIs and Logistics: How APIs Are Changing the Face of the Logistics Industry."

How Do API Tokens Work? 

You can think of an API as a lock and an API token as the key that will open that lock. Overall, API tokens follow a series of steps to work efficiently. 

Step 1: The API verifies the username and password from the payload. 

Step 2: Once the username and password from the payload are verified, the API sends an asset token to the user's browser to be stored. 

Step 3: Once the asset token is stored on the user's browser, the API token is active and ensures that the verified user always has access to work on the API for as long as the API token stays valid.  

Common API Token Types 

A common API token is the single sign-on or SSO token. With an SSO token, an authentication scheme allows the user to log in with a single ID to any of the multiple related yet independent software systems. SSO tokens allow users to log in once and access services without having to reenter any authentication factors. 

In addition, there are two common types of tokens:

  • ID Tokens: These are JSON web tokens or JWTs that are meant for use by the application only. 
  • Access Tokens: These are used to inform an API that the user of the token is authorized to access the API and perform certain actions or changes to the API. 

Along with these two common types of tokens, there are also specialized and new API tokens:

  • Refresh tokens: These tokens are used to obtain a renewed access token without having to re-authenticate the user.
  • IDP access tokens: These access tokens are issued by identity providers after user authentication that you can use to call the third-party APIs.
  • Auth0 management API access tokens: These short-lived tokens contain specific claims or scopes that allow you to call management API endpoints.

Overall, modern API requests and security is made possible through the OAuth 2.0 standard.​​ OAuth 2.0 ensures data protection and privacy of APIs by using a secure socket layer or SSL. If you're ready to discover how to better safeguard your APIs through the implementation of API tokens, then DreamFactory is here to help. Plus, if you're just getting started with APIs, DreamFactory can even help you calculate the cost before you even get started. Register today to discover DreamFactory's new features and to try out the platform's frameworks for yourself.

Related Reading: