The HTTP 401 status code means a server requires authentication for the request.
HTTP has multiple authentication schemes, with Basic being the most common one.
GET /supersecret HTTP/2
If the server wants you to authenticate, it will send the
WWW-Authenticate header with the desired authentication method:
HTTP/2 401 Unauthorized
WWW-Authenticate: Basic realm="You Shall Not Pass"
Clients can authenticate by sending the
Authorization header with credentials and a type of scheme they use:
Authorization: Basic UGuz3XfqNdXC4VTng6VzYW1e
401 vs 403
403 Forbidden is more appropriate when you don’t have access to a particular resource or action, while
401 Unauthorized is for cases when you’re either not authenticated or authenticated incorrectly.
To portray this as a private party analogy:
- 401 - Anyone who knows the secret word can get in. If you don’t know what that word is, you’re out. You can try as many times as you want.
- 403 - Your name is not on the list, and you won’t be able to get in. Don’t even try.
- 404 - Some private parties don’t want outsiders to know the party exists. Maybe something is going on there, but you won’t be able to tell from the outside.
Perhaps the better name for these status codes would have been
401 Unauthenticated and