AWS MFA on the CLI with `direnv`

Aug 2020

You might already be using multi-factor authentication (MFA) for logins to your AWS account. This will cause AWS to prompt you for your MFA token when you log in via the web console. However, if you use AWS via command-line tools (e.g., terraform or aws s3), you might have issued yourself access keys. Those are single-factor, and if they leak, anyone on the internet can use them to do horrible things to your account.

We can make your admin AWS accounts safer by requiring MFA, even for API requests. First, put your account, and the account of all other admins in your AWS account, in a group like AdminMFA. This group should have a policy that looks like this:

  "Version": "2012-10-17",
  "Statement": [
      "Effect": "Allow",
      "Action": [
      "Resource": "*",
      "Condition": {
        "Bool": {
          "aws:MultiFactorAuthPresent": "true"

Direnv Config

Now, you’ll need a mechanism to authenticate via your MFA token, get a session token, and put that session token into your environment. I do this using direnv. I’ve only recently learned about direnv, and I’m already using it, in combination with asdf, to replace rbenv, pyenv, and nodenv. direnv and asdf setup is beyond the scope of this post, but you can check out my dotfiles repo to get an idea of how I have it configured.

Here’s my configuration in a .envrc file of a terraform repo for a project hosted on AWS:

use asdf

export AWS_MFA_ARN=arn:aws:iam::<redacted>:mfa/igor
export AWS_SESSION_FILE="${HOME}/.config/aws/session-${MASTER_AWS_ACCESS_KEY_ID}"

watch_file $AWS_SESSION_FILE
direnv_load ~/bin/aws_load_session

This file causes 4 environment variables to be exported into my environment whenever I cd into this repo’s directory. The MASTER_AWS_ACCESS_KEY_ID and MASTER_AWS_SECRET_ACCESS_KEY are just the access key ID and key that I created for my account via IAM. I’ve prefixed their usual environment variable names with MASTER to distinguish them from the session-specific keys created by authenticating with MFA. The AWS_MFA_ARN variable contains the ID of my MFA token. You can get this from your security credentials page, under the Multi-factor authentication (MFA) section. Finally, the AWS_SESSION_FILE variable will keep track of where my MFA session is stored in my filesystem.

The next two lines handle reloading the MFA session. I’ve told direnv to reload my local environment whenever the contents of the file at $AWS_SESSION_FILE change. Next, we use direnv_load (from the direnv stdlib) to load the environment exported by my aws_load_session script.

Session-management Scripts

I have two custom scripts to manage the MFA session. The first is aws_get_session, and it’s responsible for prompting me for my MFA token, creating an MFA session, and storing it into the AWS_SESSION_FILE. I run this script whenever my MFA session expires. Here’s the script:



if [[ -z $TOKEN ]]; then
    echo "Usage: aws_get_session <mfa token value>"
    exit 1

set -u

mkdir -p `dirname ${AWS_SESSION_FILE}`

AWS_ACCESS_KEY_ID=${MASTER_AWS_ACCESS_KEY_ID} AWS_SECRET_ACCESS_KEY=${MASTER_AWS_SECRET_ACCESS_KEY} aws sts get-session-token --serial-number $AWS_MFA_ARN --token-code ${TOKEN} > ~/.config/aws/session-${MASTER_AWS_ACCESS_KEY_ID} > ${AWS_SESSION_FILE}
echo "saved session info to ${AWS_SESSION_FILE}"

The other script, aws_load_session, loads the MFA session into my environment. It’s run by direnv, whenever the AWS_SESSION_FILE changes. Here’s the script:


set -u

if [[ ! -f ${AWS_SESSION_FILE} ]]; then
  echo "No session found; did you run `aws_get_session <mfa token>` ?"

export AWS_ACCESS_KEY_ID=`cat ${AWS_SESSION_FILE} | jq --raw-output .Credentials.AccessKeyId`
export AWS_SECRET_ACCESS_KEY=`cat ${AWS_SESSION_FILE} | jq --raw-output .Credentials.SecretAccessKey`
export AWS_SESSION_TOKEN=`cat ${AWS_SESSION_FILE} | jq --raw-output .Credentials.SessionToken`
direnv dump

Both of these scripts depend on having aws and jq installed and in your PATH.

Example Session

Here’s how this looks in real use, with a terraform repo that stores it’s state in AWS S3.

igor47@fortress:~/repos/terraform/roots/prod {master} $ terraform plan

Error: error using credentials to get account ID: error calling sts:GetCallerIdentity: ExpiredToken: The security token included in the request is expired
	status code: 403, request id: abfd729b-4dad-41f4-857f-2539170f68a9

igor47@fortress:~/repos/terraform/roots/prod {master} $ aws_get_session 123456
saved session info to /home/igor47/.config/aws/session-AKIA<redacted>
direnv: loading ~/repos/terraform/.envrc
direnv: using asdf
direnv: loading ~/.asdf/installs/direnv/2.21.2/env/733966593-20565860-1008169379-2914714444
direnv: using asdf python 2.7.18
direnv: using asdf python 3.8.3
direnv: using asdf nodejs 12.13.1
direnv: using asdf ruby 2.7.1
direnv: using asdf direnv 2.21.2
direnv: using asdf terraform 0.12.29

igor47@fortress:~/repos/terraform/roots/prod {master} $ terraform plan
Refreshing Terraform state in-memory prior to plan...
The refreshed state will be used to calculate this plan, but will not be
persisted to local or remote state storage.

Here, terraform plan fails because my MFA session has expired. I re-run aws_get_session to update my AWS_SESSION_FILE. direnv notices that the file has been updated, and reloads the environment. I can then continue using terraform as normal. As a bonus, in any other shell, the session will also be re-loaded automatically whenever I get a new prompt.