What is JSON Web Token (JWT)?

Gain a clear understanding of JSON Web Token (JWT) fundamentals in 5 minutes.
September 24, 20235 min read
What is JSON Web Token (JWT)?

JSON Web Token (JWT) is widely used in modern web applications and open standards such as OpenID Connect, facilitating authentication and authorization. While the official RFC 7519 serves as an essential reference, it will be challenging for beginners to understand. In this article, we'll focus on the core concepts of JWT and present them in straightforward language with examples.

Why do we need JWT?

Nowadays, it's pretty common to use JSON to exchange data between two parties. Consider a JSON object representing a user:

  "sub": "foo",
  "name": "John Doe"

sub is short for "subject", which is a standard claim in OpenID Connect to represent the user identifier (user ID).

How can we guarantee the integrity of this JSON object? In other words, how can we make sure that the data is not tampered with during the transmission? A common solution is to use digital signatures. For example, we can use public-key cryptography: the server signs the JSON object with its private key, and the client can verify the signature with the server's public key.

In a nutshell, JWT offers a standardized approach to representing the JSON object and its signature.

JWT can also be used to encrypt the JSON object, but it's not the focus of this article.

The format of JWT

Since there are many algorithms for creating digital signatures, it's necessary to specify the algorithm used for JWT signing. This is accomplished by constructing a JSON object:

  "alg": "HS256",
  "typ": "JWT"

alg is short for "algorithm", and typ is short for "type".

Typically, typ is set to JWT in uppercase. For our example, alg is HS256, which stands for HMAC-SHA256 (we'll explain it soon), and indicates we're using this algorithm to create the signature.

Now, we have all the ingredients for a JWT:

  • Header JSON: Algorithm and type
  • Payload JSON: The actual data
  • Signature: The signature encompassing the header and payload

However, certain characters like spaces and line breaks are not friendly to network transmission. Therefore, the header and payload need to be Base64URL-encoded. The typical JWT looks like this:


The . serves as the delimiter.

Let's put everything together and create a JWT:

JSON: {"alg":"HS256","typ":"JWT"}

Base64URL encoded: eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9


JSON: {"sub":"foo","name":"John Doe"}

Base64URL encoded: eyJzdWIiOiJmb28iLCJuYW1lIjoiSm9obiBEb2UifQ


In HMAC-SHA256, the signature is created with a secret:

HMAC-SHA256(base64Url(header) + "." + base64Url(payload), secret)

For instance, with the secret as some-great-secret, the signature becomes: XM-XSs2Lmp76IcTQ7tVdFcZzN4W_WcoKMNANp925Q9g.


The final JWT is:


This valid JWT can be verified by any party possessing the secret.

Choose the signing algorithm

As mentioned earlier, there are various algorithms to create digital signatures. We used HS256 as an example, but it may not be strong enough since the secret must be shared between the parties (e.g. the client and the server).

In real-world scenarios, clients may include public applications like React apps that cannot keep the secret safe. Consequently, the preferred approach involves utilizing public-key cryptography (i.e. asymmetric cryptography) for signing the JWT. Let's start with the most popular algorithm: RSA.


RSA, an asymmetric algorithm, uses a pair of keys: a public key and a private key. The public key is used to verify the signature, while the private key is used for signing.

The header JSON for RSA looks like this:

  "alg": "RS256",
  "typ": "JWT"

RS256 stands for RSA-SHA256, which means the signature is created with the RSA algorithm and SHA256 hash function. You can also use RS384 and RS512 to create signatures with SHA384 and SHA512 hash functions, respectively.

The signature is created with the private key:

RSA-SHA256(base64Url(header) + "." + base64Url(payload), privateKey)

Again, we can assemble these parts to create a JWT, and the final JWT looks like this:


Now, the client can verify the signature without knowing the private key.


Although RSA is widely adopted, it suffers from larger signature sizes, sometimes surpassing the combined size of the header and payload. The Elliptic Curve Digital Signature Algorithm (ECDSA) is another asymmetric algorithm that can create more compact signatures and is more performant.

To generate a private key for ECDSA, we need to choose a curve. This is out of the scope of this article, but you can find more information here.

The header JSON for ECDSA looks like this:

  "alg": "ES256",
  "typ": "JWT"

ES256 stands for ECDSA-SHA256, which means the signature is created with the ECDSA algorithm and SHA256 hash function. You can also use ES384 and ES512 to create signatures with SHA384 and SHA512 hash functions, respectively.

The signature is created with the private key:

ECDSA-SHA256(base64Url(header) + "." + base64Url(payload), privateKey)

The final JWT retains the same structure as RSA but with a significantly shorter signature:


Verify the JWT

Verifying a JWT is straightforward as the reverse process of creating a JWT:

  1. Split the JWT into three parts (header, payload, and signature) using the . delimiter.
  2. Decode the header and payload with Base64URL.
  3. Verify the signature with the algorithm specified in the header and the public key (for asymmetric algorithms).

There are many libraries that are available to assist with JWT verification, such as jose for Node.js and web browsers.


In this article, we briefly explained the core concepts of JWT, alongside the overview on how to create and verify it. Many details remain unexplored, and we'll cover them in future articles.

Logto leverages open standards like JWT and OpenID Connect to secure your apps and APIs with simplified workflows for every developer. If you're interested, you can try it for free (no credit card required).