How to login to multiple AWS accounts using one primary account

George Boot


Most SAAS platforms allow you to create multiple users within an organisation these days, which comes in very useful when you manage multiple accounts. For me personally, I manage not only the accounts from my work, but also the ones from my own side projects. On most SAAS sites, I simply create a second organisation for my side projects and add my user to it. This way, I have to remember only one account, but can access multiple profiles.

Unfortunately, AWS does not support this behaviour. Yes, AWS allows you to create multiple IAM users, but they are basically users within the AWS account. You can not access AWS account 1 using AWS account 2.

Or can you? In fact, it turns out, you totally can! But – as is with many AWS services – it works totally different from what you expect.

IAM Assumed Roles

Meet IAM Assumed Roles. IAM Assumed what? Exactly, that was my first reaction as well. The concept is actually pretty simple, so let me explain.

The whole concept revolves around pretending to be someone, yet officially still being someone else. Some admin panels give admins the options to log-in as a user to debug something. Assumed Roles are basically that. You log-in using Account 1, but should be treated as if you are Account 2.

AWS calls this concept Assumed Roles and they are part of IAM. Where in most of these admin systems a flag like pretend_to_be_user_id will be added to your session, AWS calls this assumed_role. And instead of putting the user account in there, AWS store the role.

This last part is actually quite important in practise: your user ID always remains the same, so audit logs will always show your user name. Only the permissions of your account are temporarily changed. See why AWS named it Assumed roles? You are basically instructing the systems to assume you have a specific role.

Set up your own

Convinced yet? Let's go though the process of setting this up together. It should take 2-3 minutes per account and can easily be undone.

Primary account

First of, let's establish some important names, otherwise we will still go crazy ;-)

Let's pick our Primary Account. For me personally, this is my personal AWS account. This will be the account you always login to and will be used to access the other accounts.

In the next steps we are going to create an access structure so that your Primary Account has access to one or multiple Secondary Accounts.

Lastly, you are going to know the ****Account IDs of the accounts involved. You can find them by loggin in to the account and clicking on your name in the top-right of your screen. Your account ID labelled as *My Account.

Note: root account not supported

Note that you need to have an IAM user on your Primary Account. The below procedure doesn't work with root account. You should anyway not use your root account for day-to-day stuff, so if you aren't using an IAM user yet, this might be the perfect time to start doing so.

Adding a role

Log in to (one of) your Secondary Account, and go to the IAM service. Once there, select the Roles tab on the left.

To add a new role, follow these steps:

  1. From the roles& tab, click *Create Role
  2. Select another AWS account as the type of trusted entity and fill in the Account ID of your primary AWS account
  3. Go to the permissions, and select Administrator Access (or more restricted permissions if you prefer, but this will be the easiest)
  4. On the tags tab, add tags if you want
  5. On the review tab, give the role a kebab-case name. You will need this name later.
  6. Once the role is created, open it up and copy the url ("Give this link to users who can switch roles in the console") as you will also need it later.

You need to run the above steps for each Secondary Account you want to have access to.

Using the role

Now that we have the role created, we can start using it from our Primary Account.

  1. Make sure you are logged in to your Primary Account
  2. Paste the URL you copied in step 6 of the adding process in your browser
  3. Optionally, give the role a display name and/or a colour
  4. Click Switch Role

You should now be logged in as the secondary account you selected. Or to be more precise, AWS added the role you provided as an assumed role to your session.

Once you are done, you can simply click Back to {your user name} in the same menu. You are now once again logged in only to your primary account.

Hot tip: use bookmarks

If you have quite a couple of AWS accounts to take care of (like me) I've found that it is super handy to add bookmarks to all the roles. AWS doesn't really document this feature, but it works nevertheless.

I have the following bookmarks set-up:

  1. Log in to AWS: (alternatively you can use https://{your-primary-account-id} to pre-fill the account ID)
  2. AWS Role: Secondary Account 1:{secondary-account-1-id}&roleName={secondary-account-1-role-name}&displayName=SecondaryAccount1
  3. AWS Role: Secondary Account 2:{secondary-account-2-id}&roleName={secondary-account-2-role-name}&displayName=SecondaryAccount2
  4. AWS Role: Secondary Account 3:{secondary-account-3-id}&roleName={secondary-account-3-role-name}&displayName=SecondaryAccount3
  5. Etc.