Cross-site request forgery (CSRF) attacks are a type of attack where a website you don’t control tries to send commands to your website, using your customer’s cookies. Today we’re going to look at a few ways you can avoid CSRF attacks, mostly just by being careful about how you design your API.

The basic idea behind a CSRF attack is this; you have a user that uses their browser to login to your website (let’s say “” as an example). Now that same user uses the same browser to visit a malicious website, and that malicious website sends a request to your website. In certain cases, the browser will send cookies for your website along with that request, even though it came from the malicious website. From your server’s perspective, you get an API call from an authenticated user, so you’ll probably end up doing what the malicious site wants you to do.

Fortunately, modern browsers have all sorts of protections in place to prevent this sort of thing. Unfortunately, if you don’t know how these work it can be easy to accidentally bypass those protections. This article is going to give you some practical advice you can use to help avoid that.

Never use GET to modify state

You’re building this website for, and you need an API that will let you send money to a customer by email. No problem, let’s make an endpoint that you can GET and pass some query parameters to in order to send some money. Client side, in a react form, we might do something like:

const onClick = () => {
  ).catch((err) => showErrorMessage(err));

You probably already know this is a bad idea. GET requests should never change state. For one thing, the browser might decide to cache this GET request, so doing this twice on the client might end up only doing it once on the server. Some HTTP clients also assume that GET requests are safe to send again, so a browser or proxy might send this request multiple times if it fails or times out.

But from a security perspective, this is an exceptionally bad idea. A malicious website on could do something like:


Every time a customer who is logged in to your site visits, they’ll see a broken image. Every time they see that broken image, they’ll send $100 to Mr. Evil. This is obviously not a desirable state of affairs.

Now, you might have heard of something called the “same origin policy” and wonder why it doesn’t protect you here? The basic idea behind the same origin policy is that a website from a given “origin” (the domain and port number in the URL) can’t access data from another website. This is true, but there are exceptions to it - a web site is obviously allowed to link to another website, or else the Internet wouldn’t be very useful. Websites are allowed to load scripts and images from other websites - this is how a CDN works. Basically, (to over-simply slightly) the same origin policy is only going to protect you if the request in question was made from a script.

In this case, the browser has no idea that this img tag is anything other than a normal GET request - it’s going to send the request to, and it’s going to send along any cookies for that website. It will probably get back some sort of JSON response, hence the broken image, but’s website is going to end up stealing your customer’s money anyways.

Fortunately, it’s easy to avoid this; just don’t let GET requests modify state.

CSRF Tokens

Let’s pretend it’s 1995, and you’re building a website. You might write an HTML form like this:

<form method="post" action="">
    How much do you want to send:
    <input name="amount" />
    <input name="to" />
  <input type="submit" value="Send my moneys!" />

When you click on that submit button, this is going to send a POST request to, with the amount and to in the body and with a content-type of “application/x-www-form-urlencoded”. If there were some file attachments in this form, it would use “multipart/form-data” instead.

The problem here is that our attacker on can write a page like this:

<form method="post" action="">
  <input name="amount" type="hidden" value="100" />
  <input name="to" type="hidden" value="" />
  <button type="submit">Click here for free money!</button>

This is a little better than the “img” example above, because here at least a user has to click on a button to get their money stolen, and when they click on that button they’re going to get back what to them is probably a gibberish page of JSON data. But, it still lets an attacker execute commands on your server.

You might be surprised that the same origin policy doesn’t protect you here, but again the same origin policy only really applies to scripts, and that “form” tag isn’t one. Part of the problem here is that the same origin policy wasn’t around in the early days of the web, so there were lots of websites that would have been broken if these rules had applied to forms.

(And actually, the same origin policy wouldn’t even protect you here in a script, because a GET or a POST with a form encoding is what’s called a “simple request” from a CORS perspective, and scripts are allowed to make simple requests, they’re just not allowed to read the result. The request will have “” in the “origin” header, and you can set up your server to detect that, but in the default case, most servers will be vulnerable.)

One way to secure yourself here is to use something called a CSRF token. The basic idea is to generate a random token and store it in your user session, then make it so the CSRF token is either submitted by forms in a hidden field or added as an extra “x-csrf-token” header in each API call. Server side, you can check to make sure the CSRF token matches the one stored in the session. Since it should be impossible for an attacker to get the CSRF token (the same origin policy does protect javascript from reading the contents of a response) it makes it much more difficult for an attacker.

Many platforms have CSRF token support built in, so check your platform and see what’s available. For express, csurf is an excellent library for CSRF token suport.

Double submit cookies” is a technique very similar to CSRF if you’re looking for something stateless.

Special care is needed here if your website is on a subdomain, and other websites are available on other subdomains under the same domain. For example if your website is “” and someone else can create a website at “”, either one of your sites can create cookies for “”, so you need to be careful that the cookie you’re reading is really the one you set. In these cases, make sure your cookie is encrypted with a secret only your server knows.

CSRF Tokens and non-browser API clients

One problem with CSRF tokens is that they only work for visitors to your website. If your API is intended to be consumed by a mobile app or a third party application, then these applications will not have access to the CSRF token, so will be unable to use your API.

There are a few ways around this. First, note that really only POST requests with a content-type of “application/x-www-form-urlencoded”, “multipart/form-data”, or “text/plain” need a CSRF token, because of the same origin policy. So you could not require a CSRF token for posts with a content-type of “application/json” (although some would caution against relying on content-type as your only layer of protection against CSRF). Also, if you are using this strategy, pay special attention to endpoints which do not require a body. For example, suppose you have an endpoint for marking a post as “seen”, where the ID of the post is in the URL and you don’t have a body at all. Make sure these endpoints return a 400 if there’s an unexpected body, otherwise they may be vulnerable. Also, if you are using express, beware of bodyParser.urlencoded(). Putting this high up in your middleware stack will make it so all your endpoints accept “application/x-www-form-urlencoded” POST requests.

Another key thing to note is that we’re trying to protect against cross-site request forgery, which relies on the fact that the browser is sending authentication data in a cookie even though a request came from another site. Basic and digest authentication are also possible vectors for CSRF, as the browser will send credentials automatically with each request until the session ends. If a request is authenticated with an “Authentication: Bearer” header, though, or with a custom header, then a CSRF token is not required, as bearer tokens must be set explicitly, and custom headers cannot be sent without JavaScript and thus would be protected by the same origin policy.

Check the origin header

This is perhaps the simplest method of preventing CSRF attacks; if you know what the origin header is supposed to be, check the origin header on your server. All browsers will insert an origin header for cross-domain requests. Just note that browsers (and non-browser clients such as a mobile apps) will not insert an origin header for “same origin” requests, so you should allow requests with no origin header.

Don’t disable the same origin policy

Let’s pretend it’s 2020. We’re going to build our banking website using the JAM stack, because that’s all the rage. We’ll have a static gatsby.js site which we’ll host in an S3 bucket at, and then we’ll have some lambda functions to actually implement our API, which we’ll host behind an API gateway at

Except, when we try this, whenever our client tries to PUT or POST or DELETE, you get back a 403. And when we look in our server logs, all we see is a bunch of OPTIONS requests. What’s is going on?

It turns out we’ve fallen victim to our friend the “same origin policy”. “” and “” are, in fact, two different origins, so when a script from one tries to POST with content-type “application/json” to the other, the browser does what’s called a “Cross Origin Resource Sharing (CORS) preflight” request - it sends an “OPTIONS” request to with an “origin:” header to check and see if wants to allow this request.

That’s right - all these cases where we wanted the same origin polciy to protect us, it did nothing. Now, the first time we come across it actually working, it’s getting in our way.

So we hop on stack overflow, and they tell us to try this (example in express.js, and taken from a real product, but hopefully this is easy enough to read even if this is not your lingua franca):

app.use(function (req, res, next) {
    res.header('Access-Control-Allow-Origin', '*'); // NEVER EVER DO THIS!
    res.header('Access-Control-Allow-Credentials': 'true');
    res.header('Access-Control-Max-Age', 60 * 60 * 24 * 30);

    // Intercept OPTIONS method
    if (req.method === 'OPTIONS') {
        return res.sendStatus(200);
    } else {
        return next();

And this works! But there’s two problems here. First, we took security advice from stack overflow, and sadly this rarely goes well. Second, we’ve just disabled the same origin policy for our whole API. We’ve told the browser to let any other site access the API, so now doesn’t even need to mess around with IMG tags or forms, they can write a script tag like this:

  fetch("", {
    method: "POST",
    headers: { "content-type": "application/json" },
    body: JSON.stringify({ amount: 100, to: "" }),

Same origin policy would have prevented this, but we disabled it, so now evilcorp can steal all our clients’ money, yet again. (Hope we have good insurance!)

To protect against this; if you do need to allow cross-domain requests, instead of allowing access to “*”, pick a whitelist of origins that are allowed to access your API and only allow those in. This means you need to check the “origin” header that the client sends, and if it’s one that should be allowed, add the following headers to your reply:

Access-Control-Allow-Credentials: true
Vary: Origin

Note the Vary: Origin which tells the browser that headers might change depending on what origin is making the request.

If you’re writing an express.js app, check out the cors package, which will let you whitelist a specific origin, or even let you call a function to check an origin dynamically. (But make sure you pass in an origin option, because sadly the default here is to allow any origin.)

Notice that a CSRF token would have protected us here, too, if we applied it to all content-types.

Write negative test cases

When you’re writing test cases for your API, CSRF attacks are often overlooked. But I’ve seen a junior developer check in a change with the comment “We keep seeing these OPTIONS requests failing in the logs. Not sure what these are, but let’s clean up the errors by just always returning 200 for OPTIONS.”

If you’re familiar with how CORS works, that’s a pretty face-palm worthy sort of change.

Write some test cases that try sending an OPTIONS request to your API with an `origin:” header, and make sure you get back an error, or at least don’t get back an “Access-Control-Allow-Origin” header. Try sending data encoded as “application/x-www-form-urlencoded” to an endpoint that is expecting “application/json” (or to an endpoint that doesn’t expect a body) and make sure this fails.

Once you’ve read this article, you know the “rules” for safely handling these requests, but don’t assume everyone who works on your code base will (or even that you’ll remember them a year after reading this); make the rules explicit with tests.

Use SameSite cookies

One thing you might be wondering - when sends a request to, why are the cookies being sent at all? Doesn’t this seem very insecure by design? Well, there’s a relatively new standard called “SameSite” cookies which will stop those cookies from being sent. When you set your session cookie, set it with:

Set-Cookie: session=blahblahblah; SameSite=Lax


Set-Cookie: session=blahblahblah; SameSite=Strict

“Strict” will make it so the cookie is never sent, unless the site that set the cookie is the one in the URL bar. One problem with “Strict” is that it affects links - if you click on a link in an email that takes you to, then SameSite=Strict cookies for will not be sent, so it will look as if the user is logged out. “Lax” makes these top-level type links work. Ideally you’d want a one cookie for display content that was Lax, and one cookie for API calls that was strict.

This is a fairly recent standard. According to, currently about 92.3% of browsers support it, so this will protect the majority of your users, but ideally you should use other forms of protection as well.

Also, if you are trying to do cross-site requests, like our example above calling from to, then same-site cookies may cause you some trouble. If you do need to do cross-domain requests like this, in fact, you may want to set:

Set-Cookie: session=blahblahblah; SameSite=None

as future browsers may start treating a missing “SameSite” directive the same as “Lax” by default in the near future.

Require re-authentication for especially destructive operations

If you have an especially destructive operation, such as deleting an account or sending all of your money to the Cayman Islands, consider requiring your user to re-authenticate. If the password is a required field in the request, then a CSRF attack can’t succeed, since the attacking website has no way of knowing the user’s password.


To wrap up:

  • Never modify state in a GET request.
  • If you can, don’t accept content-types of “application/x-www-form-urlencoded”, “multipart/form-data”, or “text/plain”.
  • If you have to accept these content types, use a CSRF token or double submit cookie. Even if you’re just using application/json, consider requiring a CSRF token, because being overly cautious is better than not.
  • If you know what origin requests are supposed to come from, check the origin header on the server.
  • If you don’t need to do cross-site requests, use SameSite cookies.
  • If you need to do CORS, make sure you don’t enable CORS for all origins, even if Stack Overflow tells you this is fine.
  • Verify your site is secure with negative test cases.