This might be a noob question, but I couldn't find its answer anywhere online: why does an OpenSSL generated 256-bit AES key have 64 characters? The command I'm using to generate the key is:

$ openssl enc -aes-256-cbc -k secret -P -md sha1
iv =5C7CB13DBDA69B2C091E0D5E95943627

I thought I could just read the key string and base64 decode it to get a 256-bit AES key, but that didn't work because 64 characters turned into a 384-bit byte array after decoding.

/* read keyString from config... */
byte[] secretKey = Base64.getDecoder().decode(keyString);
Preconditions.checkArgument(secretKey.length == 32,
            "Length of secretKey is %s-bit instead of 256-bit: %s",secretKey.length * 8, config.getSecretKey());
SecretKeySpec secretKeySpec = new SecretKeySpec(secretKey, "AES");

If I'm doing math correctly, a 256-bit key should be 41 characters in length after base64 encoding. Am I missing something obvious here?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Perfect example of a good question; You state the basic question, provide a code sample, and state why your findings prompt the question. $\endgroup$
    – Signal15
    Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 13:22
  • $\begingroup$ As answered, this is hex not b64, but b64 of 256bits would be 43 or 44 characters depending whether padding is used (like the traditional b64 in PEM, MIME, and XMLdsig/enc) or not (like the 'url-safe' b64 in JSON). OpenSSL in particular uses the PEM style of b64 (with padding). $\endgroup$ Commented May 28, 2021 at 23:21

1 Answer 1


The key is hexadecimal. So every two characters makes up one hexadecimal byte, which brings the length down to 32 actual bytes. There are 8 bits per bytes, so 8*32 = 256.

  • $\begingroup$ Addition, for additional clarity: each of the 64 hexadecimal character encodes 4 bits. 64×4=256 bits, the key size. $\endgroup$
    – fgrieu
    Commented May 28, 2021 at 19:32

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