An important and unique property of quantum key distribution is the ability of the two communicating users to detect the presence of any third party trying to gain knowledge of the key. This results from a fundamental aspect of quantum mechanics: the process of measuring a quantum system in general disturbs the system. A third party trying to eavesdrop on the key must in some way measure it, thus introducing detectable anomalies. By using quantum superpositions or quantum entanglement and transmitting information in quantum states, a communication system can be implemented that detects eavesdropping. If the level of eavesdropping is below a certain threshold, a key can be produced that is guaranteed to be secure (i.e., the eavesdropper has no information about it), otherwise no secure key is possible and communication is aborted. The security of encryption that uses quantum key distribution relies on the foundations of quantum mechanics, in contrast to traditional public key cryptography, which relies on the computational difficulty of certain mathematical functions, and cannot provide any mathematical proof as to the actual complexity of reversing the one-way functions used. QKD has provable security based on information theory, and forward secrecy.

Quantum communication involves encoding information in quantum states, or qubits, as opposed to classical communication's use of bits. Usually, photons are used for these quantum states. Quantum key distribution exploits certain properties of these quantum states to ensure its security. There are several different approaches to quantum key distribution, but they can be divided into two main categories depending on which property they exploit. Prepare and measure protocols In contrast to classical physics, the act of measurement is an integral part of quantum mechanics. In general, measuring an unknown quantum state changes that state in some way. This is a consequence of quantum indeterminacy and can be exploited in order to detect any eavesdropping on communication (which necessarily involves measurement) and, more importantly, to calculate the amount of information that has been intercepted. Entanglement based protocols The quantum states of two (or more) separate objects can become linked together in such a way that they must be described by a combined quantum state, not as individual objects. This is known as entanglement and means that, for example, performing a measurement on one object affects the other. If an entangled pair of objects is shared between two parties, anyone intercepting either object alters the overall system, revealing the presence of the third party (and the amount of information they have gained). These two approaches can each be further divided into three families of protocols: discrete variable, continuous variable and distributed phase reference coding. Discrete variable protocols were the first to be invented, and they remain the most widely implemented. The other two families are mainly concerned with overcoming practical limitations of experiments. The two protocols described below both use discrete variable coding.