How to Create an SSH Key for GitLab: A Step-by-Step Guide

Creating an SSH key for GitLab is a fundamental step to securely connect and manage your repositories. This guide will walk you through the process of generating, adding, and using SSH keys across different operating systems, ensuring a seamless and secure GitLab experience.

Key Takeaways

  • Understanding the importance of SSH keys in securing GitLab connections.
  • Step-by-step instructions for generating SSH keys on Windows, macOS, and Linux.
  • How to add and verify your SSH key in your GitLab account.
  • Best practices for managing multiple SSH keys and ensuring their security.
  • Troubleshooting common issues encountered during SSH key setup.

Understanding SSH Keys and Their Importance

What are SSH Keys?

In order to communicate over SSH (Secure Shell), you must have an SSH key pair. Each SSH key pair has a public and a private key.

  • Public Key – Can be used to encrypt data in such a way so only the holder of the corresponding private key can decrypt it.
  • Private Key – Can be used as proof of identity, and is used to authenticate a user’s connection to the server.

The public key can be distributed freely, while the private key should be protected and kept secret. It is not possible to reveal confidential data by uploading your public key. When you need to copy or upload your SSH public key, make sure you do not accidentally copy or upload your private key instead.

Why Use SSH Keys for GitLab?

Aside from the comfort provided by not having to submit your username and password for each action you take, SSH keys are generally much more secure than a username and password. Humans aren’t very good at remembering a large number of secure passwords so they tend to reuse passwords over multiple sites, resulting in many vulnerabilities. No system connected to the internet is truly secure, but with an SSH key you greatly reduce the chance of human error giving away your access privileges.

Using SSH keys for GitLab enhances security and streamlines your workflow by eliminating the need for repetitive password entries.

Prerequisites for Creating an SSH Key for GitLab

Before you can create an SSH key for GitLab, there are a few prerequisites you need to meet. Ensuring you have the right tools and a properly set up environment will make the process smoother and more efficient.

Generating an SSH Key Pair on Windows

Using Command Prompt

To generate an SSH key pair on Windows using Command Prompt, follow these steps:

  1. Open Command Prompt: Press Win + R, type cmd, and hit Enter.
  2. Run the ssh-keygen command: Type ssh-keygen -t ed25519 -C "" and press Enter. You can replace ed25519 with rsa -b 2048 if you prefer RSA keys.
  3. Save the key: When prompted to "Enter file in which to save the key", press Enter to accept the default file location.
  4. Set a passphrase: You will be asked to enter a passphrase. This is optional but recommended for added security.

Note: The -C flag is used to add a comment, typically your email address, to the key. This is useful for identifying the key later.

Using Git Bash

If you prefer using Git Bash, the process is quite similar:

  1. Open Git Bash: Right-click on your desktop and select Git Bash Here.
  2. Run the ssh-keygen command: Type ssh-keygen -t ed25519 -C "" and press Enter. Again, you can use rsa -b 2048 for an RSA key.
  3. Save the key: When prompted, press Enter to accept the default file location.
  4. Set a passphrase: Enter a passphrase for added security, or press Enter to skip this step.

Tip: Using Git Bash can be more convenient if you are already working within a Git environment, as it provides a Unix-like terminal experience on Windows.

By following these steps, you can easily generate an SSH key pair on Windows, whether you prefer Command Prompt or Git Bash. This key pair will be essential for securely connecting to your GitLab repositories, especially if you are using GitLab Ultimate.

Generating an SSH Key Pair on macOS

Creating an SSH key pair on macOS is a straightforward process that can be accomplished using the Terminal application. This section will guide you through the necessary steps to generate both ED25519 and RSA SSH keys, ensuring you have a secure connection to your GitLab account.

Generating an SSH Key Pair on Linux

Creating an SSH key pair on Linux is a straightforward process that can be done using the Terminal. This guide will walk you through the steps to generate both ED25519 and RSA key pairs, and address some common issues you might encounter along the way.

Adding Your SSH Key to Your GitLab Account

To start using SSH keys with GitLab, you need to add your public key to your GitLab account. This process is straightforward and ensures that your connection to GitLab is secure.

Navigating to GitLab Settings

First, log in to your GitLab account. Once logged in, click on your avatar in the top right corner and select Settings from the drop-down menu. In the settings page, find and click on the SSH Keys option.

Pasting Your SSH Key

After navigating to the SSH Keys section, you will see a field to paste your public SSH key. Open your terminal and copy your public SSH key using the following command:

cat ~/.ssh/ | clip

This command copies the SSH key in text form to your clipboard. Go back to the GitLab SSH Keys page, paste the key into the provided field, and add a descriptive title. Finally, click on the Add Key button to save your key.

Ensure that you keep your private key secure and never share it with anyone. Your public key can be shared freely, but the private key should remain confidential.

Verifying Your SSH Key Configuration

Testing the Connection

After generating your SSH key and adding it to your GitLab account, it’s crucial to verify that the connection works correctly. Open your terminal and use the following command to test the connection:

ssh -T

If everything is set up correctly, you should see a message like:

Welcome to GitLab, @your_username!

This confirms that your SSH key is correctly configured and recognized by GitLab.

Troubleshooting Connection Issues

If you encounter issues while testing the connection, here are some common troubleshooting steps:

  1. Check your SSH key: Ensure that your SSH key is correctly added to your SSH agent. You can list the keys added to your agent with:

    ssh-add -l
  2. Verify the SSH key on GitLab: Make sure that the correct public key is added to your GitLab account. You can view the keys in your GitLab profile settings under SSH Keys.

  3. Inspect your SSH config file: Sometimes, the SSH configuration file (~/.ssh/config) might need adjustments. Ensure it includes the correct settings:

      AddKeysToAgent yes
      IdentityFile ~/.ssh/id_rsa
  4. Check for typos: Simple typographical errors can cause connection issues. Double-check the hostname and username in your SSH command.

  5. Firewall and Network Issues: Ensure that your network or firewall settings are not blocking SSH connections to GitLab.

Pro Tip: If you’re using GitLab Premium, you have access to additional support and features that can help resolve SSH key issues more efficiently.

By following these steps, you should be able to troubleshoot and resolve most SSH connection issues with GitLab.

Using Your SSH Key with GitLab Repositories

Once you have your SSH key set up and added to your GitLab account, you can start using it to interact with your repositories. This section will guide you through the essential tasks of cloning a repository and pushing or pulling changes using your SSH key.

Managing Multiple SSH Keys

person generating SSH key on computer with multiple keys around

Managing multiple SSH keys can be a bit tricky, but it’s essential for those who work with different repositories or services. This section will guide you through configuring SSH for multiple keys and switching between them efficiently.

Configuring SSH for Multiple Keys

To manage multiple SSH keys, you need to configure your SSH client to recognize and use the correct key for each service. This is done by editing the ~/.ssh/config file. Here’s a step-by-step guide to setting it up:

  1. Open your terminal and navigate to the .ssh directory:
    cd ~/.ssh
  2. Open or create the config file in a text editor:
    nano config
  3. Add the following configuration for each key:
        User git
        IdentityFile ~/.ssh/id_rsa_gitlab
        User git
        IdentityFile ~/.ssh/id_rsa_github
  4. Save and close the file.

This configuration tells your SSH client which key to use when connecting to each host. It’s a step-by-step guide to installing GitLab on Ubuntu 22.04 LTS.

Switching Between Keys

Switching between SSH keys is straightforward once you have your config file set up. When you connect to a service, your SSH client will automatically use the correct key based on the host configuration. If you need to switch keys manually, you can specify the key file using the -i option:

ssh -i ~/.ssh/id_rsa_other user@hostname

This command will use the specified key for the connection, overriding the config file settings.

Managing multiple SSH keys ensures that your SSH communications remain secure and organized, especially when dealing with various repositories and services.

By following these steps, you can efficiently manage multiple SSH keys and ensure secure, passwordless access to your GitLab and other services.

Best Practices for SSH Key Security

Ensuring the security of your SSH keys is crucial for maintaining the integrity of your GitLab repositories. Here are some best practices to follow:

Keeping Your Private Key Safe

Your private key is the cornerstone of your SSH security. Never share your private key with anyone. Store it in a secure location on your local machine, and consider using a hardware security module (HSM) for added protection.

Regularly Updating Your SSH Keys

To minimize the risk of your keys falling into the wrong hands, set up expiration policies. This means generating new keys periodically and revoking old ones. This practice greatly reduces the risk of unauthorized access.

Implement passphrases for SSH keys. Passphrases encrypt the private key, adding an additional layer of security. This helps prevent unauthorized access even if the private key is compromised.

Revoking and Removing SSH Keys from GitLab

Managing your SSH keys is crucial for maintaining the security of your GitLab account. If you ever find yourself on a different computer, simply generate a new SSH key pair and upload the public key to GitLab. If a computer is lost, simply delete the public key from your GitLab account and all is well. Do not backup your SSH keys as the only thing that does is create a vulnerability. As a rule, creating new keys and revoking old ones is a lot less painful than dealing with the fallout of a leaked SSH key pair.


Creating an SSH key for your GitLab account is a straightforward process that significantly enhances the security and efficiency of your Git operations. By following the steps outlined in this guide, you can generate a secure SSH key pair, add it to your GitLab account, and configure your local environment for seamless authentication. This not only eliminates the need for repetitive username and password prompts but also ensures a more secure connection to your repositories. Whether you’re a seasoned developer or new to GitLab, setting up SSH keys is an essential skill that will streamline your workflow and bolster your project’s security.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an SSH key?

An SSH key is a pair of cryptographic keys used to authenticate a user on a network. It consists of a public key and a private key.

Why should I use SSH keys for GitLab?

Using SSH keys for GitLab provides a secure way to authenticate and interact with your repositories without needing to enter your username and password repeatedly.

How do I generate an SSH key on Windows?

You can generate an SSH key on Windows using either Command Prompt or Git Bash. Use the command `ssh-keygen` and follow the prompts to create your key pair.

How do I add my SSH key to my GitLab account?

Log in to your GitLab account, navigate to Settings, and then to the SSH Keys section. Paste your public key into the provided field and save it.

What should I do if I encounter issues while generating an SSH key on macOS?

If you encounter issues, ensure you are using the correct Terminal commands and that your system is updated. Refer to the common issues and fixes section in our guide for more help.

Can I use multiple SSH keys with GitLab?

Yes, you can configure SSH to handle multiple keys by editing your SSH config file to specify which key to use for each GitLab repository.

How can I ensure the security of my SSH keys?

Keep your private key secure by not sharing it and storing it in a safe location. Regularly update your SSH keys and use strong, unique passphrases.

How do I revoke or remove an SSH key from my GitLab account?

Navigate to the SSH Keys section in your GitLab account settings, find the key you want to revoke or remove, and click the corresponding delete or revoke button.

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