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

In this article, we will provide a comprehensive guide on how to generate and use SSH keys for GitLab. SSH keys are a secure way to authenticate your GitLab account and streamline your workflow by eliminating the need to enter your username and password for every interaction. Whether you are using Windows, macOS, or Linux, this step-by-step guide will walk you through everything you need to know about SSH keys, from generation to management and best practices.

Key Takeaways

  • Understanding the importance and benefits of using SSH keys for GitLab authentication.
  • Step-by-step instructions for generating SSH keys on Windows, macOS, and Linux.
  • How to add and verify your SSH key in GitLab to ensure seamless integration.
  • Best practices for managing and securing your SSH keys, including setting strong passphrases and regular key rotation.
  • Common mistakes to avoid and troubleshooting tips for resolving SSH key issues.

Understanding SSH Keys and Their Importance

What is an SSH Key?

An SSH key pair consists of a public key and a private key. The public key can be distributed and is used to encrypt data, while the private key is kept secure and is used to authenticate a user’s connection to the server. This method ensures that only the holder of the private key can decrypt the data encrypted by the public key.

Why Use SSH Keys for GitLab?

SSH keys provide a more secure method of authentication compared to traditional username and password combinations. Humans often reuse passwords across multiple sites, leading to vulnerabilities. By using SSH keys, you can significantly reduce the risk of human error compromising your access privileges.

Security Benefits of SSH Keys

SSH keys offer several security benefits:

  • Enhanced Security: SSH keys are generally much more secure than passwords.
  • Passwordless Access: Once set up, SSH keys allow for secure, passwordless connections.
  • Reduced Human Error: By eliminating the need for passwords, the chance of human error is greatly reduced.

Using SSH keys for authentication is a step-by-step guide to installing GitLab on Ubuntu 22.04 LTS. Setting up SSH access, generating keys, and copying them to the server ensures a secure, passwordless connection.

Preparing Your System for SSH Key Generation

Before you can generate an SSH key for GitLab, it’s essential to ensure your system is ready. This section will guide you through the necessary preparations for different operating systems, ensuring a smooth setup process.

Generating an SSH Key Pair on Your Computer

person generating SSH key on computer

To work seamlessly with GitLab, you’ll need to generate an SSH key pair on your computer. This process varies slightly depending on your operating system, but the core steps remain the same. Below, we provide detailed instructions for Windows, macOS, and Linux users.

Adding Your SSH Key to GitLab

Accessing GitLab Account Settings

To add your SSH key to GitLab, start by logging into your GitLab account. Once logged in, click on your avatar in the top right corner and select Settings from the dropdown menu. This will take you to your account settings page.

Navigating to the SSH Keys Section

In the account settings, find and click on the SSH Keys tab on the left-hand side. This section is where you will manage your SSH keys.

Pasting Your SSH Key

Now, open the terminal on your computer and copy your public SSH key to the clipboard. If you’re using RSA, you can use the command:

cat ~/.ssh/ | clip

Back in GitLab, paste the SSH key into the Key field. Add a descriptive title to help you identify this key later, then click Add Key. Your SSH key is now added to your GitLab account.

Ensure that you keep your private key secure and never share it with anyone.

Verifying Your SSH Key Configuration

Testing SSH Connection to GitLab

After generating the key, try to sign in to the remote server to accept the fingerprint:


Replace with your GitLab instance’s hostname if different. Verify that your SSH key was added correctly by ensuring you can connect without being prompted for a password.

Troubleshooting Common Issues

If you encounter issues, consider the following steps:

  1. Ensure your SSH key is correctly added to your GitLab profile.
  2. Check the permissions of your SSH key files. They should be readable only by you.
  3. Verify the SSH host keys fingerprint to ensure you’re connecting to the correct server.

Reconfiguring SSH Key if Necessary

If you need to reconfigure your SSH key:

  1. Remove the old key from your GitLab profile.
  2. Generate a new SSH key pair.
  3. Add the new key to your GitLab profile.

It’s a good practice to check the private server’s own public key to make sure you are not being targeted by a man-in-the-middle attack. If anything suspicious happens, you notice it because the job fails (the SSH connection fails when the public keys don’t match).

By following this step-by-step guide, you can ensure your SSH key configuration is correct and secure.

Using Your SSH Key with GitLab Repositories

Cloning a Repository with SSH

To clone a repository using SSH, you need the repository’s SSH URL. You can find this URL on the repository’s GitLab page. Once you have it, open your terminal and run the following command:

 git clone

Replace username and repository with your actual GitLab username and repository name. This method is more secure than using HTTPS because it doesn’t require you to enter your username and password each time.

Pushing Changes with SSH

After making changes to your local repository, you can push them to GitLab using SSH. First, stage your changes and commit them:

 git add .
 git commit -m "Your commit message"

Then, push your changes:

 git push origin main

This command will push your changes to the main branch of the remote repository. Using SSH for this process ensures that your data is securely transmitted.

Pulling Updates with SSH

To keep your local repository up-to-date with the remote repository, you can pull updates using SSH. Simply run:

 git pull origin main

This command fetches and merges changes from the main branch of the remote repository into your local repository. Regularly pulling updates helps you stay in sync with the latest changes and reduces the risk of merge conflicts.

Using SSH keys with GitLab repositories not only enhances security but also streamlines your workflow by eliminating the need for repetitive username and password entries.

Managing Multiple SSH Keys

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 generating, configuring, and switching between multiple SSH keys efficiently.

Generating Multiple Keys

To generate multiple SSH keys, you can follow the same process as creating a single key but with different filenames. Use the -f option to specify a unique name for each key:

ssh-keygen -t rsa -b 4096 -f ~/.ssh/id_rsa_unique

This command will create a new SSH key pair with a unique name, allowing you to manage multiple keys without conflicts.

Configuring SSH Config File

Once you have multiple SSH keys, you’ll need to configure your SSH client to use the correct key for each service. This is done by editing the ~/.ssh/config file. Here’s an example configuration:

  User git
  IdentityFile ~/.ssh/id_rsa_gitlab

  User git
  IdentityFile ~/.ssh/id_rsa_github

This configuration ensures that the correct SSH key is used for each service, making your workflow seamless and efficient.

Switching Between Keys

Switching between SSH keys is straightforward once your SSH config file is set up. Simply use the appropriate hostname in your Git commands. For example, to clone a repository from GitLab, you would use:

git clone

And for GitHub:

git clone

By specifying the hostname, your SSH client will automatically use the correct key, streamlining your development process.

Pro Tip: Keep your SSH keys organized and named clearly to avoid confusion. This will help you maintain a smooth workflow and reduce the risk of errors.

Best Practices for SSH Key Security

Setting a Strong Passphrase

A strong passphrase is your first line of defense. Ensure your passphrase is complex, combining letters, numbers, and special characters. Avoid using easily guessable information like birthdays or common words. This will make it significantly harder for unauthorized users to gain access.

Regularly Rotating Keys

Regularly rotating your SSH keys is a crucial practice. This involves generating new keys periodically and updating them in your systems. This greatly reduces the risk of the keys falling into the wrong hands. Aim to rotate your keys every few months to maintain optimal security.

Storing Keys Securely

Store your SSH keys in a secure location. Avoid keeping them in easily accessible directories or sharing them over insecure channels. Use encrypted storage solutions if possible. This ensures that even if someone gains access to your system, they won’t easily find your keys.

Separation of keys: maintain separate SSH keys for regular access and signing. This separation ensures that keys used for sensitive operations like signing are not exposed to unnecessary risks.

Using ED25519 SSH Keys

It is generally recommended you use ED25519 SSH keys, which are more secure and should be available on any system. However, if you have a good reason to, there are also RSA SSH keys, which would work just as well on GitLab. Although it is recommended you use an SSH key of at least 2048 bits. Do note that by default, a 1024 bit key is generated, so make sure to not use the default.

Revoking and Replacing SSH Keys

Removing an Old SSH Key

To permanently delete an SSH key:

  1. On the left sidebar, select your avatar.
  2. Select Edit profile.
  3. On the left sidebar, select SSH Keys.
  4. Next to the key you want to delete, select Remove ().
  5. Select Delete.

Generating a New SSH Key

If you ever find yourself on a different computer, simply generate a new SSH key pair and upload the public key to GitLab. This ensures that your communications remain secure. Follow these steps to generate a new SSH key:

  1. Open your terminal or Git Bash.
  2. Use the command ssh-keygen -t rsa -b 4096 -C "".
  3. Follow the prompts to save the key and set a passphrase.
  4. Add the new SSH key to your GitLab account by navigating to the SSH Keys section and pasting the public key.

Updating GitLab with New Key

Once you have generated a new SSH key, you need to update your GitLab account:

  1. Navigate to your GitLab account settings.
  2. Go to the SSH Keys section.
  3. Paste your new public key into the provided field.
  4. Click on the Add Key button to save the new key.

Pro Tip: Regularly rotating your SSH keys greatly reduces the risk of the keys falling into the wrong hands. This is a crucial step in maintaining the security of your GitLab repositories.

Automating SSH Key Management

Automating the management of SSH keys can save you a lot of time and effort, especially when dealing with multiple systems or users. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to streamline this process effectively.

Common Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

When working with SSH keys for GitLab, there are several common mistakes that users often make. Understanding these pitfalls and how to avoid them can save you a lot of time and frustration.

Avoiding Weak Passphrases

A weak passphrase can compromise the security of your SSH key. Always use a strong, unique passphrase that combines letters, numbers, and special characters. This ensures that even if your key is exposed, it remains protected.

Preventing Key Exposure

One of the most critical aspects of SSH key management is ensuring that your private key remains private. Never share your private key with anyone and avoid storing it in insecure locations. If you suspect that your key has been exposed, revoke it immediately and generate a new one.

Ensuring Proper Permissions

Incorrect file permissions can lead to unauthorized access to your SSH keys. Make sure that your private key file has the correct permissions set. Typically, this means that only the owner has read and write access. You can set the correct permissions using the following command:

chmod 600 ~/.ssh/id_rsa

Proper permissions are crucial for maintaining the security of your SSH keys and ensuring a smooth workflow.


Setting up 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 an SSH key pair, add it to your GitLab account, and start using it to securely clone, fetch, pull, and push your repositories. Remember, while the process may seem a bit technical at first, it becomes second nature with practice. Always keep your private keys secure and never share them. Happy coding!

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an SSH Key?

An SSH key is a secure access credential used in the SSH (Secure Shell) protocol. It consists of a pair of cryptographic keys that can be used to authenticate a user to an SSH server.

Why use SSH keys for GitLab?

Using SSH keys for GitLab allows for secure, password-less authentication when interacting with GitLab repositories. This improves security and convenience for users.

How do I generate an SSH key pair on Windows?

To generate an SSH key pair on Windows, you can use Git Bash. Open Git Bash and run the command `ssh-keygen -t rsa -b 4096 -C “”`. Follow the prompts to save the key.

How do I add my SSH key to GitLab?

To add your SSH key to GitLab, log in to your GitLab account, navigate to ‘Settings’, then ‘SSH Keys’. Paste your public key into the ‘Key’ field and click ‘Add Key’.

What are the security benefits of using SSH keys?

SSH keys provide a higher level of security than traditional password-based authentication. They are not vulnerable to brute-force attacks and phishing attempts.

Can I use multiple SSH keys with GitLab?

Yes, you can use multiple SSH keys with GitLab. You will need to configure your SSH config file to manage multiple keys and specify which key to use for each connection.

How do I test my SSH connection to GitLab?

To test your SSH connection to GitLab, open a terminal and run the command `ssh -T`. You should see a welcome message from GitLab if the connection is successful.

What should I do if my SSH key is not working?

If your SSH key is not working, ensure that it is correctly added to your GitLab account and that your SSH agent is running. You may also need to check file permissions and troubleshoot network issues.

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