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

SSH keys provide a secure and efficient way to authenticate with GitLab, allowing you to perform Git operations without repeatedly entering your username and password. This guide will walk you through the process of generating, adding, and managing SSH keys for GitLab, ensuring a seamless and secure workflow.

Key Takeaways

  • SSH keys enhance security and streamline authentication with GitLab.
  • You can generate SSH keys using tools like Git Bash, Terminal, or PowerShell.
  • Adding your SSH key to GitLab involves copying the key and pasting it into your account settings.
  • It’s crucial to verify your SSH key setup to ensure proper connection to GitLab.
  • Regularly updating and managing your SSH keys helps maintain security.

Understanding SSH Keys and Their Importance

What Are SSH Keys?

SSH keys are a pair of cryptographic keys used to authenticate and secure communication over the SSH (Secure Shell) protocol. Each pair consists of a public key and a private key. The public key can be shared freely, while the private key must be kept secure. The public key encrypts data in such a way that only the holder of the corresponding private key can decrypt it. Conversely, the private key can be used as proof of identity, authenticating a user’s connection to a server.

Why Use SSH Keys for GitLab?

Using SSH keys for GitLab offers several advantages. Firstly, it eliminates the need to repeatedly enter your username and password for each action, providing a more seamless experience. Secondly, SSH keys are generally more secure than traditional passwords. Humans often reuse passwords across multiple sites, which can lead to vulnerabilities. With SSH keys, you significantly reduce the risk of human error compromising your access privileges.

SSH vs HTTPS for GitLab

When interacting with GitLab repositories, you have the option to use either SSH or HTTPS. While HTTPS requires you to enter your username and password for each interaction, SSH uses cryptographic keys for authentication, making it more secure and convenient. Additionally, SSH is particularly beneficial for users of GitLab Ultimate, as it supports advanced features and integrations that enhance security and productivity.

Note: Always ensure that your private key is kept secure and never shared. The public key can be distributed without any risk of exposing confidential data.

Preparing Your System for SSH Key Generation

person generating SSH key on computer

Installing Git Bash on Windows

To get started with SSH keys on Windows, you’ll need to install Git Bash. This tool provides a Unix-like terminal environment, making it easier to run Git commands. Follow these steps:

  1. Download the Git Bash installer from the official Git website.
  2. Run the installer and follow the on-screen instructions.
  3. Once installed, open Git Bash from the Start menu.

Using Terminal on macOS and Linux

For macOS and Linux users, the Terminal application is already available. Simply open Terminal from your Applications folder or use the shortcut Ctrl + Alt + T on Linux. This will allow you to run the necessary commands to generate and manage SSH keys.

Checking for Existing SSH Keys

Before generating a new SSH key, it’s important to check if you already have one. Open your terminal and run the following command:

ls -al ~/.ssh

This command lists the files in your .ssh directory. Look for files named id_rsa or id_ed25519. If these files exist, you already have an SSH key pair. If not, you’ll need to generate a new one.

Note: If you’re using GitLab Premium, you can manage multiple SSH keys for different projects and accounts, making it easier to switch between them.

Generating a New SSH Key Pair

To work with GitLab securely, you’ll need to generate a new SSH key pair. This section will guide you through the process of creating both ED25519 and RSA SSH keys, and how to save them properly.

Adding Your SSH Key to GitLab

Accessing GitLab Settings

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

Navigating to SSH Keys Section

In the settings page, find and click on the SSH Keys tab on the left-hand side. This section is where you will manage your SSH keys. If you have previously added keys, they will be listed here.

Pasting Your SSH Key

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

cat ~/.ssh/ | clip

Once copied, go back to the SSH Keys section in GitLab. Paste your SSH key into the Key field. Add a descriptive title to help you identify the key later, then click the Add Key button. Your SSH key is now added to your GitLab account.

Ensure that you keep your private SSH key secure and never share it with anyone. The public key is safe to share and is what you add to GitLab.

Verifying Your SSH Key Setup

Testing SSH Connection to GitLab

To ensure your SSH key is correctly set up, you need to test the connection to GitLab. Open your terminal and run the following command:

ssh -T

If everything is configured properly, you should see a message like:

Welcome to GitLab, @your_username!

This confirms that your SSH key is working correctly. If you encounter any issues, proceed to the troubleshooting section.

Troubleshooting Common Issues

If your SSH connection fails, here are some common issues and their solutions:

  • Permission Denied (publickey): This usually means GitLab can’t find your SSH key. Ensure your key is added to the SSH agent and uploaded to GitLab.
  • Host Key Verification Failed: This indicates a potential man-in-the-middle attack. Verify the server’s public key fingerprint.
  • Connection Timed Out: Check your network connection and firewall settings.

Re-adding SSH Key if Necessary

If you need to re-add your SSH key, follow these steps:

  1. Remove the existing key from GitLab by navigating to your SSH Keys settings and deleting the old key.

  2. Generate a new SSH key if necessary.

  3. Add the new key to your SSH agent using the following command:

    ssh-add ~/.ssh/id_rsa
  4. Upload the new key to GitLab by pasting it into the SSH Keys section of your account settings.

If you continue to experience issues, consider consulting GitLab’s documentation or seeking help from their support team.

Using SSH Keys with GitLab Repositories

Cloning a Repository with SSH

To clone a repository using SSH, you need to use the SSH URL provided by GitLab. This URL can be found on the repository’s main page. Using SSH eliminates the need to enter your username and password repeatedly, making the process more efficient.

  1. Navigate to the repository you want to clone.
  2. Click on the ‘Clone’ button and select the SSH option.
  3. Copy the SSH URL.
  4. Open your terminal and run the following command:
$ git clone

Fetching and Pulling with SSH

Fetching and pulling changes from a GitLab repository using SSH is straightforward. These commands allow you to keep your local repository up-to-date with the remote repository.

  • Fetching: This command downloads objects and refs from another repository.
$ git fetch
  • Pulling: This command fetches from and integrates with another repository or a local branch.
$ git pull

Pushing Changes with SSH

When you are ready to share your changes with others, you can push your commits to the GitLab repository using SSH. This ensures that your changes are securely transmitted.

  1. Add your changes to the staging area:
$ git add .
  1. Commit your changes with a meaningful message:
$ git commit -m "Your commit message"
  1. Push your changes to the remote repository:
$ git push

Using SSH keys with GitLab not only enhances security but also streamlines your workflow by reducing the need for repetitive authentication steps.

Managing Multiple SSH Keys

Managing multiple SSH keys can be a bit tricky, but with the right approach, it becomes straightforward. This section will guide you through the process of using SSH config files, specifying keys for different accounts, and switching between SSH keys efficiently.

Keeping Your SSH Keys Secure

Setting a Strong Passphrase

When generating your SSH key, it’s crucial to set a strong passphrase. A strong passphrase adds an extra layer of security to your SSH key, making it harder for unauthorized users to gain access. Aim for a passphrase that is at least 12 characters long and includes a mix of letters, numbers, and special characters.

Backing Up Your SSH Keys

While it’s generally advised not to back up your SSH keys to avoid creating vulnerabilities, there are secure ways to do so. Use encrypted storage solutions to keep your backups safe. If you ever find yourself on a different computer, simply generate a new SSH key pair and upload the public key to GitLab.

Revoking Compromised Keys

If you suspect that your SSH key has been compromised, revoke it immediately. Go to your GitLab account settings and delete the compromised public key. This will prevent unauthorized access and allow you to generate a new, secure key pair.

Mismanaged SSH keys can lead to critical security breaches. Always be vigilant and proactive in managing your keys.

Automating SSH Key Management

Automating the management of your SSH keys can save you a lot of time and effort, especially when dealing with multiple servers or accounts. Here are some ways to streamline this process effectively.

Using SSH Agents

SSH agents are programs that hold your private keys in memory, allowing you to use them without re-entering your passphrase each time. This is particularly useful for frequent Git operations. To start the SSH agent, use the following command:

ssh-agent -s

Then, add your private key to the agent:

ssh-add ~/.ssh/id_rsa

Configuring SSH Keys for CI/CD

When using CI/CD pipelines, SSH keys can be a more secure choice for authenticating your GitLab account. Follow these steps to set it up:

  1. Create a new SSH key pair locally with ssh-keygen.
  2. Add the private key as a file type CI/CD variable to your project. The variable value must end in a newline (LF character).
  3. Run the ssh-agent in the job, which loads the private key.
  4. Copy the public key to the servers you want to have access to or add it as a deploy key.

Automating Key Rotation

To enhance security, it’s a good practice to periodically rotate your SSH keys. This can be automated using scripts or tools that generate new keys and update them across all relevant systems. This greatly reduces the risk of the keys falling into the wrong hands.

Automating key rotation is a crucial step in maintaining a secure and efficient SSH key management system.

Best Practices for SSH Key Management

Regularly Updating Your Keys

To maintain the security of your SSH communications, it’s crucial to regularly update your keys. This practice helps mitigate the risk of your keys falling into the wrong hands. As an admin, you may want to set up expiration policies, so that new keys need to be generated periodically.

Monitoring SSH Key Usage

Monitoring key usage is essential for maintaining a secure environment. By keeping an eye on how and when keys are used, you can quickly identify any suspicious activity. This proactive approach helps in gaining holistic visibility over your SSH key management.

Educating Team Members on SSH Key Security

Ensuring that all team members are educated on SSH key security is vital. Conduct regular training sessions to inform them about best practices and the importance of keeping their keys secure. This not only helps in preventing security breaches but also fosters a culture of security within the team.

There are many things you could do in order to make your SSH communications more secure, but most of them are done from the server side, not the client side.


Setting up SSH keys for your GitLab account is an essential step for ensuring secure and efficient interactions with your repositories. By following the steps outlined in this guide, you can generate, add, and manage your SSH keys with ease. Whether you’re using Git Bash, PowerShell, or a Linux terminal, the process is straightforward and well-supported by GitLab’s documentation. Remember, using SSH keys not only enhances security but also streamlines your workflow by eliminating the need for repetitive username and password prompts. Happy coding!

Frequently Asked Questions

What are SSH keys?

SSH keys are a pair of cryptographic keys used to authenticate a user or device in a secure manner. They consist of a private key, which is kept secret, and a public key, which can be shared.

Why should I use SSH keys for GitLab?

Using SSH keys for GitLab provides a secure way to connect and authenticate without needing to enter your username and password each time. It also supports automated processes and CI/CD pipelines.

How do I generate an SSH key on Windows?

You can generate an SSH key on Windows by using Git Bash or PuTTY. Open Git Bash and run the command `ssh-keygen -t ed25519 -C “[email protected]”` to create a new ED25519 SSH key.

How do I add my SSH key to GitLab?

Log into your GitLab account, go to Settings, navigate to the SSH Keys section, and paste your public SSH key into the Key field. Add a descriptive title and click Add Key.

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

First, ensure that your SSH key is correctly added to GitLab. Test your SSH connection using `ssh -T [email protected]`. If issues persist, check for typos and verify that your SSH agent is running.

Can I use multiple SSH keys with GitLab?

Yes, you can manage multiple SSH keys by using an SSH config file. This allows you to specify different keys for different GitLab accounts or repositories.

How do I keep my SSH keys secure?

Set a strong passphrase for your private key, regularly update your keys, back them up securely, and revoke any keys that may be compromised.

What is the difference between SSH and HTTPS for GitLab?

SSH uses cryptographic keys for authentication, providing a more secure and automated way to interact with GitLab. HTTPS requires entering a username and password, which can be less convenient and secure.

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