Step-by-Step Guide: How to Create GitLab SSH Key for Secure Access

In today’s digital landscape, securing your GitLab repositories is paramount. One of the most effective ways to ensure this security is by using SSH keys. This step-by-step guide will walk you through the process of creating an SSH key for GitLab, from understanding the basics to configuring and testing your connection.

Key Takeaways

  • SSH keys provide a secure method for authenticating and accessing GitLab repositories.
  • Preparing your system and verifying existing SSH keys is crucial before generating a new key pair.
  • Both Windows and Unix-based systems have specific commands for generating SSH keys.
  • Adding your SSH key to GitLab involves accessing your account settings and pasting the generated key.
  • Regularly rotating your SSH keys and following best practices enhances the security of your GitLab repositories.

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 kept secure and never shared.

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 not only enhances security but also streamlines your workflow by eliminating the need for repetitive authentication steps.

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 involves installing the necessary tools and verifying if you already have existing SSH keys.

Generating a New SSH Key Pair

Creating a new SSH key pair is a crucial step in securing your GitLab access. Follow this step-by-step guide to generate your SSH keys on different operating systems.

Saving and Securing Your SSH Key

Choosing a Secure Location

When saving your SSH key pair, it’s crucial to choose a secure location. Unless you have a specific reason to use a different path, stick to the default path. Avoid using a network path as it can introduce security vulnerabilities. Your terminal will automatically use the generated SSH key without further input.

Setting a Passphrase

After generating your SSH key pair, you will be prompted to add a passphrase. This step is optional but highly recommended for added security. A passphrase acts as an additional layer of protection, ensuring that even if someone gains access to your private key, they cannot use it without the passphrase.

  1. Open a terminal and run the following command:
    ssh-keygen -p -f /path/to/ssh_key
  2. At the prompts, enter the passphrase and then press Enter.

Remember, do not backup your SSH keys as it creates a vulnerability. If you ever find yourself on a different computer, simply generate a new SSH key pair and upload the public key to GitLab Ultimate. If a computer is lost, delete the public key from your GitLab account to mitigate risks.

Adding Your SSH Key to GitLab

person generating SSH key on computer

To start, log in to 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.

In the settings page, find and click on the SSH Keys tab on the left-hand sidebar. This section is specifically for managing your SSH keys.

Now, open the public key file you generated earlier (usually named or similar). Copy the entire contents of this file. Go back to the GitLab SSH Keys section and paste the copied key into the provided Key box. Optionally, you can add a descriptive title to help you identify this key later. Finally, click the Add Key button to save your new SSH key.

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

Configuring SSH for Custom Directories

Modifying SSH Config File

To configure SSH for custom directories, you need to modify the SSH config file. This file allows you to specify different SSH keys for different hosts. Here’s how you can do it:

  1. Open a terminal and run the following command to start the SSH agent:

    eval $(ssh-agent -s)
  2. Add your private SSH key to the agent:

    ssh-add <directory to private SSH key>
  3. Save these settings in the ~/.ssh/config file. For example:

      PreferredAuthentications publickey
      IdentityFile ~/.ssh/gitlab_com_rsa
    # Private GitLab instance
      PreferredAuthentications publickey
      IdentityFile ~/.ssh/example_com_rsa

Using ssh-add Command

The ssh-add command is used to add private key identities to the SSH agent. This is particularly useful when you have multiple SSH keys stored in different directories. Ensure that the permissions for your SSH keys are correctly set to avoid any issues.

  1. Open a terminal and run the following command to start the SSH agent:

    eval $(ssh-agent -s)
  2. Add your private SSH key to the agent:

    ssh-add <directory to private SSH key>

Remember, if you are using GitLab Premium, you can take advantage of additional security features and support for SSH key management.

Testing Your SSH Connection to GitLab

Running SSH Connection Test

To verify that your SSH key was added correctly, you need to test the connection to your GitLab instance. Use the following command, replacing with your GitLab instance’s hostname:

ssh -T

If everything is set up correctly, you should see a message confirming your successful authentication.

Troubleshooting Common Issues

If you encounter issues, here are some common troubleshooting steps:

  1. Check SSH Host Keys Fingerprint: Ensure you’re connecting to the correct server by verifying the server’s SSH host keys fingerprint. For, refer to the SSH host keys fingerprints documentation.

  2. Verify SSH Key Permissions: Ensure your SSH key has the correct permissions. The private key file should have 600 permissions:

    chmod 600 ~/.ssh/id_rsa
  3. Check SSH Configurations: Make sure your SSH configuration file (~/.ssh/config) is correctly set up. It should include the correct hostname and user.

  4. Review SSH Logs: Check the SSH logs for any error messages. This can provide clues about what might be going wrong.

Pro Tip: It’s a good practice to check the server’s public key to ensure you’re not being targeted by a man-in-the-middle attack. If the public keys don’t match, the SSH connection will fail, alerting you to potential issues.

Cloning a GitLab Repository Using SSH

Copying the SSH URL

To clone your GitLab repository, you first need to obtain the SSH URL. Navigate to your project in GitLab and under the Code section, you will find the SSH URL. Copy this URL as you will need it for the next step.

Executing the Clone Command

With the SSH URL copied, open your terminal or command prompt. Use the following command to clone your repository:

git clone

Replace YOUR_PROJECT with the actual path of your project. If you have set a passphrase for your SSH key, you will be prompted to enter it. Once entered, the cloning process will begin and your repository will be copied to your local machine.

Cloning a repository using SSH ensures a secure connection, protecting your data during transfer.

Maintaining and Rotating SSH Keys

Maintaining and rotating your SSH keys is crucial for ensuring the security of your GitLab account. Regular key rotation 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, and old keys will no longer be valid. This greatly reduces the risk of the keys falling into the wrong hands.

Regular Key Rotation

Regularly rotating your SSH keys is a best practice for maintaining security. Here are the steps to follow:

  1. Generate a new SSH key pair.
  2. Add the new public key to your GitLab account.
  3. Update your local SSH configuration to use the new key.
  4. Remove the old key from your GitLab account.

Revoking Old Keys

If a computer is lost or compromised, simply delete the public key from your GitLab account. This ensures that the old key can no longer be used to access your account. 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.

Keeping your SSH keys up-to-date and secure is a continuous process that requires diligence and regular maintenance.

Best Practices for SSH Key Management

Avoiding Common Mistakes

One of the most common mistakes is not setting a passphrase for your SSH key. Always set a passphrase to add an extra layer of security. Additionally, avoid sharing your private key and never store it in an insecure location.

Enhancing Security Measures

To enhance security, use ED25519 SSH keys, which are more secure and should be available on any system. Regularly update your SSH keys and avoid using the default key settings. Implementing expiration policies for your keys can also greatly reduce the risk of them falling into the wrong hands.

Regularly updating and rotating your SSH keys is crucial for maintaining a secure environment. This practice ensures that even if a key is compromised, it won’t be usable for long.

Regular Key Rotation

Regular key rotation is essential for maintaining security. Set up a schedule to generate new keys and revoke old ones. This practice minimizes the risk of unauthorized access.

Revoking Old Keys

If you suspect that a key has been compromised, revoke it immediately. GitLab makes it easy to manage your keys, so take advantage of this feature to keep your account secure.

By following these best practices, you can securely manage SSH keys, configure Git for SSH, troubleshoot issues, and optimize performance. This complete guide on cloning GitLab repositories using SSH will help you efficiently manage your GitLab operations.

Additional Resources and References

Official GitLab Documentation

For a comprehensive understanding of GitLab’s features and functionalities, the official GitLab documentation is an invaluable resource. It covers everything from basic setup to advanced configurations, including CI/CD variables, offline configuration, and performance troubleshooting.

Community Guides and Tutorials

The GitLab community is a treasure trove of knowledge. You can find numerous step-by-step guides on installing GitLab, resetting the admin password, verifying installation, and enabling GitLab KAS. These guides often include tips on setting language preferences for a personalized interface and adding SSH keys for secure operations.

For those looking to delve deeper, community tutorials often provide insights that go beyond the official documentation, offering practical solutions and real-world examples.


Setting up SSH keys for GitLab is a crucial step in ensuring the security and efficiency of your Git operations. By following this guide, you have learned how to generate an SSH key pair, add the public key to your GitLab account, and configure your local environment for seamless integration. This not only enhances the security of your data transfers but also streamlines your workflow, making it easier to manage your repositories. Remember, the key to a secure GitLab experience lies in keeping your private key safe and regularly updating your keys. Happy coding!

Frequently Asked Questions

What are SSH Keys?

SSH keys are cryptographic keys used to authenticate and secure connections between a client and a server. They consist of a public key, which is shared, and a private key, which is kept secure.

Why use SSH Keys for GitLab?

Using SSH keys for GitLab ensures a secure connection when performing Git operations like clone, fetch, push, and pull. It eliminates the need to enter your username and password each time.

How do I generate an SSH key on Windows?

Open Command Prompt and run the command `ssh-keygen`. Follow the prompts to save the key and optionally set a passphrase for added security.

How do I add my SSH key to GitLab?

Log in to your GitLab account, go to Settings, navigate to the SSH Keys section, and paste your public SSH key into the provided field.

What should I do if I already have an SSH key?

You can verify your existing SSH keys by checking the `~/.ssh` directory on your system. If you already have a key, you can add it to GitLab without generating a new one.

How do I test my SSH connection to GitLab?

Run the command `ssh -T` in your terminal. If the connection is successful, you’ll see a welcome message from GitLab.

How often should I rotate my SSH keys?

It’s good practice to rotate your SSH keys regularly, such as every 6-12 months, to maintain security. Always revoke old keys that are no longer in use.

What are common issues when using SSH keys with GitLab?

Common issues include incorrect key permissions, wrong key format, or not adding the key to the SSH agent. Ensure your key files have the correct permissions and are added to the SSH agent using `ssh-add`.

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