Remotes in GitHub


Teaching: 45 min
Exercises: 0 min
  • How do I share my changes with others on the web?

  • Explain what remote repositories are and why they are useful.

  • Push to or pull from a remote repository.

Version control really comes into its own when we begin to collaborate with other people. We already have most of the machinery we need to do this; the only thing missing is to copy changes from one repository to another.

Systems like Git allow us to move work between any two repositories. In practice, though, it’s easiest to use one copy as a central hub, and to keep it on the web rather than on someone’s laptop. Most programmers use hosting services like GitHub, Bitbucket or GitLab to hold those main copies; we’ll explore the pros and cons of this in a later episode.

Let’s start by sharing the changes we’ve made to our current project with the world. To this end we are going to create a remote repository that will be linked to our local repository.

1. Create a remote repository

Log in to GitHub, then click on the icon in the top right corner to create a new repository called planets:

Creating a Repository on GitHub (Step 1)

Name your repository “planets” and then click “Create Repository”.

Note: Since this repository will be connected to a local repository, it needs to be empty. Leave “Initialize this repository with a README” unchecked, and keep “None” as options for both “Add .gitignore” and “Add a license.” See the “GitHub License and README files” exercise below for a full explanation of why the repository needs to be empty.

Creating a Repository on GitHub (Step 2)

As soon as the repository is created, GitHub displays a page with a URL and some information on how to configure your local repository:

Creating a Repository on GitHub (Step 3)

This effectively does the following on GitHub’s servers:

$ mkdir planets
$ cd planets
$ git init

If you remember back to the earlier episode where we added and committed our earlier work on mars.txt, we had a diagram of the local repository which looked like this:

The Local Repository with Git Staging Area

Now that we have two repositories, we need a diagram like this:

Freshly-Made GitHub Repository

Note that our local repository still contains our earlier work on mars.txt, but the remote repository on GitHub appears empty as it doesn’t contain any files yet.

2. Connect local to remote repository

Now we connect the two repositories. We do this by making the GitHub repository a remote for the local repository. The home page of the repository on GitHub includes the URL string we need to identify it:

Where to Find Repository URL on GitHub

The most accepted way of adding remotes uses the SSH protocol. However, this requires you to create a SSH key to be authenticated by the remote server hosting the repository. This procedure is quite complicated and we will use the HTTPS protocol instead. Thus, click on the ‘HTTPS’ link to change the protocol from SSH to HTTPS.

Changing the Repository URL on GitHub

Note: we left the figures with the SSH protocol, but you should use the HTTPS one. Code snippets have been changed to adopt the HTTPS, so you’re safe there.

Copy that URL from the browser, go into the local planets repository, and run this command:

$ git remote add origin

Make sure to use the URL for your repository rather than Vlad’s: the only difference should be your username instead of vlad.

origin is a local name used to refer to the remote repository. It could be called anything, but origin is a convention that is often used by default in git and GitHub, so it’s helpful to stick with this unless there’s a reason not to.

We can check that the command has worked by running git remote -v:

$ git remote -v
origin (fetch)
origin (push)

We’ll discuss remotes in more detail in the next episode, while talking about how they might be used for collaboration.

3. Personal access tokens (PAT)

Personal access tokens (PATs) is the recommended way for authentication to GitHub instead of passwords. Tokens are more flexible than passwords, meaning that a token can be authorized to perform certain operations, but not others. Tokens are also disposable, i.e. when they are not needed anymore they can be easily deleted. To create a token go to Settings -> <> Developer settings -> Personal access tokens -> Generate new token.

Create first token

You have to specify an expiration date of your tokes. For most cases, an expiration date of 1 year is fine. As a security precaution, GitHub automatically removes personal access tokens that haven’t been used in a year.

You can assign scopes to tokens, which define what the token can have access to. A token with no assigned scopes can only access public information. To use your token to access repositories from the command line, select repo.

If you see something similar to the image below, than congratulations! You have created your first token.

Create first token

It is time to use the token. Copy it right away, because it will not be possible to see the token afterwards.

4. Push local changes to a remote

Now that the token is created, we can return to the remote. Before pushing to remote, it’s best to tell git to save the token:

git config credential.helper store

Next, it’s time to push the changes from our local repository to the repository on GitHub:

$ git push origin main

This will ask for a password; simply paste your token and press Enter. Because you tell git to save the token, next time you pull/push to remote, you won’t need to reinsert the token.

Enumerating objects: 16, done.
Counting objects: 100% (16/16), done.
Delta compression using up to 8 threads.
Compressing objects: 100% (11/11), done.
Writing objects: 100% (16/16), 1.45 KiB | 372.00 KiB/s, done.
Total 16 (delta 2), reused 0 (delta 0)
remote: Resolving deltas: 100% (2/2), done.
 * [new branch]      main -> main

The ‘-u’ Flag

You may see a -u option used with git push in some documentation. This option is synonymous with the --set-upstream-to option for the git branch command, and is used to associate the current branch with a remote branch so that the git pull command can be used without any arguments. To do this, simply use git push -u origin main once the remote has been set up.

We can pull changes from the remote repository to the local one as well:

$ git pull origin main
 * branch            main     -> FETCH_HEAD
Already up-to-date.

Pulling has no effect in this case because the two repositories are already synchronized. If someone else had pushed some changes to the repository on GitHub, though, this command would download them to our local repository.

GitHub GUI

Browse to your planets repository on GitHub. Under the Code tab, find and click on the text that says “XX commits” (where “XX” is some number). Hover over, and click on, the three buttons to the right of each commit. What information can you gather/explore from these buttons? How would you get that same information in the shell?


The left-most button (with the picture of a clipboard) copies the full identifier of the commit to the clipboard. In the shell, git log will show you the full commit identifier for each commit.

When you click on the middle button, you’ll see all of the changes that were made in that particular commit. Green shaded lines indicate additions and red ones removals. In the shell we can do the same thing with git diff. In particular, git diff ID1..ID2 where ID1 and ID2 are commit identifiers (e.g. git diff a3bf1e5..041e637) will show the differences between those two commits.

The right-most button lets you view all of the files in the repository at the time of that commit. To do this in the shell, we’d need to checkout the repository at that particular time. We can do this with git checkout ID where ID is the identifier of the commit we want to look at. If we do this, we need to remember to put the repository back to the right state afterwards!

Uploading files directly in GitHub browser

Github also allows you to skip the command line and upload files directly to your repository without having to leave the browser. There are two options. First you can click the “Upload files” button in the toolbar at the top of the file tree. Or, you can drag and drop files from your desktop onto the file tree. You can read more about this on this GitHub page

GitHub Timestamp

Create a remote repository on GitHub. Push the contents of your local repository to the remote. Make changes to your local repository and push these changes. Go to the repo you just created on GitHub and check the timestamps of the files. How does GitHub record times, and why?


GitHub displays timestamps in a human readable relative format (i.e. “22 hours ago” or “three weeks ago”). However, if you hover over the timestamp, you can see the exact time at which the last change to the file occurred.

Push vs. Commit

In this episode, we introduced the “git push” command. How is “git push” different from “git commit”?


When we push changes, we’re interacting with a remote repository to update it with the changes we’ve made locally (often this corresponds to sharing the changes we’ve made with others). Commit only updates your local repository.

GitHub License and README files

In this episode we learned about creating a remote repository on GitHub, but when you initialized your GitHub repo, you didn’t add a or a license file. If you had, what do you think would have happened when you tried to link your local and remote repositories?


In this case, we’d see a merge conflict due to unrelated histories. When GitHub creates a file, it performs a commit in the remote repository. When you try to pull the remote repository to your local repository, Git detects that they have histories that do not share a common origin and refuses to merge.

$ git pull origin main
warning: no common commits
remote: Enumerating objects: 3, done.
remote: Counting objects: 100% (3/3), done.
remote: Total 3 (delta 0), reused 0 (delta 0), pack-reused 0
Unpacking objects: 100% (3/3), done.
 * branch            main     -> FETCH_HEAD
 * [new branch]      main     -> origin/main
fatal: refusing to merge unrelated histories

You can force git to merge the two repositories with the option --allow-unrelated-histories. Be careful when you use this option and carefully examine the contents of local and remote repositories before merging.

$ git pull --allow-unrelated-histories origin main
 * branch            main     -> FETCH_HEAD
Merge made by the 'recursive' strategy. | 1 +
1 file changed, 1 insertion(+)
create mode 100644

Key Points

  • A local Git repository can be connected to one or more remote repositories.

  • Use the SSH protocol to connect to remote repositories.

  • git push copies changes from a local repository to a remote repository.

  • git pull copies changes from a remote repository to a local repository.