Skip to content

usethis can help you with many of the Git and GitHub tasks that arise when managing R projects and packages. Under the hood, two lower-level packages are critical to this:

  • gert, for Git operations, like git init, git commit, and git push (docs.ropensci.org/gert)
  • gh, for GitHub API operations, like creating a repo, forking a repo, and opening a pull request (gh.r-lib.org)

Both packages need access to credentials in order to act on your behalf:

  • gert interacts with GitHub as a Git server, using either the HTTPS or SSH protocol
  • gh interacts with GitHub via its REST API

This article describes our recommendations for how to set up your Git and GitHub credentials. Our goal is a setup that works well for usethis and for other tools you may be using, such as command line Git and Git clients (including, but not limited to, RStudio).

This is a good time to check that you have up-to-date versions of the packages we’re talking about here. In particular, you want gh >= v1.2.1, which knows about the new token format GitHub announced and adopted in March 2021.

TL;DR: Use HTTPS, 2FA, and a GitHub Personal Access Token

Our main recommendations are:

  1. Adopt HTTPS as your Git transport protocol.
  2. Turn on two-factor authentication for your GitHub account.
  3. Use a personal access token (PAT) for all Git remote operations from the command line or from R.
  4. Allow tools to store and retrieve your credentials from the Git credential store. If you have previously set your GitHub PAT in .Renviron, stop doing that.

Next we provide some context and a rationale for these recommendations. In the following section, we explain how to actually implement this.

HTTPS vs SSH

Instead of HTTPS, you could use SSH. Many people have valid reasons for preferring SSH and they should carry on. Our recommendation for HTTPS is because it’s easier than SSH for newcomers to set up correctly, especially on Windows. GitHub has also long recommended HTTPS to new users. Finally, using HTTPS with a PAT kills two birds with one stone: this single credential can be used to authenticate to GitHub as a regular Git server and for its REST API. If you authenticate via SSH for “regular” Git work, you still have to set up a PAT for work that uses the REST API.

Diagram showing different ways of interacting with GitHub as a server and the credential needed for each method

Two-factor authentication

Turning on two-factor authentication for important online accounts is just a good idea, in general. For example, we make 2FA a hard requirement for all members of the tidyverse and r-lib GitHub organizations.

In the past, activating 2FA also forced those using HTTPS to use a PAT, instead of “username + password”, for operations like git push. Using a PAT is now an absolute requirement, for all operations using the HTTPS protocol, and no longer has anything to do with 2FA.

More background on the deprecation of “username + password” can be found in GitHub’s blog post Token authentication requirements for Git operations.

Git credential helpers and the credential store

It’s awkward to provide your credentials for every single Git transaction, so it’s customary to let your system remember your credentials. Git uses so-called credential helpers for this and, happily, they tend to “just work” these days (especially, on macOS and Windows) 1. Git credential helpers take advantage of official OS-provided credential stores, where possible, such as macOS Keychain and Windows Credential Manager.

Recent innovations in gert and gh mean that Git/GitHub operations from R can also store and discover credentials using these same official Git credential helpers. This means we can stop storing GitHub PATs in plain text in a startup file, like .Renviron 2. This, in turn, reduces the risk of accidentally leaking your credentials.

Practical instructions

How do you actually implement these recommendations? The diagnostic functions usethis::gh_token_help() and usethis::git_sitrep() will offer some of the advice you see here, but directly in your R session.

Adopt HTTPS

Make sure to use HTTPS URLs, not SSH, when cloning repos or adding new remotes:

  • HTTPS URLs look like this: https://github.com/<OWNER>/<REPO>.git
  • SSH URLs look like this: git@github.com:<OWNER>/<REPO>.git

usethis defaults to HTTPS in functions like create_from_github() and use_github(), as of v2.0.03.

It’s fine to adopt HTTPS for new work, even if some of your pre-existing repos use SSH.
It’s fine to use HTTPS for one remote in a repo and SSH for another.
It’s fine to use HTTPS remotes for one repo and SSH remotes for another.
It’s fine to interact with a GitHub repo via HTTPS from one computer and via SSH from another.
This is not an all-or-nothing or irreversible decision.
As long as the relevant tools can obtain the necessary credentials from a cache or you, you are good to go.

Turn on two-factor authentication

See GitHub’s most current instructions here:

Securing your account with two-factor authentication (2FA)

If you don’t already use a password manager such as 1Password or LastPass, this is a great time to start! Among other benefits, these apps can serve as an authenticator for 2FA.

Turning on 2FA is recommended, but optional.

Get a personal access token (PAT)

Assuming you’re signed into GitHub, create_github_token() takes you to a pre-filled form to create a new PAT. You can get to the same page in the browser by clicking on “Generate new token” from https://github.com/settings/tokens. The advantage of create_github_token() is that we have pre-selected some recommended scopes, which you can look over and adjust before clicking “Generate token”.

Screenshot: Getting a new personal access token on GitHub

It is a very good idea to describe the token’s purpose in the Note field, because one day you might have multiple PATs. We recommend naming each token after its use case, such as the computer or project you are using it for, e.g. “personal-macbook-air” or “vm-for-project-xyz”. In the future, you will find yourself staring at this list of tokens, because inevitably you’ll need to re-generate or delete one of them. Make it easy to figure out which token you need to fiddle with.

GitHub encourages the use of perishable tokens, with a default Expiration period of 30 days. Unless you have a specific reason to fight this, I recommend accepting this default. I assume that GitHub’s security folks have good reasons for their recommendation. But, of course, you can adjust the Expiration behaviour as you see fit, including “No expiration”.

Once you’re happy with the token’s Note, Expiration, and Scopes, click “Generate token”.

You won’t be able to see this token again, so don’t close or navigate away from this browser window until you store the PAT locally. Copy the PAT to the clipboard, anticipating what we’ll do next: trigger a prompt that lets us store the PAT in the Git credential store.

Sidebar about storing your PAT: If you use a password management app, such as 1Password or LastPass (highly recommended!), you might want to add this PAT (and its Note) to the entry for GitHub. Storing your PAT in the Git credential store is a semi-persistent convenience, sort of like a browser cache or “remember me” on a website, but it’s quite possible you will need to re-enter your PAT in the future. You could decide to embrace the impermanence of your PAT and, if it is somehow removed from the store, you’ll just re-generate a new PAT and re-enter it. If you accept the default 30-day expiration period, this is a workflow you’ll be using often anyway. But if you create long-lasting tokens or want to play around with the functions for setting or clearing your Git credentials, it can be handy to have your own record of your PAT in a secure place, like 1Password or LastPass.

Put your PAT into the local Git credential store

We assume you’ve created a PAT and have it available on your clipboard.

How to insert your PAT in the Git credential store? Do this in R:

gitcreds::gitcreds_set()

You will have the gitcreds package installed, as of usethis v2.0.0, because usethis uses gh, and gh uses gitcreds.

If you don’t have a PAT stored already, it will prompt you to enter your PAT. Paste!

> gitcreds::gitcreds_set()

? Enter password or token: ghp_xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
-> Adding new credentials...
-> Removing credentials from cache...
-> Done.

If you already have a stored credential, gitcreds::gitcreds_set() reveals this and will even let you inspect it. This helps you decide whether to keep the existing credential or replace it. When in doubt, embrace a new, known-to-be-good credential over an old one, of uncertain origins.

> gitcreds::gitcreds_set()

-> Your current credentials for 'https://github.com':

  protocol: https
  host    : github.com
  username: PersonalAccessToken
  password: <-- hidden -->

-> What would you like to do? 

1: Keep these credentials
2: Replace these credentials
3: See the password / token

Selection: 2

-> Removing current credentials...

? Enter new password or token: ghp_xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
-> Adding new credentials...
-> Removing credentials from cache...
-> Done.

If you have previously made your GitHub PAT available by setting the GITHUB_PAT environment variable in .Renviron, you need to actively stop doing that! If you have any doubt about your previous practices, open .Renviron, look for any line setting the GITHUB_PAT or GITHUB_TOKEN environment variable, and delete that line. usethis::edit_r_environ() can be helpful for getting .Renviron open for editing. Don’t forget to restart R for this change to take effect!

You can check that your PAT has been successfully stored with usethis::gh_token_help() executed in a fresh R session:

The more general function usethis::git_sitrep() will also report on your PAT, along with other aspects of your Git/GitHub setup.

Ongoing PAT maintenance

You are going to be (re-)generating and (re-)storing your PAT on a schedule dictated by its expiration period. By default, once per month.

When the PAT expires, return to https://github.com/settings/tokens and click on its Note. (You do label your tokens nicely by use case, right? Right?) At this point, you can optionally adjust scopes and then click “Regenerate token”. You can optionally modify its Expiration and then click “Regenerate token” (again). As before, copy the PAT to the clipboard, call gitcreds::gitcreds_set(), and paste!

Hopefully it’s becoming clear why each token’s Note is so important. The actual token may be changing, e.g., once a month, but its use case (and scopes) are much more persistent and stable.

Sidebar: the gitcreds package plays the same role for gh as the credentials package does for gert. Both gitcreds and credentials provide an R interface to the Git credential store, but are targeting slightly different use cases. The gitcreds and credentials packages are evolving convergently and may, in fact, merge into one. But in the meantime, there is some chance that they use a different “key”, in the “key-value” sense, when storing or retrieving your PAT. Therefore, it is conceivable that gert+credentials may also prompt you once for your PAT, in which case you should just provide it again. To explicitly check if gert+credentials can discover your PAT, call credentials::set_github_pat(). If it cannot, this will lead to a prompt where you can enter it.

Additional resources

Most users should be ready to work with Git and GitHub from R now, specifically with gert, gh, and usethis. In this section, we cover more specialized topics that only apply to certain users.

GitHub Enterprise

As of v2.0.0, usethis should fully support GitHub Enterprise deployments. If you find this is not true, please open an issue.

There are a few usethis functions that support an explicit host argument, but in general, usethis honors the GitHub host implicit in URLs, e.g., the locally configured Git remotes, or inherits the default behaviour of gh. The gh package honors the GITHUB_API_URL environment variable which, when unset, falls back to https://api.github.com.

In general, usethis, gh, and gitcreds should all work with GitHub Enterprise, as long as the intended GitHub host is discoverable or specified. For example, you can store a PAT for a GitHub Enterprise deployment like so:

gitcreds::gitcreds_set("https://github.acme.com")

You can also troubleshoot PATs with GHE with the usual functions:

usethis::gh_token_help("https://github.acme.com")
# or
usethis::git_sitrep()

At the time of writing, credentials::set_github_pat() is hard-wired to “github.com”, but this may be generalized in the future.

What about .Renviron?

In the past, the most common way to make a GitHub PAT available in R was to define it as the GITHUB_PAT environment variable in the .Renviron startup file. This still works, since gitcreds+gh and credentials+gert check environment variables before they consult the Git credential store. However, this also means that the presence of a legacy GITHUB_PAT in your .Renviron can get in the way of your adoption of the new approach!

If you have any doubt about your previous practices, open .Renviron, look for any line setting the GITHUB_PAT environment variable, and delete it. usethis::edit_r_environ() can be helpful for getting .Renviron open for editing. Don’t forget to restart R for this change to take effect.

Why do gitcreds+gh and credentials+gert even check environment variables? Once they retrieve a PAT from the store, they temporarily cache it in an environment variable, which persists for the duration of the current R session. This allows a discovered PAT to be reused, potentially by multiple packages, repeatedly over the course of an R session.

Using .Renviron as your primary PAT store is less secure and, if you can, it is safer to keep your PAT in the Git credential store and let packages that need it to discover it there upon first need. Linux users may still need to use the .Renviron method, since they don’t have easy access to OS-managed stores like the macOS Keychain or Windows Credential Manager.

If you still need to use .Renviron method, usethis::edit_r_environ() opens that file for editing.

usethis::edit_r_environ()

Add a line like this, but substitute your PAT:

GITHUB_PAT=ghp_xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Make sure this file ends in a newline! Lack of a newline can lead to silent failure to load startup files, which can be tricky to debug. Take care that this file is not accidentally pushed to the cloud, e.g. Google Drive or GitHub.

Restart R for changes in .Renviron to take effect.

What about the remotes and pak packages?

The remotes and pak packages both help us to install R packages from GitHub:

remotes::install_github("r-lib/usethis")

pak::pkg_install("r-lib/usethis")

Lifecycle-wise, remotes is being replaced by pak, but we are still in the transition period, where both are maintained.

Both of these packages potentially need a GitHub PAT. A PAT is necessary, for example, to install from a private GitHub repo. Even when accessing public resources, a PAT is helpful because it implies a much higher rate limit for requests to the GitHub API.

pak uses the same PAT-finding approach as usethis/gh/gitcreds. Once you’ve done the setup described above, pak should “just work”, with the same PAT as everything else.

remotes does NOT use the new PAT-finding approach and, instead, only consults the GITHUB_PAT environment variable, falling back to a built-in generic credential.

What should you do re: installing packages from GitHub?

My personal recommendation: Use pak::pkg_install("OWNER/REPO") for your explicit “install from GitHub” needs. Allow remotes to use its fallback credential, if it ever gets called implicitly. Do NOT define GITHUB_PAT in .Renviron.

If you want to keep using remotes, instead of pak, you could just rely on the built-in credential. This will suffice if rate-limiting is the only concern, but obviously will not provide access to private repositories.

If you really want to use remotes, with your own PAT, you can “tickle” gitcreds, via gitcreds::gitcreds_get(), to get it to load your PAT from the store into the GITHUB_PAT environment variable, where remotes will happily find it. This could be done interactively as needed, written into individual scripts, or even executed in a startup file. This still avoids defining GITHUB_PAT in .Renviron.

Sys.setenv(GITHUB_PAT = gitcreds::gitcreds_get(use_cache = FALSE)$password)

If you use remotes, make sure to update to the latest version, to guarantee that the built-in credential is valid.

Continuous integration

On a headless system, such as on a CI/CD platform like GitHub Actions, you won’t be able to interactively store a PAT with gitcreds::gitcreds_set() or credentials::set_github_pat(). In the case of GitHub Actions, an access token is automatically available to the workflow and can be exposed to R as the GITHUB_PAT environment variable like so:

env:
  GITHUB_PAT: ${{ secrets.GITHUB_TOKEN }}

If this automatic token doesn’t have sufficient permissions, you’ll need to create a suitable token and store it as a repository secret.

This is also the general approach for CI/CD platforms other than GitHub Actions:

  • Provide the PAT as a secure GITHUB_PAT environment variable.
  • Use regular environment variables to store less sensitive settings, such as the API host.

Take care not to expose your PAT by, e.g., printing environment variables to a log file.

How to learn more

gh and gitcreds

gert and credentials