Git Remotes


Neil Shephard


October 6, 2023

Git and various forges such as GitHub GitLab are useful collaborative tools for version controlling, sharing and working collaboratively. Normally a repository resides on your local computer and it tracks a remote (often referred to as origin)


When you initialise or clone a repository a hidden directory .git is created. Within this resides the configuration file for the repository .git/config that defines how Git is to behave when performing actions on the repository.



The remote field defines the location of the repository to which code is synced via pushing and pulling. Typically and by default this is called the origin and you have a section that defines the url and the fetch for this remote.

The url field can take two forms, either one based on https in which case the prefix of the value will be or one based on ssh in which case the prefix will be What follows is then the user account or organisation (e.g. ns-rse for my personal repositories) followed by /<repo-name> (e.g. for this repository that is

The fetch field is what in Git parlance is called a Refspec (Reference Specification). This takes the form <src>:<dst> and is a method of mapping references on the remote side (<src>) to those locally (<dst>) and it is this that maps the local branches (refs/heads/*) to their counterparts on the remote (refs/remotes/origin/*). If there is a + prefix it tells git to up-date the reference even if there is no fast-forward.

[remote "origin"]
    url =
    fetch = +refs/heads/*:refs/remotes/origin/*


What follows is then a series of entries for branch which defines further how each local branch maps to a remote and where it should merge to. Each branch has a name define in the section header and within two parameters are set the remote which by default points to the origin (defined in the above remote) section and a merge field which defines the local reference to the branch under refs/head/<branch-name>.

Having a Private branch

Sometimes the need might arise to develop a feature in private. This is fine if you have no intention of sharing the work with others, you create a branch on your local computer and never push it to a forge. However, there will arise times where you do want to share you work with others whilst keeping things private. This too is possible and can be achieved by creating a private repository on your own account rather than using the original and configuring a branch to track that instead.

Creating a second remote

Start by creating a new repository on GitHub/GitLab and making it private from the outset. Do not include any additional information such as .gitignore, or it should be completely empty.

You can then add it as a new remote to your existing repository in one of two ways.

Git at the Command Line

You should have some instructions shown on GitHub one of which is …or push an existing repository from the command line. The first line of this is telling you how to add a new remote to the repository. called origin and to point towards the repository you have just created. You will likely already have an origin remote defined so you need to choose a different name and point it to the correct location.

git remote add private-work

Check your .git/config

If you now look at your .git/config file there should be two entries for [remote ""] one for origin (i.e. [remote "origin"]) and one for the new remote that has just been added [remote "private-work"]. Of course, because .git/config is just a text configuration file you can edit it and enter these values manually yourself if you want to.

NB Either of the above methods will append these options to the bottom of the file so if you can’t see it immediately scroll down.

Track your new remote

Now that you have a secondary remote defined you can create a branch and set it to track the private remote you have created and configured. Create a new branch by using git checkout -b

Command Line

git checkout -b private-feature

You then set the upstream using --set-upstream-to or its shorthand -u, at this stage you don’t have anything to include so make an empty commit

git push --set-upstream-to private-work private-work


Check .git/config

Returning to your .git/config file you should now have an additional entry for a branch underneath the new entry for the remote and the value for remote under branch is the name of the remote.

[remote "private-work"]
 url =
 fetch = +refs/heads/*:refs/remotes/private-work/*
[branch "private-feature"]
 remote = private-work
 merge = refs/heads/private-feature

Keeping up to Date

The private repository you setup on GitHub/GitLab should now have a copy of the private-work branch you created locally.

If you are collaborating with others the main/master branch may move ahead of yours as others work is merged in. You therefore need to regularly update your private branch by merging or rebasing from the origin rather than the private-work remote your branch is configured to track. The difference between merging and rebasing is beyond the scope of this article, there are pros and cons to each

git checkout main
git pull
git checkout private-work
git merge main

Or you can merge directly from origin with

git checkout private-feature
git merge origin/main

Checkout someone else’s private branch

Inevitably the need might arise for a collaborator to test your private branch. In which case they need to be granted permission to the private repository by the developer who created it. This is done via Settings > Collaborators and inviting them to work on your repository.

Once they have accepted the invitation they will also have to add a secondary remote and the branch they are working on. They can follow the instructions above to set up a remote, however they should not follow the instructions to branch because that branch already exists on your private repository.

but because .git/config is just a text file you can copy the lines from your configuration and share it with your collaborator and they can add them to their .git/config file. Once these options have been added they

Bonus - Using Magit

If you use Emacs and the amazing Magit you can of course do this via the Magit interface. In the Magit buffer for the repository (e.g. magit: press M to bring up the Remote transient buffer. You then press a to add a remote and are prompted for a name for the remote (in this example we use the same as above private-work), this can be anything you want other than origin which is already defined, and then the URL this will be<account-name>/<private-repo-name>.git.

To create a branch in Magit press b then l to select a local branch and enter main (or master), then make sure its upto date with the origin by Pulling with P then u. Now create a new branch by pressing b and since it will be a new press c to create it. You will be prompted for the name of a branch from which to branch from and then for the name of your branch.

In the Magit buffer for the repository you are working on pushes are made with P. The Transient buffer then offers you a choice of places to push to, one of which is elsewhere which is accessed by the e key. You can then type in the name of the remote tracking branch as defined under the remote entry you configured above which in this case is private-work.

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BibTeX citation:
  author = {Neil Shephard},
  title = {Git {Remotes}},
  date = {2023-10-06},
  url = {},
  langid = {en}
For attribution, please cite this work as:
Neil Shephard. 2023. “Git Remotes.” October 6, 2023.