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How to Store Your Dotfiles on GitHub

In this article, I will show you how to prepare and store your dotfiles in a git repository and push them to a remote repository. I will also show you how to automate the process of linking your dotfiles to their appropriate locations via a shell script. Finally, we'll look at how to automate keeping your dotfiles up to date with a cron job.

What are Dotfiles?

Dotfiles are configuration files that are used to customize your system. Almost always, the dotfiles we refer to have names that begin with a period, hence the name. Some common examples of dotfiles are .bashrc, .vimrc, .gitconfig, and .zshrc. Putting a period in front of a file name on Unix or Unix-like systems marks the file as hidden. The idea being that a simple ls command will not show these files, meaning they won’t clutter up your terminal output. However, in practice, most people use a more advanced invokation of ls, such as ls -a, which will show all files, including these hidden dotfiles.

Why Store Your Dotfiles on GitHub?

The Scenario

Oftentimes, we as developers will create a sort of “nest” for ourselves on our local machines. We’ll install our favorite text editor, our favorite terminal emulator, our favorite shell, and our favorite set of tools. We’ll slowly configure these tools to our liking, adding plugins, changing colors, and tweaking settings. We do this one little tweak at a time, and before we know it, we have a development environment that is uniquely ours. And most importantly, it’s vastly different from the default settings of these tools.

The Problem

The problem is we don’t stay on the same machine forever. We might get a new job, or we might get a new system, or we might even have multiple systems we use on a regular basis. In any case, we’ll have to recreate our development environment on each new machine. This can be a tedious process, and it’s easy to forget to install a tool or configure a setting. This can lead to a lot of wasted time and frustration. It’s also easy to lose your configuration files if you don’t back them up. This can be a real pain if you’ve spent a lot of time tweaking your dotfiles to your liking.

The Solution

The solution is to store your dotfiles in a git repository and push them to a remote repository on GitHub (or some other remote git repository). This way, you can easily clone your dotfiles to any new machine you use and you can keep your dotfiles up to date by pushing/pulling to/from your remote repository on a regular basis.

How It’s Done

Step 1: Create a New Repository

First, you’ll need to create a new repository on GitHub (or some other remote git repository). You can call it whatever you want, but I like to call mine dotfiles. You can make it public or private, but I recommend making it private if you think there’s any chance you might now or in the future store sensitive information in your dotfiles.

⚠️ NOTE: I advise against ever storing sensitive information in a git repository, but if you do, make absolutely sure you mark your repository as private. Common examples of sensitive information are API keys (like for AWS or Digital Ocean), SSH keys, and passwords.

Step 2: Clone Your Repository

Next, you’ll need to clone your repository to your local machine. I like to keep my dotfile directory in my home directory, but you can clone it to wherever you want. Another common convention on linux systems is to store configuration files in a directory called .config. Wherever you decide to clone your repository, make sure you remember where you put it. For this example, I’ll assume you cloned your repo to your home directory in a directory called dotfiles.

cd ~
git clone <your-repo-url> dotfiles

Step 3: Create/Copy Your Dotfiles

Now that you have your repository cloned, you’ll need to create or copy your dotfiles into the repository. For this example, I’ll assume you have a .vimrc file in your home directory. You can create a new file or copy an existing one into your repository.

cp ~/.vimrc ~/dotfiles

To automate this process, we can use a simple bash for loop.

for file in .bashrc .vimrc .gitconfig; do cp ~/$file ~/dotfiles; done

Just make sure you replace the list of files with the files you want to copy. You can also use wildcards to copy all files that match a pattern. For example, to copy all files that begin with a period, you could use the following command.

cp ~/.* ~/dotfiles

Now that you have your dotfiles in your repository, you’ll need to create a shell script to link them to their appropriate locations. For example, you’ll need to link your .vimrc file to ~/.vimrc. You can do this manually, but it’s much easier to automate it with a shell script. I call mine, but you can call yours whatever you want. It will live in your dotfiles repository, so it can be easily run anytime you clone your repository to a new machine. Create a new file called in your dotfiles repository and add the following code:

#!/usr/bin/env bash

# Create symlinks for dotfiles
ln -sf ~/dotfiles/.bashrc ~/
ln -sf ~/dotfiles/.vimrc ~/
ln -sf ~/dotfiles/.gitconfig ~/

ℹ What this script does: Creates a symlink for each file listed in the for loop. A symlink is a special type of file that points to another file. In this case, the symlink points to the file in your dotfiles repository. This way, when you make changes to your dotfiles, you can push them to your remote repository and they will be available on all of your machines. The -s flag tells the ln command to create a symbolic link. The -f flag tells the ln command to overwrite any existing files or symlinks. If you don’t use the -f flag, the ln command will fail if the file or symlink already exists.

Step 5: Run Your Shell Script

Now that you have your shell script, you can run it to create symlinks for your dotfiles. But before we can run it, we’ll need to make it executable:

chmod +x ~/dotfiles/

Now we can run it with the following command:


And check to make sure the symlinks were created:

ls -la ~/.vimrc

You should see something similar to:

lrwxrwxrwx 1 user user 17 Sep  1 12:00 .vimrc -> /home/user/.vimrc

ℹ What this output means: The l at the beginning of the line indicates that this is a symlink and the arrow indicates which file the symlink points to. Awesome! Now any time you change your dotfiles in your home directory, your git repository will be know about it and track the changes.

Step 6: Commit and Push Your Changes

Now that you have your dotfiles in your repository and you’ve created symlinks for them, you can commit and push your changes.

cd ~/dotfiles
git add .
git commit -m "added dotfiles; added"
git push

⚠️ NOTE: If you’re using a private repository, you’ll need to add your SSH key to your GitHub account. You can find instructions for doing this here.

Step 7: Clone Your Repository to a New Machine

Now that you have your dotfiles in a remote repository, you can clone them to a new machine. Just make sure you run your shell script to create symlinks for your dotfiles.

cd ~
git clone <your-repo-url> dotfiles

How to Keep Your Dotfiles Synced

The last topic we’ll explore is how to keep your dotfiles synced between your local machine and your remote repository. This can be done manually, but it’s going to be a lot easier and less error prone if you automate it, so that’s what we’ll do. There are a few different ways to automate this process, but I’ll show you how to do it with one of the oldest and most reliable automation tools: cron.

What is Cron?

Cron is a time-based job scheduler that runs commands at specified intervals. It’s been around since the 1970s and is still used today. It’s a great tool for automating tasks that need to be run on a regular basis. The canonical example is a cron job that runs every night at midnight to back up your database.

How to Use Cron

Cron is a system service that runs in the background on POSIX-based systems (Linux, Mac, etc.). It’s configured by editing a file called a crontab. You can edit your user’s crontab with the following command:

crontab -e

This will open your crontab in your default text editor. You can also use the -l flag to list your crontab or the -r flag to remove your crontab. You can find more information about cron here.

How to Use Cron to Sync Your Dotfiles

Now that you know what cron is and how to use it, we can use it to sync our dotfiles. We’ll be creating a new shell script that we’ll run via cron every 30 minutes. This script will pull any changes from our remote repository and push any changes from our local repository. Create a new file called in your dotfiles repository and add the following code:

#!/usr/bin/env bash

# Pull changes from remote repository
git pull

# Add any new files
git add .

# Create a commit message
msg="synced dotfiles $(date)"

# Commit changes
git commit -m "$msg"

# Push changes to remote repository
git push

Now we need to make this script executable:

chmod +x ~/dotfiles/

And we’ll need to push our changes to our remote repository. Luckily, we just created a script to do that for us!


Now we can add a cron job to run our script every 30 minutes. Open your crontab with the following command:

crontab -e

And add the following line to the bottom of the file:

*/30 * * * * ~/dotfiles/

ℹ What this line does: Runs the script every 30 minutes. You can read more about cron syntax here.

⚠ Disclaimer

Using cron to constantly push and pull to your repo is a great way to keep your dotfiles synced, but it’s not perfect. If you’re constantly fiddling with your dotfiles on multiple machines, you may run into merge conflicts. If and when this happens, you’ll need to resolve the conflicts manually. You can do this by pulling your changes from your remote repository, resolving the conflicts, and pushing your changes back to your remote repository, but it’s definitely a hassle. It’s up to you to decide if the convenience of having your dotfiles synced is worth the hassle of resolving merge conflicts since it’s largely dependent on how often you’re making changes.


In this tutorial, we learned how to use Git to manage our dotfiles. We also learned how to create a shell script to automatically create symlinks for our dotfiles and how to use cron to automatically sync our dotfiles between our local machine and our remote repository. Thanks for reading! If you have any questions or comments, feel free to reach out to me at [email protected]. Thank you!