4  Setup


In this chapter, we will set up and configure Git!

Learning Objectives

💡 You know how to set up Git for the first time
💡 You have set up Git on your computer
💡 You understand the difference between the three Git configuration levels
💡 You know how to configure your username and email address in Git
💡 You have set up your preferred text editor when working with Git
💡 You can escape the command-line text editor Vim

4.1 Configuring Git

Once you installed Git, it’s time to set it up. We will use the the command line to set up and configure Git. The git config command is used to get and set configuration settings. It allows you to customize Git according to your preferences and requirements. This chapter will focus on the most important and necessary configurations. To look at all the different configuration options, enter git config into the command line:

git config

In Git, configuration values can be stored at three different configuration levels: the system, global, and local level. Find out more in the box below how you can set configuration values at each level.

Git configuration values can be stored at three different configuration levels:

System-level configuration: This level applies configuration values to every user on the system and all their repositories. To read or write configuration values at this level, you need administrative privileges. To set a system-level configuration, use the following command syntax:

git config --system <key> <value>

Global-level or user-level configuration: This level is specific to an individual user. Configuration values set at this level will be applied to all repositories owned by the user. To set a global-level configuration, use the following command syntax:

git config --global <key> <value>

Repository-level configuration: This level is specific to a particular Git repository. The configuration values set at this level override values set at the system-level and user-level configurations for that specific repository. By default, Git reads from and writes to this file when you use the git config command without any additional options.

git config --local <key> <value>

Keep in mind that when you set configurations at different levels, Git looks for the configuration from the most specific level to the least specific (local > global > system). The configuration set at the local level will override the configurations set at the global and system levels for that particular repository.

By default, copy and pasting is disabled Git Bash for Windows. To enable it, follow these steps:

  1. Click the Git Bash icon on the top-left corner, and choose options.
  2. Go to Keys menu and enable Copy and Paste (Ctrl/Shift + Ins) option.
  3. Apply and Save.

4.1.1 Identifying yourself

Before you start using Git, it’s important to set your username and email address. This information is crucial because Git uses it to identify the author of each change you track with Git. By associating your changes with your username and email, it allows others (including future you) to see who made the changes which facilitates transparency and collaboration within a project. You will be able to connect Git to remote repositories like GitHub using this email address. So it makes sense to set your email address to the one you use (or will use) to create a GitHub account.

Setting your username and email address is a one-time setup process on a new computer, but you can always update them later, if needed. To perform this configuration using the command line, use the following command:

1git config --global user.name "Jane Doe"
2git config --global user.email jane@example.com
Replace "Jane Doe" with your own username.
Replace jane@example.com with your own email address.

Make sure to replace "Jane Doe" with your own username and jane@example.com with your own email address.

Your username will be attached to the changes you track with Git, so choose something that is meaningful and informative for others and yourself in the future. After all, one main purpose of Git is to be able to track of who made which changes and when. This can help a lot in the future when you need to figure out who to talk to about a particular change. Your username can be your real name, your GitHub username, or something informative about you.

4.1.2 Configuring the default name of the initial branch

Git uses a concept called “branches” to allow working on different versions of the same project. Branches will be introduced in a later chapter of this book. For now, you can think of branches as parallel versions of your repository contents.

On most installations of Git, by default, the name “master” is used for the initial branch when creating a new Git repository. However, there has been a growing movement to transition to using “main” as the default branch name instead. One of the main motivations behind this change is to promote inclusivity and remove offensive terminology from the default Git workflow (you can read more about the reasons here or here). To configure the default branch name to “main” in Git, you can use the following command:

git config --global init.defaultBranch main

4.2 Checking your Git settings

You can verify if your configurations were set correctly using the following command:

git config --list

This should create a long output list, in which you should find your configurations, for example:

user.name=Jane Doe

4.3 Calling for help

The --help option in Git is a command that provides you with access to the built-in Git documentation and help resources. When you run a Git command followed by --help, Git displays information about that command, including its usage, available options, and a brief description of its functionality.

For example, the following command will open up a browser in the command line containing information about the git config command.

git config --help

To quit the browser use q.

While the git config --help command provides extensive documentation and information about Git commands, it is arguably not the most beginner-friendly resource. Platforms like Stack Overflow provide help for many questions around using Git.

4.4 Configuring your text editor

Sometimes Git might open up a text editor inside the command line, and it can be annoying if you end up in an editor that you don’t like or don’t know how to use. The standard text editor on macOS and “Git for Windows” is called Vim (or Vi), which has a (perhaps questionable) popularity for being difficult to use. You can find more information about the challenges of using Vim (and some funny memes) here. To check out which text editor Git is using, you can use:

git config --get core.editor

If you have not changed your text editor yet, the output should be empty. This means that Git is using the command line’s default editor, which should be Vim if you are using macOS or “Git for Windows”. To make sure, you can use:

git var GIT_EDITOR

If the output is vim or vi, your system’s default editor is indeed Vim / Vi. Vim is an improved version of Vi, but there are virtually no differences that are relevant for learning Git or the scope of this book. In this situation, you can either pick up on the basics of Vim (see below) or simply change the text editor. Also note that, depending on your workflow, you will typically not have to use a text editor in the command line a lot. For beginners, we recommend to become familiar with the basics of your system’s default text editor (in most cases, Vim) to be able to perform basic operations (at least, how to exit it) when interacting with Git.

4.4.1 Vim Basics

To start Vim, open the command line and type vim followed by the filename of the file that you want to edit (for example, vim file.txt). In Vim, you have two main modes: Insert mode for typing your text and Normal mode for navigation and command execution. Vim will always start in Normal mode, which can be confusing. The command line will probably look like this:


To switch from Normal mode to Insert mode, press I on the keyboard. You can see that -- INSERT -- appears at the bottom of the command line window. This should look like this:

-- INSERT --

You can now start writing any text into the file. This could look like this:

Cool, I am using Vim!
-- INSERT --

If you entered vim into the command line without providing a filename, a welcome screen similar to the following will appear:

~                              VIM - Vi IMproved                                
~                               version 9.0.2136                                
~                           by Bram Moolenaar et al.                            
~                 Vim is open source and freely distributable                   
~                        Help poor children in Uganda!                          
~                type  :help iccf<Enter>       for information                  
~                type  :q<Enter>               to exit                          
~                type  :help<Enter>  or  <F1>  for on-line help                 
~                type  :help version9<Enter>   for version info                 

To make things easy: You can exit Vim again by pressing Esc, then entering :q! and pressing Enter.

When you’re done writing, here’s how to save and exit Vim:

  1. Switch back to Normal mode using Esc.
  2. Save your changes by typing :w (then press Enter)
  3. To exit Vim, type :q (and press Enter).

You can also combine commands in Vim, so you can use :wq to save your changes and exit Vim with just one command (don’t forget to hit Enter). This will look like this:

Cool, I am using Vim!

This error might occur if you made changes to a file using Vim and tried to exit Vim using :q but didn’t use :w before to save the changes. Vim therefore warns you that you didn’t “write since last change”:

E37: No write since last change (add ! to override)

You can now decide to either (1) save the change using :w then quit using :q (or combine with :wq) or, as Vim suggests, override or discard the changes using :q!.


For a more detailed and interactive tutorial of Vim, you can check out openvim.com. For more information about common Vim commands, also see the box below.

To navigate through the text in Normal mode without using the arrow keys, you can use h to move left, j to move down, k to move up, and l to move right. If you need to delete a character in Normal mode, simply press x. This will remove the character under the cursor. To delete an entire line, use dd.

Undoing changes is also straightforward in Vim. Press u in Normal mode to undo the last action, and Ctrl + r to redo an action if you’ve undone too much.

Sometimes, you might want to search for a specific word or phrase in your file. To do this, press / followed by the word or phrase you’re looking for, and then press Enter. Vim will jump to the first instance of that text. Press n to find the next instance or N to find the previous instance.

To replace one word with another throughout the entire file, you can use the substitute command: :%s/old/new/g. This command will replace all occurrences of "old" with "new". If you want to confirm each replacement, add a c at the end: :%s/old/new/gc.

For editing multiple lines at once, you can enter Visual mode by pressing v in Normal mode. Move the cursor to select multiple lines or characters, then you can perform operations on that selection, like deleting with d or copying with y. To paste the copied or cut text, use p.

To open a new file or switch between multiple files in Vim, use the :e filename command. To list all open files (buffers) and switch between them, use :ls to list and :b number to switch, where number is the buffer number.

4.4.2 Changing your text editor

If you want to change the standard text editor to one that you are more comfortable with, there a lot of alternatives like Nano, Visual Studio Code or Notepad++. If you have decided to use a different text editor you can use the following command (replace "EDITOR_NAME" with the name of your preferred text editor):

1git config --global core.editor "EDITOR_NAME"
Replace "EDITOR_NAME" with the name if your preferred text editor.

For example, to set Nano as the default text editor, use the following command:

git config --global core.editor "nano"

More information about associating text editors with Git, for example Visual Studio Code, can be found in the GitHub documentation.

From now on, when Git requires you to interact with a text editor, it will open the one that you have set. If you ever want to change your Git editor in the future, you can repeat the above steps and specify the new editor command or path.

4.5 Unsetting configuration

If you want to undo a configuration setting, you can use the --unset in the git config command. For example, to unset the global configuration of your preferred text editor (core.editor) you can use the following command:

git config --global --unset core.editor

4.6 The .gitconfig file

The configurations that you apply to Git using the git config command are stored in a configuration file called .gitconfig that can usually be found in the user’s home directory.

As always, there are multiple ways how to view the contents of .gitconfig with one command from the command line. Here is one example using the cat command in combination with the ~:

cat ~/.gitconfig

This command will result in an output similar to this:

    email = jane@example.com
    name = Jane Doe
    defaultBranch = main

You can manually edit the .gitconfig file to customize your Git environment, but it’s often more convenient to use Git commands like git config to manage these settings.

4.7 Helpful guardrails

Especially if you are new to Git (but not only then!), you might be worried that something will go terribly wrong, that you will lose files beyond recovery, or that you will break your computer. While we won’t assure you that this will not happen (if you try really hard, you can always break stuff), it’s quite unlikely that something bad will happen. In this section, we therefore collect pieces of advice and other tricks to make your Git journey as smoothly as possible.

4.7.1 Preventing a Git repository in your home directory

In the next chapter, you will take your first steps with Git. This will involve creating your first Git repository in a folder on your computer. It is then possible to track changes in the files in that folder.

We strongly recommend that you don’t create a Git repository in your home directory! Otherwise, you might start tracking changes in all files in your home directory, which usually means all the files that you have saved under your user name, including applications and system files. Always remember that you need to navigate to the folder first where you want to create a new Git repository or work on an existing one 1.

To prevent accidentally creating a Git repository in your home directory, you can run the following command:

touch ~/.git
Mini Exercise: What does the touch command do in this case?

This command creates an empty file called .git in your home directory. The path ~/ specifies the path to your home directory. If you then run the git init command to initialize a new Git repository (find out more about this in the next chapter), the following (desired) error will appear and no Git repository is created in your home directory:

fatal: invalid gitfile format: /Users/user/.git
Use this guardrail shortly before you create your first Git repository.

When you implement this guardrail but haven’t created your first Git repository yet, commands like git config will stop working as expected. To prevent this, we recommend the following procedure:

  1. Use git config to configure Git.
  2. Create the guardrail as explained in this section.
  3. Create your first Git repository (see next chapter).

You can also set up this guardrail after you created your first Git repository in a suitable location. There is no required order, we only want to make sure Git works as expected and prevent you from creating a Git repository in your home directory.

Thanks to Eamon Caddigan for this tip!

4.8 Acknowledgements and further reading

We would like to express our gratitude to the following resources, which have been essential in shaping this chapter. We recommend these references for further reading:

Authors Title Website License Source
Chacon and Straub (2014) Pro Git CC BY-NC
Capes et al. (2023) swcarpentry/shell-novice: Software Carpentry: the UNIX shell CC BY 4.0
Koziar et al. (2023) swcarpentry/git-novice: Software Carpentry: Version Control with Git 2023-05 CC BY 4.0
Bryan (2023) Happy Git and GitHub for the useR CC BY-NC 4.0

4.9 Cheatsheet

In this chapter, we have learned about the following commands:

Command Description
git config Get an overview of Git config commands
git config --global "user.name" Sets Git username
git config --global "user.email" Sets Git email address
git config --global core.editor "editorname" Sets Git text editor
git config --global init.defaultBranch main Sets default branch name to main
git config --list Views set Git configurations

  1. 💡 Tip: Use cd (details here)↩︎