Getting started with Git and GitHub: the complete beginner’s guide

Looking to get started with Git and GitHub? Do you need to collaborate with a team? Are you working on a project? Have you recently discovered that you pretty much need to be on GitHub if you want anyone to take you seriously in tech?

…do you really just want to contribute to your first open source project?

This one’s for you!

It’s totally easy to get started with Git. If you’re a fast reader (and you don’t take a lot of time with sign up and installation), you can be up and running on GitHub about ten minutes from right now.

If you go all the way through the article, you can practice cloning an existing repository, creating a branch, making changes, and creating a pull request.Along the way, you might also learn how to find your terminal, use terminal commands, and edit a markdown (.md) file!

If you do all that, congratulations!

You will have contributed to your first open source project — the GitHub Welcome Wall(If you want to go straight to the open source contribution part, scroll down until you hit the section called, “Let’s do this!”)

This article will get you up and running with the basics. There’s a lot of stuff to learn if you want to use Git and GitHub like a pro, of course. You can go way beyond this introductory information! We’re going to leave the next-level stuff for another time, though.

Let’s get started!

What is Git? What’s GitHub?

Git is the version control tech of choice for basically everybody right now, from developers to designers. GitHub is the social code-hosting platform that’s currently used more than any other. It’s a place where you can play and experiment. It’s a place where you can find (and play around with) the most incredible open-source information, emerging technologies, features, and designs. It’s a place to learn and it’s a place to get involved. You can keep code there for work or for school, and you can grab some sweet code that you want to explore further. You can even host websites for free directly from your repository! (Our project is hosted right from the GitHub repository!)

Photo by Jamie Haughton on Unsplash

There are a ton of ways to use Git and GitHub, but getting started with GitHub doesn’t have to be overwhelming. You don’t need to be some kind of master coder or anything. You can even do the most important things right on the GitHub website!

That being said, it’s a good idea to find your terminal and get just the tiniest bit comfortable with it. Terminal commands make things so much faster! I’ll definitely show you how to get started using the GitHub website. I’ll also show you some terminal commands that you might want to use to make your life just a little bit nicer.

Any time you see a command in this article that includes these marks: < > , you want to delete those marks and replace what’s between them with your own information.

Let’s say you see something like git add <filename>. That means that you would type, for example, git add hello_world.py if you wanted to add a file named “hello_world.py” to your GitHub repository.

I’m going to give you a lot of explanation here, but these are all the terminal commands that you really need to know to get started:

git clone
git status
git add
git commit -m “ “
git push

That’s it! Those are the big ones! If you have a handle of those, you’re good to go. You can start working on your projects immediately!

Photo by Delaney Dawson on Unsplash

We’ll also talk about

git init
git branch
git merge
git checkout

You might be working with other people, or you might want to make changes and test them out before you really commit them. The commands above are what you need to get started with collaboration.

git help

is also seriously useful if you’re just starting out! We’ll discuss that too.

(If you’re on a Mac, you already have a terminal! You can search for it by clicking on the magnifying glass icon in the upper right-hand corner of your screen and searching for the word “terminal.” )

Step 1: Sign up and installation!

Go to GitHub and sign up for an account. You could just stop there and GitHub would work just fine. It’s a good idea, though, to install Git if you haven’t already. You can absolutely get started without it, but if you want to work on your local computer, then you want to have Git installed. You can download it or install it via your package manager instead.

Now go to your terminal and introduce yourself to Git! To set your username for every repository on your computer, type

git config --global user.name "<your_name_here>"

replacing “<your name here>” with your own name in quotations. You can use any name or handle you want. If you want to set your name for just one repository, leave out the word “global.”

Now you can tell Git your email, and make sure it’s the same email you used when you signed up for GitHub

git config --global user.email "<your_email@email.com>"

It’s easy to keep your email private, and you can find those instructions in this article. You only need to check two boxes in your GitHub account.

Now you’re ready to start using Git on your computer!

Photo by Matty Adame on Unsplash

To get started, you can create a new repository on the GitHub website or perform a git init to create a new repository from your project directory.

The repository consists of three ‘trees.’ First is the working directory, which holds the actual files. The second one is the index or the staging area. Then there’s the head, which points to the last commit you made.

I’m already comfortable with the terminal (Option 1)

Here’s how you can get started right from the terminal:

If you have a project directory, just go to your terminal and in your project directory run the command

git init

If you want to initialize your project with all of the files in your project directory, run

git init .

to include everything.

Let’s say you have a folder for your project called “new_project.” You could head on over to that folder in your terminal window and add a local repository to it by running

cd new_project
git init

Now you have a new hidden directory called .git in your project directory. This is where Git stores what it needs so that it can track your project. Now you can add files to the staging area one by one with

git add <filename_one>

or run

git add .

to add all of your files to the staging area. You can commit these changes with the command

git commit -m "<add a commit message here>"

and if you’re happy with your changes, you can run

git push

to push your changes through. You can check whether or not you have changes to push through any time by running

git status

If you made some changes, you can update your files on at a time with

git add <filename>

or

git add --all

Then commit them with your commit message and push them through.

That’s it! You can now initialize a repository, commit files, commit changes, and push them through to the master branch.

If you’ve got this, just scroll down to “Learning to work with others” to move on to branching and collaboration!

Photo by Jonathan Daniels on Unsplash

I don’t know what you just said (Option 2)

I’m going to assume that anyone who’s interested in option 2 is brand new to all of this and maybe has a folder full of files (or you plan to have one) that you want to put on GitHub and you just don’t know how to do that.

Let’s make that happen!

Say you want to create a new repository. (You probably do! That’s where your project will live. If you aren’t going to create a new repository, you probably want to clone an existing repository. We’ll talk about that next, but that’s how you grab someone else’s project and information that you need for your job or the course you’re taking.)

Your repository is where you’ll organize your project. You can keep folders, files, images, videos, spreadsheets, Jupyter notebooks, data sets, and anything else your project needs. Before you can work with Git, you have to initialize a repository for your project and set it up so that Git will manage it. You can do this right on the GitHub website.

It’s a smart idea to include a README file with information about your project. You can create one at the same time that you create your repository with the click of a checkbox.

    • Go to the GitHub website, look in the upper right corner, and click the + sign and then click “New repository.”
    • Name the repository, and add a quick description.
    • Decide whether you want this to be a public or a private repository
  • Click “Initialize this repository with a README” if you want to include the README file. (I definitely recommend doing this! It’s the first thing people are going to look at when they check out your repository. It’s also a great place to put information that you need to have in order to understand or run the project.)
New repository
Creating your new repository

You can totally start working right from this point if you want to! You can upload files, edit files, and so on right from your repository on the GitHub website. However, you might not be satisfied with only this option.

There are two ways to make changes to your project. You can make changes in your files/notebooks on your computer and you can also make changes right on GitHub.

Let’s say you want to make some changes to your README file right on GitHub.

    • First, go to your repository.
    • Click the name of the file to bring up that file (for example, click “README.md” to go to the readme file).
    • Click the pencil icon in the upper right corner of the file and make some changes.
    • Write a short message in the box that describes the changes you made (and an extended description if you want).
  • Click the “Commit changes” button.
Editing your file on GitHub
Committing your changes

Now the changes have been made to the README file in your new repository! (I quickly want to draw your attention to the little button you can check in the image above that will let you create a new branch for this commit and start a pull request. We’ll talk about this later!)

Pretty easy, right?

I prefer to work with files on my local computer rather than try to make everything work from the GitHub website, so let’s set that up now.

Gimmie that project!

You might want to clone your new repository so that you can work on it on your local computer, or you might have an existing repository that you want to clone. (That’s something you might need to do that for a project or course.)

In order to clone a repository onto your computer, go to the repository on the GitHub website and click the big green button that says “Clone or download.” (You can definitely download the repository right there and skip the terminal stuff if you just can’t deal with it. But I believe in you, so keep going!) Make sure it says “Clone with HTTPS.” Now click the clipboard icon to copy and paste it to your clipboard (or highlight that link and copy it).

Clone or download a repository

Now you’ll open up your terminal and get yourself to the place where you want that repository to land. You might be able to, for instance, type

cd Desktop

to get onto the desktop. Then clone your repository right there to make it easy to find. To clone the repository, you type

git clone <that_thing_you_just_copied>

Simple! (Don’t forget to change the information between the < > marks to that string of letters and numbers you just copied! Also, make sure you delete the < >.)

If you haven’t moved around in your terminal before, you can move around slowly with the cd command until you get where you want to go. For example, open up your terminal and type ls to list the choices of where you might go next. You might see “Desktop” listed, and you could just type cd Desktop to get to your desktop. Then you can run the git clone command above to clone your repository right onto your desktop.

You might see some user names instead of choices like “Desktop.” In that case, you need to choose a user before you see “Desktop,” so choose the user with cd <user> (replacing <user> with the user name) and then type ls again to see your choices. There’s a very good chance you’ll see “Desktop” now. You’ll type cd Desktop if you see the Desktop listed. Now go ahead with that git clone!

If you ever want to move back a step in your terminal, just type cd ..

Now you have a new GitHub repository that you can work with cloned right on your desktop! That command pulled in a complete copy of the repository right to your system where you can work on it, make changes, stage the changes, commit the changes, and then push the changes back to GitHub.

You don’t need to put the repository on your desktop if you don’t want to. You can clone it anywhere. You can even run the git clone command as soon as you open up your terminal. I will say, though, that if you aren’t really comfortable navigating around your computer, it’s not a bad idea to have your project sitting right on your desktop where you can see it…

If you ever want to just play with a project on your own, you can fork it on the GitHub website instead of cloning it. Look up near the top right corner of the screen for the “fork” button and click it. This will make a copy of the repository in your repositories for you to play with on your own without doing anything to the original.

Now it’s time to add some files to your project!

Photo by Nadim Merrikh on Unsplash

This is all we’re about to do:

git status
git add
git commit -m " "
git push

Nothing to worry about!

I’m thinking you probably have some files that you want to put in your new repository. Go ahead and find your files and drag and drop them into the new folder for the repository that you created on your desktop, just like you normally would with any set of files you might want to move into a folder.

Now, check out the status of your project!

Go to your terminal and get yourself into the folder for your repository. Then run

git status

to see if everything is up to date. (If you just dragged some files into your project folder, it definitely isn’t!) To add one of your files to the repository, you would run

git add <fileneame>

Otherwise, you can add everything with

git add --all

or even

git add .

These are your proposed changes. You can do this exact same thing with brand new files and with files that are already in there but have some changes. You aren’t actually adding anything just yet. You’re bringing new files and changes to Git’s attention.

To commit the changes, you will start the process by running

git commit -m “<commit message>”

You’re committing the changes to the HEAD, but not to the remote repository.(Make sure you replace that message in quotes with your own.) After you make a change, you take a “snapshot” of the repository with the “commit” command. You‘ll include a message on that “snapshot” with -m.

When you save a change, that’s called a commit. When you make a commit, you’ll include a message about what you changed and/or why you changed it.This is a great way to let others know what you’ve changed and why.

Now your changes are in the head of your local working copy. To send the changes to your remote repository, run

git push

to push your changes right into your repository. If you’re working on your local computer and you want your commits to be visible online too, you would push the changes up to git hub with the git push command.

You can see if everything is up to date any time by running the git statuscommand!

So now you have a GitHub repository and you know how to add files and changes to it!

Congratulations!!!

Learning to work with others

Collaboration is the name of the game on GitHub!

Photo by Quinten de Graaf on Unsplash

GitHub flow

Let’s say you have a project going and you maybe have a lot of different ideas and features in mind at any given time. Some features might be ready to go, but some might not. Maybe you’re working with other people who are all kind of doing their own thing. This is where branching comes in!

A branch is a separate space where you can try out new ideas. If you change something on a branch, it doesn’t affect the master branch until you want it to. This means that you can do whatever you want to do on that branch until you decide it’s time to merge it.

The only branch that’s going to permanently change things is the master branch. If you don’t want your changes to deploy immediately, then make your changes on a separate branch and merge them into the master branch when you’re ready.

If you’re working with others and want to make changes on your own, or if you’re working on your own and want to make changes without affecting the master branch, you want a separate branch. You can create a new branch at any time.

It’s also pretty simple to create a branch named “new_feature” in your terminal and switch to it with

git checkout -b new_feature

Once you create a branch, you can make changes on that branch. This makes it easy to see what you’ve changed and why you’ve changed it. Every time you commit your changes, you’ll add a message that you can use to describe what you’ve done.

Let’s talk about checkout!

git checkout

lets you check out a repository that you’re not currently inside of. You can check out the master branch with

git checkout master

or look at the “new_feature” branch with

git checkout new_feature

When you’re done with a branch, you can merge all of your changes back so that they’re visible to everyone.

git merge new_feature

will take all of the changes you made to the “new_feature” branch and add them to the master.

In order to create an upstream branch so that you can push your changes and set the remote branch as upstream, you will push your feature by running

git push --set-upstream origin new_feature

After you make some changes and decide you like them, you open a pull request. If you’re on a team, this is when other people on your team can start checking out your changes and discussing them. You can open a pull request at any point, whether it’s to have people look over your final changes or ask for help because you’re stuck on something.

Ummmmm…what? Can I do that on the website?

You can!

One way to do this is simply by checking that button that we mentioned earlier when we were editing the README file. Super easy!

You can also create a new branch any time right on the website by going to your repository, clicking the drop-down menu near the left-middle side of your screen that says “Branch: master,” typing a branch name, and selecting the “Create branch” link (or hitting enter on your keyboard). Now you have two branches that look the same! This is a great place to make changes and test them out before you want to make them affect the master branch.

Creating a branch

If you’re working on a separate branch, your changes only affect that branch.

If you’re happy with your changes and you want to merge your changes to the master branch, you can open a pull request. This is how, if you were on a team, you would propose your changes and ask someone to review them or pull in your contribution and merge them into their branch.

You can open a pull request as soon as you make a commit, even if you haven’t finished your code. You can do this right on the website if you’re more comfortable with that. If you’ve made some changes on your branch and you want to merge them, you can

    • Click the pull request tab near the top center of the screen
    • Click the green “New pull request” button
    • Go to the “Example Comparisons” box and select the branch you made to compare with the original branch.
    • Look over your changes to make sure they’re really what you want to commit.
  • Then click the big green “Create pull request” button. Give it a title and write a brief description of your changes. Then click “Create Pull Request!”
New pull request
Create pull request

Now if this is your repository, you can merge your pull request by clicking the green “Merge pull request” button to merge the changes into master. Click “Confirm merge,” then delete the branch after your branch has been incorporated with the “Delete branch” button in the purple box.

If you’re contributing to a project, people on the team (or the reviewer) might have questions or comments. If you need to change something, this is the time! If everything is good to go, they can deploy the changes right from the branch for final testing before you merge it. And you can deploy your changes to verify them in production.

If your changes have been verified, you can go ahead and merge your code into the master branch. The pull requests will preserve a record of your changes, which means that you can go through them any time to understand the changes and decisions that have been made.

Update and merge

If you’re working on your computer and want the most up-to-date version of a repository, you’d pull the changes down from GitHub with the git pullcommand. To update your local repository to the newest commit, run

git pull

in your working directory.

To merge another branch into your active branch, use

git merge <branch_name>

Git will try to auto-merge changes, but this isn’t always possible. Conflicts might arise. If they do, you’ll need to merge the conflicts manually. After changing them, you can mark them as merged with git add <filename>. You can preview your changes before you merge them with

git diff <source_branch> <target_branch>

You can switch back to to the master branch with

git checkout master

You’ll make your changes and then delete the branch when you’re done with

git branch -d new_feature

This branch isn’t available to anyone else unless you push the branch to your remote repository with

git push origin <branch>

Other helpful commands

First of all, this is my favorite GitHub cheatsheet. Check it out for all of the most useful Git commands!

You can see the commit history of the repository if you run

git log

You can see one person’s commits with

git log --author=<name>

You can see what has been changed but not staged yet with

git diff

Need help remembering what command you’re supposed to run? Try

git help

to see the 21 most common commands. You can also type something like

git help clone

to figure out how to use a specific command like “clone.”

Let’s do this!

Photo by Mervyn Chan on Unsplash

Why not leave your mark and welcome everyone who’s here to learn about Git and GitHub? We’re going to create a simple welcome wall with notes from everyone who wants to try out Git and GitHub and contribute to their first open-source project.

You can add whatever you want to the welcome wall, as long as you keep it warm and encouraging. Add a note, add an image, whatever. Make our little world better in whatever way makes you happy. (If you’re an overthinker (I see you ❤️), I have a pre-written message in the README file that you can just copy and paste.)

git clone https://github.com/bonn0062/github_welcome_wall.git
    • Create a new branch and add a welcoming and encouraging thought to the “welcome_wall.md” file. You can do this on the website, but I really encourage you to try cloning the repository to your computer, opening the file with your favorite text editor, and adding your message there. It’s just good learning!
  • Write a quick note describing your change and click the green button to create your pull request.

That’s it! If it’s a decent message, thought, image, or idea, I’ll merge your request and you will have successfully contributed to an open-source project.

Congratulations!!! You did it!

As always, if you do anything awesome with this information, I’d love to hear about it! Leave a message in the responses section or reach out any time on Twitter @annebonnerdata.

If you liked this article, you might want to check out:

Thanks for reading!

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