Git is an open source distributed version control system created in 2005 by Linus Torvalds and others from the Linux development community. Git can work with many types of projects, but it's most commonly used for software source code.

Version control is a system that keeps track of changes to a file or group of files over time. When you have a history of these changes, it lets you find specific versions later, compares changes between versions, recovers files you may have deleted, revert files to previous versions, and to experiment with different code solutions to the same problem.

The last point deserves emphasis. Although many people focus on git's ability to revert to previous versions, one of its most powerful features is that branching (creating a new version) is not only very easy and fast, it also uses very little hard disk space. New developers often don't take advantage of the ability to quickly create experiments to help them work with several candidate solutions and as a starting point for discussing each branch/solution with other developers. While junior devs might try to accomplish the same thing by commenting out code in the same version, an experienced dev will just take the few seconds required to create a new branch.

A distributed version control system means that different users maintain their own repositories of a project, instead of working from one central repository. Users automatically have full file tracking abilities and the project's complete version history without needing access to a central server or network.

When Git is initialized in a project directory, it begins tracking file changes and stores them as "changesets" or "patches." Users working together on a project submit their changesets which are then included (or rejected) in the project.

Table of Contents

Understand the Three Sections of a Git Project

A Git project has the following three main sections:

  1. Git directory
  2. Working directory (or working tree)
  3. Staging area

The Git directory (located in YOUR-PROJECT-PATH/.git/) is where Git stores everything it needs to accurately track the project. This includes metadata and an object database which includes compressed versions of the project files.

The working directory is where a user makes local changes to a project. The working directory pulls the project's files from the Git directory's object database and places them on the user's local machine.

Note: Directory is also known as Repository or short form repo. The repo on the user's local machine is called "Local repo" while the repo on git server is called "Remote repo".

The staging area is a file (also called the "index", "stage", or "cache") that stores information about what will go into your next commit. A commit is when you tell Git to save these staged changes. Git takes a snapshot of the files as they are and permanently stores that snapshot in the Git directory.

With three sections, there are three main states that a file can be in at any given time: committed, modified, or staged. You modify a file any time you make changes to it in your working directory. Next, it's staged when you move it to the staging area. Finally, it's committed after a commit.

Install Git

Configure the Git Environment

Git has a git config tool that allows you to customize your Git environment. You can change the way Git looks and functions by setting certain configuration variables. Run these commands from a command line interface on your machine (Terminal in Mac, Command Prompt or Powershell in Windows).

There are three levels of where these configuration variables are stored:

  1. System: located in /etc/gitconfig, applies default settings to every user of the computer. To make changes to this file, use the --system option with the git config command.
  2. User: located in ~/.gitconfig or ~/.config/git/config, applies settings to a single user. To make changes to this file, use the --global option with the git config command.
  3. Project: located in YOUR-PROJECT-PATH/.git/config, applies settings to the project only. To make changes to this file, use the git config command.

If there are settings that conflict with each other, the project-level configurations will override the user-level ones, and the user-level configurations will override the system-level ones.

Note for Windows users: Git looks for the user-level configuration file (.gitconfig) in your $HOME directory (C:\Users\$USER). Git also looks for /etc/gitconfig, although it's relative to the MSys root, which is wherever you decide to install Git on your Windows system when you run the installer. If you are using version 2.x or later of Git for Windows, there is also a system-level config file at C:\Documents and Settings\All Users\Application Data\Git\config on Windows XP, and in C:\ProgramData\Git\config on Windows Vista and newer. This config file can only be changed by git config -f FILE as an admin.

Add Your Name and Email

Git includes the user name and email as part of the information in a commit. You'll want to set this up under your user-level configuration file with these commands:

git config --global "My Name"
git config --global ""

Change Your Text Editor

Git automatically uses your default text editor (usually Vi or Vim) when you are prompted to edit a message (e.g. when amending a commit). You can change this by setting the core.editor in your Git Config. Below are examples for some popular editors:

Edit using Atom
git config --global core.editor "atom --wait"

The --wait option tells the shell to wait for the text editor to close before returning, therefore you can make your changes in the editor before git applies your message.

Edit using VS Code
git config --global core.editor "code --new-window --wait"

The --new-window option tells VS Code to open the message in a new window that you can safely close when done.

Edit using Sublime Text
git config --global core.editor "subl -n -w"
Edit using Notepad++ (Windows)
git config core.editor "'C:\Program Files (x86)\Notepad++\notepad++.exe' -multiInst -notabbar -nosession -noPlugin"

Omit (x86) from the path if the 64-bit version of notepad++ is installed.

Launching your editor

After setting your core.editor you may wish to test to make sure it is configured correctly. Running the below command will launch the current config in your editor of choice:

git config --edit

Add Color to Git Output

You can configure your shell to add color to Git output with this command:

git config --global color.ui true

To see all your configuration settings, use the command git config --list.

Initialize Git in a Project

Once Git is installed and configured on your computer, you need to initialize it in your project to start using its version control powers. In the command line, use the cd command to navigate to the top-level (or root) folder for your project. Next, run the command git init. This installs a Git directory folder with all the files and objects Git needs to track your project.

It's important that the Git directory is installed in the project root folder. Git can track files in subfolders, but it won't track files located in a parent folder relative to the Git directory.

Clone a Git Project

You can also clone a project from github by using the command git clone followed by the link. An example of a link is

Get Help in Git

If you forget how any command works in Git, you can access Git help from the command line several ways:

git help COMMAND
git COMMAND --help
man git-COMMAND

This displays the manual page for the command in your shell window. To navigate, scroll with the up and down arrow keys or use the following keyboard shortcuts:

  • f or spacebar to page forward
  • b to page back
  • q to quit


This article uses information from the Pro Git book, written by Scott Chacon and Ben Straub and published by Apress. The book is displayed in full in the Git documentation.

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