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Set up a headless raspberry pi for fun!

Recently I bought a raspberry pi to experiment with. I want to try things like:

  • running a simple server
  • experimenting with different terminal commands
  • using it to try different databases
  • stream files
  • etc...

It's a great platform for experimenting because the pi itself is so inexpensive I don't worry too much about breaking it by accident.

After running around trying to find a spare keyboard and mouse I finally got it set up! Of course the next thing I wanted to do was make sure I could use it like a headless development environment. For those that don't know, this means that I didn't want to use any of the graphical interface. The way to do that is with Secure Shell (aka ssh).

Secure Shell (SSH) is a cryptographic network protocol for operating network services securely over an unsecured network.[1] The best known example application is for remote login to computer systems by users. - wikipedia

Basically this means that you can securely connect two computers to each other. In this case I wanted to use the terminal on my laptop to connect to the pi.

SSH via Username and Password

If you're on MacOS or Linux the terminal has the ssh command already available. The most basic ssh command allows you to connect by "answering" two questions - "which user?" and "what network address?" like this... ssh {user}@{address}. The default user is pi so our command would be ssh pi@123.456.7.89 (that's a pretend IP address. You can should find your pi's IP address before you start this). The terminal will then ask you for the password you set for that user. Enter it (you won't see it on screen), press enter and you should be in.

SSH Keys and Config

But, this is kind of a hassle. You may eventually need to connect to all kinds of systems. Remembering or keeping the passwords for all of them won't work in the long run. It would be better to simply type ssh pi (or something) and connect automatically. We can do that by creating a public and private key pair and a config file. At any time during this process, the command ls -la will show you everything in this directory. Here are the steps.

Make some keys!

In the terminal on your computer (not the pi), navigate to the ssh directory cd ~/.ssh. Next, use the command ssh-keygen -t rsa. You'll then be prompted for a file name for the keys. I like to make different key pairs for each device I want to connect to. This way I can easily find and/or replace them if needed. So, I might enter id_rsa-raspberry-pi. Here's the tricky bit. The terminal will ask you for a password. Don't enter one!. If you do, you'll have to enter it every time you want to connect with that ssh key which sort of defeats the purpose. Instead just hit enter twice. The terminal will then confirm that two files have been created. The one with the .pub suffix is the public key. This is what you will add to the pi. You'll also get an odd looking piece of "art". So that's fun!


Next, if you need to, create a config file like this - touch config. Use nano or vi to edit the file directly in the terminal like this - nano config. Now we want to enter four pieces of information.

  • The host: this is what will come after ssh when you want to connect
  • The user: this is the user on the pi
  • The hostname: in this case this is the IP address of the pi on the network
  • The identity file: this is the file with the private key.

Here's what a completed entry looks like

Host pi
  User pi
  Hostname 123.456.7.89
  IdentityFile ~/.ssh/id_rsa-raspberry-pi

The only thing left to do is get the public key onto the pi!


This will be the last time you'll need the password for the pi. Copy the contents of the .pub key into your clipboard and use the first method I described to connect to the pi. Next, you need to check the home directory of the pi for the .ssh directory. If it's not there, create one, enter it and add a file called authorized_keys

  • cd ~/ && ls -la
  • if needed - mkdir .ssh
  • cd .ssh
  • if needed - touch authorized_keys
  • paste the key into the file.
  • that's it!

Now you should be able to type ssh pi into the terminal and connect directly without needing to enter a password.


Sometimes you might run into a problem connecting because the permissions on the .ssh directory or the authorized_key file are wrong. To fix this, change the permissions on the directory to 700 and the file to 600.

chmod 700 .ssh
chmod 600 .ssh/authorized_keys