How to Recover from Lost SSH Keys

SSH keys are our recommended method of authentication for Droplets on DigitalOcean. Password authentication is disabled by default on Droplets created with an SSH key because it increases the Droplet’s overall security. However, it also means that if you lose your SSH key, you need to use the Droplet console to restore SSH access.

On any version of Ubuntu, Debian, CentOS, or Fedora 27, the overall process to restore access is:

  1. Reset the Droplet’s root password via the control panel so you can connect using the Droplet console.
  2. Log in using the Droplet console to gain access to the Droplet’s SSH configuration.
  3. Enable password authentication by editing the SSH config and restarting the SSH service.

After that, you’ll be able to log in to the Droplet via SSH again by using the new root password. You can also then re-add new SSH keys.

Warning
On FreeBSD, Fedora 28, Fedora Atomic, CoreOS, and RancherOS, which are operating systems with internally-managed passwords, it’s currently not possible to externally reset the root password. If you lose access in this case, we instead recommend creating a snapshot of that Droplet and redeploying to a new Droplet to which you have access.

Reset the Droplet’s Root Password

First, you’ll need to force the Droplet to generate a new root password.

Navigate to the control panel. From the project the Droplet is in, or from the main navigation’s Droplets page, locate the Droplet. Click the Droplet’s name to open its detail page, then select Access in the left navigation.

Screenshot of a Droplet's Access page with the Launch Console button

Click Reset Root Password to send an email to the address associated with your DigitalOcean account. You can use the password provided to log in to your Droplet through the console.

Log in to the Droplet via the Droplet Console

Even though you have a root password for the Droplet, if you try to log in via SSH using that password right now, you’ll get a Permission denied (publickey) error. This is because password authentication is still disabled on the Droplet. To fix that, you need to log in via the Droplet console and update its SSH configuration.

There are detailed instructions on how to connect to Droplets with the Droplet console for a more explicit walkthrough, but here’s a brief summary:

  1. On the Droplet’s detail page, in the same Access tab, click the Launch Console button.

  2. At the login prompt, enter root as the username.

  3. At the subsequent password prompt, enter the root password you were sent via email. Most distributions prompt you to enter the password twice, but some (like Fedora 27) do not.

    The web console supports pasting text with Ctrl+v on Windows or Command+v on macOS, so you don’t have to retype the password from the email.

  4. Enter a new root password to replace the one that was emailed to you, then enter that same new password again.

Once you confirm the new password, you are logged in as root in the Droplet console, which gives you access to the Droplet’s SSH configuration.

Enable Password Authentication

To enable password authentication on your Droplet, you need to modify a line in its SSH config file, which is /etc/ssh/sshd_config.

Open /etc/ssh/sshd_config using your preferred text editor, like nano or vim. Find the line that reads PasswordAuthentication no line and change it to PasswordAuthentication yes, then save and exit the file.

Because the SSH daemon only reads its configuration files when it’s first starting, you need to restart it for these changes to take effect. The command to do this depends on your operating system:

Operating System SSH Restart Command
Ubuntu 14.x service ssh restart
Ubuntu 15.4 and up systemctl restart ssh
Debian systemctl restart ssh
CentOS 6 service sshd restart
CentOS 7 systemctl restart sshd
Fedora systemctl restart sshd

After you restart the SSH daemon, you can connect to the Droplet via SSH as root with the newly-created root password. You can also then create a new SSH keypair and add it to the Droplet. If you use the root user to append a new SSH key to another user’s authorized_keys file, ensure the file maintains the proper ownership. How to Upload an SSH Public Key to an Existing Droplet provides detailed guidance.