Let’s Encrypt is a Certificate Authority (CA) that provides an easy way to obtain and install free TLS/SSL certificates, thereby enabling encrypted HTTPS on web servers. It simplifies the process by providing a software client, Certbot, that attempts to automate most (if not all) of the required steps. Currently, the entire process of obtaining and installing a certificate is fully automated on both Apache and Nginx.
In this tutorial, you will use Certbot to obtain a free SSL certificate for Apache on Debian 9 and set up your certificate to renew automatically.
This tutorial will use a separate Apache virtual host file instead of the default configuration file. We recommend creating new Apache virtual host files for each domain because it helps to avoid common mistakes and maintains the default files as a fallback configuration.
To follow this tutorial, you will need:
One Debian 9 server set up by following this initial server setup for Debian 9 tutorial, including a non-root user with
sudoprivileges and a firewall.
A fully registered domain name. This tutorial will use example.com throughout. You can purchase a domain name on Namecheap, get one for free on Freenom, or use the domain registrar of your choice.
Both of the following DNS records set up for your server. You can follow this introduction to DigitalOcean DNS for details on how to add them.
- An A record with
example.compointing to your server’s public IP address.
- An A record with
www.example.compointing to your server’s public IP address.
- An A record with
Apache installed by following How To Install Apache on Debian 9. Be sure that you have a virtual host file for your domain. This tutorial will use
/etc/apache2/sites-available/example.com.confas an example.
Step 1 — Installing Certbot
The first step to using Let’s Encrypt to obtain an SSL certificate is to install the Certbot software on your server.
As of this writing, Certbot is not available from the Debian software repositories by default. In order to download the software using
apt, you will need to add the backports repository to your
sources.list file where
apt looks for package sources. Backports are packages from Debian’s testing and unstable distributions that are recompiled so they will run without new libraries on stable Debian distributions.
To add the backports repository, open (or create) the
sources.list file in your
- sudo nano /etc/apt/sources.list
At the bottom of the file, add the following line:
. . . deb http://ftp.debian.org/debian stretch-backports main
This includes the
main packages, which are Debian Free Software Guidelines (DFSG)-compliant, as well as the
contrib components, which are either not DFSG-compliant themselves or include dependencies in this category.
Save and close the file by pressing
ENTER, then update your package lists:
Then install Certbot with the following command. Note that the
-t option tells
apt to search for the package by looking in the backports repository you just added:
- sudo apt install python-certbot-apache -t stretch-backports
Certbot is now ready to use, but in order for it to configure SSL for Apache, we need to verify that Apache has been configured correctly.
Step 2 — Setting Up the SSL Certificate
Certbot needs to be able to find the correct virtual host in your Apache configuration for it to automatically configure SSL. Specifically, it does this by looking for a
ServerName directive that matches the domain you request a certificate for.
If you followed the virtual host set up step in the Apache installation tutorial, you should have a
VirtualHost block for your domain at
/etc/apache2/sites-available/example.com.conf with the
ServerName directive already set appropriately.
To check, open the virtual host file for your domain using
nano or your favorite text editor:
- sudo nano /etc/apache2/sites-available/example.com.conf
Find the existing
ServerName line. It should look like this, with your own domain name instead of
... ServerName example.com; ...
If it doesn’t already, update the
ServerName directive to point to your domain name. Then save the file, quit your editor, and verify the syntax of your configuration edits:
- sudo apache2ctl configtest
If there aren't any syntax errors, you will see this output:
If you get an error, reopen the virtual host file and check for any typos or missing characters. Once your configuration file's syntax is correct, reload Apache to load the new configuration:
- sudo systemctl reload apache2
Certbot can now find the correct VirtualHost block and update it.
Next, let's update the firewall to allow HTTPS traffic.
Step 3 — Allowing HTTPS Through the Firewall
If you have the
ufw firewall enabled, as recommended by the prerequisite guides, you'll need to adjust the settings to allow for HTTPS traffic. Luckily, when installed on Debian,
ufw comes packaged with a few profiles that help to simplify the process of changing firewall rules for HTTP and HTTPS traffic.
You can see the current setting by typing:
If you followed the Step 2 of our guide on How to Install Apache on Debian 9, the output of this command will look like this, showing that only HTTP traffic is allowed to the web server:
OutputStatus: active To Action From -- ------ ---- OpenSSH ALLOW Anywhere WWW ALLOW Anywhere OpenSSH (v6) ALLOW Anywhere (v6) WWW (v6) ALLOW Anywhere (v6)
To additionally let in HTTPS traffic, allow the “WWW Full” profile and delete the redundant “WWW” profile allowance:
- sudo ufw allow 'WWW Full'
- sudo ufw delete allow 'WWW'
Your status should now look like this:
OutputStatus: active To Action From -- ------ ---- OpenSSH ALLOW Anywhere WWW Full ALLOW Anywhere OpenSSH (v6) ALLOW Anywhere (v6) WWW Full (v6) ALLOW Anywhere (v6)
Next, let's run Certbot and fetch our certificates.
Step 4 — Obtaining an SSL Certificate
Certbot provides a variety of ways to obtain SSL certificates through plugins. The Apache plugin will take care of reconfiguring Apache and reloading the config whenever necessary. To use this plugin, type the following:
- sudo certbot --apache -d example.com -d www.example.com
certbot with the
--apache plugin, using
-d to specify the names you'd like the certificate to be valid for.
If this is your first time running
certbot, you will be prompted to enter an email address and agree to the terms of service. After doing so,
certbot will communicate with the Let's Encrypt server, then run a challenge to verify that you control the domain you're requesting a certificate for.
If that's successful,
certbot will ask how you'd like to configure your HTTPS settings:
OutputPlease choose whether or not to redirect HTTP traffic to HTTPS, removing HTTP access. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------- 1: No redirect - Make no further changes to the webserver configuration. 2: Redirect - Make all requests redirect to secure HTTPS access. Choose this for new sites, or if you're confident your site works on HTTPS. You can undo this change by editing your web server's configuration. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Select the appropriate number [1-2] then [enter] (press 'c' to cancel):
Select your choice then hit
ENTER. The configuration will be updated, and Apache will reload to pick up the new settings.
certbot will wrap up with a message telling you the process was successful and where your certificates are stored:
OutputIMPORTANT NOTES: - Congratulations! Your certificate and chain have been saved at: /etc/letsencrypt/live/example.com/fullchain.pem Your key file has been saved at: /etc/letsencrypt/live/example.com/privkey.pem Your cert will expire on 2018-12-04. To obtain a new or tweaked version of this certificate in the future, simply run certbot again with the "certonly" option. To non-interactively renew *all* of your certificates, run "certbot renew" - Your account credentials have been saved in your Certbot configuration directory at /etc/letsencrypt. You should make a secure backup of this folder now. This configuration directory will also contain certificates and private keys obtained by Certbot so making regular backups of this folder is ideal. - If you like Certbot, please consider supporting our work by: Donating to ISRG / Let's Encrypt: https://letsencrypt.org/donate Donating to EFF: https://eff.org/donate-le
Your certificates are downloaded, installed, and loaded. Try reloading your website using
https:// and notice your browser's security indicator. It should indicate that the site is properly secured, usually with a green lock icon. If you test your server using the SSL Labs Server Test, it will get an A grade.
Let's finish by testing the renewal process.
Step 5 — Verifying Certbot Auto-Renewal
Let's Encrypt's certificates are only valid for ninety days. This is to encourage users to automate their certificate renewal process. The
certbot package we installed takes care of this for us by adding a renew script to
/etc/cron.d. This script runs twice a day and will automatically renew any certificate that's within thirty days of expiration.
To test the renewal process, you can do a dry run with
- sudo certbot renew --dry-run
If you see no errors, you're all set. When necessary, Certbot will renew your certificates and reload Apache to pick up the changes. If the automated renewal process ever fails, Let’s Encrypt will send a message to the email you specified, warning you when your certificate is about to expire.
In this tutorial, you installed the Let's Encrypt client
certbot, downloaded SSL certificates for your domain, configured Apache to use these certificates, and set up automatic certificate renewal. If you have further questions about using Certbot, their documentation is a good place to start.