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Instructions for exporting/importing (backup/restore) GPG keys

Every so often I have to restore my gpg keys and I'm never sure how best to do it. So, I've spent some time playing around with the various ways to export/import (backup/restore) keys.

Method 1

Backup the public and secret keyrings and trust database

cp ~/.gnupg/pubring.gpg /path/to/backups/
cp ~/.gnupg/secring.gpg /path/to/backups/
cp ~/.gnupg/trustdb.gpg /path/to/backups/
# or, instead of backing up trustdb...
gpg --export-ownertrust > chrisroos-ownertrust-gpg.txt

NOTE The GPG manual suggests exporting the ownertrust instead of backing up the trustdb, although it doesn't explain why.

Restore the public and secret keyrings and trust database

cp /path/to/backups/*.gpg ~/.gnupg/
# or, if you exported the ownertrust
gpg --import-ownertrust chrisroos-ownertrust-gpg.txt

Method 2

This only really works if you don't mind losing any other keys (than your own).

Export public and secret key and ownertrust

gpg -a --export chris@seagul.co.uk > chrisroos-public-gpg.key
gpg -a --export-secret-keys chris@seagul.co.uk > chrisroos-secret-gpg.key
gpg --export-ownertrust > chrisroos-ownertrust-gpg.txt

Import secret key (which contains the public key) and ownertrust

gpg --import chrisroos-secret-gpg.key
gpg --import-ownertrust chrisroos-ownertrust-gpg.txt

Method 3

This is mainly about trusting my key once I've imported it (by either restoring the pubring.gpg and secring.gpg, or by using --import). This seems to be what I do the most as I either forget to import the trustdb or ownertrust.

Ultimately trust the imported key

This is so that I can encrypt data using my public key

gpg --edit-key chris@seagul.co.uk
gpg> trust
Your decision? 5 (Ultimate trust)

NOTE If I don't trust the public key then I see the following message when trying to encrypt something with it:

gpg: <key-id>: There is no assurance this key belongs to the named user
@NotZappy

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commented Nov 12, 2013

Regarding the trustdb vs ownertrust export thing: the GPG manual actually does explain why --export-ownertrust is preferred, albeit on a different page:

This is useful for backup purposes as these values are the only ones which can't be re-created from a corrupted trustdb.

@jeifour

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commented Jul 31, 2015

I still don't understand why this would be better over backing up the trustdb. The trustdb should only be corrupted if the backup is corrupted, I would assume. And if the backup is corrupted, the ownertrust.txt export would also be corrupted.

@sagikazarmark

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commented Apr 11, 2016

The trustdb should only be corrupted if the backup is corrupted, I would assume.

Not necessarily. The ownertrust export stores the values in plain text form (fingerprint:level), while trustdb don't. It could be corrupted because of GPG version incompatibilities and a number of other reasons.

@r5d

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commented May 31, 2016

Wrote a script to automate the backup. It is at https://git.ricketyspace.net/dip/plain/usr/local/bin/gnupg-backup

@tzeejay

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commented Sep 13, 2016

Thanks for collecting this, and to everyone else for the thoughtful conversation.

@xuhdev

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commented Feb 11, 2017

Is method 2 a superset of method 1? Seems method 1 is only one step in method 2.

@atepavicharov

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commented Aug 9, 2017

Any ideas why importing ownertrust from file gives me gpg: error in 'myownertrustfile.txt' line too long ?

@wouerner

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commented Aug 24, 2017

Very good! Thanks!

@cmcginty

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commented Sep 15, 2017

You can simplify Method 3 a little by extending the command to:

gpg --edit-key chris@seagul.co.uk trust quit

There is also a way to run the command in a non-interactive mode:

expect -c "spawn gpg --edit-key chris@seagul.co.uk trust quit; send \"5\ry\r\"; expect eof"
@briceburg

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commented Oct 9, 2017

@cmcginty nice usage of expect to automate this!

@benjarrell

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commented Feb 28, 2018

@atepavicharov Try converting the line endings from CRLF to LF (or vice-versa).

@jkostolansky

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commented May 22, 2018

Another way:

echo -e "5\ny\n" | gpg --command-fd 0 --edit-key chris@seagul.co.uk trust quit
@dandv

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commented Dec 27, 2018

Method 1 failed because I had previous run gpg2 --list-keys --keyid-format LONG, which created some files and directories in ~/.gnupg/. Make sure to delete those first, before restoring the .gpg files from the backup.

@aioobe

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commented Mar 11, 2019

Regarding Method 1, see What’s new in GnuPG 2.1: Removal of the secret keyring

@michaelw85

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commented Mar 15, 2019

Thanks for this gist!

Method 2:

A little note for Windows users.

Export
When you exporting (via powershell) the output file will be encoded with BOM. If you try to import this will make the import fail with an error.

gpg: [don't know]: partial length invalid for packet type 63
gpg: read_block: read error: Invalid packet
gpg: import from '.\****.key' failed: Invalid keyring
gpg: Total number processed: 0

To resolve this issue change the encoding of the file to UTF8 without BOM.

Import

Import using git bash.
Git bash and powershell are using different homedirs at my work setup due to roaming profiles.

If you get the following error:

gpg: key abc: public key "xxxx <yourmail@mail.com>" imported
gpg: can't connect to the agent: IPC connect call failed
gpg: error getting the KEK: No agent running
gpg: Total number processed: 1
gpg:               imported: 1
gpg:       secret keys read: 1

Try starting the agent using the following command and retry:
gpgconf --launch gpg-agent

@e18r

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commented Mar 29, 2019

Is the exported private key (symmetrically) encrypted? If not, don't you think it's kind of important as a backup practice?

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