Auto renewing SSL certs for free

I’m mainly writing this post for my own reference, I’m assuming most people have heard of and their free tool certbot for creating and automating SSL certification requests and renewals. I used to use startssl’s free service but it was a lot of hassle.

I’ll explain the basic steps I use below, if you use a different server you’ll want to checkout the certbot user guide yourself.

Installing SSL certs on your own server running nginx

Make sure certbot is installed on your server, I normally place it in /home/deploy/certbot-auto

$ wget
$ chmod a+x certbot-auto

Setup an SSL cert for the first time

# If its a rails app or similar make sure to point web root to the public/ folder
$ /home/deploy/certbot-auto certonly --webroot -w /var/www/ -d -d

Edit nginx config to use this SSL cert

Below is the nginx config for this blog

server {
  listen 80;
  listen 443 ssl http2;
  server_tokens off;
  root /var/www/;

  if ($scheme = http) {
    return 301 https://$server_name$request_uri;

  add_header Strict-Transport-Security "max-age=31536000";

  ssl_certificate /etc/letsencrypt/live/;
  ssl_certificate_key /etc/letsencrypt/live/;
  ssl_prefer_server_ciphers on;
  ssl_protocols TLSv1.1 TLSv1.2;

  # OCSP stapling - means nginx will poll the CA for signed OCSP responses,
  # and send them to clients so clients don't make their own OCSP calls.
  # while the ssl_certificate above may omit the root cert if the CA is trusted,
  # ssl_trusted_certificate below must point to a chain of **all** certs
  # in the trust path - (your cert, intermediary certs, root cert)
  # and below are Google's public IPv4 DNS servers.
  # nginx will use them to talk to the CA.
  ssl_stapling on;
  ssl_stapling_verify on;
  resolver valid=86400;
  resolver_timeout 10;
  ssl_trusted_certificate /etc/letsencrypt/live/;

  access_log  /var/www/;
  error_log   /var/www/;

  include global/static-asset-caching.conf;

  error_page 404 /404/;

  location / {
    expires 5m;
    add_header Cache-Control public;
    try_files $uri $uri/index.html $uri.html =404;

  location =404 {

Automating the renewal process

Once you have your certificate setup its very easy to autorenew, if your like me and host a bunch of different sites on the same server this makes it even handier! We just setup an entry in cron to handle it.

Open up crontab with crontab -e and add the following to your crontab:

# Auto update SSL certs
17 9,21 * * * /home/deploy/certbot-auto renew --quiet --no-self-upgrade  --post-hook "service nginx restart"

There is a method to the madness of the odd cron timing, certbot ask us to run this at a random minute of the hour, I think it’s to keep load on their servers random. They also recommend running it twice a day incase there are certificate revocations.

You can test the auto renewal process first and make sure it will work for your domains by doing a dry run:

/home/deploy/certbot-auto renew --no-self-upgrade --dry-run

Using certbot with heroku

I like to host more important apps apps and client projects on heroku, now that they offer free SSL SNI endpoints you can have a custom domain and free SSL. It’s not quite as easy to automate as it is for your own server (if anyone has automated this more please drop me a comment, I would appreciate it a lot).

Install certbot on your local machine (I’m using a mac and homebrew)

$ brew install certbot

# Run the GUI to generate a new certificate
$ sudo certbot certonly --manual

Run the GUI to setup the certificate, you’ll be prompted to enter the domain name, then it will ouput some files you need to add to your webroot, i.e. .well-know/acme-challenge/[big-random-string], you’ll also need to add [big-random-string-two] into this file.

If you’re using rails just add this file to your public folder public/.well-known/acme-challenge/[big-random-string]. If you’re using PHP or something served via nginx you can add an nginx directive:

location ^~ /.well-known/acme-challenge/raJtRcOqY5BHHoWqFmOfZxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx {
    return 200 'raJtRcOqY5BHHoWqFmOfZxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx.PG8wgxxxxxx-4xSiGGP2XkQAxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx';

Once you have added the file to your web root or nginx directive deploy your app to heroku and then hit Enter on the certbot script for it to validate your challenge and issue a certificate. I’ve found you need to act reasonably quickly so the request doesn’t timeout, try and deploy within 5 minutes of issuing the cert request.

Once your certificate is validated and downloaded onto your own machine you’ll want to push it to heroku

$ sudo heroku certs:add /etc/letsencrypt/live/ /etc/letsencrypt/live/ -a pooreffort

Renewing heroku certs

For now there doesn’t seem to be a nice way of renewing the manual certs, you have to just run through the same steps again. It’s not too bad as letsencrypt will email you before your cert expires.


I have previously recommended SSL across the board for all sites and now it’s not only a requirement but now a lot easier to work with thanks to certbot!

If you need help with your web or mobile application I’m a partner at Dawson Andrews, we specialise in digital strategy and product thinking, building rich web apps and native mobile apps.

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