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Recovering a Deleted GitHub Repository

If you are an organization enthusiast like me, you will be quick to hit the delete button on old repositories you’re no longer using. For personal projects, this is an effective way to keep your GitHub account clean. In shared organization accounts, it’s a great way to reduce the mental complexity of your codebase.

However, experienced programmers know the danger of carelessly deleting repositories. When you move too fast, essential files can easily get deleted, so it's a good idea to establish backups on anything you don't want to lose. Backups are mandatory for any type of database, so why not follow the same practice for valuable code?

Why would you want to delete a repository?

I find myself hitting the delete button on repositories just to keep my workspace as clean as possible. I’ve also had projects that began separately and merged later. In that case, one of the repos becomes deprecated and can safely be deleted. Sometimes a company flat out cancels a feature or product line in which case the code may sit around for a while before eventually being deleted. Finally, when forming a new GitHub organization where code is moved from a personal account, old repositories may no longer be needed.

Why would you want to recover a repository?

The main reason for wanting an old repo is that “Oh crap” moment when you realize you need to access an important file that’s now gone. Maybe it’s an old environment variable, a handcrafted `.gitignore` file, or a complicated configuration file that would be useful to copy. You could be re-implementing a feature and can’t remember the workaround for a specific browser incompatibility. You might have forgotten the name of a library you used before. You might want to check the issues in an old repository. You could just want to revive an old project that you gave up on previously.

Regardless of your reason, recovering deleted GitHub repositories is a pretty common task for developers. Fortunately, most repositories are recoverable, so read on to learn how.

Repository Recovery Method 1: Using the GitHub User Interface

So you just realized that you need to bring back an old repo. You're sweating bullets because you fear it's lost forever.

Fortunately, you might be able to recover your repository directly from GitHub. If you deleted your repo in the last 90 days and it is not a part of a <sup>\*</sup>fork network, you can recover directly in the GitHub UI. A fork network consists of a parent repository, the repository's forks, and forks of the repository's forks. If your repository was part of a fork network, it cannot be restored unless every other repository in the network is deleted or has been detached from the network.

The process differs slightly depending on whether your code is in a personal or organization’s account.

Recovering a Personal GitHub Repository

If you are recovering a personal repository that is not part of an organization, start by opening “Settings” in the top right dropdown menu.

Recovering a Personal GitHub Repository - Settings

Click on the “Repositories” menu item.

Recovering a Personal GitHub Repository - Repositories Menu

From that screen, you should see a section for deleted repositories in the top bar, click on that.

Recovering a Personal GitHub Repository - Deleted Section

You'll see that I have a repository that's available for recovery. Any repo that was deleted within the last 90 days and is not part of a fork network (as mentioned above) should show up in this list. Be aware, GitHub advises that some repos may take an hour to show up after deletion.

Click Restore and a caution message will appear. Confirm it to bring your repository back.

Recovering a Personal GitHub Repository with Restore

After a few seconds, the repository will show a “Done!” message next to it, and you can find it in your personal repositories list.

Recovering a Personal GitHub Repository - Restore

Recovering an Organization’s GitHub Repository

If the repository you need to restore is a part of an organization, start from the organization page.

Recovering an Organization’s GitHub Repository - select Organizations

This time, the option for “Deleted repositories” is available directly from the organization settings.

Recovering an Organization’s GitHub Repository - Deleted Repositories

Follow the same restoration steps as outlined above for recovering a personal repository.

GitHub’s solution is usually the right choice for individuals and smaller organizations whose deleted repositories meet the criteria. It's essential to keep in mind that there is a 90-day limit, after which GitHub may not be able to recover your code. When you need a longer-term backup or you’re facing certain compliance requirements, there is a better solution.

Repository Recovery Method 2: BackHub

For those that need a little more peace of mind than what GitHub offers, a cloud solution like BackHub may be the best option. While it’s a paid service, it offers several important features on top of simple repository recovery:

  • Nightly backups
  • Sync to Amazon S3
  • Audit log
  • Backing up issues, milestones, pull requests, etc.
  • Restore directly to GitHub
  • No 90-day limit on backup retention

If peace of mind is worth the cost (plans start at just $12/mo), then sign up for a free trial to give BackHub a try. Here’s the process for installing and recovering a GitHub repository using BackHub.

Install BackHub

After signing up for a free trial, you'll be directed to an install screen that sets up permissions with your GitHub account.

Installing BackHub to recover deleted GitHub repository

Select “All repositories” to back up everything or use the dropdown to choose the relevant repositories.

From there, log in to GitHub and authorize BackHub as an app.

Wait for a second for things to get set up...

Setting up BackHub

Once BackHub is configured, you’ll be taken to the BackHub dashboard. You will see a list of all the repositories you selected, including a timestamp of the last backup. BackHub will keep your backups up to date so you can recover them at any time.

Here's a sampling of some of the information it displays on each repository:

BackHub dashboard

Restore from BackHub

To complete the process, try restoring a repository from BackHub’s backups. Since I just created my account, I know that it's up to date with my latest code changes.

Click the Restore button in the repo dropdown.

Restore GitHub repository from BackHub

In the restore popup, you will be asked to authorize the BackHub app again. This installs a temporary app that you can remove after restoration is complete.

Install BackHub Restore app

Once the app is authorized click the Restore button in the BackHub dashboard again. You'll get a chance to name your repo. In this case, I'll stick with the default `<REPOSITORY_NAME>-restored` format and leave it private.

Restoring GitHub repositories with BackHub Restore

Once you hit restore, BackHub will get to work in the background. There is a status message at the top of the dashboard telling you the current state.

Restoring backup with BackHub App

That will quickly change to a success message.

Restore Backup with BackHub Success Message

Now when I go to my GitHub account, I see the restored repository:

Restored GitHub repository

If your code is stored in a GitHub organization account, BackHub requires a new plan for each organization. These can be set up from the dashboard as well.

BackHub organizations

Conclusion

In this post, you’ve seen two methods for recovering deleted GitHub repositories. While GitHub’s UI offers a free solution, the 90-day time limit and failure to support forked repositories may hamper its utility. BackHub allows you to store your backups in your own S3 bucket where they’re unaffected by GitHub downtime, but you have to plan ahead because it’s not built into GitHub by default.

Just like database backups, code backups should be considered early in the software development lifecycle. Once a repository is more than a toy project, you should have a backup and recovery plan as mission-critical code could be lost in a data breach, account compromise, or accidental deletion. If you’re interested in getting serious about code backups, check out BackHub’s GitHub repository backup and recovery tool.