Topics ▾ Version ▾ user-manual last updated in 2.13.0

How to check out a different version of a project

Git is best thought of as a tool for storing the history of a collection of files. It stores the history as a compressed collection of interrelated snapshots of the project's contents. In git each such version is called a commit.

Those snapshots aren't necessarily all arranged in a single line from oldest to newest; instead, work may simultaneously proceed along parallel lines of development, called branches, which may merge and diverge.

A single git repository can track development on multiple branches. It does this by keeping a list of heads which reference the latest commit on each branch; the git-branch(1) command shows you the list of branch heads:

$ git branch
* master

A freshly cloned repository contains a single branch head, by default named "master", with the working directory initialized to the state of the project referred to by that branch head.

Most projects also use tags. Tags, like heads, are references into the project's history, and can be listed using the git-tag(1) command:

$ git tag -l

Tags are expected to always point at the same version of a project, while heads are expected to advance as development progresses.

Create a new branch head pointing to one of these versions and check it out using git-checkout(1):

$ git checkout -b new v2.6.13

The working directory then reflects the contents that the project had when it was tagged v2.6.13, and git-branch(1) shows two branches, with an asterisk marking the currently checked-out branch:

$ git branch
* new

If you decide that you'd rather see version 2.6.17, you can modify the current branch to point at v2.6.17 instead, with

$ git reset --hard v2.6.17

Note that if the current branch head was your only reference to a particular point in history, then resetting that branch may leave you with no way to find the history it used to point to; so use this command carefully.

Understanding History: Commits

Every change in the history of a project is represented by a commit. The git-show(1) command shows the most recent commit on the current branch:

$ git show
commit 17cf781661e6d38f737f15f53ab552f1e95960d7
Author: Linus Torvalds <>
Date:   Tue Apr 19 14:11:06 2005 -0700

    Remove duplicate getenv(DB_ENVIRONMENT) call

    Noted by Tony Luck.

diff --git a/init-db.c b/init-db.c
index 65898fa..b002dc6 100644
--- a/init-db.c
+++ b/init-db.c
@@ -7,7 +7,7 @@
 int main(int argc, char **argv)
-	char *sha1_dir = getenv(DB_ENVIRONMENT), *path;
+	char *sha1_dir, *path;
 	int len, i;
 	if (mkdir(".git", 0755) < 0) {

As you can see, a commit shows who made the latest change, what they did, and why.

Every commit has a 40-hexdigit id, sometimes called the "object name" or the "SHA-1 id", shown on the first line of the "git show" output. You can usually refer to a commit by a shorter name, such as a tag or a branch name, but this longer name can also be useful. Most importantly, it is a globally unique name for this commit: so if you tell somebody else the object name (for example in email), then you are guaranteed that name will refer to the same commit in their repository that it does in yours (assuming their repository has that commit at all). Since the object name is computed as a hash over the contents of the commit, you are guaranteed that the commit can never change without its name also changing.

In fact, in we shall see that everything stored in git history, including file data and directory contents, is stored in an object with a name that is a hash of its contents.

Understanding history: commits, parents, and reachability

Every commit (except the very first commit in a project) also has a parent commit which shows what happened before this commit. Following the chain of parents will eventually take you back to the beginning of the project.

However, the commits do not form a simple list; git allows lines of development to diverge and then reconverge, and the point where two lines of development reconverge is called a "merge". The commit representing a merge can therefore have more than one parent, with each parent representing the most recent commit on one of the lines of development leading to that point.

The best way to see how this works is using the gitk(1) command; running gitk now on a git repository and looking for merge commits will help understand how the git organizes history.

In the following, we say that commit X is "reachable" from commit Y if commit X is an ancestor of commit Y. Equivalently, you could say that Y is a descendant of X, or that there is a chain of parents leading from commit Y to commit X.

Understanding history: History diagrams

We will sometimes represent git history using diagrams like the one below. Commits are shown as "o", and the links between them with lines drawn with - / and \. Time goes left to right:

         o--o--o <-- Branch A
 o--o--o <-- master
         o--o--o <-- Branch B

If we need to talk about a particular commit, the character "o" may be replaced with another letter or number.

Understanding history: What is a branch?

When we need to be precise, we will use the word "branch" to mean a line of development, and "branch head" (or just "head") to mean a reference to the most recent commit on a branch. In the example above, the branch head named "A" is a pointer to one particular commit, but we refer to the line of three commits leading up to that point as all being part of "branch A".

However, when no confusion will result, we often just use the term "branch" both for branches and for branch heads.

Manipulating branches

Creating, deleting, and modifying branches is quick and easy; here's a summary of the commands:

git branch

list all branches

git branch <branch>

create a new branch named <branch>, referencing the same point in history as the current branch

git branch <branch> <start-point>

create a new branch named <branch>, referencing <start-point>, which may be specified any way you like, including using a branch name or a tag name

git branch -d <branch>

delete the branch <branch>; if the branch you are deleting points to a commit which is not reachable from the current branch, this command will fail with a warning.

git branch -D <branch>

even if the branch points to a commit not reachable from the current branch, you may know that that commit is still reachable from some other branch or tag. In that case it is safe to use this command to force git to delete the branch.

git checkout <branch>

make the current branch <branch>, updating the working directory to reflect the version referenced by <branch>

git checkout -b <new> <start-point>

create a new branch <new> referencing <start-point>, and check it out.

The special symbol "HEAD" can always be used to refer to the current branch. In fact, git uses a file named "HEAD" in the .git directory to remember which branch is current:

$ cat .git/HEAD
ref: refs/heads/master

Examining an old version without creating a new branch

The git checkout command normally expects a branch head, but will also accept an arbitrary commit; for example, you can check out the commit referenced by a tag:

$ git checkout v2.6.17
Note: moving to "v2.6.17" which isn't a local branch
If you want to create a new branch from this checkout, you may do so
(now or later) by using -b with the checkout command again. Example:
  git checkout -b <new_branch_name>
HEAD is now at 427abfa... Linux v2.6.17

The HEAD then refers to the SHA-1 of the commit instead of to a branch, and git branch shows that you are no longer on a branch:

$ cat .git/HEAD
$ git branch
* (no branch)

In this case we say that the HEAD is "detached".

This is an easy way to check out a particular version without having to make up a name for the new branch. You can still create a new branch (or tag) for this version later if you decide to.

Examining branches from a remote repository

The "master" branch that was created at the time you cloned is a copy of the HEAD in the repository that you cloned from. That repository may also have had other branches, though, and your local repository keeps branches which track each of those remote branches, called remote-tracking branches, which you can view using the "-r" option to git-branch(1):

$ git branch -r

In this example, "origin" is called a remote repository, or "remote" for short. The branches of this repository are called "remote branches" from our point of view. The remote-tracking branches listed above were created based on the remote branches at clone time and will be updated by "git fetch" (hence "git pull") and "git push". See [Updating-a-repository-With-git-fetch] for details.

You might want to build on one of these remote-tracking branches on a branch of your own, just as you would for a tag:

$ git checkout -b my-todo-copy origin/todo

You can also check out "origin/todo" directly to examine it or write a one-off patch. See detached head.

Note that the name "origin" is just the name that git uses by default to refer to the repository that you cloned from.

Naming branches, tags, and other references

Branches, remote-tracking branches, and tags are all references to commits. All references are named with a slash-separated path name starting with "refs"; the names we've been using so far are actually shorthand:

  • The branch "test" is short for "refs/heads/test".

  • The tag "v2.6.18" is short for "refs/tags/v2.6.18".

  • "origin/master" is short for "refs/remotes/origin/master".

The full name is occasionally useful if, for example, there ever exists a tag and a branch with the same name.

(Newly created refs are actually stored in the .git/refs directory, under the path given by their name. However, for efficiency reasons they may also be packed together in a single file; see git-pack-refs(1)).

As another useful shortcut, the "HEAD" of a repository can be referred to just using the name of that repository. So, for example, "origin" is usually a shortcut for the HEAD branch in the repository "origin".

For the complete list of paths which git checks for references, and the order it uses to decide which to choose when there are multiple references with the same shorthand name, see the "SPECIFYING REVISIONS" section of gitrevisions(7).

Updating a repository with git fetch

Eventually the developer cloned from will do additional work in her repository, creating new commits and advancing the branches to point at the new commits.

The command "git fetch", with no arguments, will update all of the remote-tracking branches to the latest version found in her repository. It will not touch any of your own branches--not even the "master" branch that was created for you on clone.

Fetching branches from other repositories

You can also track branches from repositories other than the one you cloned from, using git-remote(1):

$ git remote add linux-nfs git://
$ git fetch linux-nfs
* refs/remotes/linux-nfs/master: storing branch 'master' ...
  commit: bf81b46

New remote-tracking branches will be stored under the shorthand name that you gave "git remote add", in this case linux-nfs:

$ git branch -r

If you run "git fetch <remote>" later, the remote-tracking branches for the named <remote> will be updated.

If you examine the file .git/config, you will see that git has added a new stanza:

$ cat .git/config
[remote "linux-nfs"]
	url = git://
	fetch = +refs/heads/*:refs/remotes/linux-nfs/*

This is what causes git to track the remote's branches; you may modify or delete these configuration options by editing .git/config with a text editor. (See the "CONFIGURATION FILE" section of git-config(1) for details.)