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 Ubuntu 18.04 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:
A fully registered domain name. This tutorial will use example.com throughout. You can purchase a domain name on resellerclub.com, 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.
- An A record with example.com pointing to your server's public IP address.
- An A record with www.example.com pointing to your server's public IP address.
- Apache installed by following How To Install Apache on Ubuntu 18.04. Be sure that you have a virtual host file for your domain. This tutorial will use /etc/apache2/sites-available/example.com.conf as 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.
Certbot is in very active development, so the Certbot packages provided by Ubuntu tend to be outdated. However, the Certbot developers maintain a Ubuntu software repository with up-to-date versions, so we'll use that repository instead.
First, add the repository:
sudo add-apt-repository ppa:certbot/certbot
You'll need to press ENTER to accept. Then, update the package list to pick up the new repository's package information:
sudo apt update
And finally, install Certbot's Apache package with apt:
sudo apt install python-certbot-apache
Certbot is now ready to use, but in order for it to configure SSL for Apache, we need to verify some of Apache's configuration.
Step 2 - Set 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:
/etc/apache2/sites-available/example.com.conf ... ServerName example.com; ...
If it does, exit your editor and move on to the next step.
If it doesn't, update it to match. Then save the file, quit your editor, and verify the syntax of your configuration edits:
sudo apache2ctl configtest
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, Apache registers a few profiles with ufw upon installation.
You can see the current setting by typing:
sudo ufw status
It will probably look like this, meaning that only HTTP traffic is allowed to the web server:
To Action From
OpenSSH ALLOW Anywhere Apache ALLOW Anywhere OpenSSH (v6) ALLOW Anywhere (v6) Apache (v6) ALLOW Anywhere (v6)
To additionally let in HTTPS traffic, allow the Apache Full profile and delete the redundant Apache profile allowance:
sudo ufw allow 'Apache Full' sudo ufw delete allow 'Apache'
Your status should now look like this:
sudo ufw status
To Action From
OpenSSH ALLOW Anywhere Apache Full ALLOW Anywhere OpenSSH (v6) ALLOW Anywhere (v6) Apache 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
This runs 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:
Please 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:
- 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 2018-07-23. 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 certbot:
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