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Releasing the Power of Git

Child with a GitLens shirt on holding hands with 2 adults wearing a Git shirt and a VS Code shirt.

Using VS Code & Git

In this article, we will cover how you can combine some of the most powerful tools available to developers–VS Code and Git–to start making meaningful contributions to both open source and private projects. Before we get into driving Git with VS Code let’s start with some background.

Topics Covered in this Article

Prerequisites to Using Git in VS Code

Initializing a Git Repo in VS Code

Making Git Commits in VS Code

Connecting a Remote Repository with VS Code

Pushing Changes to a Remote in VS Code

Pulling Changes from a Remote in VS Code

What is VS Code?

Visual Studio Code or, VS Code, is a streamlined code editor available on Mac, Windows, and Linux that features an interactive debugger, a vast array of integrations with popular developer tools, and a plethora of extensions that make writing code easier. 

According to the StackOverflow 2021 Developer Survey, VS Code was the most popular integrated development environment by far with 71% of over 80,000 surveyed indicating that VS Code was their IDE of choice. For more information regarding VS Code’s functionality and history, visit VS Code’s official “Why VS Code” site.

What is Git?

Git is a distributed approach to version control. Git was created by Linus Torvalds in 2005 to manage the development of the Linux Kernel. Put simply, Git tracks changes made to your files allowing you to revert to previous file versions if necessary. 

GitLens – A Hack for Driving Git with VS Code

There’s one VS Code extension that will help you so much it seems like a hack. Enter GitLens

GitLens leverages Git blame and CodeLens to quickly visualize code authorship, access blame annotations, seamlessly navigate the history of a file or branch, gain valuable insights via powerful comparison commands, and so much more. GitLens is also highly configurable and makes it easy for you to customize the tool to fit your unique preferences.

You can access GitLens in VS Code by selecting the extensions icon in the Activity Bar and typing GitLens into the search bar.

GitLens extension

GitLens extension

Want to be a step ahead when it comes to using Git and VS Code? Download the GitLens extension to access valuable file history and code authorship information to start coding with confidence.

Install GitLens Free!

Now let’s start looking at how to go through a Git workflow using VS Code. You will learn how to create a Git repository, commit changes, connect a remote, push changes, and leverage the GitLens extension throughout the process to make using Git in VS Code even more powerful. 

Prerequisites to Using Git in VS Code

Before you can start leveraging the Git integration in VS Code, you’ll first need to make sure you have Git downloaded and configured. To check whether or not you have Git installed, open the integrated terminal in VS Code by using the keyboard shortcut CTRL + and then type git --version. If the terminal returns git version followed by any version number, that indicates that you do in fact have Git installed. If nothing is returned, you will need to navigate to the for your operating system. 

Next, you should verify that Git is configured properly by setting up your name and email. To check if you have already configured Git navigate to the terminal and run

 git config --global --list

If Git has been configured, the terminal will return your set username and email. If this is not the case, you need to configure Git by completing the following:

To set your name run:

 git config  --global <your name> 

To set your email run: 

git config  --global <your email>

This information is required to use Git and must be entered before committing any of your changes. For additional information regarding Git setup and initial requirements, view the official Git documentation

Initializing a Git Repo in VS Code

Once you’ve confirmed that Git is properly installed and configured on your machine, you’ll need to either initialize a local repository or clone and open an existing project. 

Initializing a repo can be accomplished in a variety of ways, and the process you elect to use depends on your desired workflow and current circumstance. Generally, developers Git clone a remote repository when they want to contribute to an existing project, and create a new repository when starting an entirely new project. 

Clone a Git Repository with a URL in VS Code

To clone an existing repository to your local machine using a URL with VS Code, follow these steps:

1. Select the source control icon located on the activity bar 

2 options for working with a repository, Open Folder or Clone Repository.

2. Then select Clone Repository

3. Navigate to your preferred repository hosting service, like GitHub

4. Navigate to the search bar at the top left corner, search for your desired remote repository, and select the repo

Searching for your desired remote repository

Search for your desired remote repository

5. Select the green Code button 

6. Copy the remote repository URL

Copying the remote URL

Copy the remote URL

7. Paste the URL into the VS Code Command Palette

From there, you will be prompted to select a save location for the project on your local machine. Once this has been accomplished, you can start working against the repository.

Cloning an Existing Git Repo with the VS Code Command Palette

You can clone an existing repo to start working in your local environment. To clone an existing Git repository in VS Code, follow these steps: 

1. Select the source control icon located on the activity bar 

2 options for working with a repository, Open Folder or Clone Repository inside VS Code

2. Select Clone Repository 

3. From the Command Palette dropdown, choose the hosting service from which you want to clone a repository, like GitHub

4. Select the remote repository you want to clone

The project will be copied to your local machine and you can now start working.

 Initializing a New Git Repo using the VS Code Terminal

To initialize a new Git repo using the terminal in VS Code, start by creating and naming a new folder on your local machine. 

Next, simply click into the VS Code terminal and run git init <your-folder’s-name>. This will open the folder in VS Code and automatically create the Git metadata files in a .git folder within your project. 

Initializing a New Git Repo in VS Code Using the Side Bar Buttons 

You can also choose to initialize a repository using the VS Code Side Bar buttons. To initialize a repository this way:

1. Create and name a new folder on your machine 

2. Go to VS Code and select Open beneath the Start menu on the main screen

Folder icon with the text “Open” next to it.

3. Open your newly created file 

4. Select the source control icon from the Activity Bar 

5. Click Initialize Repository

Initialize local repo by clicking Initialize Repository


Making Git Commits in VS Code

Once you’ve made changes to your project that you want to make sure are saved, it’s a good idea to commit those changes. It can be helpful to think of a commit like a save point in your work. 

You can view, amend, and build on top of old commits as your project grows. The Git workflow for committing changes looks like the following: 

  1. Edit your project
  2. Stage your changes 
  3. Write a commit message
  4. Commit 

Using GitLens to Keep Track of Changes in VS Code

The first step to making a commit is to make changes to an individual file, or multiple files. As your project grows, it can become more and more difficult to keep track of where you made changes, what the changes were, and how they affected your project as a whole. GitLens makes identifying your changes easy and presents the information in an unobtrusive manner with its heatmap. The GitLens heatmap uses the gutter, located on the left side of the main panel next to your code, to show how recently a change was made. Warm vibrant colors are used to indicate changes made recently while colder more dim colors represent changes made earlier. This makes navigating through large projects to identify your changes easier and more efficient. 

GitLens Heatmap shows a warm color near recently written code and dim color near older code

GitLens Heatmap

Staging Changes in VS Code

VS Code makes it easy to identify how many unstaged changes your project has at any given time by referencing the source control icon on the Activity Bar, where a blue circle indicates how many unstaged changes your project has. 

a blue circle with a #1 in the center indicating that 1 change needs to be staged

The blue circle on the source control icon indicates that 1 change needs to be staged

GitLens makes it easy to see if a specific line of code has been committed without having to navigate between tabs or selecting a bunch of icons. To identify whether or not a line of code has been committed, simply select the line in question, and unobtrusive blame annotations will appear at the end of the line. You can hover over the line of code to access even more detailed blame information. This is just one example of how to leverage GitLens’ powerful blame annotations. As you use the GitLens more often you’ll discover diverse ways to use these annotations to your benefit. 

GitLens Blame Annotations to Identify Committed and Uncommitted Changes

GitLens Blame Annotations to Identify Committed and Uncommitted Changes

When you’re ready to stage your changes, you can stage individual files by hovering over the file and selecting the + icon.

a + icon that must be selected to stage an individual file

Stage Individual File

To stage an individual file from the terminal, simply run git add <file name>.

Or, if you have multiple files to stage and you prefer to stage them all at once, you can navigate to Changes and select the + icon. 

+ icon that must be selected to stage all changed files at once

Stage all changed files at once

To stage all of your changes from the terminal, simply run git add --all.

*Warning: Staging and committing all of your changes together is a bad habit. Files staged and committed together share the same commit message, which can make your Git log confusing for you and other contributors. Committing your changes often limits the need to commit unrelated chunks of work, and will save you time in the long run. 

Committing Changes in VS Code

Once your desired files are staged, you are ready to Git commit your changes. Compose a clear commit message that conveys the purpose for your changes in the section marked Message, just above where you staged your files, and then select the icon to commit.

To commit using the VS Code integrated terminal, run git commit -m. The -m flag is used to include a commit message that explains how your changes affect the project. Including a Git commit message is a best practice; this enables you and other project contributors to more easily track changes made to the project. 

To verify that your commit was successful using the terminal, run git log. The terminal should return the most recent commit and its associated message. 

If you prefer a more visual approach, you can confirm that your commit was successful by navigating to the Timeline view in VS Code. To access this view, select the explorer icon from the Activity Panel and then select Timeline.

Accessing Valuable Commit History Information with GitLens

Once your changes are committed, GitLens blame annotations become even more valuable. 

With GitLens blame annotations, you can identify who made specific changes, when the changes were made, the commit SHA, and more. To access the annotations in GitLens, simply select and hover over the desired committed change and the information will appear beneath the line of code. 

GitLens blame annotations

GitLens Blame Annotations

You can also use GitLens to navigate through the revision history of your project. If you want to see how a file has changed over time or compare the current state of your project to where it was a week ago, GitLens can do exactly that. 

To access the revision history of your desired file in GitLens, perform the following actions:

  1. Select into your desired file
  2. Click the icon that looks like a circle with an arrow pointing to the left, located at the top right of your screen to go back to previous iterations of your project.

Connecting a Remote Repository in Git with VS Code

Hosting a project on a remote repository in Git is how most developers share their work with other contributors. Whether working on a project as part of an enterprise team or an open source contributor, the remote repository is the most up-to-date version of the project and is regarded as the ultimate source of truth. If you want others to be able to see your code and add to your project, you’ll need to set up a remote repository for them to access the project’s codebase. 

To create a remote repository, navigate to GitHub, and select New

Creating a new GitHub remote repo

Creating a new GitHub remote repo

After selecting New your screen should look like something like this. 

A new GitHub remote repository being created

A new GitHub remote repository being created

Enter the remote repository name and select Create repository. Once the remote repository is created, you have the option to copy the remote’s URL using either HTTPS or an SSH key. Once you have copied the URL, you can connect your local project to the remote repository using either the VS Code terminal or Command Palette. 

Connecting a Remote Repo Using the VS Code Integrated Terminal

If you are a keyboard-first type of developer, you’ll likely want to use the terminal to connect your local to the remote. You can do this in VS Code following these steps:

  1. Copy the remote repo URL
  2. Navigate to the VS Code terminal 
  3. Run git remote add origin <paste the URL> and hit Enter

Connecting a Remote Repo Using the VS Code Status Bar

If your GitHub account is connected to VS Code, you can quickly create a remote repository directly from VS Code. To do this in VS Code, follow these steps:

  1. Navigate to the Status Bar at the bottom of the window
  2. Select the icon that looks like a cloud with an arrow pointing up
  3. From the Command Palette, select publish either to a public or private repo 

Regardless of how you connected to a remote, you can confirm that your project is in fact connected by looking at the Status Bar icons at the bottom of your window. If your local project is not connected to a remote repository, the Status Bar will show an icon that looks like a cloud with an arrow pointing up. If a remote is connected you will instead see an icon that looks like a refresh circle.

Additionally, you can navigate to the source control icon on the Activity Bar and then select Remotes to verify that your repo is connected. If a remote is connected the  Remotes bar will look like the following: REMOTES (1).The number in the parenthesis indicates the number of connected remote repositories. 

Pushing Changes to a Remote Repo in Git with VS Code

Once your remote repo is connected, you can start sending the changes you make against your local project to the remote through a process called pushing. Pushing often helps keep your remote repo up-to-date with your recent changes, and makes it possible for other project contributors to work with those changes. 

To Git push your staged changes from the Side Bar simply select the source control icon and then select Sync Changes

The Sync Changes button allows you to push your changes to the remote

Push changes to the remote with the Side Bar

To push your commited changes to the remote using the integrated terminal, simply run git push origin main.

Leveraging GitLens to Identify Project Contributors and Their Code

GitLens can help you identify all of the contributors to a project by adding a contributors view. This can be helpful when working on a large project, as it allows you to see all the collaborators as well as their contributions to the project by simply clicking on their profile. 

To add this view, simply navigate to the VS Code Command Palette, search GitLens: Show Contributors View, and select it from the dropdown menu. A new option will appear under the source control icon in VS Code depicted below: 

GitLens Contributors Option

Select the dropdown arrow to see all of the project contributors. 

GitLens Contributors

GitLens Contributors

Thousands of developers are leveraging GitLens’ plethora of view options, including the contributors view, blame annotations, and more to improve their team collaboration.

Install GitLens Free!

Pulling Changes from a Remote Repo in Git with VS Code

Pulling changes is the process developers use to sync their local project with any updates contained on the remote. If you’re working on a project with multiple contributors, it’s a good idea to periodically pull changes so you can see what others are working on and remain up to date on how the project is progressing. 

You can easily pull changes from the 3 dot ellipsis on the VS Code Side Bar. First, click the ellipses from the source control view, and then select Pull from the dropdown menu. 

To pull changes from the integrated terminal, run git pull.

Ready…Set…Contribute with Git and VS Code! 

You now have the tools to follow a basic Git workflow in VS Code! Knowing how to use VS Code to drive Git can help you start collaborating with your team members more effectively, and makes it easy to start making meaningful contributions to open source projects. Git can be daunting, but VS Code, especially when combined with GitLens, provides you with the necessary tools, powerful functionality, and intuitive UX to guide you towards success. 

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