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Difference Between Self-Signed SSL Certificates and CA-Signed Certificates

When it comes to securing your website with SSL/TLS encryption, one of the key decisions you’ll need to make is whether to use a self-signed SSL certificate or a CA-signed certificate.

While both types of certificates can provide encryption, there are important differences between them in terms of trust, compatibility, and suitability for different use cases.

In this article, we’ll take an in-depth look at self-signed certificates vs CA, and help you determine which option is best for your needs.

What is a SSL/TLS Certificate?

Before diving into the differences between self-signed and CA-signed SSL certificates, let’s quickly review what SSL/TLS certificates are and why they are important.

An SSL/TLS certificate is a digital certificate that enables encrypted communication between a web server and a client (like a web browser).

When a website has a valid SSL certificate, the URL will start with “https://” instead of “http://”, and a padlock icon will appear next to the address bar, indicating the connection is secure.

SSL/TLS certificates play a critical role in internet security by:

  • Encrypting data transmitted between the server and client, preventing eavesdropping and tampering
  • Authenticating the identity of the website, assuring visitors they are communicating with the intended site and not an impostor

What is a Self-Signed SSL Certificate?

A self-signed certificate is an SSL/TLS certificate that is generated and signed by the same entity that intends to use it, rather than by a trusted third-party Certificate Authority (CA).

In other words, when you create a self signed certificate, you are acting as your own mini-CA.

The process of creating a self-signed cert typically involves the following steps:

  1. Generate a public-private key pair
  2. Create a certificate signing request (CSR) that includes the public key and information about your website/organization
  3. Sign the CSR with your own private key to produce the final certificate

Self-signed SSL certificates are often used for testing environments, internal networks, or other scenarios where public trust is not required. Some common use cases include:

  • Development servers and staging environments
  • Intranets and other internal-facing sites/applications
  • Personal websites or blogs with limited traffic
  • Internet of Things (IoT) devices

Advantages of Self-Signed Certificates

The main benefits of using self-signed certificates are:

  1. Cost – Self-signed certs are free to create and use, making them an economical option for testing and internal purposes.
  2. Convenience – Generating a self-signed certificate is quick and easy compared to going through the validation process with a CA. You have full control over the cert’s configuration.
  3. Customization – With a self-signed certificate, you can specify whatever hostname, organization name, validity period, key size, and other parameters you want.
  4. Encryption – A self-signed cert still enables encrypted communication between client and server, preventing snooping on the contents of the traffic.

Disadvantages and Risks of Self-Signed Certificates

However, self-signed certificates come with some notable drawbacks:

  1. Lack of trust – Because self-signed certs are not validated by a trusted third-party, there is no way for clients to verify the authenticity of the certificate or the identity of the server. Visitors to a site with a self-signed cert will see a security warning.
  2. No identity assurance – Anyone can generate a self-signed certificate claiming to be any website/organization. Self-signed certs do not provide any guarantee you are communicating with the intended party.
  3. Poor compatibility – Many browsers, operating systems, and applications are configured to reject self-signed certificates outright. Using a self-signed cert can lead to functionality issues.
  4. Security risks – If an attacker is able to intercept the self-signed certificate and replace it with their own self-signed cert, they could impersonate the legitimate website and launch a man-in-the-middle attack.

In general, self-signed certificates are considered unsafe for public-facing websites that handle sensitive data like login credentials, financial info, etc.

The lack of authentication makes them vulnerable to spoofing.

What is a CA-Signed SSL Certificate?

In contrast, a CA-signed certificate (also known as a publicly-trusted certificate) is an SSL/TLS certificate that has been validated and digitally signed by a trusted Certificate Authority.

Popular CAs include DigiCert, Sectigo, GoDaddy, GlobalSign, and others.

To obtain a CA-signed certificate, you must:

  1. Generate a certificate signing request (CSR) and private key on your server
  2. Submit the CSR to the CA along with documentation to verify your identity/organization
  3. The CA will validate the information and perform any required checks
  4. If validation is successful, the CA will sign your certificate with their root certificate and send it back to you
  5. Install the signed certificate on your server along with any required intermediate certificates

Web browsers and operating systems maintain a list of trusted root certificates from major CAs.

When a client connects to a server with a CA-signed certificate, it can verify the certificate’s authenticity by checking that it chains back to a trusted root.

This is what enables the padlock icon and “https://” to appear without any warnings.

Advantages of CA-Signed Certificates

CA-signed certificates offer several key benefits over self-signed:

  1. Public trust – CA-signed certs are publicly trusted by default in browsers and OSes. Visitors to your site won’t see any security warnings.
  2. Identity assurance – The validation performed by the CA provides assurance of the website’s identity. This prevents attackers from impersonating your site with a fraudulent cert.
  3. Universal compatibility – CA-signed certificates work seamlessly across all major platforms, ensuring a consistent user experience.
  4. Regulatory compliance – For industries with data security regulations (e.g. PCI DSS for ecommerce, HIPAA for healthcare), use of trusted certificates is mandatory.
  5. Warranty – Many CAs offer a warranty against losses due to mis-issuance or compromise of certificates.

Disadvantages of CA-Signed Certificates

The main drawbacks of CA-signed certificates are:

  1. Cost – Trusted certificates must be purchased from a CA and renewed annually. Prices range from tens to hundreds of dollars per year depending on the type of cert.
  2. Validation process – Obtaining a CA-signed cert requires submitting documentation and going through identity verification steps, which takes some time and effort.
  3. Less customization – You have less control over certain aspects of the certificate like validity period, extensions, etc. compared to self-signed.

Which Type of Certificate Should You Choose?

So when should you use a self-signed certificate vs CA? The general recommendation is:

  • For public-facing websites, especially ecommerce sites, financial services, and any site collecting sensitive data, always use a trusted CA-signed certificate. The identity assurance and public trust are essential.
  • For internal applications, testing environments, and other scenarios where you control both the server and clients, a self-signed certificate can be appropriate as long as you understand the risks and limitations.
  • For outward-facing services that don’t involve sensitive data (company blog, informational site, etc.), you can potentially use a self-signed cert or look into free options like Let’s Encrypt.

Ultimately, the right choice depends on your specific use case, security needs, and budget. But in general, if you need your site to be publicly trusted, a CA-signed certificate is the way to go.

The cost is worth the peace of mind for your business and your customers.


The difference between self-signed and CA-signed SSL certificates comes down to trust and assurance.

While both encrypt communication between client and server, only publicly-trusted CA certs provide identity validation to prevent spoofing attacks.

For any website that requires public trust, a CA-signed certificate is essential. Self-signed certificates still have a place for internal or testing scenarios.

By understanding the pros and cons of each type of certificate, you can make an informed choice to protect your site and your users.

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