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How to Recover Lost SSL Private Key (step-by-step)

Losing your SSL certificate private key can be a major security issue.

Your private key is a critical component of your SSL certificate that enables secure, encrypted communication between your server and clients.

If your private key is lost or compromised, it can put your website and users at risk.

In this post, we’ll discuss what to do if you find yourself in this situation and how to recover from a lost SSL private key.

Understanding SSL Certificates and Private Keys

An SSL certificate is a digital document that binds a cryptographic key pair (a public key and a private key) to your organization’s details.

When installed on your web server, it activates HTTPS and allows secure connections between the server and web browsers.

The private key is kept secret on your server and is used to decrypt information encrypted by the corresponding public key in your SSL certificate.

It’s critical for maintaining the security and integrity of your SSL encrypted communications.

If an unauthorized party gains access to your private key, they could impersonate your website and intercept sensitive data.

Ways You Can Lose your SSL certificate private key

Losing an SSL certificate private key can have serious consequences for the security of your website and its users. Here are some ways you could lose your private key:

  • Accidental Deletion: If you’re not careful, you could accidentally delete the private key file from your server.
  • Hardware Failure: If your server’s hard drive crashes and you don’t have a backup, you’ll lose the private key along with other data.
  • Unauthorized Access: If a hacker gains access to your server, they could steal your private key.
  • Software Vulnerabilities: If your server’s software is outdated or has security vulnerabilities, a hacker could exploit them to gain access and steal the private key.
  • Poor Key Management Practices: If you don’t have proper procedures for storing and managing your private keys (e.g., using strong passwords, storing keys separately from certificates, limiting access), you increase the risk of loss or theft.
  • Employee Error or Malicious Intent: An employee could accidentally delete the key or intentionally steal it.
  • Third-Party Breaches: If you use a third-party service to manage your SSL certificates, a security breach at their end could expose your private key.

Determining If Your Private Key Is Lost

There are a few signs that may indicate your SSL private key is missing or lost:

  • You’re trying to install your SSL certificate but get an error about a missing private key
  • Your web server fails to start with the SSL certificate enabled
  • You see browser warnings about your SSL certificate not matching the private key

If you suspect your private key is lost, the first step is to thoroughly search your systems and backups for the key file. SSL private keys are usually stored as .key files. Look for filenames that may correspond to your certificate’s domain name or serial number.

Recovering a Lost Private Key

Unfortunately, if you’ve lost the private key for an existing SSL certificate, there is no way to recover the key itself.

SSL private keys are not stored by the Certificate Authority that issued your certificate.

The private key is generated on your end when you create the Certificate Signing Request (CSR) for the certificate.

If you cannot locate your private key after a thorough search, the only option is to reissue the certificate with a new private key.

You will need to generate a new CSR with a new private key and submit it to your Certificate Authority.

They will then reissue your SSL certificate to match the new private key.

Here are the general steps to reissue your SSL certificate with a new private key:

  1. Generate a new private key and CSR on your server
  2. Submit the new CSR to your Certificate Authority
  3. Download the reissued certificate from your Certificate Authority
  4. Install the new certificate and private key on your server
  5. Update any applications or configurations that reference the old certificate

The exact process will depend on your server environment and Certificate Authority, but they should be able to provide instructions for reissuing your specific certificate.

Generating a New Private Key and CSR

To generate a new private key and CSR, you can use tools like OpenSSL.

Here’s an example OpenSSL command to generate a new 2048-bit RSA private key and CSR:

openssl req -out -new -newkey rsa:2048 -nodes -keyout

This will output a new private key file ( and a CSR file ( You’ll submit the CSR to your Certificate Authority to reissue your certificate.

If you’re using a web server like Apache or Nginx, they also have utilities for generating private keys and CSRs.

Consult your server’s documentation for specific instructions.

Reissuing Your Certificate

Contact your Certificate Authority and request to reissue your SSL certificate with the new CSR you generated.

Each CA has a slightly different process, but generally you’ll need to:

  1. Log into your account with the Certificate Authority
  2. Select the certificate you need to reissue
  3. Paste in the contents of your new CSR file
  4. Complete any validation steps required by the CA
  5. Download the reissued certificate once it’s available

Your CA will sign the new certificate to correspond with your new private key. The reissued certificate will have the same expiration date as your original certificate.

Installing the New Certificate and Private Key

Once you have the reissued certificate from your CA, you’ll need to install it on your server along with the new private key.

The process varies depending on your server environment.

For example, on Apache you’ll need to specify the paths to the new certificate and private key files in your Apache configuration:

SSLCertificateFile /path/to/  
SSLCertificateKeyFile /path/to/

On Nginx, you’d update your server block configuration with the new certificate and key file paths:

ssl_certificate     /path/to/;
ssl_certificate_key /path/to/;

After updating your server configuration, test and restart your web server software for the changes to take effect.

Browse to your site and verify the SSL certificate is working properly with no browser warnings.

Updating Application Configurations

Some applications, such as mail servers or VPNs, may have their own configurations referencing your SSL certificate and private key.

Update those configurations to point to your newly reissued certificate and key files.

It’s also a good idea to update any scripts or automation tools that reference your SSL certificate to use the new files. This could include:

  • SSL certificate renewal or deployment scripts
  • Monitoring systems that check your SSL certificate status
  • Continuous integration/continuous deployment (CI/CD) pipelines

Thoroughly audit anywhere your old SSL certificate was being used and update it to the reissued certificate.

Revoking the Old Certificate

Since you’ve reissued your SSL certificate with a new private key, it’s best practice to revoke the old certificate if you believe its private key was compromised.

Contact your Certificate Authority and request a revocation for the old certificate.

They will publish the revoked serial number to Certificate Revocation Lists (CRLs) and Online Certificate Status Protocol (OCSP).

Revoking the old certificate ensures that even if someone has the old private key, they won’t be able to impersonate your site since browsers will reject the revoked certificate. Note that it can take some time for the revocation to fully propagate.

Preventing Future Private Key Loss

Losing an SSL private key is a major inconvenience that can put your security at risk. To prevent this situation in the future, implement proper private key management practices:

  • Generate and store private keys securely on your servers, with strict access controls
  • Maintain secure, encrypted backups of your private keys
  • Use a certificate management platform to track certificates and keys
  • Implement strong policies around private key handling and sharing
  • Use separate private keys for each certificate and environment
  • Rotate private keys on a regular schedule (e.g. yearly)

By treating your SSL private keys as the sensitive, valuable assets they are, you can reduce the risk of loss or theft.


Losing an SSL certificate private key is a stressful situation, but by following the steps outlined here, you can recover with a reissued certificate and new private key.

Remember, there’s no way to recover a lost private key itself – you must reissue the certificate.

Going forward, prioritize private key security as a critical part of your overall cybersecurity program.

With proper management and handling of your SSL private keys, you can avoid the panic and problems of a lost key.

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