Git: Upstream Tracking Understanding

A quick introduction about Git upstream tracking: set upstream with git-push or git-branch, the internal mechanism inside Git config (.git/config), unset upstream, and related implementation in Jav...

Today, I’d like to talk about tracking upstream branch in Git.


Here’re 3 possibilities to track upstream:

# Set upstream when pushing to remote
git push -u origin topic

# Set upstream without pushing it
# with option -u / --set-upstream-to
git branch -u origin/topic
git branch --set-upstream-to=origin/topic

More detail is available in the following sections.

"Pro Git (2nd Edition)" contains everything you need to know about Git, written by Scott Chacon and Ben Straub. The print version is available on Amazon:

Set Upstream

You can make you local branch track the upstream the first time you push that branch. Option -u or --set-upstream allows to add upstream (tracking) reference for every branch that is up to date or successfully pushed. For example, my local repository is checkout in issue-1: if I want to push it to origin and add upstream reference as origin/issue-1, I can do:

$ git push -u origin issue-1

If you don’t want to push anything, you can also do it using git-branch command. A local branch can track a remote branch using git-branch with long option --set-upstream-to=<upstream> or short option -u <upstream>. The command sets up branchname’s tracking information. If no branchname is specified, then it defaults to the current branch. For example,

$ git branch -u origin/issue-1
Branch issue-1 set up to track remote branch issue-1 from origin.

… or longer option:

$ git branch --set-upstream-to=origin/issue-1
Branch issue-1 set up to track remote branch issue-1 from origin.

Note that <upstream> is the combination of remote and branch without spaces:


Once the branch is tracked, the relationship can be verified via git-branch command in verbose list mode (twice ‘v’):

$ git branch -vv
* issue-1 3646f49 [origin/issue-1] Initial commit
  master  3646f49 [origin/master] Initial commit

If you try to set upstream branch to a nonexistent one, you will see the following error in your console. For example, topic branch does not exist on remote origin:

demo (topic) $ git branch -u origin/topic
error: the requested upstream branch 'origin/topic' does not exist
hint: If you are planning on basing your work on an upstream
hint: branch that already exists at the remote, you may need to
hint: run "git fetch" to retrieve it.
hint: If you are planning to push out a new local branch that
hint: will track its remote counterpart, you may want to use
hint: "git push -u" to set the upstream config as you push.

You need to do a git fetch or git push -u depending on your situation, as indicated by the hint.

Push Without Branch Specified

Is it possible to do git push without a branch specified?

Yes, it is possible. You can control the default behavior by setting push.default in you Git config. It defines the action Git push should take if no refsepc is given on the command line. In order to push without branch specified, you can do set the mode to current, which pushes the current branch to update a branch with the same name on the receiving end:

$ git config push.default current

More information can be reached in push.default section of git-config. Personally, I don’t recommend it, because without setting upstream, you lose comparison between local branch and its upstream (behind commits, ahead commits). The git pull command won’t be possible without branch name neither:

demo (issue-1) $ git pull
There is no tracking information for the current branch.
Please specify which branch you want to merge with.
See git-pull(1) for details.

    git pull <remote> <branch>

If you wish to set tracking information for this branch you can do so with:

    git branch --set-upstream-to=origin/<branch> issue-1

Git Configuration

Once upstream is defined, how this information is stored in Git?

Given master as an example, the relationship between the local branch master and it upstream origin/master is stored in .git/config, section branch “master”:

[branch "master"]
    remote = origin
    merge = refs/heads/master

As you can see, branch “master” has 2 properties: remote and merge. They are also called as pattern branch.<branch-name>.<prop>:

  • branch.master.remote
  • branch.master.merge

Property branch.master.merge defines, together with branch.master.remote, the upstream branch for the given branch. It tells git-fetch, git-pull, git-rebase which branch to merge and can also affect git-push. When in branch master, it tells git-fetch the default refspec to be marked for merging in FETCH_HEAD. The value is handled like the remote part of a refspec, and must match a ref which is fetched from the remote given by branch.master.remote. The merge information is used by git-pull (which at first call git-fetch) to lookup the default branch for merging. Without this option, git-pull defaults to merge the first refspec fetched. For more information, see git-config branch.<name>.merge.

Unset Upstream

Use flag --unset-upstream to unset an upstream:

$ git branch --unset-upstream [<branchname>]

The section of branch “master” in Git configuration file becomes empty:

$ cat .git/config
[branch "master"]

During daily work, you can also do git-fetch with option -p,--prune to remove any remote-tracking references that no longer exist on the remote before fetching:

$ git fetch -p


The equivalent commands in JGit:

  • git branch -u origin/topic: None. This API does not exist in JGit.
  • git push -u origin topic: None. This API does not exist in JGit.

If you want to do the tracking, you need to handle it directly in Git configuration. Like in .git/config:

StoredConfig config = git.getRepository().getConfig();
config.setString(CONFIG_BRANCH_SECTION, "topic", "remote", "origin");
config.setString(CONFIG_BRANCH_SECTION, "topic", "merge", "refs/heads/topic");;