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Migrate GitHub branch master to main

18 Oct 2020

This post covers how I migrated all of my GitHub projects from master branch to main.


In my journey of migrating all of my GitHub repositories from their default branch master to use main as the default I did the following.

  • Total migration time about 8 hours which includes writing this post and developing all code discussed herein.
  • I have 130 repositories.
  • 129 repositories required migrating from master to main.
  • 124 repositories required their default branch settings in GitHub to be updated.
  • 4 repositories required branch protection settings to be updated. I did this manually.
  • 69 of my repositories were sources (not forks from other users or organizations).
  • 19 repositories required code changes.
    • 9 files related to CI code were changed.
    • 13 files related to markdown documentation were changed.
    • Additional files changed for this blog because of how I build it.

Please note: I completely broke my website and this blog while migrating. Unfortunately, while migrating from master to main the GitHub pages settings did not take. When I deleted the master branch on the last step everything went down… oops.


A full migration will generally take the following steps:

  1. Mirroring all GitHub projects as local mirrors. Initially, I will only include source repositories (not forks). I’m excluding forks to simplify changing code in only repositories I own. In step 6, I’ll mirror my forks before updating their branches to main.
  2. Clone all local mirrors whose branch matches master.
  3. Migrate code tied to master such as CI code.
  4. Searching for all projects whose branch does not match master or main to see what custom changes need to be done.
  5. Commit all of the changes.
  6. Mirror all of my repositories. This is so that my local mirrors include all of my repositories (forks and sources) since I finished migrating my code in step 5.
  7. Push all local mirrors back to GitHub as main branch.
  8. For all projects whose default branch is master, switch the default to main.
  9. Delete the master branch for every project.

Migration environment

I’m using Linux with GNU utilities and openjdk. If you’re migrating from Mac then you’ll have to change some of the arguments for BSD utilities.

Here’s my OS and utilities.

Ubuntu 18.04.5 LTS
Linux 5.4.0-42-generic x86_64
coreutils 8.28-1ubuntu1
GNU bash, version 4.4.20(1)-release (x86_64-pc-linux-gnu)
openjdk version "1.8.0_265" 64-Bit

Locally mirror source GitHub projects

I created cloneable for backing up my GitHub. I’m going to use it in order to clone all projects.

I created a personal access token with repo scope and cloned all projects. I downloaded and setup cloneable.

export GITHUB_TOKEN="repo scoped GitHub personal access token"
mkdir -p ~/git/main-migration/mirrors ~/git/main-migration/clones
cd ~/git/main-migration/mirrors/
curl -LO
curl -LO
sha256sum -c cloneable.jar.sha256sum
rm cloneable.jar.sha256sum

The mirrors directory is where I’ll keep all bare mirrors of my code. These are not workspaces for editing code. That’s what the clones directory is for and we’ll touch on this later.

For now, here’s how I mirrored all code using cloneable.jar.

java -jar cloneable.jar -fbuo samrocketman | \
  xargs -P32 -n1 -I{} -- git clone --mirror {}

Clone code where default branch is master

In each bare repository, there’s a file named HEAD. The contents of HEAD will be the default branch of the given repository. So let’s go into the clones directory and clone all code from the mirrors directory where the default branch is master.

cd ~/git/main-migration/clones
find ../mirrors -maxdepth 2 -type f -name HEAD -exec grep -Hl refs/heads/master {} + | \
  sed 's/HEAD$//' | \
  xargs -P32 -n1 -I{} -- git clone {}

The above commands search all repositories where the default branch is master using find and grep. Because it prints the HEAD file I use sed to trim off head and then clone every repository based on its directory. Cloning local directories is not often used by git users but here I thought it was most appropriate because it simplified finding repositories I needed to migrate to main branch as the default branch.

Migrate code tied to master branch

Some repositories will have source code files tied to the master branch such as CI files. Typically, CI code files are not more than 2 levels deep in the repository. So I’m going to search files that are 2-levels deep. I’m also going to exclude the .git directory from the source code search.

I performed an initial code search for potential files which would be tied to a branch name.

cd ~/git/main-migration/clones
find . -maxdepth 3 -type f | \
  grep -vF '/.git/' | \
  xargs -P32 -n1 -I{} -- grep -lF master {}

In my case, I came upon several false positives. Out of 69 repositories I found 101 files which contained the word master. I manually inspected the file names and then purposefully picked out the names of CI files I cared about.

The word master also showed up in 30 markdown files which is what I use for documentation in my projects. I would handle these separately.

So for editing code I split it up into two passes.

  1. Edit all CI files updating the branch name to main.
  2. Edit all documentation referencing the master branch and update it to main.

Migrating CI code

In my case, the following files were files I knew that were tied to CI systems. I added the list of files to a grep filter file (I’ll call it filter-file).


I reran my find/xargs/grep command but added filtering for the filter-file to it.

cd ~/git/main-migration/clones
find . -maxdepth 3 -type f | \
  grep -vF '/.git/' | \
  xargs -P32 -n1 -I{} -- grep -lF master {} | \
  grep -Ff filter-file

This produced a list of 9 CI files I needed to edit. I opened them in vim and changed master to main in all of them. I’m not going to create a commit, yet because I’m going to migrate markdown documentation in some repositories.

Migrating Markdown documentation

I searched for markdown files which needed to be inspected. Unfortunately there was no way to get around reading each of the 30 files found and editing them by hand.

cd ~/git/main-migration/clones
find . -maxdepth 3 -type f | \
  grep -vF '/.git/' | \
  xargs -P32 -n1 -I{} -- grep -lF master {} | \
  grep '\.md$'

Inspect repositories with alternate default branches

Not all of my repositories have their default branch set as master. Because these might be special cases, I needed to inspect them and ensure migrating master to main would not adversely affect them.

I cloned all of the repositories which had a default branch set as master, so it is safe to assume that repositories I haven’t cloned do not. Let’s search with this assumption.

cd ~/git/main-migration/clones
ls -1d * | xargs -n1 -I{} echo {}.git > ../repos
ls -1d ../mirrors/* | grep -vFf ../repos

Which returned the following results:


Only two of my repositories did not have their default branch set as master. Upon inspecting their code base, neither will be adversely affected.

Important: I notice that jervis-api.git has no master branch at all. So before I perform my final master to main branch migration I’ll be sure to delete it.

Committing all migrated code

Now that I’m done migrating code, it was time to commit changes to my local repository mirrors. I created a commit message (I’ll call it message in my command) so that all of the commits include the same message.

It was useful for me to see which repositories would be getting committed changes.

cd ~/git/main-migration/clones
for x in *;do (cd "$x"; git diff --exit-code &> /dev/null || echo "$x"; ); done

Finally, it was time for me to make the commits using ../../message that I created (in this case it was located in ~/git/main-migration/message).

cd ~/git/main-migration/clones
for x in *; do
    cd "$x";
    git diff --exit-code || (
      git add -A;
      git commit -F ../../message;

The above code was written as a one liner but I indented it in this post for readability.

Pushing code back to mirror

I still need to push all of the code back to their respective mirrors located at ~/git/main-migration/mirrors.

cd ~/git/main-migration/clones
for x in *; do (cd "$x"; git push origin master; ); done

Mirror all of my GitHub repositories

I initially only cloned my source repositories because I needed to edit code to migrate the branch from master to main. However, ultimately I want to migrate all of my repositories including forks.

In this step, I’ll clone all of my missing forks using cloneable again. Note the following clonable options -f is missing now so forks are not excluded this time.

cd ~/git/main-migration/mirrors/
java -jar cloneable.jar -buo samrocketman | \
  xargs -P32 -n1 -I{} -- git clone --mirror {}

Push all projects to GitHub main branch

The master branch for all of my projects have been updated to be compatible with main branch name. It is time to push it. This will be simple using the Git refspec.

Important: Remember I don’t update jervis-api.git so I remove it before doing my branch update operation.

cd ~/git/main-migration/mirrors/
rm -rf jervis-api.git
find . -type d -name '*.git' | \
  xargs -P32 -n1 -I{} -- \
  /bin/bash -exc 'cd "{}"; git config remote.origin.mirror false; git push origin refs/heads/master:refs/heads/main'

Note: I executed git config remote.origin.mirror false in each repository before pushing because otherwise Git would have failed with an error. Git does not allow pushing refspecs when a repository is a mirror. This was a unique case where we wanted to mirror repositories when cloning but do some custom logic when pushing (i.e. not mirror).

Change default branch to main

For all projects where the default branch is master, I wanted to switch the default branch to main. The only way I could feasibly do this is via GitHub API so this is going to get a little bit more code heavy than previous examples.

I wrote my own GitHub API client in Groovy within my personal Jervis project. So I’ll use that and check out a tag for archival purposes. In reality you can do this in any programming language I’ve just been doing a lot of Groovy programming so it is my go to for heavy GitHub operations.

Clone and setup Jervis. Please note, this requires OpenJDK 8 or similar Java version. I’ll be using Git tag jervis-1.7 and you can read the documentation for this API version.

cd ~/git/main-migration/
git clone
cd jervis/
git checkout jervis-1.7
./gradlew console

In the Groovy console, I wrote up and ran the following script. You will need to change the user name for your own projects. Paste the following into the Groovy console.

String github_token = 'personal access token with repo scope'
String github_user = 'samrocketman'
Boolean dryRun = true

// set dryRun = false when you want to really make changes.  Otherwise, this
// will just tell you what will be changed without making any repository
// settings updates.

 * Non-variable code; no need to edit beyond this point.
import net.gleske.jervis.remotes.GitHubGraphQL
import net.gleske.jervis.remotes.GitHub
import groovy.json.JsonBuilder

GitHub githubV3 = new GitHub()
githubV3.gh_token = github_token
GitHubGraphQL githubV4 = new GitHubGraphQL()
githubV4.token = github_token
String graphql_query = '''
query RepositoryBranches( $user: String!, $page: String = null) {
  repositoryOwner(login: $user) {
    repositories(first: 100, affiliations: OWNER, after: $page) {
      pageInfo {
      repository: nodes {
        defaultBranch: defaultBranchRef {
Map graphql_variables = [user: github_user]
Boolean queryAgain = true
Map repositories = [:]
// get all repositories whose default branch is master
while(queryAgain) {
    Map response = githubV4.sendGQL(graphql_query, (graphql_variables as JsonBuilder).toString())
    response =
    repositories += response.repository.findAll { == 'master'
    }.collect {
        [(it.nameWithOwner): it]
    }?.sum() ?: [:]
    queryAgain = response.pageInfo.hasNextPage
    if(queryAgain) { = response.pageInfo.endCursor

// iterate over all repositories and update default branch to main
Map data = [default_branch: 'main']
repositories.each { k, v ->
    println "${dryRun? 'DRYRUN: ' : ''}Changing default branch of ${k} to 'main'." =
    if(!dryRun) {
                ['X-HTTP-Method-Override': 'PATCH'],
                (data as JsonBuilder).toString())
    println 'Success.'
if(repositories) {
    println 'All repositories updated.'
else {
    println 'No repositories found with default branch set to master.'

Delete master branch for all projects

The last step of the migration is to clean up branches which will no longer be used. The following code will delete the master branch from every one of my repositories. Once again, I’m using a Git refspec to delete branches.

cd ~/git/main-migration/mirrors/
find . -maxdepth 1 -type d -name '*.git' | \
  xargs -P32 -n1 -I{} -- /bin/bash -exc 'cd "{}"; git push origin +:refs/heads/master'

This article was last updated Oct 18, 2020.

Posted in Engineering with tags: Git, Programming