Working with Protected Branches

Protected branches ensure that rules are enforced on any changes made to that branch in a repo. A common branch protection rule is for pull requests (PRs) to be reviewed by at least one other person before they get merged. Protected branches stop you from making unauthorized changes to that branch. However, you can make multiple changes locally or to other non-protected branches. For the local changes to reflect in the protected branch all the set criteria should be met and the changes should be purposefully merged. This type of set up is useful for repositories (repos) that render websites. The branch that hosts the live site can be protected, so that no one can incorporate changes to the site until someone else checks them. That's how we make sure that no one accidentally breaks the websites.

Learning Objectives

  • learn about protected branches in GitHub
  • learn to work with newly cloned protected branches in GitHub
  • learn to work with previously cloned protected branches in GitHub
  • learn to make changes to a branch created by someone else
  • learn to preview websites on GitHub branches
  • learn the basic GitHub workflow

Est. Time

30 mins


  • GitHub account
  • Git installed on your computer
  • Access to a Unix shell
  • Basic command line skills

Tutorial Resources

Link to practice repo:

How to work with protected branches

For the purposes of this tutorial, a practice repo will be used to showcase the git commands. First, copy the repo(s) to your local computer using command line like so:

git clone

Repo name

The example repo is called "play-with-github". You can replace the GitHub URL with any other repo of your choice. The .git extension designates a bare repo

Once you have cloned your repos (now called directories on your local computer) and want to get started, you need to navigate into the newly created directory and work on a branch.

The command to create a new branch is as follows (you can name your branch whatever you like):

git branch <name_of_new_branch>
git checkout <name_of_new_branch>


It is critical to navigate to the directory in which you wish to make these changes.

The first line of code creates the branch and the second line of code switches your current directory to the new branch. Now if you make changes to the files, the changes will appear as this new branch.


When you change to a new branch, nothing will physically change on your computer. But GitHub will recognize your directory as a new branch.

Once you have made the necessary changes (or any changes at all), you can push changes to GitHub. Here are the basic commands for pushing changes made to a file:

git add <filename>
git commit -m <your_message>
git push --set-upstream origin <name_of_new_branch>

If changes have been made to multiple file, you can first check the status using:

git status

You can use --all flag to stage all the changes or list multiple filenames:

git add --all
git add <filename1> <filename2> <filename3>

git commit -am

Adding the -a flag saves the changes made on tracked files ONLY.

The first line of code adds your changes and the second line of code saves your changes. The last line pushes your changes to the main GitHub repo as a new branch.

Until your pull request is merged, you can continue to work on the same branch and push multiple changes. It is not required to create a new branch for ever change. However, after your pull request has been merged and the branch is deleted, any new changes will require to be tracked on a new branch, which incidentally can have the same branch name as previously used.

Important housekeeping notes

  • It is important to keep the workspace clean by deleting abandoned branches and branches that have already been merged. In addition to cluttering the workshop, abandoned branches can cause collisions with new work.
  • As you work on your branch, we encourage you to continuously push your changes to GitHub. This enables other people with access to the repo to see your active branch. If you have a problem (e.g. a link won't work), a team member(s) could access your branch and help fix the problemprior to the changes being merged.

How to work with a previously cloned repo

The first step is to update your local version by typing:

git pull

Then switch to your working branch:

git checkout --track origin/<branch_name>

If you don't have an active branch, you can create a new branch (see above).

Now you can make you changes locally, add, commit and then push those changes.

How to make changes to branch created by someone else

Let's assume that Bobby (a random CFDE employee) wants to make some changes to the theme of play-with-github.git repo. She creates a branch called newtheme. Then she adds some files, edits some existing files and creates a PR. You review Bobby's PR and love her work, but wish to make a couple of small edits.

First, clone the repo to your local computer using:

git clone

Or pull her latest changes to your local repo (if previously cloned):

git pull

Then switch to the branch that Bobby has been working on. Remember that her specific branch was called newtheme :

git checkout --track origin/newtheme

Now you can make changes locally, add and commit those changes. When you push your changes, they will be added to Bobby's PR.

How to preview websites on a GitHub branch


You will require admin privileges on for previewing website changes from a GitHub repo.

This tutorial applies to GitHub repos that render as websites. As described above, your changes to the website repo must be pushed to a new branch. Before merge, the master branch has NOT been updated yet, and so you cannot view the changes on the actual website. 

This is stepwise guide to previewing changes to a website on a GitHub pull request through readthedocs.

(1) Create a new branch, 'preview' on that GitHub repo

(2) Go configure readthedocs to publish that branch as well as master. You'll need maintainer status on the readthedocs site to do that.

(3) That will create a link that shows the latest preview branch. Now, whenever you push changes to that branch, it will update the readthedocs preview branch link. You will need to use:

git push origin <my branch>:preview

git --force option

If you are pushing a really large change (like revamping a website), you may want to use preview -f. The -f | --force option tells git to make the change regardless of the history of changes. Since this gives the branch a new starting point for its version tracking, please ONLY use it on the preview branch. For most edits, you want to preserve the version history so you do NOT need this option.

(4) Click on the preview branch in readthedocs. This should take you to the website. Copy and paste the link on your GitHub PR.

Basic GitHub workflow

The most basic work flow in GitHub will look something like this:

  • Copy the GitHub repo to your local computer git clone
  • Edit, create and/or make changes in the newly created directory
  • Stage your changes git add
  • Save your changes git commit
  • Continue editing same file(s) after initial tracking
  • Save the recent changes enabling git to track all versions git add git commit
  • Add more changes/edits to the file but the previous version was better
  • Revert back to the last working version of the file git log git revert <commit hash>
  • Publish your local changes to GitHub git push