What to do if EC2 SSH key is lost

Last Updated : 07-Oct-2020

There are two approaches here: one is manual and the other is using the AWS Systems Manager AWSSupport-ResetAccess document.The latter approach works if the instance is showing as a managed instance in SSM

Manual Approach

Create a new key pair.

2.    If you create the private key in the Amazon EC2 console, retrieve the public key for the key pair.

3.    Open the Amazon EC2 console.

4.    Stop your instance.

5.    Choose Actions, Instance Settings, and then choose View/Change User Data.

6.    Copy the following script into the View/Change User Data dialog box:

Content-Type: multipart/mixed; boundary="//"
MIME-Version: 1.0

Content-Type: text/cloud-config; charset="us-ascii"
MIME-Version: 1.0
Content-Transfer-Encoding: 7bit
Content-Disposition: attachment; filename="cloud-config.txt"

- [users-groups, once]
  - name: username
    - PublicKey goes here

Replace username with your user name, such as ec2-user. You can enter the default user name, or enter a custom user name, if one was previously set up for the instance.

Replace PublicKey goes here with the public key retrieved in step 2. Be sure to enter the entire public key, starting with ssh-rsa.

7.    Choose Save.

8.    Start your instance.

9.    After the cloud-init phase is complete, validate that the public key was replaced.

Important: Because the script contains a key, remove the script from the User Data field.

10.    Stop your instance.

11.    Choose Actions, Instance Settings, and then choose View/Change User Data.

12.    Delete all the text in the View/Change User Data dialog box, and then choose Save.

13.    Start your instance.

SSM Approach

This Automation document uses the EC2Rescue for Linux tool on the specified EC2 instance to automatically generate and add a new SSH (Public/Private) key pair.

The new SSH private key for your instance is encrypted and saved in the AWS Systems Manager Parameter Store. The parameter name is /ec2rl/openssh/instance_id/key. Create a new .pem file with this parameter’s value as its content and use it to connect back to your unreachable instance.

Note: The Automation workflow creates a backup, password-enabled Amazon Machine Image (AMI). The new AMI is not automatically deleted and remains in your account.

To locate these AMIs:

1.    Open the Amazon EC2 console, and then choose AMIs.

2.    Enter the Automation execution ID in the search field.


  • Both procedures require that stop and start of EC2 instance. Be aware that data in instance store volumes will be lost.  Be sure that you back up any data that you want to keep on the instance store volume.
  • Stopping and restarting the instance changes the public IP address of your instance. It’s a best practice to use an Elastic IP address instead of a public IP address when routing external traffic to your instance
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