Managing Environment Variables in GitHub Actions

GitHub Actions provides a powerful platform for automating workflows directly within your GitHub repositories. One essential aspect of workflow automation is managing environment variables, which allow you to securely store sensitive information and configuration settings. In this article, we’ll explore various methods for managing environment variables in GitHub Actions, along with a complete example to demonstrate their usage.

Introduction to Environment Variables

Environment variables are dynamic named values that can affect the way processes behave within a computing environment. In GitHub Actions, environment variables play a crucial role in configuring workflows, interacting with secrets, and passing data between workflow steps.

Types of Environment Variables in GitHub Actions

There are two types of environment variables commonly used in GitHub Actions:

  1. System Environment Variables: These are predefined variables provided by GitHub Actions and the operating system, such as GITHUB_TOKEN, GITHUB_REPOSITORY, RUNNER_OS, etc. They are accessible within all workflow steps and can provide information about the workflow execution context.
  2. Custom Environment Variables: These are user-defined variables that you can set within your workflow or repository settings. Custom environment variables are useful for storing sensitive information like API keys, access tokens, and configuration settings.

Methods for Managing Environment Variables

GitHub Actions offers several methods for managing environment variables:

  1. Workflow YAML File: You can define environment variables directly in your workflow YAML file using the env keyword. This method is suitable for setting variables that are specific to a particular workflow.
  2. Repository Secrets: GitHub provides a feature called “secrets” for storing sensitive data securely. You can create repository secrets in the repository settings and then reference them as environment variables in your workflows.
  3. Environment Files: GitHub Actions supports the use of environment files (.env) for defining environment variables. You can create an environment file containing key-value pairs and then load it into your workflow.
  4. Action Inputs: Custom actions can define inputs that users can set when using the action in their workflows. These inputs can be used as environment variables within the action’s execution context.

Example: Managing Environment Variables in a Workflow

Let’s create a simple GitHub Actions workflow that demonstrates how to manage environment variables effectively:

name: Environment Variables Demo

on: [push]

    runs-on: ubuntu-latest

      MY_SECRET: ${{ secrets.MY_SECRET }}

    - name: Display Secret
      run: echo $MY_SECRET

In this example:

  • We define a workflow named “Environment Variables Demo” that triggers on every push event.
  • The workflow contains a single job named “build” that runs on the latest version of Ubuntu.
  • We set a custom environment variable named MY_SECRET using the value of a repository secret called MY_SECRET.
  • Within the job’s steps, we use the echo command to display the value of the MY_SECRET environment variable.


Effectively managing environment variables is essential for building secure and reliable GitHub Actions workflows. By leveraging built-in features like secrets, custom environment variables, and action inputs, you can safely store sensitive information and configure workflows to meet your specific requirements. With the knowledge gained from this article and the provided example, you’ll be well-equipped to harness the power of environment variables in your GitHub Actions workflows.

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