I have created a public/private key pair with this command:

ssh-keygen -t rsa -b 4096 -f my-trusted-key -C "Just a public/private key"  

I can open the private key file and I see:

$ cat my-trusted-key -----BEGIN OPENSSH PRIVATE KEY----- b3BlbnNzaC1rZXktdjEAAAAABG5vbmUAAAAEbm9uZQAAAAAAAAABAAACFwAAAAdzc2gtcn etc

but when I run the following command:

$ openssl rsa -in my-trusted-key -text -inform PEM -noout

I get the following error

unable to load Private Key 4506685036:error:09FFF06C:PEM routines:CRYPTO_internal:no start line:/AppleInternal/BuildRoot/Library/Caches/com.apple.xbs/Sources/libressl/libressl-47.140.1/libressl-2.8/crypto/pem/pem_lib.c:684:Expecting: ANY PRIVATE KEY

what is the issue here and it fails?

After the comment from @garethTheRed I created a private key using openssl as follows:

$ openssl genrsa -out anotherkey.key 2048  

and I can see:

$ cat anotherkey.key -----BEGIN RSA PRIVATE KEY----- MIIEogIBAAKCAQEAuc3m0tXo8UQvF8CJi9Cy7580WxfKvFHYZ3F06Uh19s9c51R/

and now the command works i.e.

openssl rsa -in anotherkey.key -text -inform PEM -noout

Private-Key: (2048 bit) modulus: 00:b9:cd:e6:d2:d5:e8:f1:44:2f:17:c0:89:8b:d0: b2:ef:9f:34:5b:17:ca:bc:51:d8:67:71:74:e9:48

but I don't understand the difference. Both files are PEM format, both when viewed using cat show the same format.
So why the pem generated by ssh-keygen is rejected?

  • 1
    The issue is that ssh-keygen generates an SSH key, while openssl rsa doesn't read SSH keys - it can read PKCS#1 or PKCS#8. Oct 1, 2021 at 20:33
  • @garethTheRed: But isn't that a PEM format? And if not with openssl then how can I do the exact equivalent with another tool?
    – Jim
    Oct 1, 2021 at 20:43
  • @garethTheRed: if possible, please can you check the updated post?
    – Jim
    Oct 1, 2021 at 21:56
  • @Jim - What you generated was an OpenSSH private key but you were attempting to import a RSA private key. Looking closer at the original error, it was indicating the problem was related to the cryptographic cipher being used.
    – Ramhound
    Oct 1, 2021 at 22:11
  • 1

1 Answer 1


isn't that a PEM format?

No, it's just a "PEM-like" format. There's a "-----HEADER-----" and there's Base64-encoded data. But that's where the similarities end – the actual data structure found within that Base64 blob is completely different than that of PEM; it isn't even using ASN.1 DER like typical "PEM" files do, but uses the SSH data format instead.

The ssh-keygen command used to output RSA private keys in the OpenSSL-style PEM or "bare RSA" or PKCS#1 format, but that's no longer the default. You can still get it using the -m PEM option, and you can also get the PKCS#8 format using -m PKCS8. Both are OpenSSL-compatible (PKCS#8 is preferred nowadays.)

Quick summary:

  • BEGIN RSA PRIVATE KEY: known as "PEM" or "PKCS#1", contains ASN.1 DER-formatted data
  • BEGIN PRIVATE KEY: "PKCS#8", more versatile than PEM (can hold any algorithm), but still counts as "PEM" for most purposes (most tools will recognize both formats), contains ASN.1 DER-formatted data
  • BEGIN ENCRYPTED PRIVATE KEY: still PKCS#8 but password-encrypted
  • BEGIN OPENSSH PRIVATE KEY: not "PEM", contains SSH2-formatted data specific to OpenSSH
  • Use openssl genpkey to create PKCS#8 format keys, openssl genrsa to create PKCS#1 format keys, openssl pkey to convert PKCS#1 to PKCS#8.
  • Use ssh-keygen -p -m PEM (password change with the -m option) to do an in-place conversion of other SSH key types to PKCS#1 (PEM). Similarly, use ssh-keygen -p -m PKCS8 to do in-place conversion to PKCS#8. If you do a password change without specifying -m, the key will get converted to the OpenSSH format instead.
  • For the last option - if I do an in-place conversion of an existing SSH key, is it still usable as SSH key for login? Oct 2, 2021 at 1:44
  • @Peregrino69: Yes, PKCS#1 (PEM) used to be OpenSSH's default format for private keys (it's probably why OP expected the ssh-keygen output to be PEM), and because it just offloads the reading/writing to OpenSSL it has also supported PKCS#8 for a long time.
    – user1686
    Oct 2, 2021 at 7:08

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