There are 3 ways to ssh into a PC running Windows and WSL2 (Ubuntu):

  • Running an ssh server on Windows
  • Running an ssh server on WSL
  • Running an ssh server on Windows AND on WSL

I’ll walk you through the advantages/disadvantages of each, and conclude with a how-to of the method I prefer.

Why is this Hard?

You might think, “What’s the problem? I’ll just run sshd on Ubuntu and then I can ssh to port 22.”

With WSL2, Microsoft put Linux in a VM. That VM has its own private network. The Windows machine acts as a router for WSL to reach the outside (real) network. So WSL’s port 22 (or any other port) is not visible to the outside world. Your WSL VM gets a different IP address every time you boot, complicating matters and make it tough to set up port forwarding.

Method 1: Running ssh Server on Windows

You can install Microsoft’s port of OpenSSH server on Windows. Follow the instructions at the link. You’ll want OpenSSH server and client for the recommended solution.

Test it by opening a Command prompt and running ssh localhost. Login with your WINDOWS ID and password. You should get a PowerShell prompt.

When you login to the ssh server, the server will launch a shell for you. That shell is specified in the Registry at HKLM\SOFTWARE\OpenSSH\DefaultShell. By default, it points to C:\windows\system32\WindowsPowerShell\v1.0\powershell.exe.

If you want to ssh to a PowerShell, it’s simple and you’re done. If you’re not running WSL, that’s probably what you want to do. But if you’re running WSL, you probably want to ssh to WSL.

This guy tells how to update the registry to have Windows’ ssh Server launch bash. It was the perfect, simple method. Then, sometime in mid-to-late 2022, Microsoft updated WSL2. It was working just fine (for me). Then, I ran wsl --update and it broke:

  • Sometimes I get a “The file cannot be accessed by the system” message.
  • I always get “Connection to MACHINENAME closed” immediately after login.

If you track down wsl.exe in C:\Users\USERNAME\AppData\Local\Microsoft\WindowsApps, you’ll see that it is zero bytes. This happened when Microsoft moved WSL into the Microsoft Store. It isn’t a symlink, but it functions sort of like one. But you can’t launch it from ssh server. It is a known issue.

Method 2: Running an ssh Server on WSL

You can install sshd on Ubuntu. Follow the instructions at the link. You’ll want OpenSSH server for the recommended solution.

Test it by opening a bash prompt and running ssh localhost. Login with your Ubuntu ID and password.

This works very nicely, except you cannot connect to your ssh daemon from anywhere except a WSL session. That’s not very useful.

I won’t provide the details, but you could:

  • Update the Windows firewall to permit incoming connections to a port. (If you’re also running ssh server on Windows, you’ll need to choose a port other than 22!)
  • Set up port forwarding from your Windows machine to a port on your WSL machine.
  • You’ll have to update that forwarding on every reboot, because WSL assigns a different IP address to your WSL machine after a reboot.
  • You’ll need to get your WSL machine started before you can connect to it.

It can be done. People are doing it. It is a lot of work, it is complex, and it is fragile.

Method 3 Part 1: Running ssh on Windows AND WSL

Conceptually, you will ssh to the Windows ssh server, and then you’ll ssh from there to WSL. You’ll use Windows as a “jump server” to connect to WSL. Once setup, it is robust and flexible. This is the recommended method. I’ll go into some detail.

  • Install ssh Server on Windows, per the applicable link above. Test it by connecting from a Command window by running ssh localhost. Then go to another machine and ssh into your Windows machine. Confirm it works. Remember to use your Windows PASSWORD and not your Windows PIN.
  • Install sshd on WSL, per the applicable link above. Test it by running ssh localhost from a bash shell. Then test by running ssh localhost from a Command prompt. (You should get a bash prompt when you connect.)
  • On WSL, edit /etc/ssh/sshd_config (NOT ssh_config – sshd_config) and change # Port 22 to Port 2022. Restart sshd, and test by running ssh localhost -p 2022 – first from bash and then from CMD on your Windows machine.
  • Run a proof-of-concept: ssh from another machine to your Windows machine; then ssh from your Windows machine to WSL. Make sure it works before proceeding. (We will automate the jump-server relay connection, to make it transparent.)

Method 3 Part 2: Automating the Jump Server

For this example, I’ll assume you have two Windows PCs named “HusbandPC” and “WifePC”, and that there is a user named “husband” on HusbandPC and a user named “wife” on WifePC. The only WSL account is for user = “wife”. We’re going to name the WSL on WifePC “WifePC-wsl”. (Yeah, that matches my setup, with names changed to protect the innocent.) I’m going to ssh from HusbandPC to WifePC.

On HusbandPC – the one you want to run ssh client on – do the following:

  • FIRST, delete any “localhost” entries from .ssh/known_hosts. ssh can’t tell the difference between YOUR localhost and someone else’s.
  • ssh -J husband@wifepc wife@localhost -p 2022
    • That tells ssh to use wifepc as a jump server, to connect to port 2022 on localhost, which will be WSL.
    • Make sure that works before continuing.
  • THEN, delete any “localhost” entries from .ssh/known_hosts. ssh can’t tell the difference between YOUR localhost and someone else’s. (Yeah, you did this earlier, but then you connected to localhost and you need to clean up again).
  • Edit ~/.ssh/config on HusbandPC (NOT config.txt) and add lines like the following, replacing UPPERCASE items (HOSTNAME should be the Windows host name):
    Host wifepc-wsl
      Port 2022
      ProxyJump wifepc

    This says that when you run ssh wifepc-wsl, it will connect to ssh on wifepc (port 22 by default) and then use it as a jump server to ssh to (port 2022). That would work if your user ID is the same on wifepc and wifepc-wsl, but suppose it is not…

IF your user-ID is not the same on client, jump-server, and HOSTNAME (e.g. your UID is “husband” on wifepc and “wife” on wifepc-wsl), you’ll need a more complex config file:

Host jump-server
    HostName wifepc
    User husband
Host wifepc-wsl
	User wife
	Port 2022
	ProxyJump jump-server

Test it by running (from your client machine) ssh HOSTNAME-wsl. You’ll have to enter login credentials on the jump server and then the WSL instance.


BUT… If you use this to connect via 2 jump servers, ssh can’t tell the difference between “localhost” (or on one server vs the other, in the known_hosts file. You need to use HostKeyAlias to put a UNIQUE host name in known_hosts for each “localhost”. So continuing with HusbandPC and WifePC, assume you need to ssh into wifepc-wsl and husbandpc-wsl:

Host jump-server1
    HostName husbandpc
    User husband
Host husbandpc-wsl
        User husband
        Port 2022
        HostKeyAlias localhost-husbandpc
        ProxyJump jump-server1
Host jump-server2
    HostName wifepc
    User husband
Host wifepc-wsl
        User wife
        Port 2022
        HostKeyAlias localhost-wifepc
        ProxyJump jump-server2
Host localhost
        port 2022
        HostKeyAlias localhost-real

This tells ssh to save certificates in known_hosts using alternative names for the various localhosts (i.e. localhost-husbandpc, localhost-wifepc, localhost-real).

No Passwords

Set up password-free login on both the jump server and HOSTNAME-wsl. You definitely want it enabled on the jump server. Note that the on your jump server is used to gain passwordless access to HOSTNAME-wsl.

sshd Quits After One Connect

sshd sometimes quits. I think the issue is that when there are no foreground processes running WSL shuts down. I’m not at all certain about that.

I used Task Scheduler to run “C:\Windows\system32\wsl.exe sudo cron” at the primary-user’s Windows login. I also ran “sudo systemctl enable ssh” at a bash prompt. (I previously used visudo to edit sudoers, granting passwordless sudo to my primary user.) That seems to ensure that cron AND sshd are constantly running.

Reminder About WSL Instances

Each Windows user gets his own WSLs. (Not exactly, but close enough.)

If Windows user winuser1 launches WSL and starts sshd, you get a DIFFERENT file system than if winuser2 starts sshd.

winuser1 can have linuxuser1 and linuxuser2, and winuser2 can have a DIFFERENT linuxuser1 and linuxuser2.