Force HTTPS connections with HSTS


HTTP Strict Transport Security (HSTS) is a mechanism web servers issue to signal clients an https connection is mandatory in order to fetch content. HSTS helps to protect websites against man-in-the-middle techniques such as protocol downgrading or cookie hijacking.

The HSTS policy is communicated to clients by injecting a Strict-Transport-Security header in the http response from the web server. The header includes the minimum number of seconds the client must honor the policy.

NOTE: Caution should be exercised prior to enabling HSTS. If the web server is unable to communication over an https connections, clients will no longer be capable of fetching content until the user manually clears the HSTS cache or the max age timer expires.


Prior to enabling HSTS, the client does not have a HSTS policy:

Image of Safari web browser displaying domain policy settings

The web server does not issue a HSTP policy:

jemurray@Jasons-MacBook-Pro:~ $ wget --spider --server-response 2>&1 | grep Strict-Transport
  # <nothing displayed>
jemurray@Jasons-MacBook-Pro:~ $

My site,, is front-ended by the Cloudflare CDN. To enable HSTS, use the Cloudflare control panel:

Image of Cloudflare HSTS Enable button

After clicking Enable HSTS Cloudflare displays this warning. As noted earlier, it is important to understand potential issues with HSTS:

HTTP Strict Transport Security (HSTS) can substantially improve the security of your website. However, there are important considerations to keep in mind when enabling HSTS:

HTTPS (SSL) must be enabled in order to use HSTS.

  • If you turn on HSTS and do not have HTTPS for your website, browsers will not accept the HSTS setting.
  • If you have HSTS enabled and leave Cloudflare, you need to continue to support HTTPS through a new service provider otherwise your site will become inaccessible to visitors until you support HTTPS again.
  • If you turn off Cloudflare’s HTTPS while HSTS is enabled, and you don’t have a valid SSL certificate on your origin server, your website will become inaccessible to visitors.

Note: Disabling Cloudflare’s HTTP can be done in several ways: Grey clouding a subdomain in your DNS records, > “Pausing” the Cloudflare service, or having a misconfigured custom SSL certificate through your Cloudflare > dashboard (e.g., invalid SSL certificates, expired certificates, or mismatched host names).

If you need to disable HTTPS on your domain, you must first disable HSTS in your Cloudflare dashboard and > wait for the max-age to lapse to guarantee that every browser is aware of this change before you can disable HTTPS. The average max-age is six months (you can set the max-age in the next step). If you remove HTTPS > before disabling HSTS your website will become inaccessible to visitors for up to the max-age or until you > support HTTPS again. Because disabling HTTPS on an HSTS enabled website can have these consequences, we > strongly suggest that you have a committed HTTPS service in place before enabling this feature.

Alternative Method: For sites that don’t use Cloudflare, most web servers offer a way to inject custom headers in the http response. For example, add this line to the nginx configuration:

add_header Strict-Transport-Security "max-age=31536000;

Once HSTS is enabled, reload or browse to the website. The website data cache in the browser will now contain the new policy:

Image of Safari web browser with HSTS policy for

To confirm Strict-Transport-Security is set properly, use wget to examine the HSTS policy header:

jemurray@Jasons-MacBook-Pro:~ $ wget --spider --server-response 2>&1 | grep Strict-Transport
  Strict-Transport-Security: max-age=15552000
jemurray@Jasons-MacBook-Pro:~ $