Smart Card Configuration


Smart cards are a mature technology that prevents your user credentials from getting easily compromised by theft. With the pkcs11 plugin, strongSwan can use any PKCS#11 library to access smart cards, e.g. the one provided by the OpenSC project.

smart card

This tutorial gives information on how to use a smartcard reader, initialize cards and configure strongSwan with smartcards.

Compatible Hardware

You need a USB smart card reader and a blank smart card, or a USB token that combines the two in a convenient form factor, preferably with support of 2048 bit RSA or 256 bit ECDSA keys.

Compatible Card Readers

Thanks to OpenSC, Linux supports most CCID smart card readers, often using the PCSC-Lite library. Most recent USB card readers are compatible.

  • An overview on smart card readers can be found here.

Compatible Smart Cards and Tokens

  • An overview on smart card readers can be found here.

  • A list where to buy cards and readers in Europe is given here.


Smart Card Reader

To install pcsc-tools with CCID support, under Debian based distributions use:

sudo apt-get install pcsc-tools libccid

strongSwan supports the PKCS#11 standard, which specifies how to access cryptographic information on devices. Thus, any shared object file that provides a PKCS#11 interface may be used. In this tutorial we use OpenSC.

To install OpenSC use:

sudo apt-get install opensc

Do not install the OpenCT package, as it is incompatible with the pcsc-lite package.

Check that the card reader is correctly recognized by OpenSC:

$ opensc-tool -l
Readers known about:
Nr.    Driver     Name
0      pcsc       OmniKey CardMan 3121 00 00

At position Nr. 0 a Omnikey CardMan 3121 reader has been recognized. Let’s insert a smart card in the reader.

When buying a smart card you’ll also receive a transport key. Make sure that the transport key proposed by OpenSC matches the one you got in the mail. The smart card will be irretrievably blocked by entering the wrong key three times.

Let’s double check that the card is recognized by printing its ATR:

$ opensc-tool -r0 -a

We can also check the name of the card with the -n option (we can omit the -r0 argument since we only have one reader connected)

$ opensc-tool -n
Using reader with a card: OmniKey CardMan 3121 00 00

At this point we know both the card and reader are fully recognized and functional. We can now proceed to erase the card (you will be asked for the transport key you got in your mail).

Certification Authority

To set up your CA you may use OpenSSL or the strongSwan pki tool. To simplify things you may also use a graphical user interface to set up your CA. One important thing to keep in mind is that you shouldn’t create private keys with a key length not supported by your smart card (check the specs to be sure). RSA keys with a maximum length of 2048 bits are known to work.

Make a backup of your keys/certificates and store it in a safe place.

With most cards/tokens it is also possible to generate the private keys directly on the device. This way you can ensure nobody can get their hands on the keys but you also can’t create a backup, so any information encrypted with the corresponding public key will be inaccessible if the card is lost or stolen.

Configuring a Smart Card with pkcsc15-init

Credentials on smart cards are usually stored according to the PKCS#15 Cryptographic Token Information Format Standard fully supported by OpenSC. The following command erases the card and removes the existing PKCS#15 structure and all stored cryptographic objects

pkcs15-init --erase-card

This may result in a error if the card is already blank. With the next command a fresh PKCS#15 file structure is created on a smart card or crypto token:

pkcs15-init  --create-pkcs15 --profile pkcs15+onepin \
             --use-default-transport-key \
             --pin 0000 --puk 111111 \
             --label "Test"

A secret PIN code is stored in an irretrievable location on the smart card. The PIN will protect the signing operation. If the PIN is entered incorrectly more than three times then the smart card will be locked and the PUK code can be used to unlock the card again.

Next the private key is transferred to the smart card

pkcs15-init --auth-id 1 [--id 45] --store-private-key myKey.pem

By default the PKCS#15 smart card record will be assigned the ID 0x45. Using the --id option, multiple key records can be stored on a smart card.

At last we load the matching X.509 certificate onto the smart card

pkcs15-init --auth-id 1 [--id 45] --store-certificate myCert.pem

The pkcs15-tool can now be used to verify the contents of the smart card.

pkcs15-tool --list-pins --list-keys --list-certificates

strongSwan Configuration

pkcs11 Plugin

To use smart cards with strongSwan the pkcs11 plugin has to be enabled and configured.

Next the PKCS#11 library provided by "OpenSC has to be configured in strongswan.conf.

  pkcs11 {
    modules {
      opensc {
        path = /usr/lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/

Entering the PIN Code

Since the smart card signing operation needed during authentication is protected by a PIN code, the secret PIN must be made available to the IKE daemon via a secrets.token<suffix> subsection in swanctl.conf

Key Default Description


Hex-encoded CKA_ID or handle of the private key on the token or TPM 2.0, respectively


Optional slot number to access the token


Optional PKCS#11 module name to access the token


Optional PIN required to access the key on the token. If none is provided the user is prompted during an interactive swanctl --load-creds call

For gateways that must be able to start IPsec tunnels automatically in unattended mode after a reboot, the secret PIN can be stored statically, as in

secrets {
  token-gw {
    handle = 45
    pin = "12345678"

On a personal notebook computer that could get stolen, you wouldn’t want to store your PIN in in swanctl.conf. Thus just omit the pin attribute as in secrets { token1 { handle = 45 } } Using the swanctl --load-creds on the command line before starting the IPsec connection will prompt you for the PIN.

Configuring Certificates and Connections

The pkcs11 plugin will automatically load all certificates from the smart card when the daemon initializes it. CA certificates are also automatically available as trust anchors without the need to copy them into the /etc/swanctl/x509ca directory first.

Therefore it is usually not necessary to configure a local.cert subsection in swanctl.conf, instead is configured to either the subjectDistinguishedName or one of the subjectAltNames contained in the certificate.

For instance if is contained in the certificate as a subjectAltName extension, simply configure

connections.<conn> =

In situations where multiple certificates match the same identity configuring a local.cert<suffix> subsection might be necessary

Key Default Description


Since version 5.5.2. Subsection for a certificate candidate to use for authentication. Certificates in certs are transmitted as binary blobs whereas the cert subsections offer more flexibility


Absolute path to the certificate to load. Passed as-is to the daemon, so it must be readable by it. Configure either file or handle but not both in one section


Hex-encoded CKA_ID or handle of the certificate on a token or TPM 2.0, respectively. Configure either handle or file but not both in one section


Optional slot number of the token that stores the certificate


Optional PKCS#11 module name

This can be the case with some eID cards that contain separate signature and encryption certificates with the same identities. Thus for instance

  local {
    cert-50 {
      handle = 50

will look in all available modules and slots for ID 0x50 starting with the first slot whereas

  local {
    cert-50 {
      slot = 4
      handle = 50

will directly check slot 4 (which is usually the first slot on the second reader/token when using the OpenSC library) for a key with ID 0x50.