Client authentication may be used in a SSL/TLS negotiation.

For this, the client will send a CertificateVerify after the server requested it.

The CertificateVerify message contains the client certificate that will be verified by the server.

How does the server verify that the client certificate (containing the client public key) is legitimate?

  • 2
    In the same way was any other entity verifies any other certificate in PKI. It checks if the certification path is signed with a trusted signing certificate. What exactly are you asking about?
    – techraf
    Commented Oct 1, 2016 at 0:31
  • 2
    Actually the client sends three messages: Certificate contains its cert, with chain cert(s) if applicable which it usually is; ClientKeyExchange; and CertificateVerify contains a signature of the transcript so far using the client (private)key. The cert itself is verified in the standard X.509/PKIX way, and the CertVerify is verified using the key in the cert. See the RFCs and/or Wikipedia. Commented Oct 1, 2016 at 6:22

2 Answers 2


The server has some roots of trust, which it uses, or depending on the application, it may have a CA's cert, or just that client's cert, pinned.

Anyway, it either goes through its trust store and checks if the client cert is signed by something in its store, or if it's pinned, it will just check against the one CA or cert it is configured to check with.


The handshake part of the TLS 1.3 protocol has three goals:

  • exchange certificates;
  • let the server confirms that the client really have the secret key associated with the provided public certificate, without exchanging the secret key;
  • exchange ephemeral keys.

Part 1 - Trust of certificate

Client sends its certificate with Certificate message.

Server determines if the certificate is from trusted source. It verifies the signature of the client's certificate, then the signature of each intermediate certificate, until it finds a trusted certificate, either from a server-side list of trusted certificates, or from a trusted certificate authority (CA).


  1. Alice (client) sends her public certificate to Bob (server) as well as the certificate chain.
  2. Bob hashes the certificate.
  3. Bob decrypts the certificate using the upper-level certificate in the chain.
  4. Bob compares the two results; if they match, Bob has the proof that the certificate was really signed using the upper-lever certificate.
  5. Bob continues through the chain (steps 2, 3, 4) until it finds a trusted certificate.

Part 2 - Trust of client

The client sends the Certificate Verify message:

struct {
  SignatureScheme algorithm;
  opaque signature<0..2^16-1>;
} CertificateVerify;

The signature scheme tells hash function used and signature algorithm.

The signature is produced by the client and verified by the server. The data actually signed is known by client and server and thus not re-sent (it's spaces, a context string, a zero byte and the previous messages).


  1. Alice (client) generates an asymetric key pair.
  2. A trusted authority signs her public key, producing a public certificate.
  3. Alice hashes the data.
  4. Alice encrypts the hash using her encryption key (her private key).
  5. Bob (server) knows, from a previous message: Alice's public certificate and the certificate chain.
  6. Alice sends to Bob: signature, hash function and signature algorithm.
  7. Bob hashes the data.
  8. Bob decrypts the signature using Alice's public certificate.
  9. Bob compares the two results; if they match, Bob has the proof that the signature is associated with the data and Alice's private key generated the signature.

Now, Alice must keep her key secret, and the data must vary between requests to avoid Eve from replaying the request with same data and same signature.

I hope it helps you to better understand.


  • Great explanation of signature verification and as it applies to SSL/TLS, thank you. :) I realize the question could've been worded better, but the OP's question title is about "validation" (not verification); also in the description: "how does the server verify that the client certificate is legitimate?".
    – Sas3
    Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 5:15
  • 1
    Thank you @Sas3. I updated my answer to better explain validation and verification. It helped me to solve the general question: how can Alice give a proof of possession without giving the secret to Bob?
    – rjobidon
    Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 14:56

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