What you are trying to do is called a sparse checkout , and that feature was added in git 1.7.0 (Feb. 2012). The steps to do a sparse clone are as follows:

mkdir <repo>
cd <repo>
git init
git remote add -f origin <url>

This creates an empty repository with your remote, and fetches all objects but doesn't check them out. Then do:

git config core.sparseCheckout true

Now you need to define which files/folders you want to actually check out. This is done by listing them in .git/info/sparse-checkout, eg:

echo "some/dir/" >> .git/info/sparse-checkout
echo "another/sub/tree" >> .git/info/sparse-checkout

Last but not least, update your empty repo with the state from the remote:

git pull origin master

You will now have files "checked out" for some/dir and another/sub/tree on your file system (with those paths still), and no other paths present.

You might want to have a look at the extended tutorial and you should probably read the official documentation for sparse checkout.

As a function:

function git_sparse_clone() (
  rurl="$1" localdir="$2" && shift 2

  mkdir -p "$localdir"
  cd "$localdir"

  git init
  git remote add -f origin "$rurl"

  git config core.sparseCheckout true

  # Loops over remaining args
  for i; do
    echo "$i" >> .git/info/sparse-checkout
  done

  git pull origin master
)

Usage:

git_sparse_clone "http://github.com/tj/n" "./local/location" "/bin"

Note that this will still download the whole repository from the server – only the checkout is reduced in size. At the moment it is not possible to clone only a single directory. But if you don't need the history of the repository, you can at least save on bandwidth by creating a shallow clone. See udondan's answer below for information on how to combine shallow clone and sparse checkout.


As of git 2.25.0 (Jan 2020) an experimental sparse-checkout command is added in git:

git sparse-checkout init
# same as: 
git config core.sparseCheckout true

git sparse-checkout set "A/B"
# same as:
echo "A/B" >> .git/info/sparse-checkout

git sparse-checkout list
# same as:
cat .git/info/sparse-checkout