Photo of the face of one of the two Sidereal Angle clocks in the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England.
From a given observation point, a star found at one location in the sky will be found at the same location on another night at the same sidereal time. This is similar to how the time kept by a sundial can be used to find the location of the Sun. Just as the Sun and Moon appear to rise in the east and set in the west due to the rotation of Earth, so do the stars. Both solar time and sidereal time make use of the regularity of Earth's rotation about its polar axis, solar time following the Sun while sidereal time roughly follows the stars.
More exactly, sidereal time is the angle, measured along the celestial equator, from the observer's meridian to the great circle that passes through the March equinox and both celestial poles, and is usually expressed in hours, minutes, and seconds. Common time on a typical clock measures a slightly longer cycle, accounting not only for Earth's axial rotation but also for Earth's orbit around the Sun of slightly less than 1° per day (in fact to the nearest arcsecond, it takes 365.2422 days to revolve, therefore 360 degrees/365.2422 days = 0.9856° or 59′ 8″ per day, i.e., slightly less than 1 degree per day).
A sidereal day is approximately 23 hours, 56 minutes, 4.0905 SI seconds or also (24 hours - 4 minutes + 4 seconds). The March equinox itself precesses slowly westward relative to the fixed stars, completing one revolution in about 26,000 years, so the misnamed sidereal day ("sidereal" is derived from the Latin sidus meaning "star") is 0.0084 seconds shorter than Earth's period of rotation relative to the fixed stars.The slightly longer "true" sidereal period is measured as the Earth Rotation Angle (ERA), formerly the stellar angle. An increase of 360° in the ERA is a full rotation of the Earth.
Because Earth orbits the Sun once a year, the sidereal time at any given place and time will gain about four minutes against local civil time, every 24 hours, until, after a year has passed, one additional sidereal "day" has elapsed compared to the number of solar days that have gone by.
Sidereal time vs solar time. Above left: a distant star (the small orange star) and the Sun are at culmination, on the local meridian m. Centre: only the distant star is at culmination (a mean sidereal day). Right: a few minutes later the Sun is on the local meridian again. A solar day is complete.
Solar time is measured by the apparent diurnal motion of the Sun, and local noon in apparent solar time is the moment when the Sun is exactly due south or north (depending on the observer's latitude and the season). A mean solar day (what we normally measure as a "day") is the average time between local solar noons ("average" since this varies slightly over the year).
Earth makes one rotation around its axis in a sidereal day; during that time it moves a short distance (about 1°) along its orbit around the Sun. So after a sidereal day has passed, Earth still needs to rotate slightly more before the Sun reaches local noon according to solar time. A mean solar day is, therefore, nearly 4 minutes longer than a sidereal day.
The stars are so far away that Earth's movement along its orbit makes nearly no difference to their apparent direction (see, however, parallax), and so they return to their highest point in a sidereal day.
Another way to see this difference is to notice that, relative to the stars, the Sun appears to move around Earth once per year. Therefore, there is one fewer solar day per year than there are sidereal days. This makes a sidereal day approximately 365.24/366.24 times the length of the 24-hour solar day, giving approximately 23 h 56 min 4.1 s (86,164.1 s).