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Unix Basics

This article is part of my personal wiki where I write personal notes while I am learning new technologies. You are welcome to use it for your own learning!

Basic Commands

Files and Directories

  • List files ls

    • List files with inode numbers ls -i
    • List all ls -a
    • List in long format (more details0 ls -l
    • Mark directories with a trailing slash and executable files with a trailing asterisk ls -F
    • Recursively lists subdirectories encountered ls -R
    • Gives the size of each file ls -s
    • Sorts by time modified instead of by name ls -t
  • Copy file cp (cp file1.txt file2.txt) creates a duplicate

    • Copy directories cp -r as in recursively (cp -r cookies cookies2)
    • The interactive flag prompts you whether you want to overwrite a file or not cp -i
  • Move file mv (mv file1.txt file.txt)

    • Also interactive with mv -i
    • Don’t use wildcards * with mv unless you move to a directory. The mv command doesn’t know what to do if you specify a target file name, it will just put them all on top of each other
  • Remove file rm (rm file1.txt)

    • Remove directories rm -r
  • Print text in command line echo (echo hello wold)
  • Redirect output to file > (echo hello world > file.txt)
  • Create link ln (ln file.txt link.txt). Links to the same index node (inode) that other file.
  • Create symbolic (soft) link ln -s (ln -s file.txt slink.txt). Links to a filename. Useful when linking files between different filesystems.

    • You can only create symbolic links to folders ln -s (ln -s cookies cookies3)
  • Manual man (man ls) also man [section] name (man 5 ls)

    • If you don’t know the name of the command exactly you can use apropos (apropos copy will search all headlines for the word copy). man -k does the same as apropos
  • Catenate cat

    • Print file contents cat file.txt
    • Print multiple file contents cat file.txt file2.txt
    • Write files to another file (catenating) cat file.txt file2.txt > files.txt
  • Display in a paged manner with more

    • See contents of a file more filename

      • scroll entire screen with spacebar, a line with ENTER
      • enter vi by typing v
      • quit reading with q
    • Display the output of other program in a paged manner with | like command | more
  • Print working directory pwd
  • Create directory mkdir (mkdir cookies)

    • Remove directory rmdir (rmdir cookies)
  • Change directory cd (cd cookies). Current directory .. Parent directory ...


  • Relative paths lala/lala/lala (start in the directory you are in)
  • Absolute paths /lala/lala/lala (start in the root directory)
  • Wildcards *

    • list all txt files ls *.txt
    • list all txt files that start with cheese ls cheese*.txt
    • list all txt files in all subdirectories of current dir ls */*.txt
  • If you have spaces in your path,

    • use quotation marks cd "john doe"
    • escape it with a backslash ls john\ doe

Wildcars in the Shell

  • * match any number of characters in a filename or directory, including none
  • ? match any single character
  • [] enclose a series of characters that can be matched at a specific position
  • - within [] denotes a range of characters
  • ~ at the beginning of a word expands to the name of your home directory. If you append a username to it, then it’s that user’s home directory.
  • Redirecting input/output

    • < send input to a command
    • > create a file and send output to it
    • >> append output to an existing file
  • Pipelining

    • pipes are a convenient way to channel the output of a command to the input of another command without creating an intermediate file
    • ps -aux | sort | more would give you a paginated alphabetical list of all running processes

      • note that if a command cannot read from standard input then it cannot be put to the left of a pipe
  • Repeat commands from history

    • !! repeat last command
    • !git repeat most recent command that starts with git
    • ?status repeat most recent comand that contains status

Deleting Stuff

  • Delete world CTRL+w
  • Delete line CTRL+u

Control Terminal Output and Programs

  • Suspend output CTRL+s
  • Abort program CTRL+c
  • Discard output CTRL+o until another CTRL+o is typed
  • Susped program CTRL+z
  • See all current running programs jobs
  • Resume suspended program in the foreground with fg and in the background with bg

User Session

  • Log in remotely rlogin
  • Change passwrod with passwd
  • Exit exit or CTRL+d (use set ignoreof to avoid exiting by mistake when you type CTRL+d)


  • find out which user you are logged in as whoami
  • find out which gorup you belong to groups
  • execute a file

    • unless a file is part of your path you need to prepend the path to it to run it ./
  • Display permissions through ls -l
  • Change permissions using chmod

    • change user permisions chmod u+rwx file.txt (add rwx to user)
    • change group permissions chmod g+rwx file.txt (add rwx to group)
    • change others permissions chmod o+rwx file.txt (add rwx to others)
    • you can combine them at once chmod ugo+rwx file.txt
    • use a - sign to remove permissions
    • you can also use numbers from 0 (no permissions) to 7 (all permissions) f.i. chmod 777 (all permissions for user, group and others). 755 and 754 are common combinations (restrict write to groups and others, restrict write to groups and write,execute to others)

More Useful Commands

  • alias lets you create shorcuts. For instance, alias rm 'rm -i'. UNIX substitutes command 1 with command 2 when you type it in the terminal

    • You can remove an alias with unalias
  • ap magic autopilot command
  • compress and uncompress compresses using adaptive Lempel-Ziv algorithm (pack unpack also compresses using Huffman)
  • df shows the space free on disk
  • diff lets you diff two files.

    • diff -b ignores white space
    • diff -i removes case sensitivity
  • du provides disk usage information
  • echo echoes a string into the terminal. Useful to see the content of environment variables (echo $TERM or echo $PATH)
  • find find files recursively in a directory matching a logical expression
  • finger shows information about users. It can be used locally and across the internets
  • ftp to copy files across the network
  • grep (get regular expression) searches for a expression in a file or group of files.

    • grep expands wildcard characters in the given expression
    • egrep (extended grep) searches the expression including alternations (usually faster than grep/fgrep)
    • fgrep (fixed-string grep) only searches for the string and doesn’t expand wildcards
    • Wildcard characters

      • \\: escape wildcard character after \\
      • []: match any character within brackets (grep [cm]an *.js)
      • .: match any character (grep eg. *.js)
      • ^: match beginning of line
      • $: match end of line
      • *: match 0 or more of the preceding character
    • Useful options

      • -f matches all the expressions in a given file as opposed to the one typed in the command line
      • -i removes case sensitivity
      • -n displays the line numbers containing a match
      • -l displays the names of the files that contain a match but not the lines that contained a match
      • -v displays lines that don’t match
    • Examples

      • Find all javascript files with variable foo: egrep foo *.js (add the option -n to get line numbers)
  • history displays a list of the commands you’ve previously typed (you must have configured it via set history=n where n is the number of commands to save)
  • kill kills a program (f.i. kill -9 processid use ps to retrieve the processid of a program)

    • if the process was started by the current cli you can use jobs to get the process index and kill -9 %n
  • look uses the system dictionary to search for a word. Useful for correcting spelling

    • you can also use spell to check spelling
  • ps (process status) shows the status of currently running processes
  • script records everything you type in a terminal and every that is outputed within a file (script logsession.txt)
  • setenv lets you set environment variables (setenv CUCUMBER 200)
  • source sends the contents of a file into the UNIX shell.

    • If you have a series of aliases that you usually use, you can use source .myaliases instead of typing them yourself
  • tar (tape archiver) lets you store a bunch of files in a single file. (tar key name)

    • c Creates a new tape
    • f Used for taring to a tape
    • t Lists the contents of a tar file
    • v Turns verification on
    • x Extracts selected files. If no file argument is given the entire contents of the tar file is extracted
    • For instance

      • create tar file tar cfv mysourcedir/files directory
      • extract tar file tar xfv mysourcedir/files directory
  • For more stuff go to UNIX is a 4 letter word


Jaime González García

Written by Jaime González García , Dad, Husband, Front-end software engineer, UX designer, amateur pixel artist, tinkerer and master of the arcane arts. You should follow him on Twitter where he shares useful stuff! (and is funny too).Jaime González García