Berkeley Statistics Logo

Bash shell tutorial

Training materials for using the bash (and zsh) shell.

View the Project on GitHub berkeley-scf/tutorial-using-bash

This project is maintained by berkeley-scf, the UC Berkeley Statistical Computing Facility.

Hosted on GitHub Pages — Theme by orderedlist

Using the bash shell

1 This tutorial


Before reading this, if you’re not already comfortable with basic commands for working with files (e.g. cd, ls, cp and the structure of the filesystem on a UNIX-like machine), you will want to be familiar with the introductory material in our Basics of UNIX tutorial.

Please see the top menu bar for the various sections of this tutorial, of which this document is the introduction.

Materials for this tutorial, including the Markdown file that was used to create this document are available on GitHub.

Software Carpentry has a very nice introductory lesson on the basics of the shell. It also has an accompanying YouTube video that covers some, but not all, of the topics of this tutorial.

This tutorial by Christopher Paciorek and Jarrod Millman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

2 The interactive shell

The shell is the UNIX program that provides an interactive computer programming environment. You use the shell when in a terminal window to interact with a UNIX-style operating system (e.g., Linux or MacOS). The shell sits between you and the operating system and provides useful commands and functionality. Basically, the shell is a program that serves to run other commands for you and show you the results.

The shell is a read-evaluate-print loop (REPL) environment. R and Python also provide REPL environments. A REPL reads a single expression or input, parses and evaluates it, prints the results, and then loops (i.e., returns control to you to continue your work).


I will use a $ prompt for bash. By convention, a regular user’s prompt in bash is $, while the root (or administrative) user’s prompt is #. However, it is common practice to never log on as the root user, even if you have root access. If you need to run a command with root privileges, you should use the sudo command.

$ echo "The current user is $USER."

The current user is paciorek.

When you are working in a terminal window (i.e., a window with the command line interface), you’re interacting with a shell. There are actually different shells that you can use, of which bash is very common and is the default on many systems. In recent versions of MacOS, zsh is the default shell. There are others as well (e.g., sh, csh, tcsh, fish). I’ve generated this document based on using the bash shell on a computer running the Ubuntu Linux version 20.04 operating system, and this tutorial assumes you are using bash or zsh. That said, the basic ideas and the use of various commands are applicable to any UNIX shell, and you should be able to replicate most of the steps in this tutorial in other UNIX command line environments, with various substitutions of shell syntax specific to the shell you are using,

The shell is an amazingly powerful programming environment. From it you can interactively monitor and control almost any aspect of the OS and more importantly you can automate it. As you will see, bash has a very extensive set of capabilities intended to make both interactive as well as automated control simple, effective, and customizable.


It can be difficult to distinguish what is shell-specific and what is just part of UNIX. Some of the material in this tutorial is not bash-specific but is general to UNIX.

Reference: Newham and Rosenblatt, Learning the bash Shell, 2nd ed.


Unfortunately, the behavior of shell commands on a Mac can be somewhat different than on Linux (e.g., on a Mac, one can’t do tail -n +5) because MacOS is based on BSD, which is not a Linux distribution. The behavior of the commands is distinct from the shell you are using.

3 Accessing the shell

This tutorial assumes you already have access to a basic bash shell on a computer with network access (e.g., the Terminal on a Mac, the Ubuntu subsystem on Windows, or a terminal window on a Linux machine), as discussed in our Basics of UNIX tutorial.

Here’s how you can see your default shell and change it if you like.

  1. What is my default shell?

    $ echo $SHELL
  2. To change to bash on a one-time basis:

    $ bash
  3. To make it your default:

    $ chsh /bin/bash

In the last example, /bin/bash should be whatever the path to the bash shell is, which you can figure out using:

$ type bash
bash is /usr/bin/bash

4 Variables

4.1 Using variables

Just like programming languages, you can use variables in the shell. Variables are names that have values assigned to them.

To access the value currently assigned to a variable, you can prepend the name with the dollar sign ($). To print the value you can use the echo command.

For example, I can find the username of the current user in the USER variable:

$ echo $USER

To declare a variable, just assign a value to the name, without using $. For example, if you want to make a new variable with the name counter with the value 1:

$ counter=1

Since bash uses spaces to parse the expression you give it as input, it is important to note the lack of spaces around the equal sign. Try typing the command with and without spaces and note what happens.

You can also enclose the variable name in curly brackets, which comes in handy when you’re embedding a variable within a line of code, to make sure the shell knows where the variable name ends:

$ base=/home/jarrod/
$ echo ${base}src
$ echo $basesrc

Make sure you understand the difference in behavior in the last two lines.

4.2 Environment variables

There are also special shell variables called environment variables that help to control the shell’s behavior. These are generally named in all caps. Type printenv to see them. You can create your own environment variable as follows:

$ export base=/home/jarrod/

The export command ensures that other shells created by the current shell (for example, to run a program) will inherit the variable. Without the export command, any shell variables that are set will only be modified within the current shell. More generally, if you want a variable to always be accessible, you should include the definition of the variable with an export command in your .bashrc file.

You can control the appearance of the bash prompt using the PS1 variable:

$ echo $PS1

To modify it so that it puts the username, hostname, and current working directory in the prompt:

$ export PS1='[\u@\h \W]\$ '
[user1@local1 ~]$ 

5 Introduction to commands

5.1 Elements of a command

While each command has its own syntax, there are some rules usually followed. Generally, a command line consists of 4 things: a command, command options, arguments, and line acceptance. Consider the following example:

$ ls -l file.txt

In the above example, ls is the command, -l is a command option specifying to use the long format, file.txt is the argument, and the line acceptance is indicated by hitting the Enter key at the end of the line.

After you type a command at the bash prompt and indicate line acceptance with the Enter key, bash parses the command and then attempts to execute the command. To determine what to do, bash first checks whether the command is a shell function (we will discuss functions below). If not, it checks to see whether it is a builtin. Finally, if the command is not a shell function nor a builtin, bash uses the PATH variable. The PATH variable is a list of directories:

$ echo $PATH

For example, consider the following command:

$ grep pdf file.txt

We will discuss grep later. For now, let’s ignore what grep actually does and focus on what bash would do when you press enter after typing the above command. First bash checks whether grep a shell function or a builtin. Once it determines that grep is neither a shell function nor a builtin, it will look for an executable file named grep first in /home/jarrod/usr/bin, then in /usr/local/bin, and so on until it finds a match or runs out of places to look. You can use type to find out where bash would find it:

$ type grep
grep is hashed (/usr/bin/grep)

Also note that the shell substitutes in the values of variables and does other manipulations before calling the command. For example in the following example,

$ myfile=file.txt
$ grep pdf $myfile

the value of $myfile is substituted in before grep is called, so the command that is executed is grep pdf myfile.txt.

5.2 Getting help with commands

Most bash commands have electronic manual pages, which are accessible directly from the commandline. You will be more efficient and effective if you become accustomed to using these man pages. To view the man page for the command sudo, for instance, you would type:

$ man ls

Alternatively, for many commands you can use the --help flag:

$ ls --help


Consider the following examples using the ls command:

$ ls --all -l
$ ls -a -l
$ ls -al

Use man ls to see what the command options do. Is there any difference in what the three versions of the command invocation above return as the result? What happens if you add a filename to the end of the command?

6 Operating efficiently at the command line

6.1 Tab completion

When working in the shell, it is often unnecessary to type out an entire command or file name, because of a feature known as tab completion. When you are entering a command or filename in the shell, you can, at any time, hit the tab key, and the shell will try to figure out how to complete the name of the command or filename you are typing. If there is only one such command found in the search path and you’re using tab completion with the first token of a line, then the shell will display its value and the cursor will be one space past the completed name. If there are multiple commands that match the partial name, the shell will display as much as it can. In this case, hitting tab twice will display a list of choices, and redisplay the partial command line for further editing. Similar behavior with regard to filenames occurs when tab completion is used on anything other than the first token of a command.


Note that R does tab completion for objects (including functions) and filenames. While the default Python shell does not perform tab completion, the IPython shell does.

6.2 Keyboard shortcuts

Note that you can use emacs-like control sequences (Ctrl-a, Ctrl-e, Ctrl-k) to navigate and delete characters.

Table. Keyboard Shortcuts

Key Strokes Descriptions
Ctrl-a Beginning of line
Ctrl-e End of line
Ctrl-k Delete line from cursor forward
Ctrl-w Delete word before cursor
Ctrl-y pastes in whatever was deleted previously with Ctrl-k or Ctrl-w
ESC-F Forward one word
ESC-B Backwards one word
Ctrl-d EOF; exit
Ctrl-c Interrupt current command
Ctrl-z Suspend current command
Ctrl-l Clear screen
Ctrl-r Enables an interactive search history

6.3 Command History and Editing

By using the up and down arrows, you can scroll through commands that you have entered previously. So if you want to rerun the same command, or fix a typo in a command you entered, just scroll up to it and hit enter to run it or edit the line and then hit enter.

To list the history of the commands you entered, use the history command:

$ history
      1    echo $PS1
      2    PS1=$
      3    bash
      4    export PS1=$
      5    bash
      6    echo $PATH
      7    which echo
      8    ls --all -l
      9    ls -a -l
      10   ls -al
      11   ls -al manual.xml

The behavior of the history command is controlled by a shell variables:

$ echo $HISTFILE
$ echo $HISTSIZE

You can also rerun previous commands as follows:

$ !-n 
$ !gi

The first example runs the nth previous command and the second one runs the last command that started with ‘gi’.

Table. Command History Expansion

Designator Description
!! Last command
!n Command numbered n in the history
!-n Command n previous
!string Last command starting with string
!?string Last command containing string
^string1^string2 Execute the previous command with string2 substituted for string1

If you’re not sure what command you’re going to recall, you can append :p at the end of the text you type to do the recall, and the result will be printed, but not executed. For example:

$ !gi:p

You can then use the up arrow key to bring back that statement for editing or execution.

You can also search for commands by doing Ctrl-r and typing a string of characters to search for in the search history. You can hit return to submit, Ctrl-c to get out, or ESC to put the result on the regular command line for editing.

7 Accessing remote machines

You likely already have ssh installed. SSH provides an encrypted mechanism to connect to a remote Unix-based (i.e., Linux or Mac) terminal. You can learn more about using ssh on various operating systems.

To ssh to another machine, you need to know its (host)name. For example, to ssh to, one of the SCF machines, you would:

$ ssh

At this point you have to type your password. Alternatively, you can set up ssh so that you can use it without typing your password.

If you have a different username on the remote machine than on the machine you are on, you will need to specify it as well. For example, to specify the username jarrod, you would:

$ ssh

If you want to view graphical applications on your local computer that are running on the remote computer you need to use the -X option:

$ ssh -X

Alternatively, if you want to copy a file (file1.txt) from your local computer to, you can use the scp command, which securely copies files between machines:

$ scp file1.txt

The above command will copy file1.txt from my current working directory on my local machine to jarrod’s home directory on The . following the : indicates that I want to copy the file to jarrod’s home directory on the remote machine, keeping the file name as it is. I could also replace . with any relative path from jarrod’s home directory on the remote machine or I could use an absolute path.

To copy a file (file2.txt) from to my local machine:

$ scp .

I can even copy a file (file3.txt) owned by one user (jarrod) on one remote machine to the account of another user (jmillman) on another remote machine

$ scp

If instead of copying a single file, I wanted to copy an entire directory (src) from one machine to another, I would use the -r option:

$ scp -r src

Regardless of whether you are working on a local computer or a remote one, it is occasionally useful to operate as a different user. For instance, you may need root (or administrative) access to change file permissions or install software. (Note this will only be possible on machines that you own or have special privileges on. The Ubuntu Subsystem on Windows is one way to have a virtual Linux machine for which you have root access.)

For example on an Ubuntu Linux machine (including the Ubuntu Subsystem on Windows), here’s how you can act as the ‘root’ user to update or add software on machines where you have administrative access:

To upgrade all the software on the machine:

$ sudo apt-get upgrade

To install the text editor vim on the machine:

$ sudo apt-get install vim