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The ~/.xinitrc file is a shell script read by xinit and by its front-end startx. It is mainly used to execute desktop environments, window managers and other programs when starting the X server (e.g., starting daemons and setting environment variables). The xinit program starts the X Window System server and works as first client program on systems that are not using a display manager.

One of the main functions of ~/.xinitrc is to dictate which client for the X Window System is invoked with startx or xinit programs on a per-user basis. There exists numerous additional specifications and commands that may also be added to ~/.xinitrc as you further customize your system.

Most DMs also source the similar xprofile before xinit.

Getting started

/etc/skel/ contains files and directories to provide sane defaults for newly created user accounts. (The name skel is derived from the word skeleton, because the files it contains form the basic structure for users' home directories.) The xorg-xinit package will populate /etc/skel with a framework .xinitrc file.

Copy the sample /etc/skel/.xinitrc file to your home directory:

$ cp /etc/skel/.xinitrc ~

Now, edit ~/.xinitrc and uncomment the line that corresponds to your DE/WM. For example, if you want to test your basic X configuration (mouse, keyboard, graphics resolution), you can simply use xterm:

# ~/.xinitrc
# Executed by startx (run your window manager from here)

if [ -d /etc/X11/xinit/xinitrc.d ]; then
  for f in /etc/X11/xinit/xinitrc.d/*; do
    [ -x "$f" ] && . "$f"
  unset f

# exec gnome-session
# exec startkde
# exec startxfce4
# exec wmaker
# exec icewm
# exec blackbox
# exec fluxbox
# exec openbox-session
# exec cinnamon-session
# ...or the Window Manager of your choice
exec xterm
Note: Make sure to uncomment only one exec line, since that will be the last command run from the script; all the following lines will just be ignored. Do NOT attempt to background your WM by appending a `&` to the line.

After editing ~/.xinitrc properly, it's time to run X. To run X as a non-root user, issue:

$ startx


$ xinit -- :1 -nolisten tcp vt$XDG_VTNR
  • xinit doesn't read the system-wide /etc/X11/xinit/xserverrc file, so you either have to copy it into your home directory as name .xserverrc, or specify vt$XDG_VTNR as command line option in order to preserve session permissions.
  • xinit doesn't handle multiple sessions if you are already logged-in into some other virtual terminal. For that you have to specify session by appending -- :session_no. If you are already running X then you should start with :1 or more.

Your DE/WM of choice should now start up. You are now free to test your keyboard with its layout, moving your mouse around and of course enjoy the view.


When a display manager is not used, it is important to keep in mind that the life of the X session starts and ends with ~/.xinitrc. This means that once the script quits, X quits regardless of whether you still have running programs (including your window manager). Therefore it's important that the window manager quitting and X quitting should coincide. This is easily achieved by running the window manager as the last program in the script.

Following is a simple ~/.xinitrc file example, including some startup programs:


if [ -d /etc/X11/xinit/xinitrc.d ]; then
        for f in /etc/X11/xinit/xinitrc.d/*; do
                [ -x "$f" ] && . "$f"
        unset f

xrdb -merge ~/.Xresources         # update x resources db

xscreensaver -no-splash &         # starts screensaver daemon 
xsetroot -cursor_name left_ptr &  # sets the cursor icon
sh ~/.fehbg &                     # sets the background image

exec openbox-session              # starts the window manager

Note that in the example above, programs such as xscreensaver, xsetroot and sh are run in the background (& suffix added). Otherwise, the script would halt and wait for each program and daemons to exit before executing openbox-session. Also note that openbox-session is not backgrounded. This ensures that the script will not quit until openbox does.

Prepending the window manager openbox-session with exec is recommended as it replaces the current process with that process, so the script will stop running and X won't exit even if the process forks into the background.

Tips and tricks

Override xinitrc from command line

If you have a working ~/.xinitrc, but just want to try other WM/DE, you can run it by issuing startx followed by the path to the window manager:

$ startx /full/path/to/window-manager

Note that the full path is required. Optionally, you can also override /etc/X11/xinit/xserverrc file (which stores the default X server options) with custom options by appending them after --, e.g.:

$ startx /usr/bin/enlightenment -- -nolisten tcp -br +bs -dpi 96 vt$XDG_VTNR


$ xinit /usr/bin/enlightenment -- -nolisten tcp -br +bs -dpi 96 vt$XDG_VTNR

Making a DE/WM choice

If you are frequently switching between different DEs/WMs, it is recommended to either use a Display manager or add code to .xinitrc. The code described next consists of a simple few lines, which will take the argument and load the desired desktop environment or window manager.

The following example ~/.xinitrc shows how to start a particular DE/WM with an argument:

# ~/.xinitrc
# Executed by startx (run your window manager from here)

if [ -d /etc/X11/xinit/xinitrc.d ]; then
        for f in /etc/X11/xinit/xinitrc.d/*; do
                [ -x "$f" ] && . "$f"
        unset f

# Here Xfce is kept as default

case $session in
    awesome           ) exec awesome;;
    bspwm             ) exec bspwm;;
    catwm             ) exec catwm;;
    cinnamon          ) exec cinnamon-session;;
    dwm               ) exec dwm;;
    enlightenment     ) exec enlightenment_start;;
    ede               ) exec startede;;
    fluxbox           ) exec startfluxbox;;
    gnome             ) exec gnome-session;;
    gnome-classic     ) exec gnome-session --session=gnome-classic;;
    i3|i3wm           ) exec i3;;
    icewm             ) exec icewm-session;;
    jwm               ) exec jwm;;
    kde               ) exec startkde;;
    mate              ) exec mate-session;;
    monster|monsterwm ) exec monsterwm;;
    notion            ) exec notion;;
    openbox           ) exec openbox-session;;
    unity             ) exec unity;;
    xfce|xfce4        ) exec startxfce4;;
    xmonad            ) exec xmonad;;
    # No known session, try to run it as command
    *) exec $1;;

Then copy the /etc/X11/xinit/xserverrc file into your home directory:

$ cp /etc/X11/xinit/xserverrc ~/.xserverrc

After that, you can easily start a particular DE/WM by passing an argument, e.g.:

$ xinit
$ xinit gnome
$ xinit kde
$ xinit wmaker


$ startx
$ startx ~/.xinitrc gnome
$ startx ~/.xinitrc kde
$ startx ~/.xinitrc wmaker