Environment variables

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An environment variable is a named object that contains data used by one or more applications. In simple terms, it is a variable with a name and a value. The value of an environmental variable can for example be the location of all executable files in the file system, the default editor that should be used, or the system locale settings. Users new to Linux may often find this way of managing settings a bit unmanageable. However, environment variables provide a simple way to share configuration settings between multiple applications and processes in Linux.

Utilities

The coreutils package contains the programs printenv and env. To list the current environmental variables with values:

$ printenv
Note: Some environment variables are user-specific. Check by comparing the outputs of printenv as an unprivileged user and as root.

The env utility can be used to run a command under a modified environment. The following example will launch xterm with the environment variable EDITOR set to vim. This will not affect the global environment variable EDITOR.

$ env EDITOR=vim xterm

The Bash builtin set allows you to change the values of shell options and set the positional parameters, or to display the names and values of shell variables. For more information, see the set builtin documentation.

Each process stores their environment in the /proc/$PID/environ file. This file contains each key value pair delimited by a nul character (\x0). A more human readable format can be obtained with sed, e.g. sed 's:\x0:\n:g' /proc/$PID/environ.

Defining variables

Globally

Most Linux distributions tell you to change or add environment variable definitions in /etc/profile or other locations. Keep in mind that there are also package-specific configuration files containing variable settings such as /etc/locale.conf. Be sure to maintain and manage the environment variables and pay attention to the numerous files that can contain environment variables. In principle, any shell script can be used for initializing environmental variables, but following traditional UNIX conventions, these statements should only be present in some particular files.

The following files can be used for defining global environment variables on your system, each with different limitations:

  • /etc/environment is used by the pam_env module and is shell agnostic so scripting or glob expansion cannot be used. The file only accepts variable=value pairs.
  • /etc/profile initializes variables for login shells only. It does, however, run scripts and can be used by all Bourne shell compatible shells.
  • Shell specific configuration files - Global configuration files of your shell, initializes variables and runs scripts. For example Bash#Configuration files or Zsh#Startup/Shutdown files.

In this example, we add ~/bin directory to the PATH for respective user. To do this, just put this in your preferred global environment variable configuration file (/etc/profile or /etc/bash.bashrc):

# If user ID is greater than or equal to 1000 & if ~/bin exists and is a directory & if ~/bin is not already in your $PATH
# then export ~/bin to your $PATH.
if [[ $UID -ge 1000 && -d $HOME/bin && -z $(echo $PATH | grep -o $HOME/bin) ]]
then
    export PATH="${PATH}:$HOME/bin"
fi

Per user

You do not always want to define an environment variable globally. For instance, you might want to add /home/my_user/bin to the PATH variable but do not want all other users on your system to have that in their PATH too. Local environment variables can be defined in many different files:

To add a directory to the PATH for local usage, put following in ~/.bash_profile:

export PATH="${PATH}:/home/my_user/bin"

To update the variable, re-login or source the file: $ source ~/.bash_profile.

Note:
  • The dbus daemon and the user instance of systemd do not inherit any of the environment variables set in places like ~/.bashrc etc. This means that, for example, dbus activated programs like Gnome Files will not use them by default. See systemd/User#Environment variables.
  • Reading ~/.pam_environment is deprecated and the feature will be removed at some point in the future.

Graphical environment

If an environment variable only affects graphical applications, you may want to restrict the scope of it by only setting it within the graphical session.

To set environment variables only for a specific application instead of the whole session, edit the application's .desktop file. See Desktop entries#Modify environment variables for instructions.

Using a startup script

Some graphical environments, (e.g. KDE Plasma) support executing shell scripts at login: they can be used to set environment variables. See KDE#Autostart for example.

Xorg environment

The procedure for modifying the environment of the Xorg session depends on how it is started:

Though the end of the script depends on which file it is, and any advanced syntax depends on the shell used, the basic usage is universal:

~/.xprofile, ~/.xinitrc, or ~/.xsession
...
export GUI_VAR=value
...
Wayland environment

Since Wayland does not initiate any Xorg related files, GDM and KDE Plasma source systemd user environment variables instead.

~/.config/environment.d/envvars.conf
GUI_VAR=value

No other display managers supporting Wayland sessions (e.g. SDDM) provide support for this yet. However, SDDM sources startup scripts for login shells on Wayland sessions too.

Per session

Sometimes even stricter definitions are required. One might want to temporarily run executables from a specific directory created without having to type the absolute path to each one, or editing shell configuration files for the short time needed to run them.

In this case, you can define the PATH variable in your current session, combined with the export command. As long as you do not log out, the PATH variable will be using the temporary settings. To add a session-specific directory to PATH, issue:

$ export PATH="${PATH}:/home/my_user/tmp/usr/bin"

Using pam_env

The PAM module pam_env(8) loads the variables to be set in the environment from the following files in order: /etc/security/pam_env.conf, /etc/environment (and the deprecated ~/.pam_environment).

/etc/environment must consist of simple VARIABLE=value pairs on separate lines, for example:

EDITOR=nano

/etc/security/pam_env.conf and ~/.pam_environment share the following format:

VARIABLE [DEFAULT=value] [OVERRIDE=value]

@{HOME} and @{SHELL} are special variables that expand to what is defined in /etc/passwd. The following example illustrates how to expand the HOME environment variable into another variable:

XDG_CONFIG_HOME   DEFAULT=@{HOME}/.config
Note: The variables ${HOME} and ${SHELL} are not linked to the HOME and SHELL environment variables, they are not set by default.

The format also allows to expand already defined variables in the values of other variables using ${VARIABLE} , like this:

GOPATH DEFAULT=${XDG_DATA_HOME}/go

VARIABLE=value pairs are also allowed, but variable expansion is not supported in those pairs. See pam_env.conf(5) for more information.

Note: These files are read before other files, in particular before ~/.profile, ~/.bash_profile and ~/.zshenv.

Examples

The following section lists a number of common environment variables used by a Linux system and describes their values.

  • DE is a legacy variable indicating the desktop environment being used. There is no central documentation for what possible values are, but xdg-utils provides a reference for many desktop environments.
  • DESKTOP_SESSION is another legacy variable, similar to DE but less common. It may be a path to the session's desktop entry, in /usr/share/xsessions/ [5].
  • WINDOW_MANAGER is a variable sometimes used to choose the window manager to be used in a desktop environment, as opposed to the other variables here which are set by the already chosen display manager or desktop environment, for other programs to read.
  • PATH contains a colon-separated list of directories in which your system looks for executable files. When a regular command (e.g. ls, systemctl or pacman) is interpreted by the shell (e.g. bash or zsh), the shell looks for an executable file with the same name as your command in the listed directories, and executes it. To run executables that are not listed in PATH, a relative or absolute path to the executable must be given, e.g. ./a.out or /bin/ls.
Note: It is advised not to include the current working directory (.) into your PATH for security reasons, as it may trick the user to execute malicious commands.
  • HOME contains the path to the home directory of the current user. This variable can be used by applications to associate configuration files and such like with the user running it.
  • OLDPWD contains the path to the previous working directory, that is, the value of PWD before last cd was executed.
  • TERM contains the type of the running terminal, e.g. xterm-256color. It is used by programs running in the terminal that wish to use terminal-specific capabilities.
  • MAIL contains the location of incoming email. The traditional setting is /var/spool/mail/$LOGNAME.
  • ftp_proxy and http_proxy contains FTP and HTTP proxy server, respectively:
ftp_proxy="ftp://192.168.0.1:21"
http_proxy="http://192.168.0.1:80"
  • MANPATH contains a colon-separated list of directories in which man searches for the man pages.
Note: In /etc/profile, there is a comment that states "Man is much better than us at figuring this out", so this variable should generally be left unset. See manpath(5).
  • INFODIR contains a colon-separated list of directories in which the info command searches for the info pages, e.g., /usr/share/info:/usr/local/share/info
  • TZ can be used to to set a time zone different to the system zone for a user. The zones listed in /usr/share/zoneinfo/ can be used as reference, for example TZ=":/usr/share/zoneinfo/Pacific/Fiji". When pointing the TZ variable to a zoneinfo file, it should start with a colon per the GNU manual.

Default programs

  • SHELL contains the path to the user's preferred shell. Note that this is not necessarily the shell that is currently running. In the event that it has no value, Bash will automatically set this variable to the user's login shell as defined in /etc/passwd or to /bin/sh if this cannot be determined.
  • PAGER contains command to run the program used to list the contents of files, e.g., /bin/less.
  • EDITOR contains the command to run the lightweight program used for editing files, e.g., /usr/bin/nano. For example, you can write an interactive switch between gedit under X or nano, in this example:
export EDITOR="$(if [[ -n $DISPLAY ]]; then echo 'gedit'; else echo 'nano'; fi)"
  • VISUAL contains command to run the full-fledged editor that is used for more demanding tasks, such as editing mail (e.g., vi, vim, emacs etc).
  • BROWSER contains the path to the web browser. Helpful to set in an interactive shell configuration file so that it may be dynamically altered depending on the availability of a graphic environment, such as X:
if [ -n "$DISPLAY" ]; then
    export BROWSER=firefox
else 
    export BROWSER=links
fi

See also