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Unix shell initialization

(NOTE: taken from

Shell initialization files are ways to persist common shell configuration, such as:

  • $PATH and other environment variables
  • shell prompt
  • shell tab-completion
  • aliases, functions
  • key bindings

Shell modes

Which initialization files get sourced by the shell is dependent on the combination of modes in which a particular shell process runs. There are two main, non-exclusive modes:

  • login - e.g. when user logs in to a system with non-graphical interface or via SSH;
  • interactive - shell that has a prompt and whose standard input and error are both connected to terminals.

These modes can be manually activated with the following flags to bash/zsh:

  • -l, --login
  • -i

Here are some common operations and shell modes they result in:

  • log in to a remote system via SSH: login + interactive
  • execute a script remotely, e.g. ssh user@host 'echo $PWD' or with Capistrano: non‑login, non‑interactive
  • execute a script remotely and request a terminal, e.g. ssh user@host -t 'echo $PWD': non-login, interactive
  • start a new shell process, e.g. bash: non‑login, interactive
  • run a script, bash non‑login, non‑interactive
  • run an executable with #!/usr/bin/env bash shebang: non‑login, non‑interactive
  • open a new graphical terminal window/tab:
    • on Mac OS X: login, interactive
    • on Linux: non‑login, interactive

Shell init files

In order of activation:


  1. login mode:
    1. /etc/profile
    2. ~/.bash_profile, ~/.bash_login, ~/.profile (only first one that exists)
  2. interactive non-login:
    1. /etc/bash.bashrc (some Linux; not on Mac OS X)
    2. ~/.bashrc
  3. non-interactive:
    1. source file in $BASH_ENV


  1. /etc/zshenv
  2. ~/.zshenv
  3. login mode:
    1. /etc/zprofile
    2. ~/.zprofile
  4. interactive:
    1. /etc/zshrc
    2. ~/.zshrc
  5. login mode:
    1. /etc/zlogin
    2. ~/.zlogin


  1. login mode:
    1. /etc/profile
    2. ~/.profile
  2. interactive:
    1. source file in $ENV


  1. <install-prefix>/
  2. /etc/fish/
  3. ~/.config/fish/

Practical guide to which files get sourced when

  • Opening a new Terminal window/tab:
    • bash
      • OS X: .bash_profile or .profile (1st found)
      • Linux: .profile (Ubuntu, once per desktop login session) + .bashrc
    • Zsh
      • OS X: .zshenv + .zprofile + .zshrc
      • Linux: .profile (Ubuntu, once per desktop login session) + .zshenv + .zshrc
  • Logging into a system via SSH:
    • bash: .bash_profile or .profile (1st found)
    • Zsh: .zshenv + .zprofile + .zshrc
  • Executing a command remotely with ssh or Capistrano:
    • bash: .bashrc
    • Zsh: .zshenv
  • Remote git hook triggered by push over SSH:
    • no init files get sourced, since hooks are running within a restricted shell
    • PATH will be roughly: /usr/libexec/git-core:/usr/bin:/usr/bin:/bin:/usr/sbin:/sbin

Misc. things that affect $PATH

  • OS X:
    • /etc/paths, /etc/paths.d/*
    • ~/.MacOSX/environment.plist - affects all graphical programs
    • /etc/launchd.conf
    • TextMate: Preferences -> Advanced -> Shell Variables
  • Linux:
    • /etc/environment

Final notes

This guide was tested with:

  • bash 4.2.37, 4.2.39
  • Zsh 4.3.11, 5.0

On these operating systems/apps:

  • Mac OS X 10.8 (Mountain Lion):, iTerm2
  • Ubuntu 12.10: Terminal

See also:

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