Linux Environment Variables List, Set, Create & Remove

This tutorial explains Linux Environment variables in detail. Learn how to set, reset, add, remove, create and delete environment variables locally and globally in Linux with practical examples. Environmental variables are used to customize the Linux for better user experience.

What is a linux environment variable

Linux environment variable is an object that contains value. In simple terms it is a pair of data object and their respective values. If you are familiar with programming language than you can easily understand it. Linux environment variables do same job which variables do in programming language.

If you are not familiar with programming language you can understand linux variable as a container with name which keeps value inside it. This value could be location of all executable files in the filesystem, the default editor that should be used, or the system locale settings.

Example of linux environmental variable

Let take a simple example of ls command to understand linux environmental variables. ls the basic command to list the content of directory. When execute a command in linux, you need to type the full path of that command. Since the ls command is in the /bin directory, users should execute the /bin/ls command to list files in the current directory.

Here comes the magic of linux environmental variables. Linux have a PATH variable. With the help of the PATH variable, full path is not required. The bash shell automatically searches through the directories listed in a user's PATH variable for the command that user just typed at the command line. When a matching command found shell run it. In this way environment variable provides a simple way to share configuration settings between multiple applications and processes in Linux.

How to show linux environment variable

printenv or env command can be use to list linux environment variables. The coreutils package contains printenv and env. Use printenv command to show linux environmental variables.

$ printenv

Linux environment variable printenv

The env utility can also be used to show linux environment variables.


Linux environment variable env

printenv to print the names and the values of each. Note that some environment variables are user-specific. Output of env and printenv are too big to fit in screen. We can redirect the output of printenv in a file. To redirect the output of printenv in a file run following command

$printenv > tmp_file

Linux environment variable printenv tmpfile

now we can read the tmp_file with less command.

$less tmp_file

Linux environment variable printenv less

Use up arrow and down arrow key to scroll. Press q to exist from file

Linux environment variable printenv reading

After reading you can simple remove the temporary file

$rm tmp_file

Linux environment variable rm tmp file

How to set linux environment variable

Linux environment can be set in three ways.

  • Temporary also know as Session Specific Variables
  • permanent locally
  • Permanent globally

To set linux environmental variable temporary use export command.

PATH variable contains location of executable files. To check current PATH use following command

$ echo $PATH

Linux environment variable echo path

Now we would add our directory in this path. Make a directory

$makdir custom_script

To add this directory in path run following commands

$export PATH="${PATH}:/home/user1/custom_script"

Verify that we have successfully added our custom_script directory in PATH variable

Linux environment variable echo path with dir

Now move in our custom_script directory and make a sample script

Linux environment variable simple script

make sample_script executable and run script directly from command prompt.

Linux environment variable sample script chomd and run

You can also verify that shell run sample_script from our custom_script directory by which command

Linux environment variable sample script which

Temporary variable only available in current session. To test it log out from current user and login back.

Run sample_script again. This time you will get command not found error.

Linux environment variable simple script error

How to set linux environmental variable permanently

Defining Variables Locally

As you seen temporary variables are available only on that session. We can make those variables permanent. For security reason you should not define an environment variable globally unless you have sound understanding of linux system. For instance, you might want to add /home/user_name/custom_script to the PATH variable for a particular user. In such a case define it locally. As you do not want all other users on your system to have that in their PATH too.

The following files should be used for local environment variables on your system: ~/. profile, ~/.bash_profile, ~/.bash_login and ~/.bash_logout.

Linux environment variable ls a

To add our custom_script directory in to the PATH variable for local usage

open .bash_profile file

 vi ~/.bash_profile

Linux environment vi bash profile

add our directory /home/user1/custom_script in PATH variable

Linux environment variable bash profile edit

To update the variable, re-login required.


Linux environment variable exit

Login back

Now check that our custom path is available

Linux environment variable sample script check after login

Permanently set linux environmental variable Globally

root privilege requires to set linux environment variable globally. RHEL maintain and manage the environment variables in numerous files. But you do not need to pay attentions on all files that can contain environment variables. Following the RHEL recommendation you should only set environmental variables in some particular files. The following files should be used for defining global environment variables on your system: /etc/profile, /etc/bash.bashrc and /etc/environment.

/etc/profile.d Directory is used to define global script.

Login from root and move to /etc

Linux environment variable cd etc root

move to /etc/profile.d directory

Make a simple test script and make this script executable

Linux environment variable global script

This script print a simple welcome message for all users

To test it logout from root and login back from normal user

Linux environment variable global script test normal user

We have successfully added global script. After testing to remove it login back from root

remove our test script

Linux environment variable rm global

List of Linux environmental variable

Variable nameStored information
DISPLAY used by the X Window system to identify the display server
DOMAIN domain name
EDITOR stores your favorite line editor
HISTSIZE size of the shell history file in number of lines
HOME path to your home directory
HOSTNAME local host name
INPUTRC location of definition file for input devices such as keyboard
LANG preferred language
LD_LIBRARY_PATH paths to search for libraries
LOGNAME login name
MAIL location of your incoming mail folder
MANPATH paths to search for man pages
OS string describing the operating system
OSTYPE more information about version etc.
PAGER used by programs like man which need to know what to do in case output is more than one terminal window.
PATH search paths for commands
PS1 primary prompt
PS2 secondary prompt
PWD present working directory
SHELL current shell
TERM terminal type
UID user ID
USER(NAME) user name
VISUAL your favorite full-screen editor
XENVIRONMENT location of your personal settings for X behavior
XFILESEARCHPATH paths to search for graphical libraries

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