Tar command options and syntax explained

The tutorial explains how to use the tar command in Linux. Learn the most frequently used tar command's options (c,v,f,t, and x) in detail through examples.

The tar command is used to create and manage archives in Linux. An archive is a collection of multiple files, which can be transferred as a single file or stored as a backup copy. An archive file created with the tar command is also known as a tarball file.

The tar command syntax

To create an archive file, the tar command uses the following syntax.

tar [options] [destination-file-name.tar] [source-files or directories]

To list or extract and archived file, the tar command uses the following syntax.

tar [options] [archived-file.tar]

The tar command options

The following table lists the most common tar command's options with their description.

Short option Long option Description
-A --catenate Append the archive to the end of another archive.
-c --create Create a new archive.
-d --diff, --compare Find differences between archive and file system.
--delete Delete from the archive.
-r --append Append files to the end of an archive.
-t --list List the contents of an archive.
--test-label Test the archive volume label and exit.
-u --update Append files which are newer than the corresponding copy in the archive.
-x --extract, --get Extract files from an archive.
--show-defaults Show built-in defaults for various tar options and exit.
-? --help Display a short option summary and exit.
--usage Display a list of available options and exit.
--version Print program version and copyright information and exit.
--check-device Check device numbers when creating incremental archives.
-g --listed-incremental=FILE Handle new GNU-format incremental backups.
-G --incremental Handle old GNU-format incremental backups.
--ignore-failed-read Do not exit with nonzero on unreadable files.
--no-check-device Do not check device numbers when creating incremental archives.
-S --sparse Handle sparse files efficiently.
-k --keep-old-files Don't replace existing files when extracting.
--keep-newer-files Don't replace existing files that are newer than their archive copies.
--keep-directory-symlink Don't replace existing symbolic links to directories when extracting.
--no-overwrite-dir Preserve metadata of existing directories.
--overwrite Overwrite existing files when extracting.
--recursive-unlink Recursively remove all files in the directory prior to extracting it.
--remove-files Remove files from disk after adding them to the archive.
--skip-old-files Don't replace existing files when extracting, silently skip over them.
-U --unlink-first Remove each file prior to extracting over it.
-W --verify Verify the archive after writing it.
-O --to-stdout Extract files to standard output.

Short options are not available for all tasks. If an equivalent short option is not available for a specific task, use the long option. While specifying the options, you can use a dash (-) before the options or not. For example, you can specify options as -cvf or as cvf. Tar supports both styles.

Tar command c, v, f, t, and x options

The c, v, f, t, and x are the most frequently used options with the tar command. Let's understand these options in detail.

The option c creates an archive or a tarball from specified files or directories. If a directory is specified, all its files and sub-directories will be included in the archived file.

The option v displays the progress of archiving process at the command prompt. This option is optional. You can use it; if you want see what the tar command is doing. Or you can skip it; if you don't want to print the progress of archiving process at the command prompt.

The option f specifies the file where you want to store the output. If we don't specify this option, the tar command uses the standard output device (console or command prompt) to store the output data. In other words, if we don't specify the output file with this option, the tar command simply dumps all output data to the command prompt.

While specifying a file to store the output data, usually the extension .tar is used with file name. Although it's not required, still you should always use this extension with the file name. Using an extension for archived files helps keeping them separate from other files.

The option t lists the contents of the archive or tarball. Since this option lists the content of a file archive, the archive file must be specified with the option f.

The option x extracts the archive. Just like the option t, this option also needs an archive file specified with the option f.

The order of options is important. First specify the action (create, list or extract), next specify any additional requirement such verbose message, and in the last specify the name of file or device where the desired action should to be performed.

The following image shows the correct sequence of using these options.

correct sequence of tar options

The following syntaxes show the correct order of using these options.

tar -cvf [destination-file-name.tar] [source-files or directories]
tar -tvf archive-file.tar
tar -xvf archive-file.tar

Let's take some examples to understand how these options are used.

Creating an archive or tarball

To create an archive, three options c, v and f are used together. The following command creates an archive from a single file named test and puts that archive file in the same directory.

#tar -cvf  test.tar test

The following image shows the above command.

creating tar archive

To add multiple files into the archive, specify them as arguments. For example, the following command creates an archive file files.tar from files; a, b, c, d and f.

#tar -cvf files.tar a b c d f

The following image shows the output of the above command.

adding multiple files to an archive

Just like the files, we can also specify the directories as arguments. If we specify a directory as an argument, all of its files and sub-directories are recursively added into the archived file. For example, the following command creates an archived file data.tar from the directory testdir.

#tar -cvf data.tar testdir

The following image shows the output of the above command.

adding files to archive

If files and directories that you want to add into the archive file are not available in the current directory, you must have to specify their full paths. For example, the following command creates an archive conf.tar from the files: /etc/hosts, /etc/hostname and /etc/host.conf.

#tar -cvf  /etc/hosts /etc/hostname /etc/host.conf

The following image shows the output of the above command.

tar command adding a partition to archive

Just like we can create an archive from files which are not available in the current directory, we can also put the archived file on any location or device. For example, the following command adds all files and directories from the home partition into the archive home.tar and stores the archive on the /tmp partition.

#tar -cvf /tmp/home.tar /home

The following image shows the output of the above command.

adding files from another directory

That's all for this tutorial. In the next parts of this tutorial, we will understand how to extract and manage an archived file. We will also take some advance examples of the tar command.

This tutorial is the first part of the article "How to use Tar Command in Linux Explained with examples". The next parts of this article are the following.

Tar command examples in Linux

This is the second part of this article. It explains how to manage an archive after creation.

Tar command Compress and Extract Archives

This is the third and last part of this article. It explains how to compress and extract a compressed archive in detail.

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