Find your way around the Linux terminal

Find your way around the Linux terminal

The Linux terminal can be a daunting place for new users, especially if you are used to using a GUI-based operating system like Windows or macOS.

What is the Linux command line?

The Linux command line is a text-based interface that allows you to interact with the operating system. It is a lot like the DOS prompt in Windows, but it is much more powerful.

There are several different shells on Linux, these are just a few popular ones:

  • Bourne-again shell (Bash)

  • C shell (csh or tcsh, the enhanced csh)

  • Korn shell (ksh)

  • Z shell (zsh)

On Linux, the most common one is the Bash shell. We will mainly focus on Bash in this series.

To access the Linux command line, open a terminal window. On most Linux distributions, you can do this by pressing Ctrl+Alt+T shortcut.

Once you are in the terminal window, you can start typing commands.

Root and non-root shell

The main difference between root and non-root shells is the level of privileges they have. The root shell has full access to the system, while the non-root shell has limited access.

The easiest way to tell if you are in a root shell or a non-root shell is to look at the prompt. The prompt for a root shell starts with a number sign (#), while the prompt for a non-root shell starts with a dollar sign ($).

On Ubuntu or Debian GNU/Linux, the prompt for a regular user will likely look like this:


If you are logged in as root, your prompt will look like this:


You can also use the whoami command to check your current user ID.

nguyenducchinh@VM:~$ whoami

If you are logged in as root, the output of the whoami command will be root.

root@VM:~# whoami

It is important to note that the root shell can be dangerous if used incorrectly. For this reason, it is important to only use the root shell when necessary and to take precautions to avoid making mistakes.

Structure of a Linux command

The structure of a Linux command is as follows:

~$ command [options] [arguments]
  • Command: The command is the name of the program or function that you want to run.

  • Options: Options are modifiers that can be used to change the behavior of the command.

  • Arguments: Arguments are the data that the command needs to work.

In the below case, filename is the argument needed to specify which file you will delete.

~$ rm filename

Some commands can accept multiple arguments.

~$ rm filename1 filename2 filename3

Here are some acceptable options you can add for rm:

  • -i prompts system confirmation before deleting a file.

  • -f allows the system to remove without a confirmation.

  • -r deletes files and directories recursively.

Options can be accessed in a short and a long form. For example, -l is identical to --format=long and -a is the same as --all.

Multiple options can be combined as well and for the short form, the letters can usually be typed together. For example, the following commands all do the same:

~$ ls -la 
~$ ls -l -a
~$ ls --format=long --all


In Linux shell, a variable is a named location in memory that can be used to store data. Variables can be used to store text, numbers, or other types of data.

Local Variables

To declare a local variable you use the following syntax:

~$ variable_name=value

For example, the following command declares a variable called my_variable and assigns it the value 123:

nguyenducchinh@VM:~$ my_variable=123

Once a variable has been declared, you can use it in commands by preceding its name with a dollar sign ($). You can display any variable using the echo command.

nguyenducchinh@VM:~$ echo $my_variable

To remove a variable, use the command unset:

clayton@VM:~$ unset my_variable
clayton@VM:~$ echo $my_variable


The problem is, that when you open another terminal window, this variable is not accessible.

Local variables only work in the instance they were declared. If want to access it across the shell environment, you need to turn it into a global variable.

Global Variables

Turning local to global variables is done by the command export. When it is invoked with the variable name, this variable is added to the shell’s environment:

clayton@VM:~$ greeting=hello
clayton@VM:~$ export greeting

The PATH Variable

The PATH variable is a colon-separated list of directories that tells the shell where to look for executable programs. When you type a command in the shell, the shell searches the directories in the PATH variable for an executable file with the same name.

clayton@VM:~$ echo $PATH

Let's say you have an executable file called in your /home directory. By default, the shell will not be able to find this file, because it is not in one of the directories in the PATH variable.

To make the shell find this file, you can add the home directory to the PATH variable. You can do this by editing your shell configuration file, typically ~/.bashrc or ~/.profile. In the file, add the following line:


This will tell the shell to look for executable files in the home directory, in addition to the directories that are already in the PATH variable.

If you don't want to edit can also set the PATH variable temporarily by using the export command.

Now, you can run the file by just typing the following command:


The shell will find the file in the home directory and execute it.

By setting the PATH variable to include the directories where your executable files are located, you can avoid having to type the full path to the file every time you want to run it.

Most used Linux commands

Here are some of the most used Linux commands:

  • ls: This command lists the files and directories in the current directory.

  • cd: This command changes the current directory.

  • mkdir: This command creates a new directory.

  • rmdir: This command removes an empty directory.

  • touch: This command creates a new file.

  • cat: This command displays the contents of a file.

  • grep: This command searches for a pattern in a file.

  • man: This command displays the manual page for a command.

These are just a few of the essential Linux commands. There are many other commands available, and you can learn more about them by finding cheat sheets available online about the most common Linux commands and their syntax. This can be a helpful reference when you are first starting.


These are just the essentials of Linux command line that you should know. With these, you will be able to do basic file management, navigate the file system, and run programs.

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