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Have you ever wondered how certain executables on Linux can be accessed as simple commands from the command line? Have you wanted to be able to run a program on Linux without having to provide the entire path?

These are the problems the PATH variable is designed to solve. In this tutorial, learn more about what the PATH variable is and how it works. Then, see how you can add your own directories to the PATH, allowing you to run programs as simple commands.

Before You Begin

  1. Familiarize yourself with our Getting Started with Linode guide and complete the steps for setting your Linode’s hostname and timezone.

  2. This guide uses sudo wherever possible. Complete the sections of our How to Secure Your Server guide to create a standard user account, harden SSH access, and remove unnecessary network services.

  3. Update your system.

    • On Debian and Ubuntu, use the following command:

        sudo apt update && sudo apt upgrade
    • On AlmaLinux, CentOS (8 or later), or Fedora, use the following command:

        sudo dnf upgrade
  4. You may want to take a refresher on environmental variables. You can get everything you need to know from our guide How to Set and Use Linux Environmental Variables.

The steps in this guide are written for non-root users. Commands that require elevated privileges are prefixed with sudo. If you’re not familiar with the sudo command, see the Linux Users and Groups guide.

What Is the PATH Variable?

The $PATH environmental variable contains a colon-separated list of directories. These directories are where Linux looks for executables, allowing you to run these using only the executable names.

For instance, say you have an executable called program-to-run in the /usr/local/bin directory. Without that directory in your PATH, you would have to run the executable with:


Or by changing into the directory first and then running the executable:

cd /usr/local/bin

However, if you have the directory in your PATH, you can run the executable by simply giving its name as a command:


The PATH variable becomes especially useful when running specialized developer or system administrator tools as well as in-development applications. It allows you to run tools and applications efficiently while keeping them stored wherever best fits your needs.

View the PATH Variable

It can be useful to know what directories are already assigned to the PATH on your Linux system. You can do this easily with the echo command, like this:

echo $PATH

As you can see from the output above, Linux systems come by default with several convenient directories already on the PATH.

But sometimes these directories alone do not meet your needs. That is when you should look to customizing the PATH variable’s contents.

How to Add a Directory to the PATH

Linux comes with several directories in the PATH by default, like you can see in the output above. Typically, these are enough. Most programs you install on Linux put their executables in one of the default directories, making them easy to start using immediately.

But sometimes this is not the case. The PATH variable does not cover executables that you download or create and store in non-default directories. But that kind of storage is often the case when using one-off programs, working with particular system administrator tools, or when developing executables.

In such cases and similar ones, you likely want the ability to add additional directories to the PATH variable to make executables easier to work with.

Fortunately, you can do just that using the export command. Here is an example, adding the /etc/custom-directory directory to the PATH:

export PATH="$PATH:/etc/custom-directory"

After the above command, you can run executables stored in the custom-directory simply by providing the executables’ names as commands.

How exactly does the export command achieve this? Follow along with this breakdown of the command to understand how each part works:

  • export PATH= starts to define the PATH variable.

  • $PATH ensures that the new definition of PATH begins with all of the contents of the existing PATH. In other words, including the PATH variable here is how you expand on the variable’s contents rather than overwrite them.

  • :/etc/custom-directory adds the new directory. Notice the placement of the colon, which is necessary because the PATH list is colon-separated.

You can verify the updated contents of PATH using the echo command as shown above:

echo $PATH

PATH Variable Scope

Executing the export command above only updates the PATH variable for the current session. Logging out and logging back into your Linux system results in the PATH being reset.

There are two methods available should you want to have your directory added to the PATH in a more permanent way.

  • You can alter the PATH variable for a given user by adding the export command to that user’s shell configuration file. The location of the configuration file varies depending on the shell program. For Bash, the configuration file is typically ~/.bashrc:

    File: ~/.bashrc
    # [...]
    export PATH="$PATH:/etc/custom-directory"
  • You can alter the global PATH variable for your Linux system by adding the export command to your system’s configuration file. That file is typically /etc/profile:

    File: /etc/profile
    # [...]
    export PATH="$PATH:/etc/custom-directory"

Of the two options above, the option for modifying the PATH for the current user is preferred most of the time. Typically, you should only modify the global PATH when you have a directory with executables needed by most or every user on the system.

In either case, you can expect the same output as with the plain export command above. They function just the same except these options make it so that the extended PATH persists between sessions.


This tutorial has given you the tools to start using the PATH variable effectively. Not only explaining what the PATH variable is and what it does, but also showing you how to add more directories to it. The change can be simple, but adding directories to the PATH can make life easier and your tasks go ahead more smoothly.

Have more questions or want some help getting started? Feel free to reach out to our Support team.

More Information

You may wish to consult the following resources for additional information on this topic. While these are provided in the hope that they will be useful, please note that we cannot vouch for the accuracy or timeliness of externally hosted materials.

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