How to Copy Files and Directories in Linux

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Copying a file is one of the most common Linux tasks. Ubuntu and other Linux distributions use the cp command to copy one or more files, and to copy entire directories. This guide explains how to use the cp command to copy files on Linux. It also lists the different variations of this command and describes the different cp command options.

An Introduction to cp

The cp command is used to copy one or more files on a Linux system to a new location. It is similar to the mv command, except it does not move or remove the original file, which remains in place. Like most Linux commands, cp is run using the command line of a system terminal.

The cp command allows users to copy a file to either the same directory or a different location. It is also possible to give the copy a different name than the original file. The -r option enables the cp command to operate recursively and copy a directory along with any files and subdirectories it contains. cp has a number of options, allowing users to run it interactively, use verbose mode, or preserve the file attributes of the original.

Users must have sudo privileges to copy protected files. Otherwise, sudo is not required.

Before You Begin

  1. If you have not already done so, create a Linode account and Compute Instance. See our Getting Started with Linode and Creating a Compute Instance guides.

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This guide is written for a non-root user. Commands that require elevated privileges are prefixed with sudo. If you are not familiar with the sudo command, see the Users and Groups guide.

How to Use the cp Command to Copy Files and Directories in Linux

The cp command works similarly on most Linux distributions. The command operates in four basic modes.

  • Copies a file to the same directory. The new file must have a different name.
  • Copies a file to a different directory. It is possible to rename the file or retain the old name.
  • Copy multiple files to a different target directory.
  • Recursively copy the contents of a directory, including subdirectories, to a different target directory.

There are a number of concerns to be aware of when using cp. For instance, cp does not display a warning when overwriting an existing file. This situation occurs when copying a file to a new directory already containing a file with the same name. This problem is more likely to happen when copying multiple files. To avoid this problem, users can use interactive mode to force Linux to request confirmation before overwriting a file.

cp is often used in conjunction with the ls command. ls lists the contents of the current directory. This is handy for confirming the exact name and location of the source files and directories.

Some of the most important cp command options include the following:

  • -f: Forces a copy in all circumstances.
  • -i: Runs cp in interactive mode. In this mode, Linux asks for confirmation before overwriting any existing files or directories. Without this option, Linux does not display any warnings.
  • -p: Preserves the file attributes of the original file in the copy. File attributes include the date stamps for file creation and last modification, user ID, group IP, and file permissions.
  • -R: Copies files recursively. All files and subdirectories in the specified source directory are copied to the destination.
  • -u: Overwrites the destination file only if the source file is newer than the destination file.
  • -v: Runs cp in verbose mode. This mode provides extra information on the copying process. This is useful for keeping track of progress when copying a large number of files.

The options -H, -L, and -P indicate how the cp command should process symbolic links. See the cp man page for a full description of cp and symbolic links. The options for cp vary between Linux distributions. A list for Ubuntu 22.04 LTS is available in the Ubuntu cp documentation.

How to Copy a File in Linux

One common use of cp is to make a second copy of the source file in the same directory. Supply a different name for the copy to differentiate it from the original. A common convention is to add an extra extension such as .bak or .cp to the existing file name. For example, a standard name for a backup copy of archive.txt is archive.txt.bak.

The cp command operates in the context of the current working directory. However, files can be specified using either an absolute or relative path. Here is the basic cp command to copy a file within the same directory.

cp [options] sourcefile targetfile

The following example demonstrates how to make a backup copy of clock.txt named clock.txt.bak.

cp clock.txt clock.txt.bak

To confirm the copy operation, use ls to list the files in the directory. Both the original source file and the copy are listed.

ls -l
-rw-rw-r-- 1 test test 2208 Jul 18 06:00 clock.txt
-rw-rw-r-- 1 test test 2208 Jul 20 08:11 clock.txt.bak

The same command could be executed using absolute paths for both filenames.

cp ~/clock.txt ~/clock.txt.bak

To copy a protected file that the root account owns, use sudo.

Be very careful when copying any files owned by root, especially those in the system / directories.
cd /etc
sudo cp bash.bashrc bash.bashrc.bak
ls -l bash.*
-rw-r--r-- 1 root root 2319 Jan  6  2022 bash.bashrc
-rw-r--r-- 1 root root 2319 Jul 20 08:15 bash.bashrc.bak

To protect against an accidental overwrite, use the interactive option -i. The Linux system prompts for confirmation before it overwrites any existing files.

cp clock.txt clock.txt.bak -i
cp: overwrite 'clock.txt.bak'?

Use the -p option to retain the file attributes of the original file in the copy. For example, Ubuntu assigns the duplicate the same date stamp as the original.

cp clock.txt clock.txt.bak -p
-rw-rw-r-- 1 test test 2208 Jul 18 06:00 clock.txt
-rw-rw-r-- 1 test test 2208 Jul 18 06:00 clock.txt.bak

The -v command echoes each copy operation to the standard output. This can be handy for tracking operations that copy hundreds or thousands of files.

cp -v clock.txt clock.txt.cp
'clock.txt' -> 'clock.txt.cp'

If you accidentally make an unwanted copy of the wrong file, remove the copy using the rm command.

sudo rm bash.bashrc.bak

How to Copy a File to a Another Directory in Linux

The cp command can copy a file to a completely different destination directory on the same Linux system. The copy can retain the same name as the original, but it is also possible to specify a new name for the file. The target directory must already exist before copying any files. The path of the target directory can be either relative or absolute.

All the caveats and options that apply when copying a file within a directory also apply in this case. For instance, the cp command silently overwrites an existing file in the destination directory unless the -i option is added.

Here is the pattern for copying a file to a directory on Linux.

cp sourcefile target_directory_path

To give the copy a new name, append the name to the path of the target directory.

cp sourcefile target_directory_path/targetfile

This example makes a new copy of clock.txt in the archive directory. In this example, the archive directory already exists.

cp clock.txt ~/archive

Change to the new directory to confirm the successful copy.

cd archive
ls -l
-rw-rw-r-- 1 test test 2208 Jul 20 09:08 clock.txt

To give the copy a new name, append the new name to the end of the directory path. Linux gives the new file the filename clock.txt.bak.

cp clock.txt ~/archive/clock.txt.bak

How to Copy Multiple Files in Linux

cp allows users to copy multiple files at a time, but only to a different directory. Here is a template for using cp in this context:

cp sourcefile1 sourcefile2 target_directory_path

This example copies two files to the archive directory.

cp clock.txt system.txt archive

The cp command treats the * character is a wildcard. By itself, the wildcard symbol symbolizes all files. The command cp * targetdirectory copies all files in the current directory to targetdirectory. However, it does not copy any directories or perform a recursive copy.

When used as part of a string, the * symbol matches any number of any characters. The filter *.txt matches all source files ending with the .txt extension. This example copies all .exe files to the archive directory.

cp *.exe archive

Change context to the archive directory to confirm both .exe files, and only those files, were copied.

cd archive
cleanup.exe  mk_backup.exe

How to Copy a Directory in Linux

In addition to copying files, Linux can also copy directories. The -R option is used to copy a directory and all of its subdirectories and files recursively. The Linux command to copy a directory follows this structure.

cp -R source_directory target_directory

To copy the directory archive, along with all of its files and subdirectories, to archive_bkup use this command.

cp -R archive archive_bkup

Change context to the archive_bkup/archive directory and confirm all the files and subdirectories of archive have been copied.

cd archive_bkup/archive
ls -l
-rw-rw-r-- 1 test test    0 Jul 20 11:10 cleanup.exe
-rw-rw-r-- 1 test test    0 Jul 20 11:10 mk_backup.exe
drwxrwxr-x 2 test test 4096 Jul 20 11:10 records


The cp command is used for copying files on Linux systems. It operates similarly to the mv directive, but leaves the original file unaltered and in place. To copy a file to the same directory on Linux, use cp with the name of the source file and the name of the copy. The cp command can also be used to copy the file to a different directory, to copy multiple files, or to recursively copy entire directories. For more in-depth documentation on how to copy files using the Linux cp command, see the cp man page.

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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