Home Introduction to Using the Command Line

Introduction to Using the Command Line

Table of Contents

  1. What is the Command Line
  2. Why use the Command Line
    1. Resize images example
    2. MagicMirror timed menu display example
  3. History
  4. Opening the Command Line
    1. Mac OS
    2. Linux
    3. Microsoft Windows
  5. The Command Line Prompt
  6. Getting started with basic commands
    1. Moving files
    2. Copying files and folders
    3. Wildcards
    4. Deleting files and folders
    5. Listing files
    6. Changing the current working directory
    7. Making a new folder
    8. Getting help for a command
    9. Common Commands
  7. Running scripts
  8. Accessing another system with the Command Line
  9. Permissions and ownership

What is the Command Line

The command line or command-line interface, is a text-based application for viewing, handling, and manipulating files on your computer. Other names for the command line are: cmd, CLI, prompt, shell prompt, console, or terminal.

A command line interface (CLI) processes commands to a computer program in the form of lines of text. The program which handles the interface is called a command line interpreter or command line processor. Operating systems implement a command line interface in a shell for interactive access to operating system functions or services. Such access was primarily provided to users by computer terminals starting in the mid-1960s, and continued to be used throughout the 1970s and 1980s on VAX/VMS, Unix systems and personal computer systems including DOS, CP/M and Apple DOS.

Today, many users rely upon graphical user interfaces and menu-driven interactions. However, some programming and maintenance tasks may not have a graphical user interface and may still use a command line.

Alternatives to the command line interface include text-based user interface menus (for example, IBM AIX SMIT), keyboard shortcuts, and various desktop metaphors centered on the pointer (usually controlled with a mouse). Examples of this include the Microsoft Windows, DOS Shell, and Mouse Systems PowerPanel. Command line interfaces are often implemented in terminal devices that are also capable of screen-oriented text-based user interfaces that use cursor addressing to place symbols on a display screen.

Programs with command line interfaces are generally easier to automate via scripting.

Many software systems implement command line interfaces for control and operation. This includes programming environments and utility programs.

Why use the Command Line

As noted above, the command line interface can be used to easily automate computer actions. This is the primary motivation for command line usage. In addition, there are many tasks that can only be performed at the command line. That is, a graphical user interface may not yet exist for some actions you wish to perform. The graphical application you are using may be sufficient for most use cases and satisfy the requirements for most users but all functionality behind the application’s normal use may not be exposed in the graphical user interface.

Resize images example

For example, say you need to resize all the images in a folder. This can be accomplished in a graphical user interface through a series of tedious mouse clicks and text entries into forms followed by more mouse clicks and confirmation at prompts. Each image file will require multiple (many many) mouse clicks and/or keyboard entries. For a large collection of images this might take hours or even days to perform in a graphical user interface. The poor worker whose job it is to resize several thousand images will undoubtedly tire, make mistakes, and possibly develop carpal tunnel syndrome. It’s beyond tedious, it’s error prone and dangerous!

A command line approach to automate resizing of all images in a folder can drastically reduce the time required, risk of error, and potential harm to humans performing the task. In this example, assume there are thousands of images files in a directory named ‘images’. These image files all need to be resized to 800x600 for display on the company’s website. To further complicate matters, only the image files in the JPEG format are to be resized while leaving those in the PNG format at full size.

The task can be performed in a few minutes by writing a simple shell script which invokes the ImageMagick command line utility ‘convert’:

# Simple script to resize all JPEG image files in a folder to 800x600

inst_convert=`type -p convert`
[ "${inst_convert}" ] || {
    echo "Could not locate the convert command in the execution PATH."
    echo "Install ImageMagick and execute this script again."
    echo "Exiting."
    exit 1

cd /path/to/images/folder/parent
[ -d resized_images ] || mkdir resized_images
cd images
for image in *.jpg
    convert ${image}  -resize 800x600\! ../resized_images/${image}

echo "Successfully resized ${count} JPEG images in ${IMGDIR}"

MagicMirror timed menu display example

There are many many uses of the command line in automation. Another example, specific to the MirrorCommand project, might be display of a menu on a restaurant bathroom mirror that has been setup as a MagicMirror. The restaurant owner wants the bathroom mirror to display the breakfast menu during morning hours, the lunch menu at midday, and the dinner menu in the evening. Before and after business hours she just wants the mirror to be a mirror.

This can be accomplished by a worker manually configuring the MagicMirror in each of the bathrooms but again is prone to error, delays, and can be tedious. Let’s do it in the command line utilizing the Cron facility which enables commands to be executed at specified times of day, specified days/weeks/months/years, and so on.

After installing the MirrorCommand package and configuring MagicMirror config files for each of the menus to be displayed, a Cron job can be created that executes the appropriate mirror command at the desired time of day on the desired days of the week. The Crontab entries might look like:

# This is a file named menucrontab.in with cron job entries
# m h  dom mon dow   command
# Breakfast starts at 7am on weekdays
0 7 * * 1-5 /usr/local/bin/mirror breakfast
# Lunch starts at 11am on weekdays
0 11 * * 1-5 /usr/local/bin/mirror lunch
# Dinner starts at 4pm on weekdays
0 16 * * 1-5 /usr/local/bin/mirror dinner
# Closing time is 9pm on weekdays
0 21 * * 1-5 /usr/local/bin/mirror blank
# Breakfast starts at 8am on weekends
0 8 * * 0,6 /usr/local/bin/mirror breakfast
# Lunch starts at 1pm on weekends
0 13 * * 0,6 /usr/local/bin/mirror lunch
# Dinner starts at 5pm on weekends
0 17 * * 0,6 /usr/local/bin/mirror dinner
# Closing time is 11pm on weekends
0 23 * * 0,6 /usr/local/bin/mirror blank

Create the above crontab file and, on each of the MagicMirror systems in the restaurant setup the cron job by executing, as the user with MagicMirror administration privileges, the command:

crontab menucrontab.in

Verify the cron jobs are setup properly with:

crontab -l

No 4 times daily tasks prone to error need be performed. Changing the menu or the schedule of menu display will be a one-time task performed in a few minutes by the MagicMirror administrator.


While typewriters are the definitive ancestor of all key-based text entry devices, the computer keyboard as a device for electromechanical data entry and communication derives largely from the utility of two devices: teleprinters (or teletypes) and keypunches. It was through such devices that modern computer keyboards inherited their layouts.

As early as the 1870s, teleprinter-like devices were used to simultaneously type and transmit stock market text data from the keyboard across telegraph lines to stock ticker machines to be immediately copied and displayed onto ticker tape.

The teleprinter, in its more contemporary form, was developed from 1907 to 1910 by American mechanical engineer Charles Krum and his son Howard Krum|Howard, with early contributions by electrical engineer Frank Pearne. Earlier models were developed separately by individuals such as Royal Earl House and Frederick G. Creed.

Earlier, Herman Hollerith developed the first keypunch devices, which soon evolved to include keys for text and number entry akin to normal typewriters by the 1930s.

The keyboard on the teleprinter played a strong role in point-to-point and point-to-multipoint communication for most of the 20th century, while the keyboard on the keypunch device played a strong role in data entry and storage for just as long. The development of the earliest computers incorporated electric typewriter keyboards: the development of the ENIAC computer incorporated a keypunch device as both the input and paper-based output device, while the BINAC computer also made use of an electromechanically controlled typewriter for both data entry onto magnetic tape (instead of paper) and data output.

The keyboard remained the primary, most integrated computer peripheral well into the era of personal computing until the introduction of the mouse as a consumer device in 1984. By this time, text-only user interfaces with sparse graphics gave way to Graphical user interface|comparatively graphics-rich icons on screen.

However, keyboards remain central to human-computer interaction to the present, even as mobile personal computing devices such as smartphones and Tablet computer|tablets adapt the keyboard as an optional virtual, touchscreen-based means of data entry.

The command-line interface evolved from a form of dialog once conducted by humans over teleprinter (TTY) machines, in which human operators remotely exchanged information, usually one line of text at a time. Early computer systems often used teleprinter machines as the means of interaction with a human operator.

The computer became one end of the human-to-human teleprinter model. So instead of a human communicating with another human over a teleprinter, a human communicated with a computer.

The mechanical teleprinter was replaced by a “glass tty”, a keyboard and screen emulating the teleprinter. “Smart” terminals permitted additional functions, such as cursor movement over the entire screen, or local editing of data on the terminal for transmission to the computer. As the microcomputer revolution replaced the traditional – minicomputer + terminals – time sharing architecture, hardware terminals were replaced by terminal emulators — PC software that interpreted terminal signals sent through the PC’s serial ports. These were typically used to interface an organization’s new PC’s with their existing mini- or mainframe computers, or to connect PC to PC. Some of these PCs were running Bulletin Board System software.

Early operating system CLIs were implemented as part of resident monitor programs, and could not easily be replaced. The first implementation of the shell as a replaceable component was part of the Multics time-sharing operating system. In 1964, MIT Computation Center staff member Louis Pouzin developed the RUNCOM tool for executing command scripts while allowing argument substitution. Pouzin coined the term “shell” to describe the technique of using commands like a programming language, and wrote a paper about how to implement the idea in the Multics operating system. Pouzin returned to his native France in 1965, and the first Multics shell was developed by Glenda Schroeder.

The first Unix shell, the V6 shell, was developed by Ken Thompson in 1971 at Bell Labs and was modeled after Schroeder’s Multics shell. The Bourne shell was introduced in 1977 as a replacement for the V6 shell. Although it is used as an interactive command interpreter, it was also intended as a scripting language and contains most of the features that are commonly considered to produce structured programs. The Bourne shell led to the development of the KornShell (ksh), Almquist shell (ash), and the popular Bourne-again shell (or Bash).

Early microcomputers themselves were based on a command-line interface such as CP/M, DOS or AppleSoft BASIC. During the 1980s and 1990s, the introduction of the Apple Macintosh and of Microsoft Windows on PCs saw the command line interface as the primary user interface replaced by the Graphical User Interface. The command line remained available as an alternative user interface, often used by system administrators and other advanced users for system administration, computer programming and batch processing.

In November 2006, Microsoft released version 1.0 of Windows PowerShell (formerly codenamed Monad), which combined features of traditional Unix shells with their proprietary object-oriented .NET Framework. MinGW and Cygwin are open-source packages for Windows that offer a Unix-like CLI. Microsoft provides MKS Inc.’s ksh implementation MKS Korn shell for Windows through their Services for UNIX add-on.

Since 2001, the Macintosh operating system macOS has been based on a Unix-like operating system called Darwin. On these computers, users can access a Unix-like command-line interface by running the terminal emulator program called Terminal, which is found in the Utilities sub-folder of the Applications folder, or by remotely logging into the machine using ssh. Z shell is the default shell for macOS; Bash, tcsh, and the KornShell are also provided. Before macOS Catalina, Bash was the default.

Opening the Command Line

There are varying ways of accessing command line, depending on what operating system you use.

Mac OS

Go to Applications → Utilities → Terminal

Alternatively, open spotlight search (default way to do this is by hitting command and the space bar) and type in “terminal”.

Select the application called terminal and press the return key.

This should open up an app with a black background.

When you see your username followed by a dollar sign, you’re ready to start using command line.


It’s probably under

Applications → Accessories → Terminal


Applications → System → Terminal

You can open Terminal by directly pressing [ctrl+alt+T] or you can search for it by clicking the “Dash” icon, typing in “terminal” in the search box, and opening the Terminal application.

This should open up an app with a black background.

When you see your username followed by a dollar sign, you’re ready to start using command line.

Microsoft Windows

One of the following should open a command line window:

  • Go to the Start menu or screen, and enter “Command Prompt” in the search field.
  • Go to Start menu → Windows System → Command Prompt.
  • Go to Start menu → All Programs → Accessories → Command Prompt.
  • Go to the Start screen, hover your mouse in the lower-left corner of the screen, and click the down arrow that appears (on a touch screen, instead flick up from the bottom of the screen). The Apps page should open. Click on Command Prompt in the Windows System section.
  • Hold the special Windows key on your keyboard and press the “X” key. Choose “Command Prompt” from the pop-up menu.
  • Hold the Windows key and press the “R” key to get a “Run” window. Type “cmd” in the box, and click the OK key. On Windows 10, open the start menu and go to the shortcuts folder called “Windows System”.

Pressing the dropdown menu should reveal a shortcut to open the Command Prompt application.

Right click on the shortcut, press “More”, and press “Run as Administrator”.

For Windows 8, go to the start screen, press “All Apps”, and scroll right until the “Windows System” folder shows up.

You can find Command Prompt there.

For Windows 7, open the start menu and click on “All Programs”.

Click on “Accessories” and you’ll find the Command Prompt shortcut.

Right click on the shortcut and press “Run as Administrator”.

The Command Line Prompt

After opening a terminal window as described in the previous section, you should see a white or black window that is waiting for your commands. The window will display a character or string called the command line prompt, aka ‘shell prompt’, or ‘prompt’ for short. It prompts you to input something there.

If you’re on a Mac or Linux, you probably see a $ as the prompt

On Windows, you probably see a > as the prompt

The command line prompt is often configured to display the username, system name, current working directory, or other useful information but will usually end with either a $ sign, > symbol, or the &hash; symbol when logged in as the root user. For example, my prompt right now on my Mac is:


At the prompt you can type a command which will be interpreted by the shell your login session is configured to use. I use the Bash shell. There are many shells, each offering its own value and all with similar but slightly different syntax, built-ins, functions, and features.

For example, to display your username, type the following command at the prompt followed by <Return>

Mac OS or Linux:

$ whoami


> whoami

The whoami command should return your username followed by another shell prompt waiting for input.

Getting started with basic commands

Moving files

Type in the following:

mv target destination

Where mv is move, target is the file you want to move, and destination is where you want to move it to.

Copying files and folders

The cp command can be used to copy files and folders.

To copy a file execute the following command:

cp target destination

The target is the target file you’re trying to copy, and destination is the destination file you’re trying to copy it to. Note, if you have sufficient permission this command will overwrite any previously existing destination file. Always use caution when moving and copying files and folders as the action can be destructive of existing files and folders.

To copy a folder execute the following command:

cp -r target destination

The target is the target folder you’re trying to copy, and destination is the destination folder you’re trying to copy it to. The ‘-r’ command line argument indicates recursive copy - the target folder and all of its contents will be copied to the destination. Note, if the ‘destination’ folder already exists then the cp command will copy the target folder into the existing destination folder as a sub-folder in that directory, ‘destination/destination’.

The terms ‘directory’ and ‘folder’ mean the same thing.


Use the ‘&ast;’ character as a wildcard to represent all. For example, to copy all files in a folder that start with the letter ‘a’, your target should be ‘a&ast;’:

cp a* destination_folder

To copy all files of a certain extension (e.g. ‘.png’), your target should be ‘&ast;.png’:

cp *.png destination_folder

Use the ‘?’ character as a wildcard to represent a single character. For example, to copy all files in a folder that have a 3 character suffix (e.g. the file image.jpg but not the file image.jpeg), your target should be ‘&ast;.???’:

cp *.??? destination_folder

The ‘.’ character can be used as simply ‘.’ in a string representation but it also refers to the current directory. Similarly, ‘..’ is both the two character string ‘..’ as well as the name of the parent directory. Files and directories beginning with a ‘.’ are typically hidden from view and used as system or configuration files. Fun!

Deleting files and folders

To delete a file or folder use the ‘rm’ command:

rm target

To delete all files in the current working directory:

rm *

Note that, unlike many graphical user interface systems with a Trash Can for deletion, you cannot retrieve files deleted at the command line. Once a file is deleted at the command line it is gone unless backups were previously made and can be restored. Use caution when deleting files at the command line. Always have backups to protect your work.

To request a prompt for each file you wish to delete, use the ‘-i’ option:

rm -i *

To delete a folder use the ‘rm’ command with the ‘-r’ option:

rm -r target

An empty directory/folder can be deleted with the ‘rmdir’ command:

rmdir target

Listing files

To see the files and folders in the current working directory use the ‘ls’ command:

ls target

Changing the current working directory

Use the ‘cd’ command to change your current directory:

cd target

Making a new folder

Use the ‘mkdir’ command to create new folders/directories:

mkdir target

Getting help for a command

Most commands have either a built-in help/usage message and/or a manual page that describes the command options and usage. To view the manual page for a command, use the ‘man’ command:

man command

where ‘command’ is the name of the command, e.g. man ls would display the manual page for the ‘ls’ command.

Often commands will display their usage when invoked with the ‘-h’ or ‘-u’ or -help’ or ‘–help’ option. The exact option to use for help varies from command to command.

Common Commands

Here is a summary of some useful commands:

Command (Windows)Command (Mac OS / Linux)DescriptionExample
exitexitclose the windowexit
cdcdchange directorycd test
cdpwdshow the current directorycd (Windows) or pwd (Mac OS / Linux)
dirlslist directories/filesls
copycpcopy filecp test/test.txt stage/test.txt
movemvmove filemv test/test.txt stage/test.txt
mkdirmkdircreate a new directorymkdir test
rmdir (or del)rmdelete a filerm test/test.txt
rmdir /Srm -rdelete a directoryrm -r test
[CMD] /?man [CMD]get help for a commandcd /? (Windows) or man cd (Mac OS / Linux)

Running scripts

To run a Python script, e.g. to run the script example.py, execute the command:

python example.py

For Java, use:

java example.java

To execute a shell script with the Bash shell interpreter, execute:

bash example.sh

Often it is not necessary to invoke a command or interpreter to run a script as the script itself can specify which command/interpreter to use. In this case it is sufficient to simply execute the script directly. For example, if the shell script ‘example.sh’ begins with ‘#!/bin/bash’ and has execute permission then it can be executed and interpreted by Bash with the command:


Accessing another system with the Command Line

Often it is not possible or inconvenient to access another system directly. If remote access has been enabled, one method to do this is through the Secure Shell (SSH), which lets you securely control and modify remote systems over the network.

You can do this by typing in ssh username@host_server where username is the account name of your account on the remote system, and host_server is the remote host.

If you have a password to access your account on the server, SSH will prompt you to enter that in.

If it’s your first time accessing that particular system, your computer may also ask you if it can remember the authenticity key — type in ‘yes’ or the corresponding phrase so that your computer doesn’t ask you this every time.

After successfully logging in to the remote system via SSH, you are presented with a command line prompt and commands you type in the terminal window at that prompt will be interpreted as commands to execute on the remote system. Exit the SSH session by logging out, usually by typing the command exit. After exiting the SSH session, commands issued at the command line prompt in your terminal window will be interpreted as commands to execute on the local system.

Permissions and ownership

In Unix and Linux systems there are the concepts of ‘permission’ and ‘ownership’. Every file and directory has a set of permissions and ownership associated with it. Ownership can be specified by User, Group, and Others. Permission can be granted differently for the User, Group, and Others. It is thereby possible for a file or directory to be accessible by a certain user but not by others or accessible by the members of a certain group but not by others. Permissions can govern the ability to read, write, or execute files and directories. A user may be given permission to read a file but not to write or modify it in any way. Similarly, one user may be able to execute a command while another may not have permission to execute that same command. In this way safeguards and some level of security can easily be implemented just by changing the ownership and permission of files and directories.

To view the ownership and permission on a file or directory, use the ‘ls’ command.

ls -l filename

will display permissions and ownership for the file ‘filename’.

ls -ld folder

will display permissions and ownership for the directory ‘folder’.

The first field returned by the ‘ls -l’ command is the permissions field. The permissions field consists of 3 subfields, each of which has 3 characters. The 3 characters are ‘r’, ‘w’, and ‘x’ indicating ‘read’, ‘write’, and ‘execute’. The first subfield contains the permissions for the owner of the file/directory. The second subfield contains the permissions for the group of the file/directory. The third subfield contains the permissions for all others. For example, if a file has permissions listed as -rw-r--r-- by ‘ls -l’ then that file is readable and writeable by its owner, read-only by its group, and read-only by all others.

If you receive a message similar to Permission denied when executing a command at the command line it means you do not have permission to execute that file. This can be corrected by modifying the permissions or ownership of the file with either the chmod or chown command, if you have permission to do so. Excercise caution when modifying permissions and ownership. There is probably a good reason the permissions and ownership are set the way they are. Often command execution is restricted to a particular user for security reasons or because the command performs some actions only that user or group have permission to perform. In these cases, rather than changing permissions or ownership, execute the command as the appropriate user. This can be accomplished using the sudo command on Mac and Linux.

This post is licensed under CC BY 4.0 by the author.

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