About bash_profile and bashrc on macOS

Note: bash_profile is completely different from configuration profiles. Learn more about Configuration Profiles in my book: ‘Property Lists, Preferences and Profiles for Apple Administrators’

You can learn more about using Terminal and the shell on macOS in my my book: “macOS Terminal and Shell” — Thank you!

In this spontaneous series on the macOS Terminal I have often mentioned adding something as an alias or function to your bash_profile or bashrc. Obviously, you may wonder: how do I do that? And which file should I use?


When you work with the command line and the bash shell frequently, you will want to customize the environment. This can mean changing environment variables, such as where the shell looks for commands or how the prompt looks, or adding customized commands.

For example, macOS sets the PATH environment variable to /usr/local/bin:/usr/bin:/bin:/usr/sbin:/sbin by default. This is a list of directories (separated by a colon ‘:’) that the system searches through in order for commands. I like to add a folder in my home directory ~/bin to that list, so that I can execute certain tools without needing to type out the full path. (e.g. munkipkg, quickpkg and ssh-installer).

In bash you append to existing PATH do this with:

export PATH="$PATH:~/bin"

You could type this command every time you open a new Terminal window (i.e. shell), or you can configure your shell to do this automatically.

Depending on which shell you use and how you start the shell, then certain script files will be executed which allow you to set up these customizations.

This article will talk about customizing bash on macOS. Other shells and other operating systems may have other files or rules.

So, which file?

Thanks to the rich and long history of bash the answer to which file you should put your configuration in, is surprisingly confusing.

There are (mainly) two user level files which bash may run when a bash shell starts. ~/.bash_profile or ~/.bashrc.

Both these files are on the first level of your home directory ~/. Since the file names start with a . Finder and normal ls will not show them. You need to use ls -a to see if they are present. Read more about invisible and hidden files here.

The usual convention is that .bash_profile will be executed at login shells, i.e. interactive shells where you login with your user name and password at the beginning. When you ssh into a remote host, it will ask you for user name and password (or some other authentication) to log in, so it is a login shell.

When you open a terminal application, it does not ask for login. You will just get a command prompt. In other versions of Unix or Linux, this will not run the .bash_profile but a different file .bashrc. The underlying idea is that the .bash_profile should be run only once when you login, and the .bashrc for every new interactive shell.

However, Terminal.app on macOS, does not follow this convention. When Terminal.app opens a new window, it will run .bash_profile. Not, as users familiar with other Unix systems would expect, .bashrc.

Note: The Xterm application installed as part of Xquartz runs .bashrc when a new window opens, not .bash_profile. Other third-party terminal applications on macOS may follow the precedent set by Terminal.app or not.

This is all very confusing.

There are two main approaches:

  • When you are living mostly or exclusively on macOS and the Terminal.app, you can create a .bash_profile, ignore all the special cases and be happy.
  • If you want to have an approach that is more resilient to other terminal applications and might work (at least partly) across Unix/Linux platforms, put your configuration code in .bashrc and source .bashrc from .bash_profile with the following code in .bash_profile:
if [ -r ~/.bashrc ]; then
   source ~/.bashrc

The if [ -r ... ] tests wether a file exists and is readable and the source command reads and evaluates a file in place. Sometimes you see

[ -r ~/.bashrc ] && . ~/.bashrc

(mind the spaces) Which is a shorter way to do the same thing.

Since either file can drastically change your environment, you want to restrict access to just you:

$ chmod 700 ~/.bash_profile
$ chmod 700 ~/.bashrc

That was confusing. Is that all?

No. There are more files which may be executed when a shell is created.

When bash cannot find .bash_profile it will look for .bash_login and if that does not exist either .profile. If .bash_profile is present the succeeding files will be ignored. (though you can source them in your .bash_profile)

There is also a file /etc/profile that is run for interactive login shells (and Terminal.app). This provides a central location to configure the shells for all users on a system. On macOS /etc/profilesets the default PATH with the path_helper tool and then sources /etc/bashrc which (you guessed) would be the central file for all users that is executed for non-login interactive shells. For macOS Terminal.app /etc/bashrc sets the default prompt and then itself sources /etc/bashrc_Apple_Terminal which sets up the session persistence across logins.

So in macOS Terminal.app, before you even see a prompt, these scripts will be run:

  • /etc/profile
    • /etc/bashrc
      • /etc/bashrc_Apple_Terminal
  • if it exists: ~/.bash_profile
    • when ~/.bash_profile does not exists, ~/.bash_login
    • when neither ~/.bash_profile nor ~/.bash_login exist, ~/.profile
  • ~/bash_profile can optionally source ~/.bashrc

There is also a file ~/.inputrc, where you can setup certain command line input options. One common example for this is to enable case-insensitive tab-completion. You can find a list of more options here.

Finally, there is ~/.bash_logout which is run when a shell exits or closes.

Ok, so I have the file, now what?

Whichever file you choose, (I went with option one and have everything in .bash_profile) now you want to put stuff in it.

Technically this is a script, so you can do anything you can code in bash. However, usually the contents of a .bash_profile or .bashrc fall into one of three categories:

I will show some examples for each in the next post!

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Mac Admin, Consultant, and Author

8 thoughts on “About bash_profile and bashrc on macOS”

  1. Hi Armin

    I ran across your article when trying, vainly, to get bash to use the new paths I added to the “/etc/paths” file. I notice from your little order of execution list that /etc/path isn’t listed. Could this be why it is refusing to use the paths I added? Several previous attempts, using suggestions in other terminal threads may have monkeyed with .bash_profile, because when I open it in BBEdit, it’s empty and since there was nothing in it anyway, I deleted it.

    The basic issue is that I have confirmed with 3 different text editors and the echo $PATH terminal command that my changes are indeed in the file, but when I type “mysql” or “mongo” at the shell prompt, I always get the errors: “-bash: mysql: command not found” or “-bash: mongo: command not found”. Ten hours hours of Googling, reading dozens of supposed solutions all yield the same result “command not found”. Obviously I’m missing something important, but at this point, I really have no idea what to look for or what terms to Google.

    Does anything pop to mind? I can confirm that both mysql and mongo run fine if I type the full path ie: “/usr/local/mongo/bin/mongo”, (and these are defined exactly the same in the “etc/paths” file) but the terminal doesn’t seem to use my additions.

    Any pointers greatly appreciated.

    1. I explain how to change the PATH for just your user in the follow-up post. This is usually easier than manipulating /etc/paths or /etc/paths.d, unless you want or need to change the PATH for all users. You can read how to work with paths.d in this article.

      Remote diagnosis is always fraught with misunderstandings and failure, but I believe you might be adding the path to the tool rather than the path to the directory containing the tool?

      PATH is a list of directories, containing the commands. Not a list to the commands themselves. So in your case, you would add /usr/local/mongo/bin to the PATH with

      export PATH=$PATH:/usr/local/mongo/bin

      in your .bash_profile.

      Anyway you do this, any change won’t be in effect until you open a new bash/Terminal window as the PATH is only evaluated when you start a new shell.

  2. “I believe you might be adding the path to the tool rather than the path to the directory containing the tool?”

    Bingo! As soon as I deleted the tool name > mongo started to work.

    Thank you!

  3. Thanks for this useful clarification. There’s one more fun part when using Mac OS if you use screen (I’m unsure about tmux it may well be the same). A screen session will start by running `~/.bashrc`

    For this reason I usually put all my desired shell settings and aliases etc in `~./bash_profile` and my `~/.bashrc` file looks like this:

    source /etc/bashrc
    source $HOME/.bash_profile

  4. Users will *not* have a .bash_profile file by default. It would be far less confusing if you assume this instead of having a “Ok, so I have the file, now what?” section, because pretty much nobody will. You should proceed with people needing to create it and fill a blank slate.

  5. Thanks for a very useful article.

    Would you know exactly what `su` does, and more specifically, `su -l`? The `man` page says that it simulates a full login, but it doesn’t say much more than that. From experimentation, it appears that it runs `.bash_profile`. Any documentation on that?

    Here is my use case. I have different accounts on my macbook pro, with prompts (PS1) customised as in the respective `.bash_profile` files. This PS1 does not get updated if I use `su`, but it does if I use `su -l`. This must mean that `su -l` runs `.bash_profile`.

    1. Correct, without the `-l` su will run the command given in the _current_ shell environment, i.e. the shell environment of the user running su. With the `-l` it will create a new shell environment for the user you are switching to. That will include switch to that user’s default shell and running that user’s shell configuration scripts. (and also clearing any customization your current shell may have.)

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