How do I determine the location of my script? I want to read some config files from the same place.

There are two prime reasons why this issue comes up: either you want to externalize data or configuration of your script and need a way to find these external resources, or your script is intended to act upon a bundle of some sort (eg. a build script), and needs to find the resources to act upon.

It is important to realize that in the general case, this problem has no solution. Any approach you might have heard of, and any approach that will be detailed below, has flaws and will only work in specific cases. First and foremost, try to avoid the problem entirely by not depending on the location of your script!

Before we dive into solutions, let's clear up some misunderstandings. It is important to understand that:

I need to access my data/config files

Very often, people want to make their scripts configurable. The separation principle teaches us that it's a good idea to keep configuration and code separate. The problem then ends up being: how does my script know where to find the user's configuration file for it?

Too often, people believe the configuration of a script should reside in the same directory where they put their script. This is the root of the problem.

A UNIX paradigm exists to solve this problem for you: configuration artifacts of your scripts should exist in either the user's HOME directory or /etc. That gives your script an absolute path to look for the file, solving your problem instantly: you no longer depend on the "location" of your script:

   1 if [[ -e ~/.myscript.conf ]]; then
   2     source ~/.myscript.conf
   3 elif [[ -e /etc/myscript.conf ]]; then
   4     source /etc/myscript.conf
   5 fi

The same holds true for other types of data files. Logs should be written to /var/log or the user's home directory. Support files should be installed to an absolute path in the file system or be made available alongside the configuration in /etc or the user's home directory.

I need to access files bundled with my script

Sometimes scripts are part of a "bundle" and perform certain actions within or upon it. This is often true for applications unpacked or contained within a bundle directory. The user may unpack or install the bundle anywhere; ideally, the bundle's scripts should work whether that's somewhere in a home dir, or /var/tmp, or /usr/local. The files are transient, and have no fixed or predictable location.

When a script needs to act upon other files it's bundled with, independently of its absolute location, we have two options: either we rely on PWD or we rely on BASH_SOURCE. Both approaches have certain issues; here's what you need to know.


The BASH_SOURCE internal bash variable is actually an array of pathnames. If you expand it as a simple string, e.g. "$BASH_SOURCE", you'll get the first element, which is the pathname of the currently executing function or script. Using the BASH_SOURCE method, you access files within your bundle like this:

   1 # cd into the bundle and use relative paths
   2 if [[ $BASH_SOURCE = */* ]]; then
   3     cd -- "${BASH_SOURCE%/*}/" || exit
   4 fi
   5 read somevar < etc/somefile

   1 # Use the dirname directly, without changing directories
   2 if [[ $BASH_SOURCE = */* ]]; then
   3     bundledir=${BASH_SOURCE%/*}/
   4 else
   5     bundledir=./
   6 fi
   7 read somevar < "${bundledir}etc/somefile"

Please note that when using BASH_SOURCE, the following caveats apply:

If you're not writing a bash script, the BASH_SOURCE variable is unavailable to you. There is a common convention, however, for passing the location of the script as the process name when it is started. Most shells do this, but not all shells do so reliably, and not all of them attempt to resolve a relative path to an absolute path. Relying on this behaviour is dangerous and fragile, but can be done by looking at $0 (see below). Again, consider all your options before doing this: you are likely creating more problems than you are solving.

Using PWD

Another option is to rely on PWD, the current working directory. In this case, you can assume the user has first cd'ed into your bundle and make all your pathnames relative. Using the PWD method, you access files within your bundle like this:

   1 read somevar < etc/somefile                 # Using pathname relative to PWD
   2 read somevar < "${PWD%/}/etc/somefile"      # Expand PWD if you want an absolute pathname
   4 bundledir=$PWD                              # Store PWD if you expect to cd in your script.
   5 cd /somewhere/else
   6 read somefile < "${bundledir%/}/etc/somefile"

To reduce fragility, you could even test whether, for example, the relative path to the script name is correct, to make sure the user has indeed cd'ed into the bundle:

   1 if [[ ! -e bin/myscript ]]; then
   2     echo >&2 "Please cd into the bundle before running this script."
   3     exit 1
   4 fi

You can also try some heuristics, just in case the user is sitting one directory above the bundle:

   1 if [[ ! -e bin/myscript ]]; then
   2     if [[ -d mybundle-1.2.5 ]]; then
   3         cd mybundle-1.2.5 || {
   4             echo >&2 "Bundle directory exists but I can't cd there."
   5             exit 1
   6         }
   7     else
   8         echo >&2 "Please cd into the bundle before running this script."
   9         exit 1
  10     fi
  11 fi

If you ever do need an absolute path, you can always get one by prefixing the relative path with $PWD: echo "Saved to: $PWD/result.csv"

The only difficulty here is that you're forcing your user to change into your bundle's directory before your script can function. Regardless, this may well be your best option!

Using a configuration/wrapper

If neither the BASH_SOURCE or the PWD option sound interesting, you might want to consider going the route of configuration files instead (see the previous section). In this case, you require that your user set the location of your bundle in a configuration file, and have him put that configuration file in a location you can easily find. For example:

   1 [[ -e ~/.myscript.conf ]] || {
   2     echo >&2 "First configure the product in ~/.myscript.conf"
   3     exit 1
   4 }
   6 # ~/.myscript.conf defines something like bundleDir=/x/y
   7 source ~/.myscript.conf
   9 [[ $bundleDir ]] || {
  10     echo >&2 "Please define bundleDir='/some/path' in ~/.myscript.conf"
  11     exit 1
  12 }
  14 cd "$bundleDir" || {
  15     printf >&2 'Could not cd to <%s>\n' "$bundleDir"
  16     exit 1
  17 }
  19 # Now you can use the PWD method: use relative paths.

A variant of this option is to use a wrapper that configures your bundle's location. Instead of calling your bundled script, you install a wrapper for your script in the standard system PATH, which changes directory into the bundle and calls the real script from there, which can then safely use the PWD method from above:

   1 #!/usr/bin/env bash
   2 cd /path/to/where/bundle/was/installed
   3 exec "bin/realscript"

Why $0 is NOT an option

Common ways of finding a script's location depend on the name of the script, as seen in the predefined variable $0. Unfortunately, providing the script name via $0 is only a (common) convention, not a requirement. In fact, $0 is not at all the location of your script, it's the name of your process as determined by your parent. It can be anything.

The suspect answer is "in some shells, $0 is always an absolute path, even if you invoke the script using a relative path, or no path at all". But this isn't reliable across shells; some of them (including BASH) return the actual command typed in by the user instead of the fully qualified path. And this is just the tip of the iceberg!

Consider that your script may not actually be on a locally accessible disk at all. Consider this:

ssh remotehost bash < ./myscript

The shell running on remotehost is getting its commands from a pipe. There's no script anywhere on any disk that bash can see.

Moreover, even if your script is stored on a local disk and executed, it could move. Someone could mv the script to another location in between the time you type the command and the time your script checks $0. Or someone could have unlinked the script during that same time window, so that it doesn't actually have a link within a file system any more.

(That may sound fanciful, but it's actually very common. Consider a script installed in /opt/foobar/bin, which is running at the time someone upgrades foobar to a new version. They may delete the entire /opt/foobar/ hierarchy, or they may move the /opt/foobar/bin/foobar script to a temporary name before putting a new version in place. For these reasons, even approaches like "use lsof to find the file which the shell is using as standard input" will still fail.)

Even in the cases where the script is in a fixed location on a local disk, the $0 approach still has some major drawbacks. The most important is that the script name (as seen in $0) may not be relative to the current working directory, but relative to a directory from the program search path $PATH (this is often seen with KornShell). Or (and this is most likely problem by far...) there might be multiple links to the script from multiple locations, one of them being a simple symlink from a common PATH directory like /usr/local/bin, which is how it's being invoked. Your script might be in /opt/foobar/bin/script but the naive approach of reading $0 won't tell you that -- it may say /usr/local/bin/script instead.

Some people will try to work around the symlink issue with readlink -f "$0". Again, this may work in some cases, but it's not bulletproof. Nothing that reads $0 will ever be bulletproof, because $0 itself is unreliable. Furthermore, readlink is nonstandard, and won't be available on all platforms.

For a more general discussion of the Unix file system and how symbolic links affect your ability to know where you are at any given moment, see this Plan 9 paper.


BashFAQ/028 (last edited 2022-03-16 22:42:19 by larryv)