SYMLINK(7) Linux Programmer's Manual SYMLINK(7)
symlink - symbolic link handling
SYMBOLIC LINK HANDLING
Symbolic links are files that act as pointers to other files. To understand their behav-
ior, you must first understand how hard links work.
A hard link to a file is indistinguishable from the original file because it is a refer-
ence to the object underlying the original filename. (To be precise: each of the hard
links to a file is a reference to the same i-node number, where an i-node number is an
index into the i-node table, which contains metadata about all files on a filesystem. See
stat(2).) Changes to a file are independent of the name used to reference the file. Hard
links may not refer to directories (to prevent the possibility of loops within the
filesystem tree, which would confuse many programs) and may not refer to files on differ-
ent filesystems (because i-node numbers are not unique across filesystems).
A symbolic link is a special type of file whose contents are a string that is the pathname
another file, the file to which the link refers. In other words, a symbolic link is a
pointer to another name, and not to an underlying object. For this reason, symbolic links
may refer to directories and may cross filesystem boundaries.
There is no requirement that the pathname referred to by a symbolic link should exist. A
symbolic link that refers to a pathname that does not exist is said to be a dangling link.
Because a symbolic link and its referenced object coexist in the filesystem name space,
confusion can arise in distinguishing between the link itself and the referenced object.
On historical systems, commands and system calls adopted their own link-following conven-
tions in a somewhat ad-hoc fashion. Rules for a more uniform approach, as they are imple-
mented on Linux and other systems, are outlined here. It is important that site-local
applications also conform to these rules, so that the user interface can be as consistent
Symbolic link ownership, permissions, and timestamps
The owner and group of an existing symbolic link can be changed using lchown(2). The only
time that the ownership of a symbolic link matters is when the link is being removed or
renamed in a directory that has the sticky bit set (see stat(2)).
The last access and last modification timestamps of a symbolic link can be changed using
utimensat(2) or lutimes(3).
On Linux, the permissions of a symbolic link are not used in any operations; the permis-
sions are always 0777 (read, write, and execute for all user categories), and can't be
Handling of symbolic links by system calls and commands
Symbolic links are handled either by operating on the link itself, or by operating on the
object referred to by the link. In the latter case, an application or system call is said
to follow the link. Symbolic links may refer to other symbolic links, in which case the
links are dereferenced until an object that is not a symbolic link is found, a symbolic
link that refers to a file which does not exist is found, or a loop is detected. (Loop
detection is done by placing an upper limit on the number of links that may be followed,
and an error results if this limit is exceeded.)
There are three separate areas that need to be discussed. They are as follows:
1. Symbolic links used as filename arguments for system calls.
2. Symbolic links specified as command-line arguments to utilities that are not traversing
a file tree.
3. Symbolic links encountered by utilities that are traversing a file tree (either speci-
fied on the command line or encountered as part of the file hierarchy walk).
The first area is symbolic links used as filename arguments for system calls.
Except as noted below, all system calls follow symbolic links. For example, if there were
a symbolic link slink which pointed to a file named afile, the system call open("slink"
...) would return a file descriptor referring to the file afile.
Various system calls do not follow links, and operate on the symbolic link itself. They
are: lchown(2), lgetxattr(2), llistxattr(2), lremovexattr(2), lsetxattr(2), lstat(2),
readlink(2), rename(2), rmdir(2), and unlink(2). Certain other system calls optionally
follow symbolic links. They are: faccessat(2), fchownat(2), fstatat(2), linkat(2),
open(2), openat(2), and utimensat(2); see their manual pages for details. Because
remove(3) is an alias for unlink(2), that library function also does not follow symbolic
links. When rmdir(2) is applied to a symbolic link, it fails with the error ENOTDIR. The
link(2) warrants special discussion. POSIX.1-2001 specifies that link(2) should derefer-
ence oldpath if it is a symbolic link. However, Linux does not do this. (By default
Solaris is the same, but the POSIX.1-2001 specified behavior can be obtained with suitable
compiler options.) The upcoming POSIX.1 revision changes the specification to allow
either behavior in an implementation.
Commands not traversing a file tree
The second area is symbolic links, specified as command-line filename arguments, to com-
mands which are not traversing a file tree.
Except as noted below, commands follow symbolic links named as command-line arguments.
For example, if there were a symbolic link slink which pointed to a file named afile, the
command cat slink would display the contents of the file afile.
It is important to realize that this rule includes commands which may optionally traverse
file trees, e.g., the command chown file is included in this rule, while the command
chown -R file, which performs a tree traversal, is not. (The latter is described in the
third area, below.)
If it is explicitly intended that the command operate on the symbolic link instead of fol-
lowing the symbolic link, e.g., it is desired that chown slink change the ownership of the
file that slink is, whether it is a symbolic link or not, the -h option should be used.
In the above example, chown root slink would change the ownership of the file referred to
by slink, while chown -h root slink would change the ownership of slink itself.
There are some exceptions to this rule:
* The mv(1) and rm(1) commands do not follow symbolic links named as arguments, but
respectively attempt to rename and delete them. (Note, if the symbolic link references
a file via a relative path, moving it to another directory may very well cause it to
stop working, since the path may no longer be correct.)
* The ls(1) command is also an exception to this rule. For compatibility with historic
systems (when ls(1) is not doing a tree walk, i.e., the -R option is not specified), the
ls(1) command follows symbolic links named as arguments if the -H or -L option is speci-
fied, or if the -F, -d, or -l options are not specified. (The ls(1) command is the only
command where the -H and -L options affect its behavior even though it is not doing a
walk of a file tree.)
* The file(1) command is also an exception to this rule. The file(1) command does not
follow symbolic links named as argument by default. The file(1) command does follow
symbolic links named as argument if the -L option is specified.
Commands traversing a file tree
The following commands either optionally or always traverse file trees: chgrp(1),
chmod(1), chown(1), cp(1), du(1), find(1), ls(1), pax(1), rm(1), and tar(1).
It is important to realize that the following rules apply equally to symbolic links
encountered during the file tree traversal and symbolic links listed as command-line argu-
The first rule applies to symbolic links that reference files other than directories.
Operations that apply to symbolic links are performed on the links themselves, but other-
wise the links are ignored.
The command rm -r slink directory will remove slink, as well as any symbolic links encoun-
tered in the tree traversal of directory, because symbolic links may be removed. In no
case will rm(1) affect the file referred to by slink.
The second rule applies to symbolic links that refer to directories. Symbolic links that
refer to directories are never followed by default. This is often referred to as a "phys-
ical" walk, as opposed to a "logical" walk (where symbolic links the refer to directories
Certain conventions are (should be) followed as consistently as possible by commands that
perform file tree walks:
* A command can be made to follow any symbolic links named on the command line, regardless
of the type of file they reference, by specifying the -H (for "half-logical") flag.
This flag is intended to make the command-line name space look like the logical name
space. (Note, for commands that do not always do file tree traversals, the -H flag will
be ignored if the -R flag is not also specified.)
For example, the command chown -HR user slink will traverse the file hierarchy rooted in
the file pointed to by slink. Note, the -H is not the same as the previously discussed
-h flag. The -H flag causes symbolic links specified on the command line to be derefer-
enced for the purposes of both the action to be performed and the tree walk, and it is
as if the user had specified the name of the file to which the symbolic link pointed.
* A command can be made to follow any symbolic links named on the command line, as well as
any symbolic links encountered during the traversal, regardless of the type of file they
reference, by specifying the -L (for "logical") flag. This flag is intended to make the
entire name space look like the logical name space. (Note, for commands that do not
always do file tree traversals, the -L flag will be ignored if the -R flag is not also
For example, the command chown -LR user slink will change the owner of the file referred
to by slink. If slink refers to a directory, chown will traverse the file hierarchy
rooted in the directory that it references. In addition, if any symbolic links are
encountered in any file tree that chown traverses, they will be treated in the same
fashion as slink.
* A command can be made to provide the default behavior by specifying the -P (for "physi-
cal") flag. This flag is intended to make the entire name space look like the physical
For commands that do not by default do file tree traversals, the -H, -L, and -P flags are
ignored if the -R flag is not also specified. In addition, you may specify the -H, -L,
and -P options more than once; the last one specified determines the command's behavior.
This is intended to permit you to alias commands to behave one way or the other, and then
override that behavior on the command line.
The ls(1) and rm(1) commands have exceptions to these rules:
* The rm(1) command operates on the symbolic link, and not the file it references, and
therefore never follows a symbolic link. The rm(1) command does not support the -H, -L,
or -P options.
* To maintain compatibility with historic systems, the ls(1) command acts a little differ-
ently. If you do not specify the -F, -d or -l options, ls(1) will follow symbolic links
specified on the command line. If the -L flag is specified, ls(1) follows all symbolic
links, regardless of their type, whether specified on the command line or encountered in
the tree walk.
chgrp(1), chmod(1), find(1), ln(1), ls(1), mv(1), rm(1), lchown(2), link(2), lstat(2),
readlink(2), rename(2), symlink(2), unlink(2), utimensat(2), lutimes(3), path_resolu-
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Linux 2008-06-18 SYMLINK(7)