Developer(s)AT&T Bell Laboratories
Initial release1973 (1973) as part of Unix Research Version 4; 1986 (1986) open-source reimplementation
Written inC
Operating systemUnix, Unix-like, Plan 9, IBM i
TypeFile type detector
LicenseBSD license, CDDL
Plan 9: MIT License

The file command is a standard program of Unix and Unix-like operating systems for recognizing the type of data contained in a computer file.


The original version of file originated in Unix Research Version 4[1] in 1973. System V brought a major update with several important changes, most notably moving the file type information into an external text file rather than compiling it into the binary itself.

Most major BSD and Linux distributions use a free, open-source reimplementation which was written in 1986–87 by Ian Darwin[2] from scratch; it keeps file type information in a text file with a format based on that of the System V version. It was expanded by Geoff Collyer in 1989 and since then has had input from many others, including Guy Harris, Chris Lowth and Eric Fischer; from late 1993 onward its maintenance has been organized by Christos Zoulas. The OpenBSD system has its own subset implementation written from scratch, but still uses the Darwin/Zoulas collection of magic file formatted information.

The file command has also been ported to the IBM i operating system.[3]


The Single UNIX Specification (SUS) specifies that a series of tests are performed on the file specified on the command line:

  1. if the file cannot be read, or its Unix file type is undetermined, the file program will indicate that the file was processed but its type was undetermined.
  2. file must be able to determine the types directory, FIFO, socket, block special file, and character special file
  3. zero-length files are identified as such
  4. an initial part of file is considered and file is to use position-sensitive tests
  5. the entire file is considered and file is to use context-sensitive tests
  6. the file is identified as a data file

file's position-sensitive tests are normally implemented by matching various locations within the file against a textual database of magic numbers (see the Usage section). This differs from other simpler methods such as file extensions and schemes like MIME.

In the System V implementation, the Ian Darwin implementation, and the OpenBSD implementation, the file command uses a database to drive the probing of the lead bytes. That database is implemented in a file called magic, whose location is usually in /etc/magic, /usr/share/file/magic or a similar location.


The SUS[4] mandates the following options:

Other Unix and Unix-like operating systems may add extra options than these. Ian Darwin's implementation adds -s 'special files', -k 'keep-going' or -r 'raw' (examples below), among many others.[5]

The command tells only what the file looks like, not what it is (in the case where file looks at the content). It is easy to fool the program by putting a magic number into a file the content of which does not match it. Thus the command is not usable as a security tool other than in specific situations.


$ file file.c
file.c: C program text
$ file program
program: ELF 32-bit LSB executable, Intel 80386, version 1 (SYSV), dynamically linked
    (uses shared libs), stripped
$ file /dev/hda1
/dev/hda1: block special (0/0)
$ file -s /dev/hda1
/dev/hda1: Linux/i386 ext2 filesystem

Note that -s is a non-standard option available only on the Ian Darwin branch, which tells file to read device files and try to identify their contents rather than merely identifying them as device files. Normally file does not try to read device files since reading such a file can have undesirable side effects.

$ file -k -r libmagic-dev_5.35-4_armhf.deb    # (on Linux)
libmagic-dev_5.35-4_armhf.deb: Debian binary package (format 2.0)
- current ar archive
- data

Through Ian Darwin's non-standard option -k the program does not stop after the first hit found, but looks for other matching patterns. The -r option, which is available in some versions, causes the unprintable new line character to be displayed in its raw form rather than in its octal representation.

$ file compressed.gz
compressed.gz: gzip compressed data, deflated, original filename, `compressed', last
    modified: Thu Jan 26 14:08:23 2006, os: Unix
$ file -i compressed.gz    # (on Linux)
compressed.gz: application/x-gzip; charset=binary
$ file data.ppm
data.ppm: Netpbm PPM "rawbits" image data
$ file /bin/cat
/bin/cat: Mach-O universal binary with 2 architectures
/bin/cat (for architecture ppc7400):	Mach-O executable ppc
/bin/cat (for architecture i386):	Mach-O executable i386
$ file /usr/bin/vi
/usr/bin/vi: symbolic link to vim

Identifying symbolic links is not available on all platforms and will be dereferenced if -L is passed or POSIXLY_CORRECT is set.

Libmagic library

As of version 4.00 of the Ian Darwin/Christos Zoulas version of file, the functionality of file is incorporated into a libmagic library that is accessible via C (and C-compatible) linking;[7][8] file is implemented using that library.[9][10]


  1. ^ "Source of the UNIX V4 "file" man page". Archived from the original on 2019-12-10. Retrieved 2022-03-13.
  2. ^ The early history of this program is recorded in its private CVS repository; see [1] Archived 2017-04-01 at the Wayback Machine the log of the main program
  3. ^ "IBM System i Version 7.2 Programming Qshell" (PDF). IBM. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2021-03-05. Retrieved 2020-09-05.
  4. ^ "The Open Group Base Specifications Issue 7 — file command". Archived from the original on 2018-10-12. Retrieved 2014-08-20.
  5. ^ a b file(1) – Linux User Manual – User Commands
  6. ^ file(1) – NetBSD General Commands Manual
  7. ^ libmagic(3) – Linux Programmer's Manual – Library Functions
  8. ^ libmagic(3) – NetBSD Library Functions Manual
  9. ^ Zoulas, Christos (February 27, 2003). "file-3.41 is now available". File (Mailing list). Archived from the original on March 4, 2016. Retrieved January 1, 2013.
  10. ^ Zoulas, Christos (March 24, 2003). "file-4.00 is now available". File (Mailing list). Archived from the original on December 28, 2016. Retrieved January 1, 2013.

Manual pages