The chmod Command

How to use the versatile command chmod.
Understanding chmod

Let's look at a summary of chmod's options, and then cover each option in depth:


u user (owner)

g group

o other (world)

a all (user, group, and other)


+ add

- remove

= set exactly


r read

w write

x execute

X conditionally set execute

s Set UID or set GID

t set “sticky” bit

$ chmod a+rwx test_file
$ ls -l test_file
-rwxrwxrwx   1 eric     users

This demonstrates the fourth possible symbol for user when using symbolic mode. We used a to set full permissions for all user classes at once. Let's delete the file and start over in order to demonstrate the difference between the = operator and the + and - operators. (From here on, we'll assume that you know how to get the directory listing, and won't list the ls command.)

$ rm test_file
$ touch test_file
-rw-rw-r--   1 eric     users
$ chmod g+x test_file
-rw-rwxr--   1 eric     users

This added execute permission for group.

$ chmod g=x test_file
-rw---xr--   1 eric     users

The = operators set group's permissions to execute, and in doing so removed read and write permission. While + and - set or unset the permissions specified, = will set exactly the mode specified and remove any others.

Read, write and execute modes are very straightforward when referring to files. Read and write allow a user to examine and modify/delete data from a file, respectively. Execute allows a user to execute a shell script or binary program. If you ftp a program from one host to another and then try to run it without setting execute permission, it will fail, since ftp does not set execute permission.


For directories, the rules can be a bit more complicated.

Read permission allows a user to examine the contents of a directory.

$ mkdir test_dir
$ touch test_dir/foo
$ ls test_dir
$ chmod u-r test_dir
$ ls test_dir
ls: test_dir: Permission denied

Write permission allows a user to modify the contents of the directory. That means that lack of write permission on a directory does not prevent a user from modifying a file within the directory, if the file's permissions allow it. It does prevent the user from renaming, moving, deleting or creating any file in the directory. This is because a directory is a really a file that contains a list of filenames, and so read and write permission control access to that list.

$ chmod u=rx test_dir
dr-xrwxr-x   2 eric     users
$ touch test_dir/bar
touch: test_dir/bar: Permission denied
$ mv test_dir/foo ./foo
mv: cannot move `test_dir/foo' to `./foo':
Permission denied

This property also works the other way. Since write permission allows the modification of directory entries, a user can move or rename a file without permission to examine the contents. This is a very good reason for paying attention to write access for important directories.

To demonstrate:

$ ls -l test_dir
-rw-rw-r--   2 eric  users  foo
$ chmod u=rwx test_dir
$ chmod u=rx test_dir/foo
$ cat .bashrc > test_dir/foo
bash: test_dir/foo: Permission denied
$ mv test_dir/foo ./foo
$ ls test_dir
(It's empty)
$ ls foo
foo (It's in our present directory.)

Execute permission for directories (also referred to as search permission) is also very important. Execute permission is necessary for accessing a directory.

$ chmod u=rwx test_dir
$ cp ~/.bashrc test_dir
(any text file will do)
$ chmod u=rw test_dir
$ cd test_dir
bash: test_dir: Permission denied
$ cat test_dir/.bashrc
cat: test_dir/.bashrc: Permission denied

This copy of .bashrc does not do us a lot of good. However, setting execute permission for directory and not setting read or write can come in handy.

$ chmod u=x test_dir
$ cat test_dir/.bashrc
(we see the contents of the file)
$ ls test_dir
ls: test_dir: Permission denied

A directory that has execute permission only can be used to “hide” files. Only users who know the exact file name and path can access them; this includes both data files and programs.



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Re: Take Command: The chmod Command

Anonymous's picture

is it possible to explain the meanings and values of those chmod numbers. e.g chmod 750