An Ultimate Guide of Bash Environment Variables

Bash scripting has become an indispensable skill for developers and system administrators, enabling them to automate tasks with ease. At the heart of this power lies the concept of environment variables’ dynamic placeholders that store crucial system information. In this article, I will discuss the environmental variables in Bash Script. So let’s start!

Key Takeaways

  • Understanding the concept of Environmental Bash Variable.
  • Getting the List of Environmental Variables.
  • Learning about the setting of temporary and permanent environment variables.

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What is the Environment Variable?

In Linux, an environment variable is a dynamic named value that holds information about the system’s configuration, preferences, and behavior, which can be accessed by processes and programs running on the system. Environment Variables offer a simple and efficient way to communicate essential information about the current operating environment to the executing program.

When a program or command runs, it receives an array of strings known as the “environment.” This array consists of key/value pairs in the form of key=value. Each key/value pair acts as an environment variable, making it accessible to the executed command or program. The shell provides different methods to mark a variable for export to the environment variables, with the preferred approach in Bash being the use of the declare -x command.

Accessing Environment Variables

Accessing environment variables in a shell allows you to retrieve the values stored in these variables, which can be crucial for configuring the behavior of various programs and scripts.

A. Using Environment Variables in Command Line

In Bash, you can access the value of an environment variable by using the dollar sign $ followed by the variable name. For example, to access the PATH environment variable, which stores a list of directories where the shell looks for executable files, you would use $PATH. The syntax is as follows:

echo $PATH

Using Environment Variables in Command LineHere, this command would display the value of the PATH environment variable.

B. Using Environment Variables in Bash Scripts

You can use environment variables within scripts to customize their behavior based on the current environment. Follow the Bash Script described below:

Steps to Follow >

❶ At first, launch an Ubuntu Terminal.

❷ Write the following command to open a file in Nano:

  • nano: Opens a file in the Nano text editor.
  • Name of the file.

❸ Copy the script mentioned below:


# Store the value of the HOME environment variable in a variable

# Use the HOME environment variable to change the working directory
cd $HOME

# Utilise an environment variable in a command
echo "Hello, $USER! The current time is: $(date)"

It begins by capturing the value of the HOME environment variable, which holds the path to the user’s home directory, and stores it in a variable named user_home. Next, the script employs this stored value to change the current working directory to the user’s home directory using the cd command. Finally, the script employs environment variables to construct a message that’s displayed using the echo command. This message greets the user with their username, is accessed through the USER environment variable, and provides the current time through the date command’s output, which is achieved using command substitution ($(date)).

❹ Press CTRL+O and ENTER to save the file; CTRL+X to exit.

➎ Now run the file using the following command.

  • bash: Executes the shell file.
  • Name of the file.

Using Environment Variables in Bash ScriptsHere the Bash code print username and current date using the $USER and $date variable. Where $USER is an environmental variable.

List of Environment Variables in Bash

So far, I have introduced some Bash variables like PATH and HOME variables. Now the question is how many environmental variables there in Bash Script are? In Bash, there are several environment variables that have predefined meanings and are used to configure the behavior of the shell and other programs. Below is a list of some common environment variables in Bash along with their descriptions:

Variable Description
HOME Represents the current user’s home directory.
PATH Contains a colon-separated list of directories where the shell looks for executable files.
USER Stores the username of the current user.
SHELL Specifies the path to the current user’s default shell.
PWD Represents the present working directory.
OLDPWD Stores the previous working directory.
LANG Defines the default language and character encoding for interpreting text and data.
TERM Specifies the terminal type, helping programs determine how to interact with the terminal.
PS1 Defines the primary prompt string, displaying information like the username, hostname, and current directory in the shell prompt.
PS2 Specifies the secondary prompt string used when entering multiline commands.
PS3 The prompt string used for the select command in shell scripts.
PS4 The prompt string used for debugging with the set -x option.
IFS Specifies the Internal Field Separator, used by the shell for word splitting.
BASH_VERSION Stores the version number of the Bash shell.
HOSTNAME Represents the hostname of the computer.
UID Stores the numeric user ID of the current user.
EUID Stores the effective numeric user ID of the current user.
RANDOM Contains a random integer between 0 and 32,767.
OSTYPE Specifies the operating system type (e.g., linuxgnu or darwin for macOS).

These are just some of the commonly used environment variables in Bash. There are many other environment variables used by various programs and utilities for specific purposes. You can view the complete list of environment variables in your Bash shell by running the command printenv or env, just like demonstrates below.List of environment variable using printenv command

Setting an Environment Variable in Linux

Typically, the installation process automatically updates your environment variables to accommodate the new application. However, there are instances where you might need to manually handle an environment variable when installing something outside your distribution’s standard tools. Alternatively, you might choose to customize an environment variable according to your preferences.

For example, if you wish to keep certain applications in a bin folder within your home directory, you’ll need to add that directory to your PATH. By doing so, your operating system will recognize the location and look there for applications to execute whenever you issue a command.

A. Set Temporary Environment Variables in Linux

You have the option to append a location to your system’s PATH. However, this method has a limitation such as the change will only remain effective as long as the current shell session remains open. If you open a Bash shell and modify your system path using this approach:

export PATH=$PATH:/home/softeko/LinuxSimply

Now if you print the PATH variable using the echo command then you will notice that the above-mentioned path has been appended to the PATH variable.Setting Temporary Environment VariablesHowever, close the current session using the exit command in your command line, then write echo $PATH to the terminal. Thus you can see the appended path is no longer in the PATH access to temporary Environment VariablesAs you can see, the variable has returned to its original/default state because the PATH is not being set with every new shell session. To ensure that your variables are configured to load each time a shell is launched, you need to go for a permanent setting for the Environmental Variable.

B. Set Permanent Environment Variables in Linux

Permanent environment variables are those that are set to persist across multiple sessions and are available whenever a user logs in or opens a new terminal session. These variables remain active until explicitly unset or modified.

In Bash, the most common files used to set permanent environment variables in Bash are ~/.bashrc and ~/.bash_profile (or ~/.profile).

Here’s how to set a permanent environment variable in Bash:

Steps to Follow >

➊ At first, launch an Ubuntu Terminal.

➋ Open the ~/.bashrc by running nano ~/.bashrc in your command line.

nano ~/.bashrc

open bashrc file to set Permanent Environment Variables➌ To edit the ~/.bashrc file and append your variable to it,  add the following line at the end of the file:

export VARIABLE_NAME=value

Replace VARIABLE_NAME with the name of your environment variable and value with the desired value. For instance, I want to set a permanent environmental variable named project_name and LinuxSimply as its value in the ~/.bashrc file. To do so, I will write project_name=LinuxSimply at the end of the ~/.bashrc file.edit the basrc file to set permanent environment variable➍ Save the file with CTRL + O and Exit from the editor using CTRL + X shortcut keys.

➎ To make the changes take effect, either restart your terminal session or run the following command to apply the changes to the current session:

source ~/.bashrc

➏ Now print the the value of project_name variable using the following command.

echo $project_name

permanent env variable in the command lineAs the image describes, the value of the permanent environment variable is LinuxSimply. However, you should keep in mind that setting permanent environment variables in a user’s shell configuration files only affects that current user’s sessions. If you need to set variables for all users, you should consider using /etc/environment or other system-wide configuration files.


In conclusion, environment variables in Bash scripting offer a powerful and flexible way to manage configurations and preferences. They facilitate seamless communication between scripts, applications, and the operating system, enabling greater adaptability and efficiency.  In this article, I have tried to give you a complete guideline about what environmental variables are in Bash Script, listing some of them and how to set up your own environmental variable. However, if you have any questions or queries related to this article, feel free to comment below. Thank You!

People Also Ask

How to set environment variables in bash?
To set environment variables in Bash, use the export command followed by the variable name and its value. For example export VARIABLE_NAME=value.
What is the $SHELL environment variable?
The $SHELL environment variable stores the path to the user’s default shell program on the system. 
How to access environment variables in shell script?
To access environment variables in a shell script, use the syntax: $VARIABLE_NAME. For instance, to access the value of a variable named USERNAME, use $USERNAME in your script.
How to check if env variable is set in bash?
To check if an environment variable is set in Bash, use the echo or printf command along with the variable’s name preceded by a dollar sign ($). For example: echo $VARIABLE_NAME. If the variable is set, its value will be displayed; otherwise, there will be no output.

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<< Go Back to Types of Variables in Bash | Bash Variables | Bash Scripting Tutorial

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Mohammad Shah Miran

Hey, I'm Mohammad Shah Miran, previously worked as a VBA and Excel Content Developer at SOFTEKO, and for now working as a Linux Content Developer Executive in LinuxSimply Project. I completed my graduation from Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET). As a part of my job, i communicate with Linux operating system, without letting the GUI to intervene and try to pass it to our audience.

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