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The question says it all. I currently use Arch Linux and the zsh, but I'd like a solution that (at minimum) works both on VTs and in xterms and also (hopefully, preferably) will continue to work if I switch distros or shells.

I've heard wildly disparate answers to this question in different distros' docs. Ubuntu says "use .pam_environment". I think in Arch what they recommend depends on your shell. Currently I put everything in .profile and if a shell doesn't source that for some reason (e.g. bash if .bash_profile exists), I override that by manually sourcing it. But it seems like there must be a better way.

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This has nothing to do with distro and everything to do with shell. Not sure there's a portable way to do it, though. – Joseph R. Aug 26 '13 at 7:42
Hmm. Awesome. – strugee Aug 26 '13 at 7:56
up vote 16 down vote accepted

There is unfortunately no fully portable location to set environment variables. The two files that come closest are ~/.profile, which is the traditional location and works out of the box on many setups, and ~/.pam_environment, a modern, commonplace but limited alternative.

What to put in ~/.pam_environment

The file ~/.pam_environment is read by all login methods that use PAM and that have this file enabled. This covers most Linux systems nowadays.

The major advantage of ~/.pam_environment is that (when enabled) it is read before the user's shell starts, so it works regardless of the session type, login shell and other complexities. It even works for non-interactive logins such as su -c somecommand and ssh somecommand.

The major limitation of ~/.pam_environment is that you can only put simple assignments there, not complex shell syntax. The syntax of this file is as follows.

  • Files are parsed line by line.
  • Leading whitespace is ignored.
  • You can optionally start lines with export and a single space (not a tab, go figure).
  • After that, each line must have the form VAR=VALUE where VAR consists of letters, digits and underscores.
  • # starts a comment, it cannot appear in a value.
  • If VALUE starts with ' or " and contains another identical quote, then VAR is set to the string between the quotes (everything after the second quote is ignored). Otherwise VAR is set to the string after the = sign.
  • If there is no =, the variable is removed from the environment.

So on the upside, ~/.pam_environment works in a large array of circumstances. On the downside, you cannot have any dynamic settings such as base the value of a variable on another variable (e.g. adding a directory to PATH) or use the output of a command (e.g. test if a directory or program is present), and some characters (#'", newline) are impossible or troublesome to put in the value.

What to put in ~/.profile

This file should have portable (POSIX) sh syntax. Only use ksh or bash extensions (arrays, [[ … ]], etc.) if you know that your system has these shells as /bin/sh.

This file may be read by scripts in automated applications, so it should not call programs that produce any output or call exec. If you want to do that on text-mode logins, do it only for interactive shells. Example:

case $- in *i*)
  # Display a message if I have new mail
  if mail -e; then echo 'You have new mail'; fi
  # If zsh is available, and this looks like a text-mode login, run zsh
  case "`ps $PPID` " in
    *" login "*)
      if type zsh >/dev/null 2>/dev/null; then exec zsh; fi;;

This is an example of using /bin/sh as your login shell and switching to your favorite shell. See also how can I use bash as my login shell when my sysadmin refuses to let me change it

When is ~/.profile not read on non-graphical login?

Different login shells read different files.

If your login shell is bash

Bash reads ~/.bash_login or ~/.bash_profile if they exist instead of ~/.profile. Also bash does not read ~/.bashrc in a login shell even if it is interactive. To never have to remember these quirks again, create a ~/.bash_profile with the following two lines:

. ~/.profile
case $- in *i*) . ~/.bashrc;; esac

See also Which setup files should be used for setting up environment variables with bash?

If your login shell is zsh

Zsh reads ~/.zprofile and ~/.zlogin, but not ~/.profile. Zsh has a different syntax from sh, but can read ~/.profile in sh emulation mode. You can use this for your ~/.zprofile:

emulate sh -c '. ~/.profile'

See also Zsh not hitting ~/.profile

If your login shell is some other shell

There's not much you can do there, short of using /bin/sh as your login shell and your favorite shell (such as fish) as an interactive shell only. That's what I do with zsh. See above for an example of invoking another shell from ~/.profile.

Remote commands

When invoking a remote command without going through an interactive shell, not all shells read a startup file.

Ksh reads the file specified by the ENV variable, if you manage to pass it.

Bash reads ~/.bashrc if it is not interactive (!) and its parent process is called rshd or sshd. So you can start your ~/.bashrc with

if [[ $- != *i* ]]; then
  . ~/.profile

Zsh always reads ~/.zshenv when it starts. Use with caution, since this is read by every single instance of zsh, even when it is a subshell where you've set other variables. If zsh is your login shell and you want to use it to set variables only for remote commands, use a guard: set some variable in ~/.profile, such as MY_ENVIRONMENT_HAS_BEEN_SET=yes, and check this guard before reading ~/.profile.

if [[ -z $MY_ENVIRONMENT_HAS_BEEN_SET ]]; then emulate sh -c '~/.profile'; fi

The case of graphical logins

Many distributions, display managers and desktop environments arrange to run ~/.profile, either by explicitly sourcing it from the startup scripts or by running a login shell.

Unfortunately, there is no general method to handle distro/DM/DE combinations where ~/.profile is not read.

If you use a traditional session started by ~/.xsession, this is the place where you should set your environment variables; do it by sourcing ~/.profile (i.e. . ~/.profile). Note that in some setups, the desktop environment startup scripts will source ~/.profile again.

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what does case $- in *i*) do? – qodeninja Feb 5 '14 at 0:04
@qodeninja Executes the following instructions (until the matching ;; or esac) if $- matches the pattern *i*, i.e. if $- contains i, i.e. if the shell is interactive. – Gilles Feb 5 '14 at 0:06
$- is a string of the currently-set shell options. (like set -x). i means interactive shell. – Peter Cordes Apr 19 '15 at 15:12
Can't you just source a common file, say ~/.config/env, even without emulation? – Kevin Suttle Dec 29 '15 at 21:34
@KevinSuttle Yes, but then the code in this file can't use constructs that behave differently in zsh. – Gilles Dec 29 '15 at 22:32

As far as I know there exists no distro and shell agnostic standard how to set environment variables.

The most common and de facto standard seems to be /etc/profile and ~/.profile. The second most common seems to be /etc/environment and ~/.pam_environment.

It seems to me that all documentation that I found you also already found. I list them here anyway for the other readers.

  • Debian recommends /etc/profile and ~/.profile (link).
  • Ubuntu recommends /etc/environment and ~/.pam_environment (link).
  • Arch Linux mentions, among others, /etc/profile and /etc/environment (link).

Bonus: a text questioning the use and/or misuse of /etc/environment in debian (link, last update 2008).

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Regardless of the file you use you would still bump into incompatible syntax between different shells. – Joseph R. Aug 26 '13 at 13:25
@JosephR. don't most shells keep backwards-compatibility with sh? So long as you stick to POSIX, I would have thought you'd be fine... – evilsoup Aug 26 '13 at 15:56
AFAIK you can't assign variables in csh and friends the POSIX way (you need something like set or setenv) – Joseph R. Aug 26 '13 at 17:22

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