Once upon a time,

DISPLAY=:0.0 totem /path/to/movie.avi

after ssh 'ing into my desktop from my laptop would cause totem to play movie.avi on my desktop.

Now it gives the error:

No protocol specified
Cannot open display:

I reinstalled Debian squeeze when it went stable on both computers, and I guess I broke the config.

I've googled on this, and cannot for the life of me figure out what I'm supposed to be doing.

(VLC has an HTTP interface that works, but it isn't as convenient as ssh.)

The same problem arises when I try to run this from a cron job.

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    Does your remote machine show a .Xauthority file? The other obvious question is - are your ssh server and client configured to allow X forwarding? What command did you use to ssh? Commented Mar 25, 2011 at 21:35
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    am I trying to forward X? I want the command to be executed on the host, not the client. My ssh command is just ssh me@host locate .Xauthority on the host computer doesnt match any files. Commented Mar 25, 2011 at 21:42
  • As Faheem suggests, there's a good change that your problem is due to totem not finding your X cookie, and you need to set XAUTHORITY to the proper value, i.e., the value in your regular session on your desktop. Read Linux: wmctrl cannot open display when session initiated via ssh+screen for some background; also see the related answer As root can I launch a graphical program on another users desktop?. Commented Mar 25, 2011 at 21:49
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    alright, physically sitting at the computer and typing echo $XAUTHORITY gives /var/run/gdm3/auth-for-jcress-bb32gX/database in the ssh session, typing echo $DISPLAY = (the path above) does not resolve the problem Commented Mar 25, 2011 at 22:20
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    I blame GDM3, why couldn't they have just kept $XAUTHORITY at ~/.Xauthority like everybody expects it to be. Commented Mar 25, 2011 at 22:24

3 Answers 3


(Adapted from Linux: wmctrl cannot open display when session initiated via ssh+screen)


An X program needs two pieces of information in order to connect to an X display.

  • It needs the address of the display, which is typically :0 when you're logged in locally or :10, :11, etc. when you're logged in remotely (but the number can change depending on how many X connections are active). The address of the display is normally indicated in the DISPLAY environment variable.

  • It needs the password for the display. X display passwords are called magic cookies. Magic cookies are not specified directly: they are always stored in X authority files, which are a collection of records of the form “display :42 has cookie 123456”. The X authority file is normally indicated in the XAUTHORITY environment variable. If $XAUTHORITY is not set, programs use ~/.Xauthority.

You're trying to act on the windows that are displayed on your desktop. If you're the only person using your desktop machine, it's very likely that the display name is :0. Finding the location of the X authority file is harder, because with gdm as set up under Debian squeeze or Ubuntu 10.04, it's in a file with a randomly generated name. (You had no problem before because earlier versions of gdm used the default setting, i.e. cookies stored in ~/.Xauthority.)

Getting the values of the variables

Here are a few ways to obtain the values of DISPLAY and XAUTHORITY:

  • You can systematically start a screen session from your desktop, perhaps automatically in your login scripts (from ~/.profile; but do it only if logging in under X: test if DISPLAY is set to a value beginning with : (that should cover all the cases you're likely to encounter)). In ~/.profile:

    case $DISPLAY in
      :*) screen -S local -d -m;;

    Then, in the ssh session:

    screen -d -r local
  • You could also save the values of DISPLAY and XAUTHORITY in a file and recall the values. In ~/.profile:

    case $DISPLAY in
      :*) export | grep -E '(^| )(DISPLAY|XAUTHORITY)=' >~/.local-display-setup.sh;;

    In the ssh session:

    . ~/.local-display-setup.sh
  • You could detect the values of DISPLAY and XAUTHORITY from a running process. This is harder to automate. You have to figure out the PID of a process that's connected to the display you want to work on, then get the environment variables from /proc/$pid/environ (eval export $(</proc/$pid/environ tr \\0 \\n | grep -E '^(DISPLAY|XAUTHORITY)=')¹).

Copying the cookies

Another approach (following a suggestion by Arrowmaster) is to not try to obtain the value of $XAUTHORITY in the ssh session, but instead to make the X session copy its cookies into ~/.Xauthority. Since the cookies are generated each time you log in, it's not a problem if you keep stale values in ~/.Xauthority.

There can be a security issue if your home directory is accessible over NFS or other network file system that allows remote administrators to view its contents. They'd still need to connect to your machine somehow, unless you've enabled X TCP connections (Debian has them off by default). So for most people, this either does not apply (no NFS) or is not a problem (no X TCP connections).

To copy cookies when you log into your desktop X session, add the following lines to ~/.xprofile or ~/.profile (or some other script that is read when you log in):

    # DISPLAY is set and points to a local display, and XAUTHORITY is
    # set, so merge the contents of `$XAUTHORITY` into ~/.Xauthority.
    XAUTHORITY=~/.Xauthority xauth merge "$XAUTHORITY";;

¹ In principle this lacks proper quoting, but in this specific instance $DISPLAY and $XAUTHORITY won't contain any shell metacharacter.

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    One way to automate this would be to create a ~/.xprofile which should only be run during the the X login and have it create/update ~/.Xauthority with the correct info. Would a symbolic link be enough? Commented Mar 25, 2011 at 23:16
  • @Arrowmaster: That's a good suggestion. I hadn't thought of it. It won't work in all cases, for example if you log into more than one X session (on different terminals, with vnc, …), but it's simple, and it's good enough for typical use. A symbolic link is the best way. Hmm, actually there's a better, simple way: you can copy the information into ~/.Xauthority. Commented Mar 25, 2011 at 23:21
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    Would putting something like xauth extract - $DISPLAY | xauth -f "$HOME/.Xauthority" merge - in ~/.xprofile solve the case of multiple $DISPLAY's? Commented Mar 25, 2011 at 23:52
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    Reading the environment out of an existing process connected to the display is unexpected as to be delightfully evil. I approve wholeheartedly. Unix.SE needs an Evil Genius™ badge for this.
    – derobert
    Commented Nov 30, 2011 at 7:22
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    @PiotrDobrogost AFAIK this isn't a “move by distributions”, it's a quirk of gdm. At least on Debian and Ubuntu, the others (xdm, slim, lightdm, kdm) populate ~/.Xauthority in the traditional way. I suspect that the reason gdm doesn't do it is that they didn't bother to program it (the original cookie is created to display the login screen, so at this point it can't be in the user's home directory, it has to be copied there when the user has logged in). Commented Jul 26, 2017 at 15:49

Solved by adding:

xhost +si:localuser:$USER

to ~/.xprofile. I don't know if this is altogether secure (I'd be very interested to hear what more knowledgeable folk think), but I'm guessing that it's a lot better than turning off access control (with xhost +) as is commonly suggested when you google for this issue.

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    localuser server-interpreted addresses are completely secure. Debian even does this by default as part of the login process (in /etc/X11/Xsession.d/35x11-common_xhost-local). See the Xsecurity man page for more details.
    – Sam Morris
    Commented May 31, 2013 at 22:31
  • If you're on a LAN, xhost + is probably enough in most cases... Commented May 17, 2016 at 22:39
  • Would you be able to explain what this command means?
    – alpha_989
    Commented Nov 7, 2017 at 16:33
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    @alpha_989: It means "Grant access [+] to any locally-running [localuser] application which is running as me [$USER]." The "si" is just glue (see xhost(1) and Xsecurity(7) for docs). By itself, this command does not allow any kind of remote access or X11 forwarding (for which the "magic cookie" mechanism is usually preferred over xhost).
    – Kevin
    Commented Aug 20, 2019 at 22:10
  • I believe this is more secure than using xauth because the Xauthority file might be stored on a network filesystem which can be read by an admin. Of course, many OSes (like Debian) deny remote X connections by default, so Xauthority over NFS isn't necessarily exploitable.
    – hackerb9
    Commented Jun 7, 2023 at 0:24

Works for me, debian wheezy -> ubuntu trusty.

Note: in this case the server is not running a display-manager, it's a 'headless' virtual machine with no graphics card or monitor attached.

bob@laptop:~$ grep -iB 1 tcp /etc/gdm3/daemon.conf
DisallowTCP = false
bob@laptop:~$ ssh -C -R 6000: alice@server
X11 forwarding request failed on channel 0
alice@server:~$ export DISPLAY=:0.0
alice@server:~$ xterm

X display on laptop shows output of xterm running on server.

Debug using:

bob@laptop:~/tmp$ nc -v 6001
localhost [] 6001 (x11-1) : Connection refused
bob@laptop:~/tmp$ nc -v 6000
localhost [] 6000 (x11) open
alice@server:~$ nc -v 6000
Connection to 6000 port [tcp/x11] succeeded!*
alice@server:~$ strace xterm

strace will spill loads of gory details about what it's doing, you should be able to guess where it gets stuck - waiting for a connection or whatever.

In one line ..

ssh -C -R 6000: alice@server "DISPLAY=:0.0 xterm"

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