Technically, unless pam is set up to check your shell with pam_shells neither of these can actually prevent your login, if you're not on the shell. On my system they are even different sizes, so I suspect they actually do something. So what's the difference? why do they both exist? Why would I use one over the other?

-rwxr-xr-x 1 root root  21K Feb  4 17:01 /bin/false
-rwxr-xr-x 1 root root 4.7K Mar  2 14:59 /sbin/nologin

When /sbin/nologin is set as the shell, if user with that shell logs in, they'll get a polite message saying 'This account is currently not available.' This message can be changed with the file /etc/nologin.txt.

/bin/false is just a binary that immediately exits, returning false, when it's called, so when someone who has false as shell logs in, they're immediately logged out when false exits. Setting the shell to /bin/true has the same effect of not allowing someone to log in but false is probably used as a convention over true since it's much better at conveying the concept that person doesn't have a shell.

Looking at nologin's man page, it says it was created in 4.4 BSD (early 1990s) so it came long after false was created. The use of false as a shell is probably just a convention carried over from the early days of UNIX.

nologin is the more user-friendly option, with a customizable message given to the user trying to log in, so you would theoretically want to use that; but both nologin and false will have the same end result of someone not having a shell and not being able to ssh in.

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    /usr/sbin/nologin for Debian based distributions. – Diemo Dec 31 '17 at 5:51
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    At least BSD implementation also logs the login attempts to syslog as seen in opensource.apple.com/source/system_cmds/system_cmds-735/… , whereas /bin/false wouldn't log anything – Sergiy Kolodyazhnyy Sep 10 '18 at 23:44
  • THIS - Is an amazing answer, with great history presented here. Well done Mark! – Elijah Lynn May 3 at 0:09
  • The /etc/nologin.txt custom message feature is not available in Ubuntu. – Paul Jun 3 at 12:52

Some FTP servers will allow you FTP access only if you have a valid shell. /sbin/nologin is regarded as a valid shell, whereas /bin/false is not.

(I think "valid" means its exit status is 0, but /etc/shells may also come into it, it probably depends on the system, the FTP software, and your configuration.)

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    yeah, that's probably part of the ftp program using pam, and pam using pam_shells which as you said, checks /etc/shells. Just a guess... I could be wrong. – xenoterracide Apr 7 '11 at 21:43
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    I just checked both Ubuntu 8.04 and 14.04. The nologin command exits with status 1 similar to false, and none of true, false, or nologin are included in /etc/shells. If they were, a user could use chsh to select such a shell and lock himself out of his account. – penguin359 Jul 21 '15 at 20:30

/bin/false is a system command that is used anytime you need to pass a command to a program that should do nothing more than exit with an error. It's the companion to /bin/true. Both of these are very old and standard POSIX utilities and neither produce any output by definition. true is sometimes used for a shell script that should loop indefinitely, like:

while true; do
    # Waste time
    if [ $wasted_time -gt 100000 ]; then
        exit 0

/usr/sbin/nologin is specifically designed to replace a shell and produces output complaining you can't log-in. Before it existed, it was common to use /bin/false for dummy users, but could be confusing since the user doesn't know why they're kicked off.

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    worth noting that /bin/true and /bin/false are not always what you will get in a shell script. In zsh true and false are built-ins, where bash uses the /bin/* versions – xenoterracide Apr 8 '11 at 13:04

On my machine, nologin displays always the same message, in English, ignoring arguments. /bin/false responds to --version and --help in the language indicated by $LC_CTYPE. Other than these cosmetic differences, they have the same effect.

Usability-wise, nologin is better if it's used on the account of a real person who speaks English. Security-wise, there is no difference.

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    seems like perhaps false is more for system accounts that have no real user, and nologin is for disabled accounts. – xenoterracide Apr 7 '11 at 20:26
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    What is your OS? Centos nologin version takes no arguments, but can read message from /etc/nologin.txt . – Alexander Gonchiy Oct 20 '17 at 7:04

On linux, /sbin/nologin comes from the util-linux project, while /bin/false is part of GNU Coreutils. They serve different roles, and nologin has the option of printing a message for people who have it as their shell who are logging in. The linux commands come from BSD, where they seem to have a long history of being different. The FreeBSD false simply returns 1, while the nologin checks to make sure it's running on a TTY and sends a message to syslog during login attempts. The linux versions are a bit more complicated (false doing all sorts of fun stuff with internationalization for the output of --help, I assume) but essentially perform the same way.

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/bin/false only job is to exit with a non-zero exit code.

Try it at the command line:

$:> /bin/false
$:> echo $?

Some institutions use /bin/false in the shell field of the password file. If user tries to login, the shell is /bin/false, so they are exited right away

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They could be the same program, but they have different meanings. The program name tells it all.

  • /bin/false is intended to return a false value. It is run as program.
  • /bin/nologin is intended to indicate to the user that no login is permitted for an account. (It is used a login shell.)
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Both does more or less the same job but /bin/false is useful for non-privileged users . On the other hand, /sbin/nologin is for privileged users.

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    Oh, how did you come to that conclusion? – fpmurphy Dec 27 '15 at 0:11
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    Probably he has looked into /etc/passwd. I just had a look into /etc/passwd of a freshly installed Debian stretch. On this box, nearly all system accounts (user ids < 1000) have /usr/sbin/nologin as shell, with a few exceptions. Please note that I do not agree with @pythondetective's answer. I am just speculating what might have lead him to this conclusion. My comment is a little bit late, though. – Binarus Dec 10 '18 at 17:29
  • no! default login shell is not the same as privileges. – MUY Belgium Apr 15 '19 at 10:11

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