I don't understand what the RETURN target does in a iptables command.

The doubt comes from this guide where it says:

A chain is a set of rules that a packet is checked against sequentially. When the packet matches one of the rules, it executes the associated action and is not checked against the remaining rules in the chain.

So if a packet matches a rule and it stops checking other rules why do I need a RETURN?

For example I found this on the internet:

iptables -A PREROUTING -t mangle -i wlan0 -s -j MARK --set-mark 30;
iptables -A PREROUTING -t mangle -i wlan0 -s -j RETURN;

Why do I need RETURN? If a packet matches the first rule then it automatically stops executing other rules.


Packets traverse a chain until they hit ACCEPT, DROP, REJECT, or RETURN. They do not stop on a match unless that match contains a terminating action. In your example, a packet matching the first rule will be marked, but will then be examined (and possibly processed) by the second rule.

Purely for reference, here are the relevant sections from the man page:

A firewall rule specifies criteria for a packet and a target. If the packet does not match, the next rule in the chain is the examined; if it does match, then the next rule is specified by the value of the target, which can be the name of a user-defined chain or one of the special values ACCEPT, DROP [, REJECT], QUEUE or RETURN.

  • ACCEPT means to let the packet through.
  • DROP means to drop the packet on the floor, i.e. to discard it and not send any response
  • [REJECT is used to send back an error packet in response to the matched packet: otherwise it is equivalent to DROP so it is a terminating TARGET, ending rule traversal.]
  • QUEUE means to pass the packet to userspace.
  • RETURN means stop traversing this chain and resume at the next rule in the previous (calling) chain. If the end of a built-in chain is reached or a rule in a built-in chain with target RETURN is matched, the target specified by the chain policy determines the fate of the packet.

In response to your specific concern, I would say that your guide is misleading. Unless "associated action" is one of the five terminal actions, packets will continue to flow through the chain until they reach an implicit RETURN at the end.

  • I'd upvote this answer more than once if I could. – JakeRobb Apr 10 '19 at 21:08
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    Worth noting that the default action for user-defined chains is RETURN. – stark Apr 26 '19 at 18:16
  • @stark isn't that what the last sentence says? – roaima Apr 26 '19 at 19:33
  • 1
    Ah, now I understand DROP better. That explains why I have no leg room under this desk too. – Jonathan Neufeld Aug 9 '19 at 15:58

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