I read that there are two folders for unit files (not in user mode).

/usr/lib/systemd/system/: units provided by installed packages
/etc/systemd/system/: units installed by the system administrator

Conflicting with this understanding is the answer to this question: How to write startup script for Systemd. Can someone fill in the missing information so that I understand what is going on? (UPDATE: The answer has been updated, and my understanding no longer conflicts with it.)

Also, it seems that the scripts are organized in subfolders within the /etc/systemd/system/ folder:


In another location I read that there are other locations. It seems these are for user-specific services.

/usr/lib/systemd/user/ where services provided by installed packages go.
/etc/systemd/user/ where system-wide user services are placed by the system administrator.
~/.config/systemd/user/ where the user puts its own services.

Update 2015-08-31:

For the sake of others, here is a link to a related question I recently asked: Where do I put scripts executed by systemd units?

  • 5
    /etc/systemd/system is where you put your scripts, pacman puts package scripts in /usr/lib/systemd/system and issuing systemctl enable foo.service creates symlinks from /usr to /etc...
    – jasonwryan
    Commented Aug 23, 2015 at 20:42
  • 1
    See man systemd.target: it explains the reasoning behind the groupings.
    – jasonwryan
    Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 7:46
  • Aside from file locations, it's important to note that "user" services in systemd run only while a user is logged in. If you want a service to run all the time, it needs to be a "system" service, not a "user" one.
    – Matt Ryall
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 22:44
  • @MattRyall Wrong. A user service can be started at boot time if you do loginctl enable-linger (ref).
    – user98761
    Commented Oct 21, 2023 at 22:25
  • Good to know, @user98761. I don't yet have enough karma to edit my comment, so will try to update later.
    – Matt Ryall
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 0:23

6 Answers 6


The best place to put system unit files: /etc/systemd/system Just be sure to add a target under the [Install] section, read "How does it know?" for details. UPDATE: /usr/local/lib/systemd/system is another option, read "Gray Area" for details."

The best place to put user unit files: /etc/systemd/user or $HOME/.config/systemd/user but it depends on permissions and the situation. Note also that user services will only run while a user session is active.

The truth is that systemd units (or as the intro sentence calls them, "unit configurations") can go anywhere—provided you are willing to make manual symlinks and you are aware of the caveats. It makes life easier to put the unit where systemctl daemon-reload can find it for some good reasons:

  • Using a standard location means that systemd generators will find them and make them easy to enable at boot with systemctl enable. This is because your unit will automatically be added to a unit dependency tree (a unit cache).
  • You do not need to think about permissions, because only the right privileged users can write to the designated areas.

How does it know?

And how exactly does systemctl enable know where to create the symlink? You hard code it within the unit itself under the [install] section. Usually there is a line like

WantedBy = multi-user.target

that corresponds to a predefined place on the filesystem. This way, systemctl knows that this unit is dependent on a group of unit files called multi-user.target ("target" is the term used to designate unit dependency groups. You can list all groups with systemctl list-units --type target). The group of unit files to be loaded with a target is put in a targetname.target.wants directory. This is just a directory full of symlinks (or the real thing). If your [Install] section says it is WantedBy the multi-user.target, but if a symlink to it does not exist in the multi-user.target.wants directory, then it will not load. When the systemd unit generators add your unit file to the dependency tree cache at boot (you can manually trigger generators with systemctl daemon-reload), it automatically knows where to put the symlink—in this case in the directory /etc/systemd/system/multi-user.target.wants/ should you enable it.

Key Points in the Manual:

Additional units might be loaded into systemd ("linked") from directories not on the unit load path. See the link command for systemctl(1).

Under systemctl, look for Unit File Commands

Unit File Load Path

Please read and understand the first sentence in the following quote from man systemd.unit (because it implies that all of the paths I mention here may not apply to you if your systemd was compiled with different paths):

Unit files are loaded from a set of paths determined during compilation, described in the two tables below. Unit files found in directories listed earlier override files with the same name in directories lower in the list.

When the variable $SYSTEMD_UNIT_PATH is set, the contents of this variable overrides the unit load path. If $SYSTEMD_UNIT_PATH ends with an empty component (":"), the usual unit load path will be appended to the contents of the variable.

Table 1 and Table 2 from man systemd.unit are good.

Load paths when running in system mode (--system).

  • /etc/systemd/system Local configuration
  • /run/systemd/system Runtime units
  • /usr/lib/systemd/system Units of installed packages (or /lib/systemd/system in some cases, read man systemd.unit)

Load path when running in user mode (--user)

There is a difference between per user units and all/global users units.


  • $XDG_CONFIG_HOME/systemd/user User configuration (only used when $XDG_CONFIG_HOME is set)

  • $HOME/.config/systemd/user User configuration (only used when $XDG_CONFIG_HOME is not set)

  • $XDG_RUNTIME_DIR/systemd/user Runtime units (only used when $XDG_RUNTIME_DIR is set)

  • $XDG_DATA_HOME/systemd/user Units of packages that have been installed in the home directory (only used when $XDG_DATA_HOME is set)

  • $HOME/.local/share/systemd/user Units of packages that have been installed in the home directory (only used when $XDG_DATA_HOME is not set)

--global (all users)

Units that apply to all users--meaning owned by each user, too. So each user can stop these services even if an administrator enables them at boot.

  • /etc/systemd/user Local configuration for all users (systemctl --global enable userunit.service)
  • /usr/lib/systemd/user Units of packages that have been installed system-wide for all users (or /lib/systemd/system in some cases, read man systemd.unit)
  • /run/systemd/user Runtime units

Gray Area

On the one hand, the File Hierarchy Standard (also man file-hierarchy) specifies that /etc is for local configurations that do not execute binaries. On the other hand it specifies that /usr/local/ "is for use by the system administrator when installing software locally". You could also argue (if not just for the purpose of organization) that all system unit files should go under /usr/local/lib/systemd/system, but this is intended for unit files that are part of "software" not from a package manager. The corresponding systemd user units that are system-wide could go under /usr/local/lib/systemd/user.

Transient Unit

Another forgotten place is nowhere at all! Perhaps a lesser-known program is systemd-run. You can use it to run transient units on the fly. see man systemd-run.

For example, to schedule a reboot tomorrow morning at 4 a.m. (you might need --force to ensure a reboot happens):

systemd-run -u restart --description="Restarts machine" --on-calendar="2020-12-18 04:00:00" systemctl --force reboot

This will yield a transient unit file restart.service and a corresponding timer (because of the --on-calendar, (and indicated by transient=yes in the resulting transient unit definition).


# This is a transient unit file, created programmatically via the systemd API. Do not edit.
Description=Restarts machine

ExecStart="/usr/bin/systemctl" "--force" "reboot"

Note that there is also the more dangerous double force option --force --force, which tells the kernel to halt immediately (and, if you do not know what you're doing, unsafely, because it is almost equivalent to cutting the power).

  • 1
    The advice about putting unit files in /etc/systemd/system, is that general advice for self created unit files? Anything installed by a package manager should always put them in /usr/lib/systemd/system for eg.
    – slm
    Commented Aug 6, 2018 at 20:25
  • 2
    @slm Yes, when the question refers to my systemd unit files, it is intended to imply self-created ones. Commented Sep 6, 2018 at 19:44
  • I would distinct: /etc/systemd/user for (guaranteed) system wide user services and ~/.config/systemd/user for custom user specific services.
    – Suuuehgi
    Commented May 17, 2019 at 21:26
  • 1
    @JonathanKomar You should add /lib/systemd/system in your post, each time you mention /usr/lib/systemd/system. On many systems (notably on Ubuntu), this is the correct location.
    – Atralb
    Commented Jul 9, 2020 at 9:36
  • @Atralb May I suggest you run file /lib? I do not use Ubuntu, but I would venture to guess that you'll see that it is indeed a symbolic link to usr/lib. Commented Jul 9, 2020 at 9:53

/etc/systemd/system is where you put your scripts, pacman puts package scripts in /usr/lib/systemd/system.

Issuing systemctl enable foo.service creates symlinks from /usr to /etc. See the Unit Load Path section of man systemd.unit(5) for more detail.

  • 2
    This answer is more easy to understand for beginners.
    – Kemin Zhou
    Commented Jan 19, 2021 at 5:15

If you want to know all the places where systemd will look for unit files, the following commands should be helpful.

Using systemd-analyze command:

All folders which can contain user services:

These are the places where you can put your own per-user configs

systemd-analyze --user unit-paths

For administrative users, you may prefer putting your configs in the following folders (these will affect all users):

systemd-analyze --global unit-paths

All folders which can contain system services:

These will most likely contain installed services from a package manager and will affect the system as a whole

systemd-analyze --system unit-paths

See: manpage

  • Does not work on CentOS 7.
    – ceving
    Commented May 31, 2023 at 10:46
  • @ceving: unit-paths "verb" of systemd-analyze, as well as its --global switch, were added in Systemd v238, so not available in CentOS 7 or Ubuntu 18.04.
    – MestreLion
    Commented Oct 30, 2023 at 5:57

One noticeable difference between /etc/systemd/system and /lib/systemd/system on Debian/Ubuntu system is, the service files under /lib/systemd/system can be masked while those under /etc/systemd/system cannot. For example,

# ls /lib/systemd/system/mytest.service
# systemctl mask mytest
# ls /etc/systemd/system/mytest2.service
# systemctl mask mytest2
Failed to mask unit: File /etc/systemd/system/mytest2.service already exists.

Search Paths

There are many places systemd looks for when you do systemctl enable <unit-name>. Regardless of where they are found, they will be symbolically linked to somewhere inside /etc/systemd.

You can consult the man systemd.unit(5) for a complete list, or use the systemd-analyze commands as noted in other answers. You can put your unit files in any of these locations. but you must pay attention to precedence and the scope.

Precedence as in which folders will be preferred by systemd if a unit file was found with the same name.

Scope as in user, global, and system.

Selecting a Folder

For instance, if you put your unit files to ~/.config/systemd/user.control, then you would need to enable them with systemctl enable --user <unit-file>.

Usually, the unit files are for services, and services are usually for the host. So, I mostly just put custom units into /etc/systemd/system which is the system scope, and has precedence over anything and everything in case there is a name conflict.

pkg-config systemd --variable=systemdsystemconfdir
pkg-config systemd --variable=systemduserunitdir
pkg-config systemd --variable=systemduserconfdir

On my system, these returned in order:


I've written 3, one for ntpd, one for a second, static ethernet card, and one for running p0f, the passive OS identifer. I put them all in /etc/systemd/system. Looks like I could maybe let systemd handle the NTP stuff, but I don't think I want to rely on it that much.

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