The second field in the Linux /etc/shadow file represents a password. However, what we have seen is that:

  1. Some of the password fields may have a single exclamation

  2. Some of the password fields may have a double exclamation

  3. Some of the password fields may have an asterisk sign


By some research on internet and through this thread, I can understand that * means password never established, ! means locked.

Can someone explain what does double exclamation (!!) mean? and how is it different from (!)?

  • Which distribution are you using?
    – muru
    Dec 28, 2015 at 23:08
  • Hi Muru, am new to Unix and trying to create a script which will run on RHEL 6.6 and HP-UX B.11.23
    – JavaTec
    Dec 28, 2015 at 23:35
  • 3
    "By convention, accounts that are not intended to be logged in to (e.g. bin, daemon, sshd) only contain a single asterisk in the password field. Note that there is nothing special about ‘*’, it is just one of many characters that cannot occur in a valid encrypted password (see crypt(3))." --OpenBSD man page for passwd(5). I would expect ! or !! to be no different, technically, regarding whether it is a valid passwd file, or regarding logins. However, some tools might have special support.
    – TOOGAM
    Dec 29, 2015 at 1:45
  • 2
    Don't use the BSDs' doco as references for this. Their accounts database handles things differently and does not even have an /etc/shadow file. Don't put answers into comments, either. ☺
    – JdeBP
    Dec 29, 2015 at 8:17

2 Answers 2


Both "!" and "!!" being present in the password field mean it is not possible to login to the account using a password.

As it can be read from the documentation of RHEL-4, the "!!" in the shadow-password field means the account of a user has been created, but not yet given a password. The documentation states (possibly erroneously) that until being given an initial password by a sysadmin, it is locked by default.

However, as others have noted, and as the man pages indicate for later versions of RHEL-7, it is possible a user may still log on to the account through other means, such as via SSH using public/private key authentication.

  • 7
    This maybe true on Red Hat systems, but not necessarily elsewhere - on Ubuntu or Arch Linux, a newly-created account with no password still has only !, not !!.
    – muru
    Dec 28, 2015 at 23:06
  • 2
    True indeed that I have never seen a "!!" in a Debian system. I would guess the OP is using some RH-based system, or SuSE. Dec 28, 2015 at 23:09
  • 4
    @JavaTec Not necessarily: I think all unices that have a /etc/shadow have the same field but how the password field stores non-password information varies. Check the HP-UX documentation, starting with the shadow man page. Dec 28, 2015 at 23:57
  • 2
    HP-UX did not even have /etc/shadow until relatively recently: before HP-UX 11.11, the options were either classic shadowless /etc/passwd or "Trusted Computing Base", that stored each user's password hashes and other account information in individual files named /tcb/files/auth/<initial>/<username>, readable only by root. In HP-UX 11.11, /etc/shadow was introduced as an optional extra, in 11.23 it was an option in the base OS, and in 11.31 the TCB was finally deprecated.
    – telcoM
    Jan 21, 2019 at 21:32
  • 5
    It is worth noting that an account is not actually locked in this way, it only means the user cannot use a password to authenticate and probably cannot set a password. I have tested this on both Debian and EL based distributions: login with ssh key still works with either "!" or "!!" in the password field.
    – Roy
    Oct 4, 2019 at 19:40

It may also be worth noting <account>::..... meaning that there is no password required (empty password).

If you are creating an ssh key-only user you could use <account>::0:0:99999:7::: to require that the user set their password (i.e. that they use for sudo) on their first login.

Note: key-only authentication means that a password is NOT an authentication factor.

  • 14
    Beware of this. An empty field means there is no password, and you just have to press ENTER to login, at least in the console. May 4, 2017 at 12:28
  • 1
    From man shadow regarding encrypted password field: "This field may be empty, in which case no passwords are required to authenticate as the specified login name." <-- Leaving this field emtpy results in open account and this should indeed be avoided!
    – Laas
    Oct 15, 2019 at 12:48
  • Note that many SSH implementations block login on null passworded accounts by default: sudo /usr/sbin/sshd -T| grep empty would return: "permitemptypasswords no" Nov 4, 2019 at 15:58
  • Changed the answer to clarify that I meant key-only login.
    – coolaj86
    Apr 13, 2020 at 1:26
  • Another note, why one should never use empty passwords. Think about what happens if you install any software that uses "linux-authentication"? E.g. phpMyAdmin would than allow logins without a password. This can be very dangerous. And key only users should have "!"
    – K. Frank
    Nov 3, 2020 at 6:12

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