"Joe's own editor" does not come naturally to me. How do I change to using nano or vim?

I've tried

export EDITOR=nano

but it doesn't seem to be respected. I'd like visudo to respect this as well.

  • 1
    You're way should work but you have to manually export EDITOR each time you start the shell. Try this: echo "export EDITOR=nano" >> ~/.bashrc.
    – user20601
    Jul 10, 2012 at 3:05
  • Thanks Bryan, but it actually wasn't working at all. I'm not sure what the deal was b/c this works in other distros and environments for me.
    – hidden_premise
    Jul 10, 2012 at 3:25
  • 1
    @BryanDunsmore No, not to ~/.bashrc, to ~/.profile. See Alternative to .bashrc Jul 11, 2012 at 0:15
  • It noticed this is the default also in Debian GNU/Linux buster (current stable). At least in the version provided by the OVH service provider. Mar 10, 2021 at 16:41

4 Answers 4


To change the default editor at the system level:

sudo update-alternatives --config editor

and then follow the onscreen prompts.

  • 3
    If your editor isn't on the list, do this first (for geany) update-alternatives --install /usr/bin/editor editor /usr/bin/geany 10
    – PJ Brunet
    Feb 6, 2015 at 5:25
  • 2
    This doesn't work for non-root users
    – Petr
    May 28, 2015 at 8:02

The way to change the default editor for your account is to set the EDITOR environment variable. If that doesn't work for you, you've done something unusual. Check that you haven't also defined VISUAL, or if you have, give the two variables the same value (see VISUAL vs. EDITOR – what’s the difference?). Add these lines to your ~/.profile (note: not to ~/.bashrc):


Under the Debian policy, all programs are supposed to support EDITOR and VISUAL to set the default editor.

Under Debian and derivatives, you can use the alternatives mechanism to set the system-wide default editor, as mentioned by Steve Robillard: run update-alternatives --config editor as root.

  • It is also changing an editor only for you, not for every user. There's a little possibility that someone may not be familiar with vim if you set it system-wide as default editor.
    – mykolaj
    Jan 4, 2016 at 15:06
  • "Under the Debian policy, all programs are supposed to support EDITOR and VISUAL to set the default editor." In a twist of irony, editor is not one of those commands. :/ stackoverflow.com/a/73307112/3196753
    – tresf
    Aug 10, 2022 at 13:45
  • @tresf editor is the default to use when EDITOR and VISUAL are unset. There's a separate command which checks EDITOR and VISUAL, called sensible-editor. See the link for “Debian policy”. Aug 10, 2022 at 13:49

The solution mentioned above works, but it isn't scriptable. If you want to do this in a scriptable (non-interactive) fashion, you should use --set:

# update-alternatives --set editor /usr/bin/vim.basic

You can get a list of the choices with:

$ update-alternatives --list editor

I came across the very same issue, however setting it via update-alternatives did not quite do the trick on a Raspbian Buster (10.2). Although I set vim.basic as my default editor (manually using update-alternatives --config editor), it had only a priority 30, while nano had a priority of 40.

root@rsyslog:~/scripts# update-alternatives --config editor
There are 4 choices for the alternative editor (providing /usr/bin/editor).

  Selection    Path                Priority   Status
  0            /bin/nano            40        auto mode
  1            /bin/ed             -100       manual mode
  2            /bin/nano            40        manual mode
* 3            /usr/bin/vim.basic   30        manual mode
  4            /usr/bin/vim.tiny    15        manual mode

Press <enter> to keep the current choice[*], or type selection number: 

I started poking around in the usual profile- and dot-files and came accross the following one:

root@rsyslog:~/scripts# cat /root/.selected_editor 
# Generated by /usr/bin/select-editor

After setting vim.basic via /usr/bin/select-editor, the file contained vim.basic:

root@rsyslog:~/scripts# /usr/bin/select-editor

Select an editor.  To change later, run 'select-editor'.
  1. /bin/nano        <---- easiest
  2. /usr/bin/vim.basic
  3. /usr/bin/vim.tiny
  4. /bin/ed

Choose 1-4 [1]: 2
root@rsyslog:~/scripts# cat /root/.selected_editor 
# Generated by /usr/bin/select-editor

Upon now I could do crontab -e with VIM again :).

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