I am trying to figure out why I don't have syntax highlighting when editing my crontab.

I have both $EDITOR and $VISUAL set to /usr/bin/vim:

> echo $EDITOR
> echo $VISUAL

If I save the crontab to a file and edit it with vim syntax highlighting is enabled.

> crontab -l > saved_cronab
> /usr/bin/vim saved_crontab

And if I use :syntax on while editing the crotab nothing changes

How can I enable highlighting when editing crontab with crontab -e?

4 Answers 4


vim doesn't know, that your file saved_crontab is a crontab. Therefore, you don't get a special syntax highlighting for crontabs. Setting the filetype to crontab worked for me. I used:

:set ft=crontab

You can see the value of filetype with:

:set ft?
  • You can also permanently set the modeline for this file by adding a modeline like # vim: ft=crontab to the top of the file. However modelines are disabled by default for security reasons as root and by some distributions.
    – Nova
    Commented Apr 5, 2013 at 13:39
  • Agreed: setting EDITOR or VISUAL is irrelevant, since OP ran vim directly. Further clarification would improve the answer, but the information in this question addresses the problem. Commented Mar 27, 2016 at 18:32
  • 1
    @ThomasDickey OP said using vim directly on a file works, but the question isn't about that - they're asking about crontab -e. When EDITOR isn't set, crontab seems to actually be using vi, which while it does run vim, disables syntax highlighting.
    – Izkata
    Commented May 30, 2019 at 16:36

Did you export these variables (export EDITOR VISUAL)?

  • 3
    This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post - you can always comment on your own posts, and once you have sufficient reputation you will be able to comment on any post.
    – mdpc
    Commented Mar 22, 2013 at 0:40
  • 3
    @mdpc Actually it does answer the question, and I'll bet it's the right answer, too. Commented Mar 22, 2013 at 1:30
  • @mdpc Probably export is an answer, but you are right - I bit misunderstand "you can answer but not comment" policy. Sorry about that. Should I remove my another "clarification request" (serverfault.com/questions/490255/…) ?
    – dsznajder
    Commented Mar 22, 2013 at 5:47

The accepted answer is quite poorly explained IMHO, so here's something more to help people solve this issue.

I still fail to understand why crontab refuses to pick the editor specified with

sudo update-alternatives --config editor

in my case:

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    10        manual mode

And in fact everything correctly points to vim.basic:

#> ll /usr/bin/editor
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 24 Oct 20  2014 /usr/bin/editor -> /etc/alternatives/editor

#> ll /etc/alternatives/editor
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 18 Jun 20  2016 /etc/alternatives/editor -> /usr/bin/vim.basic

#> ll /usr/bin/vim.basic
-rwxr-xr-x 1 root root 2.4M Nov 24  2016 /usr/bin/vim.basic

#> ll /usr/bin/vim
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 21 Oct 20  2014 /usr/bin/vim -> /etc/alternatives/vim

But crontab still doesn't care. So, as correctly pointed by dsznajder, the solution is to explicitly tell crontab what the $EDITOR is, via environment variable.

One can export it via .bashrc or .profile, but given that crontab is the only one to ignore /etc/alternatives/, I preferred to create an alias just for him to make him feel the shame of requiring a custom alias to work (just like for dmesg -T).

alias crontab='EDITOR=vim crontab'

That's it, fixed ✔ :)


This worked for me:

export EDITOR

Add this to ~/.bash_profile to enable this for current user.
Add this to /etc/profile/any_file_you_like to enable this for all users.

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