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How to Open, Edit, Move, and Copy a File in Linux

In this tutorial we’ll cover how to open, edit, move, and copy a file within Linux using the terminal window and a few basic commands.

Use the the table of contents below to jump to a specific section or read on to learn more!


How to Open a File in Linux

To learn how to open a file in Linux using the terminal, just follow these simple steps:

  1. While there are multiple ways to open a file in Linux, the easiest way to display the contents of a file is using the cat command. For example, lets say you have a text file named SampleText.txt, which contains a single string of text saying “This is a test file.” Use the cat command followed by the name of the file you want to open, like this:
    cat SampleText.txt
    You should receive an output to the terminal containing the text, “This is a test file.” If the file had contained more text than this, all of it would have been displayed.
  2. While the example used above contains only one line of text, for large or multipage documents, it may be cumbersome to attempt to open their entire contents in the terminal at once. This is where the less command comes in handy. By using the less command, you can have Linux display the contents of your file one page at a time. Use it the same way you would use the cat command:
    less SampleLongText.txt
    This command would then output the contents of the SampleLongText.txt file, one page at a time, allowing you to scroll to view more.


How to Edit a File in Linux

To learn how to edit a file in Linux using the terminal, just follow these steps: 

  1. There are several different tools within Linux that can be used to edit files. The two most popular are Vi (or Vim) and Nano. While each has its advantages, the biggest differences between the two are ease-of-use and functionality. Vi is a more powerful and complicated tool, and Nano is simpler but can do less. We’ll start with Nano.
  2. To open a file in Nano, you must enter the nano command followed by the path of the file you are attempting to open. You may also first navigate to the proper directory using the cd command, then open the file for editing just using nano followed by the filename. For example:
    nano SampleText.txt
    If the file specified already exists, it will be opened for editing. If no file exists with this name at this location, a new file will be created.
    1. One of the advantages of Nano is, it features a list of shortcuts at the bottom of its interface. This allows users to use the tool without having to memorize every command, making it ideal for those who are newer to Linux. Arrow keys can be used for navigation, and the backspace key is used to delete. All-in-all, Nano works like a simplified but familiar text editor.
  3. The other popular option for editing a file in Linux is to use the vi command. Like nano, vi must be followed either by a specific file path, or if you’re already within the desired directory, just the file name can be used. For example:
    vi SampleText.txt
    The primary difference between Vi and Nano is that Vi features different modes, allowing users to interact with the document in different ways. While this gives a greater degree of control over the document, it can also be very confusing and somewhat counter-intuitive for those new to the tool.
    1. The default mode that you enter Vi in is the Command mode, used for navigation and entering commands. Like Nano, Vi uses the arrow keys for navigation. However unlike Nano, any text entered into Vi won’t be treated as a string of text being added to the document, but rather a command being relayed directly to Vi. We’ll cover some of these commands below.
    2. To add text to the document, you must first enter Insert mode. To enter Insert mode, move your cursor to the location where you’d like to enter new text, then press the i key. You’ll see the phrase “INSERT” appear in the bottom left corner of your screen. Now, any text you enter will be treated as a string of text being added to the document. To return to Command mode, hit the Esc key a few times. You’ll know you’ve exited Insert mode when the “INSERT” phrase disappears from the bottom corner.
    3. Unlike Nano, to delete a character in Vi, you must use the x key while in Command mode. This will delete whichever character is currently highlighted by the cursor.
    4. To enter a command in Vi, you must first start with a colon “:”. For example, to save (or write to) a file that you’ve made edits to, use the :w command. To quit Vi, use the :q command. To save and quit all at once, combine both commands into :wq. You can add an exclamation point “!” to any command to force it. For example, :q! would force Vi to quit, overriding any confirmation screens that may otherwise be triggered.
    5. For a list of available navigation shortcuts, check out this post on Editing Files with Vi. Scroll to the bottom for a full list of additional movement and editing options.


How to Move a File in Linux

To learn how to move a file in Linux using the terminal, just follow these easy steps:

  1. First, it is important to understand that moving a file in Linux and renaming it are the same action. This is because when you are moving a file to a new location within Linux, you are really renaming its filepath to include new information.
  2. To move a file in Linux, use the mv command followed by the source location and then the intended destination. For example, if you wanted to move the file SampleText.txt from it’s current location in the home directory to a new location in the /tmp directory, you would do so with the following command:
    mv SampleText.txt /var/tmp
    You can even rename the file as it’s being moved. Doing so would look similar to this:
    mv SampleText.txt /var/tmp/NewSampleText.txt
    Or, if you wanted to rename the file without moving it to a new location, you could simply repeat the above command while omitting the “/var/tmp/”.


How to Copy a File in Linux

To learn how to copy a file in Linux using the terminal, just follow these steps:

  1. To copy a file in Linux, just use the cp command followed by the name of the source file and then the new file. For example:
    cp SampleText.txt SampleText_2.txt
    The above command would generate a new file, named SampleText_2.txt, which contains all the contents of the previous file. By default, this new file will be created in the same directory as your current file, unless otherwise specified. If you’d like to copy the file to a new directory, you can use the desired filepath instead of the second file name, or include both to copy the file to a new location under a new name. For an idea of what this would look like, see the section above covering the mv command, but use the cp command instead.


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