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Section: User Commands (1)
Index Return to Main Contents

BSD mandoc


file - determine file type  


-words [-bcdEhiklLNnprsvzZ0 ] [--apple ] [--extension ] [--mime-encoding ] [--mime-type ] [-e testname ] [-F separator ] [-f namefile ] [-m magicfiles ] [-P name=value ] file ...
-C [-m magicfiles ]
[--help ]  


This manual page documents version 5.32 of the command.

tests each argument in an attempt to classify it. There are three sets of tests, performed in this order: filesystem tests, magic tests, and language tests. The first test that succeeds causes the file type to be printed.

The type printed will usually contain one of the words text (the file contains only printing characters and a few common control characters and is probably safe to read on an ASCII terminal), executable (the file contains the result of compiling a program in a form understandable to some UNIX kernel or another), or data meaning anything else (data is usually ``binary'' or non-printable). Exceptions are well-known file formats (core files, tar archives) that are known to contain binary data. When modifying magic files or the program itself, make sure to preserve these keywords Users depend on knowing that all the readable files in a directory have the word ``text'' printed. Don't do as Berkeley did and change ``shell commands text'' to ``shell script''

The filesystem tests are based on examining the return from a stat(2) system call. The program checks to see if the file is empty, or if it's some sort of special file. Any known file types appropriate to the system you are running on (sockets, symbolic links, or named pipes (FIFOs) on those systems that implement them) are intuited if they are defined in the system header file In sys/stat.h .

The magic tests are used to check for files with data in particular fixed formats. The canonical example of this is a binary executable (compiled program) a.out file, whose format is defined in In elf.h , In a.out.h and possibly In exec.h in the standard include directory. These files have a ``magic number'' stored in a particular place near the beginning of the file that tells the UNIX operating system that the file is a binary executable, and which of several types thereof. The concept of a ``magic'' has been applied by extension to data files. Any file with some invariant identifier at a small fixed offset into the file can usually be described in this way. The information identifying these files is read from the compiled magic file /usr/share/misc/magic.mgc or the files in the directory /usr/share/misc/magic if the compiled file does not exist. In addition, if $HOME/.magic.mgc or $HOME/.magic exists, it will be used in preference to the system magic files.

If a file does not match any of the entries in the magic file, it is examined to see if it seems to be a text file. ASCII, ISO-8859-x, non-ISO 8-bit extended-ASCII character sets (such as those used on Macintosh and IBM PC systems), UTF-8-encoded Unicode, UTF-16-encoded Unicode, and EBCDIC character sets can be distinguished by the different ranges and sequences of bytes that constitute printable text in each set. If a file passes any of these tests, its character set is reported. ASCII, ISO-8859-x, UTF-8, and extended-ASCII files are identified as ``text'' because they will be mostly readable on nearly any terminal; UTF-16 and EBCDIC are only ``character data'' because, while they contain text, it is text that will require translation before it can be read. In addition, will attempt to determine other characteristics of text-type files. If the lines of a file are terminated by CR, CRLF, or NEL, instead of the Unix-standard LF, this will be reported. Files that contain embedded escape sequences or overstriking will also be identified.

Once has determined the character set used in a text-type file, it will attempt to determine in what language the file is written. The language tests look for particular strings (cf. In names.h ) that can appear anywhere in the first few blocks of a file. For example, the keyword .br indicates that the file is most likely a troff(1) input file, just as the keyword struct indicates a C program. These tests are less reliable than the previous two groups, so they are performed last. The language test routines also test for some miscellany (such as tar(1) archives).

Any file that cannot be identified as having been written in any of the character sets listed above is simply said to be ``data''  


Causes the file command to output the file type and creator code as used by older MacOS versions. The code consists of eight letters, the first describing the file type, the latter the creator.
-b , --brief
Do not prepend filenames to output lines (brief mode).
-C , --compile
Write a magic.mgc output file that contains a pre-parsed version of the magic file or directory.
-c , --checking-printout
Cause a checking printout of the parsed form of the magic file. This is usually used in conjunction with the -m flag to debug a new magic file before installing it.
Prints internal debugging information to stderr.
On filesystem errors (file not found etc), instead of handling the error as regular output as POSIX mandates and keep going, issue an error message and exit.
-e , --exclude testname
Exclude the test named in testname from the list of tests made to determine the file type. Valid test names are:

EMX application type (only on EMX).
Various types of text files (this test will try to guess the text encoding, irrespective of the setting of the `encoding' option).
Different text encodings for soft magic tests.
Ignored for backwards compatibility.
Prints details of Compound Document Files.
Checks for, and looks inside, compressed files.
Prints ELF file details, provided soft magic tests are enabled and the elf magic is found.
Consults magic files.
Examines tar files.
A synonym for `ascii'

Print a slash-separated list of valid extensions for the file type found.
-F , --separator separator
Use the specified string as the separator between the filename and the file result returned. Defaults to `:'
-f , --files-from namefile
Read the names of the files to be examined from namefile (one per line) before the argument list. Either namefile or at least one filename argument must be present; to test the standard input, use `-' as a filename argument. Please note that namefile is unwrapped and the enclosed filenames are processed when this option is encountered and before any further options processing is done. This allows one to process multiple lists of files with different command line arguments on the same invocation. Thus if you want to set the delimiter, you need to do it before you specify the list of files, like: ``-F @ -f namefile '' instead of: ``-f namefile -F file ... ''
-h , --no-dereference
option causes symlinks not to be followed (on systems that support symbolic links). This is the default if the environment variable POSIXLY_CORRECT is not defined.
-i , --mime
Causes the file command to output mime type strings rather than the more traditional human readable ones. Thus it may say `text/plain; charset=us-ascii' rather than ``ASCII text''
--mime-type , --mime-encoding
Like -i but print only the specified element(s).
-k , --keep-going
Don't stop at the first match, keep going. Subsequent matches will be have the string `[rs]012- ' prepended. (If you want a newline, see the -r option.) The magic pattern with the highest strength (see the -l option) comes first.
-l , --list
Shows a list of patterns and their strength sorted descending by magic(4) strength which is used for the matching (see also the -k option).
-L , --dereference
option causes symlinks to be followed, as the like-named option in ls(1) (on systems that support symbolic links). This is the default if the environment variable POSIXLY_CORRECT is defined.
-m , --magic-file magicfiles
Specify an alternate list of files and directories containing magic. This can be a single item, or a colon-separated list. If a compiled magic file is found alongside a file or directory, it will be used instead.
-N , --no-pad
Don't pad filenames so that they align in the output.
-n , --no-buffer
Force stdout to be flushed after checking each file. This is only useful if checking a list of files. It is intended to be used by programs that want filetype output from a pipe.
-p , --preserve-date
On systems that support utime(3) or utimes(2), attempt to preserve the access time of files analyzed, to pretend that never read them.
-P , --parameter name=value
Set various parameter limits.

Name Ta Default Ta Explanation
indir Ta 15 Ta recursion limit for indirect magic
name Ta 30 Ta use count limit for name/use magic
elf_notes Ta 256 Ta max ELF notes processed
elf_phnum Ta 128 Ta max ELF program sections processed
elf_shnum Ta 32768 Ta max ELF sections processed
regex Ta 8192 Ta length limit for regex searches
bytes Ta 1048576 Ta max number of bytes to read from file

-r , --raw
Don't translate unprintable characters to \ooo. Normally translates unprintable characters to their octal representation.
-s , --special-files
Normally, only attempts to read and determine the type of argument files which stat(2) reports are ordinary files. This prevents problems, because reading special files may have peculiar consequences. Specifying the -s option causes to also read argument files which are block or character special files. This is useful for determining the filesystem types of the data in raw disk partitions, which are block special files. This option also causes to disregard the file size as reported by stat(2) since on some systems it reports a zero size for raw disk partitions.
-v , --version
Print the version of the program and exit.
-z , --uncompress
Try to look inside compressed files.
-Z , --uncompress-noreport
Try to look inside compressed files, but report information about the contents only not the compression.
-0 , --print0
Output a null character `\0' after the end of the filename. Nice to cut(1) the output. This does not affect the separator, which is still printed.

If this option is repeated more than once, then prints just the filename followed by a NUL followed by the description (or ERROR: text) followed by a second NUL for each entry.

Print a help message and exit.



Default compiled list of magic.
Directory containing default magic files.



The environment variable MAGIC can be used to set the default magic file name. If that variable is set, then will not attempt to open $HOME/.magic adds ``.mgc '' to the value of this variable as appropriate. However, file has to exist in order for file.mime to be considered. The environment variable POSIXLY_CORRECT controls (on systems that support symbolic links), whether will attempt to follow symlinks or not. If set, then follows symlink, otherwise it does not. This is also controlled by the -L and -h options.  


hexdump(1), od(1), strings(1), magic(5)  


This program is believed to exceed the System V Interface Definition of FILE(CMD), as near as one can determine from the vague language contained therein. Its behavior is mostly compatible with the System V program of the same name. This version knows more magic, however, so it will produce different (albeit more accurate) output in many cases.

The one significant difference between this version and System V is that this version treats any white space as a delimiter, so that spaces in pattern strings must be escaped. For example,

Gt]10   string  language impress        (imPRESS data)

in an existing magic file would have to be changed to

Gt]10   string  language\ impress       (imPRESS data)

In addition, in this version, if a pattern string contains a backslash, it must be escaped. For example

0       string          \begindata      Andrew Toolkit document

in an existing magic file would have to be changed to

0       string          \\begindata     Andrew Toolkit document

SunOS releases 3.2 and later from Sun Microsystems include a command derived from the System V one, but with some extensions. This version differs from Sun's only in minor ways. It includes the extension of the `Am]' operator, used as, for example,

Gt]16   longAm]0x7fffffff       Gt]0            not stripped


The magic file entries have been collected from various sources, mainly USENET, and contributed by various authors. Christos Zoulas (address below) will collect additional or corrected magic file entries. A consolidation of magic file entries will be distributed periodically.

The order of entries in the magic file is significant. Depending on what system you are using, the order that they are put together may be incorrect. If your old command uses a magic file, keep the old magic file around for comparison purposes (rename it to /usr/share/misc/magic.orig )  


$ file file.c file /dev/{wd0a,hda}
file.c:   C program text
file:     ELF 32-bit LSB executable, Intel 80386, version 1 (SYSV),
          dynamically linked (uses shared libs), stripped
/dev/wd0a: block special (0/0)
/dev/hda: block special (3/0)

$ file -s /dev/wd0{b,d}
/dev/wd0b: data
/dev/wd0d: x86 boot sector

$ file -s /dev/hda{,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10}
/dev/hda:   x86 boot sector
/dev/hda1:  Linux/i386 ext2 filesystem
/dev/hda2:  x86 boot sector
/dev/hda3:  x86 boot sector, extended partition table
/dev/hda4:  Linux/i386 ext2 filesystem
/dev/hda5:  Linux/i386 swap file
/dev/hda6:  Linux/i386 swap file
/dev/hda7:  Linux/i386 swap file
/dev/hda8:  Linux/i386 swap file
/dev/hda9:  empty
/dev/hda10: empty

$ file -i file.c file /dev/{wd0a,hda}
file.c:      text/x-c
file:        application/x-executable
/dev/hda:    application/x-not-regular-file
/dev/wd0a:   application/x-not-regular-file



There has been a command in every UNIX since at least Research Version 4 (man page dated November, 1973). The System V version introduced one significant major change: the external list of magic types. This slowed the program down slightly but made it a lot more flexible.

This program, based on the System V version, was written by Ian Darwin Aq without looking at anybody else's source code.

John Gilmore revised the code extensively, making it better than the first version. Geoff Collyer found several inadequacies and provided some magic file entries. Contributions of the `Am]' operator by Rob McMahon, Aq , 1989.

Guy Harris, Aq , made many changes from 1993 to the present.

Primary development and maintenance from 1990 to the present by Christos Zoulas Aq .

Altered by Chris Lowth Aq , 2000: handle the -i option to output mime type strings, using an alternative magic file and internal logic.

Altered by Eric Fischer Aq , July, 2000, to identify character codes and attempt to identify the languages of non-ASCII files.

Altered by Reuben Thomas Aq , 2007-2011, to improve MIME support, merge MIME and non-MIME magic, support directories as well as files of magic, apply many bug fixes, update and fix a lot of magic, improve the build system, improve the documentation, and rewrite the Python bindings in pure Python.

The list of contributors to the `magic' directory (magic files) is too long to include here. You know who you are; thank you. Many contributors are listed in the source files.  


Copyright (c) Ian F. Darwin, Toronto, Canada, 1986-1999. Covered by the standard Berkeley Software Distribution copyright; see the file COPYING in the source distribution.

The files tar.h and is_tar.c were written by John Gilmore from his public-domain tar(1) program, and are not covered by the above license.  


returns 0 on success, and non-zero on error.  


Please report bugs and send patches to the bug tracker at or the mailing list at Aq (visit first to subscribe).  


Fix output so that tests for MIME and APPLE flags are not needed all over the place, and actual output is only done in one place. This needs a design. Suggestion: push possible outputs on to a list, then pick the last-pushed (most specific, one hopes) value at the end, or use a default if the list is empty. This should not slow down evaluation.

The handling of MAGIC_CONTINUE and printing \012- between entries is clumsy and complicated; refactor and centralize.

Some of the encoding logic is hard-coded in encoding.c and can be moved to the magic files if we had a !:charset annotation

Continue to squash all magic bugs. See Debian BTS for a good source.

Store arbitrarily long strings, for example for %s patterns, so that they can be printed out. Fixes Debian bug #271672. This can be done by allocating strings in a string pool, storing the string pool at the end of the magic file and converting all the string pointers to relative offsets from the string pool.

Add syntax for relative offsets after current level (Debian bug #466037).

Make file -ki work, i.e. give multiple MIME types.

Add a zip library so we can peek inside Office2007 documents to print more details about their contents.

Add an option to print URLs for the sources of the file descriptions.

Combine script searches and add a way to map executable names to MIME types (e.g. have a magic value for !:mime which causes the resulting string to be looked up in a table). This would avoid adding the same magic repeatedly for each new hash-bang interpreter.

When a file descriptor is available, we can skip and adjust the buffer instead of the hacky buffer management we do now.

Fix ``name'' and ``use'' to check for consistency at compile time (duplicate ``name'' ``use'' pointing to undefined ``name'' ). Make ``name'' / ``use'' more efficient by keeping a sorted list of names. Special-case ^ to flip endianness in the parser so that it does not have to be escaped, and document it.

If the offsets specified internally in the file exceed the buffer size ( HOWMANY variable in file.h), then we don't seek to that offset, but we give up. It would be better if buffer managements was done when the file descriptor is available so move around the file. One must be careful though because this has performance (and thus security considerations).  


You can obtain the original author's latest version by anonymous FTP on in the directory /pub/file/file-X.YZ.tar.gz




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