Understanding bashrc vs .bash_profile vs .zshrc


When delving into the world of command-line interfaces (CLI), you might have encountered files like .bashrc, .bash_profile, and .zshrc. But what are they, and why are they so crucial for developers and system administrators? Let's unravel this mystery.

The Backdrop

In Unix-like operating systems, shell configuration files, commonly known as "dot files" because they typically start with a dot (making them hidden files on Unix systems), define settings, environment variables, and startup scripts for user sessions. These files determine the behavior of your shell.

What’s with the “rc”?

The “rc” suffix, found in names like .bashrc or .zshrc, originates from “run commands.” Historically, in Unix systems, “rc” denoted files containing commands to run upon startup. Remember this: “rc” files define initialization commands.

Dive into the Big Three:

  1. .bashrc:

    • Usage: Non-login shells in Bash (e.g., new terminal sessions).

    • Contents: Environment settings, aliases, and Bash-specific functions.

  2. .bash_profile (sometimes .profile):

    • Usage: Login shells in Bash (e.g., SSH sessions).

    • Contents: Commands for initial setup post-login. Often, it sources .bashrc for consistency.

  3. .zshrc:

    • Usage: Zsh’s non-login shell sessions.

    • Contents: Zsh-specific settings, functions, and aliases.

Login vs. Non-login Shells:

  • Login Shells: Initiated upon user login. Typical with SSH. Targets .bash_profile or its equivalents.

  • Non-login Shells: Spawned within an existing session, like a new terminal tab. Relies on .bashrc or .zshrc in Zsh’s case.

A Pro Tip:

To ensure consistent behavior, many developers source .bashrc from within .bash_profile:

if [ -f ~/.bashrc ]; then
   source ~/.bashrc

A Quick Mention on Other Files

There are other configuration files worth noting:

For Zsh:

  • .zshenv: Always loaded when Zsh starts.

  • .zprofile: Similar to .bash_profile, for login shells.

  • .zshrc: For interactive non-login sessions.

  • .zlogin: Loaded after .zshrc for login shells.

  • .zlogout: Runs when a login shell exits.

For Bash:

  • .bashrc: For interactive non-login shells.

  • .bash_profile: For login shells, and if .bash_login doesn't exist, Bash reads this.

  • .bash_login: Read after .bash_profile for login shells.

  • .profile: Acts as a fallback if neither .bash_profile nor .bash_login is found.


Grasping these shell configuration files provides more control over your command-line experience. Whether setting up a new environment or fine-tuning an existing one, knowledge of these files is foundational for any developer navigating the Unix or Linux landscape.