Last updated

Linux and Unix cp command tutorial with examples

Tutorial on using cp, a UNIX and Linux command for copying files and directories. Examples of copying a file, copying multiple files, copying a directory, taking a backup when copying and preserving file attributes when copying.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Table of contents

Terminal showing cp man page

What is the cp command?

The cp command is a command-line utility for copying files and directories. It supports moving one or more files or folders with options for taking backups and preserving attributes. Copies of files are independent of the original file unlike the mv command.

How to copy a file

To copy a file with the cp command pass the name of the file to be copied and then the destination. In the following example the file foo.txt is copied to a new file called bar.txt. The cp command will also create the new file as part of the operation.

ls
foo.txt
cp foo.txt bar.txt
ls
foo.txt bar.txt

How to copy multiple files

To copy multiple files using the cp command pass the names of files followed by the destination directory to the cp command.

tree -F
.
├── bar.txt
├── baz.txt
├── foo/
└── foo.txt
cp foo.txt bar.txt baz.txt foo/
tree .
.
├── bar.txt
├── baz.txt
├── foo
│   ├── bar.txt
│   ├── baz.txt
│   └── foo.txt
└── foo.txt

The same operation can also be achieved through pattern matching

cp *.txt foo/

How to copy a directory

By default the cp command will not copy directories. Attempting to copy a directory results in an error.

cp directory/ foo
cp: omitting directory 'directory/'

To copy a directory pass the -R flag. This will recursively copy a folder and create a copy.

cp -R directory/ foo

How to copy multiple directories

To copy multiple directories pass the path of the directories to be copied followed by the destination directory.

tree .
.
├── bar
│   └── bar.txt
├── baz
│   └── baz.txt
├── foo
│   └── foo.txt
└── some-directory
cp foo bar baz some-directory
tree .
.
├── bar
│   └── bar.txt
├── baz
│   └── baz.txt
├── foo
│   └── foo.txt
└── some-directory
    ├── bar
    │   └── bar.txt
    ├── baz
    │   └── baz.txt
    └── foo
        └── foo.txt

How to take a backup when copying a file

If a copy operation will overwrite a file the -b flag may be used to create a back up of the file. This copies the file into place and writes a backup file.

ls 
foo.txt bar.txt
cp -b foo.txt bar.txt
ls 
foo.txt bar.txt bar.txt~

To specify the name of the backup file use the -S option.

ls 
foo.txt bar.txt
cp -S .bak foo.txt bar.txt
ls 
foo.txt bar.txt bar.txt.bak
ls
foo.txt bar.txt bar.txt.bak

How to prompt for confirmation when copying a file

To prompt for confirmation when copying a file pass the -i flag. Normally when using the cp command a destination file will be overwritten if it exists when copying. Using the -i flag the command will prompt to overwrite the file.

ls 
foo.txt bar.txt
cp -i foo.txt bar.txt
cp: overwrite 'bar.txt'? 

To create a hard link instead of copying with the cp command pass the -l option. Instead of copying the file a new file will be created that is a hard link to the data on disk. Here’s a primer on hard and symbolic or soft links.

ls 
foo.txt
cat foo.txt
foo text
cp -l foo.txt bar.txt
echo 'bar text' > bar.txt
cat foo.txt
bar text

How to preserve file attributes

To preserve file attributes (permissions, group and user owernship) pass the --preserve option along with the attributes to be preserved. By default mode, ownership and timestamps will be preserved.

ls -la
-rw------- 1 george users 0 Oct 13 09:14 foo.txt
cp --preserve foo.txt bar.txt
-rw-------  1 george users     0 Oct 13 09:14 bar.txt
-rw-------  1 george users     0 Oct 13 09:14 foo.txt

How to show files that are being copied

To show files that are being copied pass the -v option to the cp. This prints the files and folders that are being copied to standard output. In the following example the directory foo is copied as bar along with the contents.

cp -R -v foo bar
'foo' -> 'bar'
'foo/foo.txt' -> 'bar/foo.txt'
'foo/bar.txt' -> 'bar/bar.txt'

Further reading

Have an update or suggestion for this article? You can edit it here and send me a pull request.

Tags

Recent Posts