file — determine file type

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FILE(1) BSD General Commands Manual FILE(1)

file — determine file type

file [-bchiklLNnprsvz0] [--apple] [--mime-encoding] [--mime-type]
[-e testname] [-F separator] [-f namefile] [-m magicfiles] file ...
file -C [-m magicfiles]
file [--help]

This manual page documents version 5.09 of the file command.

file 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 con‐
tains 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 adding
local definitions to /etc/magic, 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 sys‐
tem 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 .

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 , and
possibly 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 exe‐
cutable, and which of several types thereof. The concept of a “magic”
has been applied by extension to data files. Any file with some invari‐
ant identifier at a small fixed offset into the file can usually be
described in this way. The information identifying these files is read
from /etc/magic and 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,
file 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 file has determined the character set used in a text-type file, it
will attempt to determine in what language the file is written. The lan‐
guage tests look for particular strings (cf. ) 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”.

-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.

-e, --exclude testname
Exclude the test named in testname from the list of tests made to
determine the file type. Valid test names are:

apptype EMX application type (only on EMX).

ascii Various types of text files (this test will try to
guess the text encoding, irrespective of the setting of
the ‘encoding’ option).

encoding Different text encodings for soft magic tests.

tokens Looks for known tokens inside text files.

cdf Prints details of Compound Document Files.

compress Checks for, and looks inside, compressed files.

elf Prints ELF file details.

soft Consults magic files.

tar Examines tar files.

-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.

-h, --no-dereference
option causes symlinks not to be followed (on systems that sup‐
port 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 ‘\012- ’ prepended. (If you want a new‐
line, see the -r option.)

-l, --list
Print information about the strength of each magic pattern.

-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.

-l Shows sorted patterns list in the order which is used for the

-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 pre‐
serve the access time of files analyzed, to pretend that file
never read them.

-r, --raw
Don't translate unprintable characters to \ooo. Normally file
translates unprintable characters to their octal representation.

-s, --special-files
Normally, file 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 pecu‐
liar consequences. Specifying the -s option causes file 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 file to disregard the file size as reported by
stat(2) since on some systems it reports a zero size for raw disk

-v, --version
Print the version of the program and exit.

-z, --uncompress
Try to look inside compressed files.

-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.

--help Print a help message and exit.

/usr/share/misc/magic.mgc Default compiled list of magic.
/usr/share/misc/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 file will not attempt to open
$HOME/.magic. file adds “.mgc” to the value of this variable as appro‐
priate. However, file has to exist in order for file.mime to be consid‐
ered. The environment variable POSIXLY_CORRECT controls (on systems that
support symbolic links), whether file will attempt to follow symlinks or
not. If set, then file follows symlink, otherwise it does not. This is
also controlled by the -L and -h options.

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

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 pro‐
duce 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,

>10 string language impress (imPRESS data)

in an existing magic file would have to be changed to

>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 file 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
‘&’ operator, used as, for example,

>16 long&0x7fffffff >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 con‐
solidation 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 incor‐

$ 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 file command in every UNIX since at least Research
Version 4 (man page dated November, 1973). The System V version intro‐
duced 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⟩ 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 by the ‘&’ operator by Rob McMa‐
hon, ⟨⟩, 1989.

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

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

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

Altered by Eric Fischer ⟨⟩, July, 2000, to identify charac‐
ter codes and attempt to identify the languages of non-ASCII files.

Altered by Reuben Thomas ⟨⟩, 2007-2011, to improve MIME sup‐
port, 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 bind‐
ings 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 contribu‐
tors 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 pub‐
lic-domain tar(1) program, and are not covered by the above license.

file 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 ⟨⟩.

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.

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. Would require more complex
store/load code in apprentice.

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 figure
out what they are.

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

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

BSD April 20, 2011 BSD