File system#

To work with files, you often have to interact with the file system and the different conventions depending on the operating system. For this I show you os and especially os.path.

Paths and path names#

All operating systems refer to files with strings called pathnames. Python provides a number of functions to help you solve some problems. The semantics of pathnames are very similar on all operating systems because the file system is usually modelled as a tree structure, with a hard disk representing the root and folders, subfolders, etc. representing the branches and subbranches; this means that most operating systems refer to a particular file in a very similar way.

However, different operating systems have different conventions for path names. The character used to separate consecutive file or directory names in a Linux/macOS pathname is /, while in a Windows pathname it is \. Also, the Linux file system has a single root directory referred to by a / character as the first character in the path name, while the Windows file system has a separate root directory for each drive, referred to as {C:}, and so on. Because of these differences, files have different path names on different operating systems. A file named C:\DATA\MYFILE on Windows could be /DATA/MYFILE on Linux and macOS. Python provides functions and constants that allow you to perform common pathname manipulations without having to worry about such syntactical details. With a little care, you can write your Python programs to run correctly regardless of the underlying file system.

Absolute and relative paths#

These operating systems allow two types of path names:

Absolute path names

uniquely indicate the exact position of a file in the file system by listing the entire path to that file, starting with the root directory of the file system.

Two absolute Windows path names are given here as examples:

C:\Program Files\Python 3.9\

And here are two absolute Linux path names and one absolute macOS path name:

/Applications/Python\ 3.10/
Relative pathnames

indicate the position of a file relative to another point in the file system, and this other point is not indicated in the relative path name itself.

As example, a Windows relative pathname is given here:


… and here a relative Linux/macOS pathname:


Relative paths therefore require a context in which they are anchored. This context is usually provided in one of two ways:

  • The relative path is appended to an existing absolute path, creating a new absolute path. If you have a Windows relative path Start Menu\Programs\Python 3.8 and an absolute path C:\Users\Veit, then by appending the relative path a new absolute path: C:\Users\Veit\Start Menu\Programs\Python 3.8 can be created. If you append the same relative path to another absolute path (for example to C:\Users\Tim, you will get a new path referring to another HOME directory (Tim).

  • Relative paths can also be given a context by implicitly referring to the current working directory, that is the directory in which a Python programme is located at the time it is executed. Python commands can implicitly refer back to the current working directory if a relative path is passed to them as an argument. For example, if you use the os.listdir('RELATIVE/PATH') command with a relative path argument, the anchor for that relative path is the current working directory, and the result of the command is a list of the filenames in the directory whose path is formed by appending the current working directory to the relative path argument.

    The directory in which a Python file is located is called the current working directory. This directory will usually be different from the directory where the Python interpreter is located. To illustrate this, let’s start Python and use the command os.getcwd() to find out the current working directory of Python:

    >>> import os
    >>> os.getcwd()


    os.getcwd() is used as a function call without arguments to make it clear that the returned value is not a constant, but changes when you change the value of the current working directory. In the example above, the result is the home directory on one of my Linux machines. On Windows machines, additional backslashes would be added to the path: C:\\Users\\Veit, because Windows uses the backslash \ as a path separator, but it has a different meaning in strings.

    To display the contents of the current directory, you can enter the following:

    >>> os.listdir(os.curdir)
    ['.gnupg', '.bashrc', '.local', '.bash_history', '.ssh', '.bash_logout', '.profile', '.idlerc', '.viminfo', '.config', 'Downloads', 'Documents', '.python_history']

    However, you can also change to another directory and then have the current working directory displayed:

    >>> os.chdir('Downloads')
    >>> os.getcwd()

Change path names#

Python provides some ways to change pathnames with the os.path submodule without having to explicitly use an operating system-specific syntax.


constructs path names for different operating systems, for example under Windows:

>>> import os
>>> print(os.path.join('save-data', 'filesystem.rst'))

Here, the arguments are interpreted as a series of directory or file names to be joined into a single string that is understood by the underlying operating system as a relative path. Under Windows, this means that the names of the path components are connected with backslashes (\).

If you do the same under Linux/macOS, on the other hand, you will get / as the separator:

>>> import os
>>> print(os.path.join('save-data', 'filesystem.rst'))

You can therefore use this method to create file paths independently of the operating system on which your programme is running.

The arguments do not necessarily have to be individual directory or file names either; they can also be sub-paths that are then joined together to form a longer path name. The following example illustrates this under Windows, where either slashes (/) or double backslashes (\\) can be used in the strings:

>>> import os
>>> print(os.path.join('python-basics-tutorial-de\\docs', 'save-data\\filesystem.rst'))

returns a tuple with two elements that separates the base name of a path from the rest of the path, for example under macOS:

>>> import os
>>> print(os.path.split(os.getcwd()))
('/home/veit/python-basics-tutorial-de', 'docs')

returns only the base name of the path:

>>> import os
>>> print(os.path.basename(os.getcwd()))

returns the path up to the base name:

>>> import os
>>> print(os.path.dirname(os.getcwd()))

outputs the dotted extension notation used by most file systems to indicate the file type:

>>> import os
>>> print(os.path.splitext('filesystem.rst'))
('filesystem', '.rst')

The last element of the returned tuple contains the dotted extension of the specified file.


is a more specialised function to manipulate path names. It finds the common path for a group of paths and is thus good for finding the lowest level directory that contains each file in a group of files:

>>> import os
>>> print(os.path.commonpath(['save-data/filesystem.rst', 'save-data/index.rst']))

expands environment variables in paths:

>>> os.path.expandvars('$HOME/python-basics-tutorial')

Useful constants and functions#

returns the name of the Python module that was imported to handle the operating system specific details, for example:

>>> import os


Most versions of Windows, with the exception of Windows CE, are identified as nt.

On macOS and Linux, the answer is posix. Depending on the platform, you can perform special operations with this answer:

>>> import os
>>> if == 'posix':
...     root_dir = '/'
... elif == 'nt':
...     root_dir = 'C:\\'
... else:
...     print('The operating system was not recognised!')

Getting information about files#

File paths show files and directories on your hard disk. To find out more about them, there are several Python functions, including


returns True if its argument is a path that matches a path that exists in the filesystem.


returns True if and only if the given path points to a file, and returns False otherwise, including the possibility that the path argument points to nothing in the filesystem.


returns True if and only if its path argument points to a directory; otherwise it returns False.

Other similar functions provide more specific queries:


returns True if a path specifies a file that is a link. However, Windows link files with the extension .lnk are not real links in this sense and return False. Links created only with mklink() also return True.


returns True on possix filesystems if the path is a mount point.


returns True if the two path arguments point to the same file.


returns True if its argument is an absolute path; otherwise returns False.


returns the size of the file or directory.


specifies the modification date of the file or directory.


gives the last access time for a file or directory.

Other file system operations#

Python has other very useful commands in the os module: Below I describe only some cross-operating system operations, but more specific file system functions are also provided.


names or moves a file or directory, for example

>>> os.rename('filesystem.rst', 'save-data/filesystem.rst')

deletes files, for example

>>> os.remove('filesystem.rst')

deletes an empty directory. To remove non-empty directories, use shutil.rmtree(); this function recursively removes all files in a directory tree.


creates a directory with all necessary intermediate directories, for example

>>> os.makedirs('save-data/filesystem')

Processing all files in a directory#

A useful function for recursively walking through directory structures is os.walk(). You can use it to walk an entire directory tree and, for each directory, return the path of that directory, a list of its subdirectories and a list of its files. It can have three optional arguments: os.walk(directory, topdown=True, onerror=None, followlinks= False).


is the path of the starting directory


on True or not present, processes the files in each directory before the subdirectories, resulting in a listing that starts at the top and goes down;

on False, the subdirectories of each directory are processed first, resulting in a traversal of the tree from bottom to top.


can be set to a function to handle errors resulting from calls to os.listdir(), which are ignored by default. Usually symbolic links are not followed unless you specify the parameter follow-links=True.

 1>>> import os
 2>>> for root, dirs, files in os.walk(os.curdir):
 3...     print("{0} has {1} files".format(root, len(files)))
 4...     if ".ipynb_checkpoints" in dirs:
 5...         dirs.remove(".ipynb_checkpoints")
 7. has 13 files
 8./control-flows has 13 files
 9./save-data has 30 files
10./test has 15 files
11./test/coverage has 3 files
Line 4

checks for a directory called .ipynb_checkpoints.

Line 5

removes .ipynb_checkpoints from the directory list.

shutil.copytree() recursively makes copies of all files in a directory and all its subdirectories, preserving information about access and modification times. shutil also has the already mentioned shutil.rmtree() function for removing a directory and all its subdirectories, and several functions for making copies of individual files.