All You Need to Know About Linux Export Command

The export command in Linux is a built-in shell command used to set environment variables in the current shell session.

By marking variables or functions for subsequent export to the environment of child processes, the export command ensures the availability of these variables to the child processes.



Syntax of the export command

The basic syntax of the export command is as follows:

export [options] [name[=value]]

Where name is the name of the variable you want to set, value is the value you want to assign to this variable, and options are the flags or switches you can use with the command to modify its behavior.


Exporting a single environment variable

Let’s say you want to create an environment variable TEMP_DIR and set its value to /tmp. Here’s how you can do it:

export TEMP_DIR=/tmp

You can confirm that the variable is set correctly by echoing its value:

echo $TEMP_DIR



In the above series of commands, you first use the export command to create a new environment variable TEMP_DIR and set its value to /tmp.

The echo command is then used to print the value of the TEMP_DIR environment variable, and it correctly prints /tmp confirming that the variable was set successfully.


Exporting multiple environment variables

You export more than one environment variable at a time by specifying each variable and its value in a single export command, separated by a space:

export VAR1="Variable 1" VAR2="Variable 2"

To check that the variables have been set correctly, use the echo command:

echo $VAR1 $VAR2


Variable 1 Variable 2

In the given command, we exported two environment variables, VAR1 and VAR2, with values "Variable 1" and "Variable 2" respectively.


Exporting a function

You can use the export command to export a function using -f option. This is useful when you want to make a function available to subshells. Here’s how to do it:
First, define a function:

hello() {
  echo "Hello, world!"

Then, export it:

export -f hello

You can check the exported function with declare -F:

declare -F hello



Initially, a function named hello was defined, which when called, prints "Hello, world!".

The function was then exported using export -f hello.

The -f option is used to export functions. We used declare -F hello to check if the function hello was successfully exported.

The export -f allows exporting multiple functions at once, rather than having to export each one individually.

function func1 {
  echo "This is function 1"

function func2 {
  echo "This is function 2"

function func3 {
  echo "This is function 3"

export -f func1 func2 func3

# Now functions can be called from subshells
bash -c 'func1' # Outputs "This is function 1"
bash -c 'func2' # Outputs "This is function 2"
bash -c 'func3' # Outputs "This is function 3"


Export command with no arguments

By using the export command without any arguments, you can display all the environment variables that have been set in your current shell session. Here’s an example:



declare -x HOME="/home/user"
declare -x LANG="en_US.UTF-8"
declare -x PATH="/usr/local/sbin:/usr/local/bin:/usr/sbin:/usr/bin:/sbin:/bin"

In this instance, the export command is executed without any arguments, resulting in the shell printing all the environment variables set in the current session.

Variables like HOME, LANG, and PATH, among others, are typically predefined by the system.


Remove variables from the environment

The -n option is used with the export command to remove a variable from the environment.

Let’s say you want to remove the variable VAR1 that was previously defined. Here’s how you can do it:

export -n VAR1

To verify that the variable has been removed, try to echo its value:

echo $VAR1


# No output

We used the -n option with the export command to remove the VAR1 variable. When we try to display its value using the echo $VAR1 command, there is no output.


Display variables for usage as input

The -p option with the export command prints the list of exported variables and functions in a format that can be reused as input. Here’s how you can use it:

export -p


declare -x HOME="/home/user"
declare -x LANG="en_US.UTF-8"
declare -x PATH="/usr/local/sbin:/usr/local/bin:/usr/sbin:/usr/bin:/sbin:/bin"
declare -f hello

Here, export -p is used to list the exported variables and functions.

The output format is such that it can be readily used as input for other shell scripts.

Variables are preceded by declare -x and functions by declare -f, helping us differentiate between them.


Verbose mode

The -v option in conjunction with the export command gives a verbose output when exporting variables.

This option is helpful for debugging as it prints a message for each exported variable.
Let’s try exporting a variable VAR3 in verbose mode:

export -v VAR3="Verbose Variable"


export VAR3='Verbose Variable'

In this command, VAR3 is exported with the value "Verbose Variable".

The -v option triggers a verbose output that shows the variable being exported along with its value.


Exporting variables safely

When exporting variables, especially those containing special characters or white spaces, it’s crucial to handle them safely.
To safely export a variable, you should enclose the value in quotes. This ensures that the entire string is treated as a single value, even if it contains spaces or special characters:

export SAFE_VAR="This is a 'safe' variable"

To check the value of the variable:

echo $SAFE_VAR


This is a 'safe' variable

In this case, the variable SAFE_VAR is exported with a value that includes white spaces and a special character (single quotes).

By enclosing the value within double quotes, we make sure it’s interpreted as one single string.


Use cases for export in real-world scenarios

In real-world applications, the export command is commonly used to set environment variables that affect system behavior or software configuration.

A common use case is modifying the PATH environment variable to include directories containing executable files. For example:

export PATH=$PATH:/opt/myapp/bin

In this scenario, /opt/myapp/bin is appended to the existing PATH. Now, any executable in /opt/myapp/bin can be run from any location without specifying the full path.



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