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Environment Variables in Windows/macOS/Linux

PATH, CLASSPATH, JAVA_HOME

What are Environment Variables?

Environment variables are global system variables accessible by all the processes/users running under the Operating System (OS), such as Windows, macOS and Linux. Environment variables are useful to store system-wide values, for examples,

  • PATH: the most frequently-used environment variable, which stores a list of directories to search for executable programs.
  • OS: the operating system.
  • COMPUTENAME, USERNAME: stores the computer and current user name.
  • SystemRoot: the system root directory.
  • (Windows) HOMEDRIVE, HOMEPATH: Current user's home directory.

(Windows) Environment Variables

Environment Variables in Windows are NOT case-sensitive (because the legacy DOS is NOT case-sensitive). They are typically named in uppercase, with words joined with underscore (_), e.g., JAVA_HOME.

Display Environment Variables and their Values

To list ALL the environment variables and their values, start a CMD and issue the command "set", as follows,

// Display all the variables (in NAME=VALUE pairs)
set
COMPUTERNAME=xxxxxxx
OS=xxxxxxx
PATH=xxxxxxx
.......

Try issuing a "set" command on your system, and study the environment variables listed. Pay particular attention to the variable called PATH.

To display a particular variable, use command "set varname", or "echo %varname%":

// Display a particular variable
set COMPUTERNAME
COMPUTERNAME=xxxxxx

// or, use "echo" command with variable name enclosed within a pair of '%'
echo %COMPUTERNAME%
COMPUTERNAME=xxxxxx

Set/Unset/Change an Environment Variable for the "Current" CMD Session

To set (or change) a environment variable, use command "set varname=value". There shall be no spaces before and after the '=' sign. To unset an environment variable, use "set varname=", i.e., set it to an empty string.

set varname
set varname=value
set varname=
set
Display the value of the variable
Set or change the value of the variable (Note: no space before and after '=')
Delete the variable by setting to empty string (Note: nothing after '=')
Display ALL the environment variables

For examples,

// Set an environment variable called MY_VAR
set MY_VAR=hello
   
// Display
set MY_VAR
MY_VAR=hello
   
// Unset an environment variable
set MY_VAR=
   
// Display
set MY_VAR
Environment variable MY_VAR not defined

An environment variable set via the "set" command under CMD is a local, available to the current CMD session only. Try setting a variable, re-start CMD and look for the variable.

Using an Environment Variable

To reference a variable in Windows, use %varname% (with prefix and suffix of '%'). For example, you can use the echo command to print the value of a variable in the form "echo %varname%".

// Display the PATH environment variable
echo %PATH%
PATH=xxxxxxx
   
// Append a directory in front of the existing PATH
set PATH=c:\myBin;%PATH%
PATH=c:\myBin;[existing entries]

How to Add or Change an Environment Variable "Permanently"

To add/change an environment variable permanently in Windows (so that it is available to ALL the Windows' processes/users and stayed across boots):

  1. Launch "Control Panel"
  2. "System"
  3. "Advanced system settings"
  4. Switch to "Advanced" tab
  5. "Environment variables"
  6. Choose "System Variables" (for all users)
  7. To add a new environment variable:
    1. Choose "New"
    2. Enter the variable "Name" and "Value". Instead of typing the "value" and making typo error, I suggest that you use "Browse Directory..." or "Browse File..." button to retrieve the desired directory or file.
  8. To change an existing environment variable:
    1. Choose "Edit"
    2. Enter the new "Value". Instead of typing the "value" and making typo error, I suggest that you use "Browse Directory..." or "Browse File..." button to retrieve the desired directory or file.

You need to RE-START CMD for the new setting to take effect!

To verify the new setting, launch CMD:

set VAR_NAME
VAR_NAME=VAR_VALUE

PATH Environment Variable in Windows

When you launch an executable program (with file extension of ".exe", ".bat" or ".com") from the CMD shell, Windows searches for the executable program in the current working directory, followed by all the directories listed in the PATH environment variable. If the program cannot be found in these directories, you will get the following error:

// (Windows 2000/XP/Vista/7/8/10) "cmd.exe"
abc
'abc' is not recognized as an internal or external command,
operable program or batch file.
 
// (Windows 95/98) "command.com"
abc
Bad command or file name

To list the current PATH, issue command:

PATH
PATH=path1;path1;path3;...

How to Add a Directory to the PATH in Windows

To add a directory to the existing PATH in Windows:

  1. Launch "Control Panel"
  2. "System"
  3. "Advanced system settings"
  4. Switch to "Advanced" tab
  5. "Environment variables"
  6. Under "System Variables" (for all users), select "Path"
  7. "Edit"
  8. (For newer Windows 10) A table pops up showing the directories included in the current PATH setting ⇒ "New" ⇒ "Browse..." to select the desired directory to be added to the PATH (Don't type as you will make typo error!) ⇒ Click "Move Up" repeatedly to move it to the top ⇒ "OK" (Don't "Cancel") ⇒ "OK" ⇒ "OK".
  9. (For older Windows) If you didn't see a pop-up table, it is time to change your computer.

You need to RE-START CMD for the new PATH setting to take effect!

To verify the new setting, launch CMD:

PATH
PATH=path1;path2;path3;...

Notes:

  • Windows searches the current directory (.) before searching the PATH entries. (Unixes/macOS does not search the current directory, unless you include it in the PATH explicitly.)
  • Windows uses semicolon (;) as the path separator; while Unixes/macOS uses colon (:).
  • If your directory name contains special characters such as space (strongly not recommended), enclosed it with double quotes.

(macOS/Linux) Environment Variables

Environment variables in macOS/Unixes are case-sensitive. Global environment variables (available to ALL processes) are named in uppercase, with words joined with underscore (_), e.g., JAVA_HOME. Local variables (available to the current process only) are in lowercase.

Using Environment Variables in Bash Shell

Most of the Unixes (Ubuntu/macOS) use the so-called Bash shell. Under bash shell:

  • To list all the environment variables, use the command "env" (or "printenv"). You could also use "set" to list all the variables, including all local variables.
  • To reference a variable, use $varname, with a prefix '$' (Windows uses %varname%).
  • To print the value of a particular variable, use the command "echo $varname".
  • To set an environment variable, use the command "export varname=value", which sets the variable and exports it to the global environment (available to other processes). Enclosed the value with double quotes if it contains spaces.
  • To set a local variable, use the command "varname=value" (or "set varname=value"). Local variable is available within this process only.
  • To unset a local variable, use command "varname=", i.e., set to empty string (or "unset varname").

How to Set an Environment Variable Permanently in Bash Shell

You can set an environment variable permanently by placing an export command in your Bash shell's startup script "~/.bashrc" (or "~/.bash_profile", or "~/.profile") of your home directory; or "/etc/profile" for system-wide operations. Take note that files beginning with dot (.) is hidden by default. To display hidden files, use command "ls -a" or "ls -al".

For example, to add a directory to the PATH environment variable, add the following line at the end of "~/.bashrc" (or "~/.bash_profile", or "~/.profile"), where ~ denotes the home directory of the current user, or "/etc/profile" for ALL users.

// Append a directory in front of the existing PATH
export PATH=/usr/local/mysql/bin:$PATH

(For Java) You can set the CLASSPATH environment variables by adding the following line. For example,

export CLASSPATH=.:/usr/local/tomcat/lib/servlet-api.jar

Take note that Bash shell uses colon (:) as the path separator; while windows use semicolon (;).

To refresh the bash shell, issue a "source" command (or re-start the bash shell):

// Refresh the bash shell
source ~/.bashrc
// or
source ~/.bash_profile
source ~/.profile
source /etc/profile

(Notes) For the older csh (C-shell) and ksh (Korn-shell)

  • Use "printenv" (or "env") to list all the environment variables.
  • Use "setenv varname value" and "unsetenv varname" to set and unset an environment variable.
  • Use "set varname=value" and "unset varname" to set and unset a local variable for the current process.

PATH Environment Variable

Most of the Unixes and macOS use the so-called Bash Shell in the "Terminal". When you launch an executable program (with file permission of executable) in a Bash shell, the system searches the program in ALL the directories listed in the PATH. If the program cannot be found, you will get the following error:

abc
bash: abc: command not found

Take note that the current directory (.) is not searched, unless it is included in the PATH. To run a program in the current directory, you need to include the current path (./), for example,

./myProgram

To list the current PATH, issue command:

echo $PATH
path1:path2:path3:...

How to Add a Directory to the PATH in macOS/Linux

To add a directory to the existing PATH in macOS/Unixes, add the following line at the end of one of the startup scripts, such as "~/.bashrc", "~/.login" "~/.bash_profile", "~/.profile" (where ~ denotes the home directory of the current user) or "/etc/profile" for ALL users.

// Append a directory in front of the existing PATH
export PATH=/path/to/dir:$PATH

To refresh the bash shell, issue a "source" command (or re-start the bash shell):

// Refresh the bash shell
source ~/.bashrc
// or
source ~/.bash_profile
source ~/.profile
source /etc/profile

To verify the new setting, launch CMD:

echo $PATH
path1:path2:path3:...

Notes:

  • Unixes/macOS does not search the current directory (.), unless you include it explicitly in the PATH. In other words, to run a program in the current directory, you need to provide the directory (./), for example,
    ./myProgram
    You could include the current directory in the PATH, by adding this line in a startup script:
    // Append the current directory (.) in front of the existing PATH
    export PATH=.:$PATH
    (Windows searches the current directory (.) automatically before searching the PATH.)
  • Unixes/macOS uses colon (:) as the path separator; while Windows uses semicolon (;).

Java Applications and the Environment Variables PATH, CLASSPATH, JAVA_HOME

Many problems in the installation and running of Java applications are caused by incorrect setting of environment variables (global system variables available to all the processes/users running under the Operating System), in particular, PATH, CLASSPATH and JAVA_HOME.

PATH

When you launch a program from the command line, the Operating System uses the PATH environment variable to search for the program in your local file system. In other words, PATH maintains a list of directories for searching executable programs.

PATH (For Windows)

When you launch an executable program (with file extension of ".exe", ".bat" or ".com") from the CMD shell, Windows searches for the executable program in the current working directory, followed by all the directories listed in the PATH environment variable. If the program cannot be found in these directories, you will get the following error:

// (Windows 2000/XP/Vista/7/8/10) "cmd.exe"
abc
'abc' is not recognized as an internal or external command,
operable program or batch file.
 
// (Windows 95/98) "command.com"
abc
Bad command or file name

For example, if you are trying to use Java Compiler "javac.exe" to compile a Java source file, but "javac.exe" cannot be found in the current directory and all the directories in the PATH, you will receive the following error:

javac Hello.java
'javac' is not recognized as an internal or external command,
operable program or batch file.

PATH maintains a list of directories. The directories are separated by semicolon (;) in Windows.

For Java applications, PATH must include the following directories:

  • JDK's "bin" (binary) directory (e.g., "c:\Program Files\java\jdk1.x.x\bin"), which contains JDK programs such as Java Compiler "javac.exe" and Java Runtime "java.exe".
  • "c:\windows\system32" and "c:\windows" which contain console programs and commands.

The JDK's "bin" directory should be listed before "c:\windows\system32" and "c:\windows" in the PATH. This is because some older Windows systems provide their own Java runtime (which is often outdated) in these directories (try search for "java.exe" in your computer, you may find a few entries).

To add a directory (say JDK's "bin") to the existing PATH, check "How to add a directory to the PATH".

PATH (For macOS/Linux)

Most of the Unixes and macOS use the so-called Bash Shell in the "Terminal". When you launch an executable program (with file permission of executable) in a Bash shell, the system searches the program in ALL the directories listed in the PATH. If the program cannot be found, you will get the following error:

abc
bash: abc: command not found

For example, if you are trying to use Java Compiler "javac" to compile a Java source file, but "javac" can not be found in the list of directories in the PATH, you will receive the following error:

javac Hello.java
bash: javac: command not found

To support Java applications, you need to include the JDK's "bin" (binary) directory in the PATH. See "How to add a directory to the PATH".

CLASSPATH

Java Archive (JAR) File

For ease of distribution, Java classes are often archived (zipped) together into a so-called JAR file. To use a third-party Java package, you need to place the distributed JAR file in a location that is available to the Java Compiler and Java Runtime.

How Classes are Found?

Java Compiler ("javac"), Java Runtime ("java") and other Java tools searches for classes used in your program in this order:

  1. Java platform (bootstrap) classes: include system classes in core packages (java.*) and extension packages (javax.*) in "rt.jar" (runtime class), "i18n.jar" (internationalization class), charsets.jar, jre/classes, and others.
  2. Java Extension Directories: You can copy the external JAR files into Java Extension Directory (This is removed and not applicable from JDK 10).
    • For Windows, the Java Extension Directory is located at "<JAVA_HOME>\jre\lib\ext" (e.g., "c:\Program Files\Java\jdk1.7.0_{xx}\jre\lib\ext").
    • For macOS, the JDK extension directories are "/Library/Java/Extensions" and "/System/Library/Java/Extensions".
    • For Ubuntu, the JDK extension directories are "<JAVA_HOME>/jre/lib/ext" (e.g., "/usr/user/java/jdk1.7.0_{xx}/jre/lib/ext") and "/usr/java/packages/lib/ext".
    The location of Java's Extension Directories is kept in Java's System Property "java.ext.dirs". You can print its contents via System.out.println(System.getProperty("java.ext.dirs")).
  3. User classes search path (in short, class path): determined in the following order:
    1. Defaulted to the current working directory (.).
    2. Entries in the CLASSPATH environment variable, which overrides the default.
    3. Entries in the -cp (or -classpath) command-line option, which overrides the CLASSPATH environment variable.
    4. The runtime command-line option -jar, which override all the above.
    The user class paths are kept in Java System property "java.class.path".
    It is recommended that you use the -cp (or -classpath) command-line option (customized for each of your applications), instead of setting a permanent CLASSPATH environment for all the Java applications. IDE (such as Eclipse/NetBeans) manages -cp (-classpath) for each of the applications and does not rely on the CLASSPATH environment.
Cannot Find Classes

If the Java Runtime ("java") cannot find the classes used in your program in all the above places, it will issue error "Could not find or load main class xxxx" (JDK 1.7) or "java.lang.NoClassDefFoundError" (Prior to JDK 1.7).

Similarly, Java Compiler ("javac") will issue compilation errors such as "cannot find symbol", "package does not exist".

Notes: External native libraries (".lib", ".dll", ".a", ".so") are to be found in a path in JRE's Property "java.library.path", which normally but not necessarily includes all the directories in the PATH environment variable. Otherwise, you will get a runtime error "java.lang.UnsatisfiedLinkError: no xxx in java.library.path".

CLASSPATH Environment Variable

The CLASSPATH environment variable could include directories (containing many class files) and JAR files (a single-file archive of class files). If CLASSPATH is not set, it is defaulted to the current directory. If you set the CLASSPATH, it is important to include the current working directory (.). Otherwise, the current directory will not be searched.

A common problem in running hello-world program is: CLASSPATH is set but does not include the current working directory. The current directory is therefore not searched, which results in "Error: Could not find or load main class Hello". You can simply remove the CLASSPATH, and leave the class path defaulted to the current directory.

For a beginner, no explicit CLASSPATH setting is required. The default CLASSPATH setting of current directory is sufficient. Remove all CLASSPATH setting if there is any. However, if you have to set CLASSPATH, make sure that you include the current directory '.'.

The PATH environment variable (for searching the executable programs) is applicable to all applications; while CLASSPATH is used by Java only.

Read JDK documents "Setting the CLASSPATH" and "How Classes are Found" (you can find the hyperlinks from the index page of the JDK documentation, or googling).

CLASSPATH Environment Variable (For Windows)

The CLASSPATH accepts directories and jar-files. Path entries are separated by semicolon (;).

Example: Displaying and changing CLASSPATH for the current CMD session.

// Display current setting of CLASSPATH
set CLASSPATH
 
// Set CLASSPATH to the current directory and a JAR file
set CLASSPATH=.;d:\tomcat\lib\servlet-api.jar

You can set the CLASSPATH permanently. See "How to Set an Environment Variable".

CLASSPATH (for macOS/Ubuntu)
  1. To set the CLASSPATH for the current session, issue this command:
    export CLASSPATH=.:/usr/local/tomcat/bin/servlet-api.jar
    
    Use colon ':' as the path separator (instead of semicolon ';' in Windows).
  2. To set the CLASSPATH permanently, place the above export command in the bash shell initialization script (.bashrc or .bash_profile of the home directory or /etc/profile for all users). See "How to Set an Envrionment Variable".

JAVA_HOME and JRE_HOME

Many Java applications (such as Tomcat) require the environment variable JAVA_HOME to be set to the JDK installed directory.

How to Set JAVA_HOME in Windows

First, check if JAVA_HOME is already set by start a CMD and issue:

set JAVA_HOME

If JAVA_HOME is not set, you will receive "Environment variable JAVA_HOME not defined". Otherwise, the current setting will be shown.

To set/change JAVA_HOME in Windows:

  1. Launch "Control Panel"
  2. "System"
  3. "Advanced system settings"
  4. Switch to "Advanced" tab
  5. "Environment variables"
  6. Choose "System Variables" (for all users)
  7. To add a new environment variable "JAVA_HOME":
    1. Choose "New"
    2. In "Variable Name", enter "JAVA_HOME".
    3. In "Variable Value", click "Browse Directory..." and navigate to the JDK installed directory (e.g., "C:\Program Files\Java\jdk-13.0.1").
    4. OK ⇒ OK ⇒ OK.
  8. To change the existing "JAVA_HOME" setting:
    1. Select "JAVA_HOME" ⇒ "Edit"
    2. In "Variable Value", click "Browse Directory..." and navigate to the JDK installed directory (e.g., "C:\Program Files\Java\jdk-13.0.1").
    3. OK ⇒ OK ⇒ OK.

You need to RE-START CMD for the new setting to take effect!

To verify the new setting, re-start CMD:

set JAVA_HOME
JAVA_NAME=C:\Program Files\Java\jdk-13.0.1
How to Set JAVA_HOME in Linux/macOS (Bash Shell)

First, check if JAVA_HOME is already set by start a terminal and issue:

echo $JAVA_HOME

JAVA_HOME is to be set to the JDK installed directory. You need to find your JDK installed directory.

[TODO] find macOS and Ubuntu JDK installed directory.

Add the the following line at the end of "~/.bashrc" (or "~/.login"). Take note that filename beginning with dot (.) is hidden by default.

[TODO] How to un-hide for macOS/Ubuntu.

export JAVA_HOME=/path/to/JDK-installed-directory

You need to refresh the bash shell for the new settings to take effect. Issue a "source" command as follows:

// Refresh the Bash Shell
source ~/.bashrc   // or "source ~/.login"

// Verify the new setting
echo $JAVA_HOME

Windows vs. Unixes/macOS

Java is platform independent. Java classes run in Windows as well as Unixes - binary compatible.

  • Unixes have many shells, such as the newer bash and the older csh, ksh. Windows have two shells: the newer cmd.exe and the older command.com. Each shell come with its own set of commands, utilities, and its own scripting programming language.
  • Unix's variable name is denoted as $varname, e.g., $CLASSPATH. Windows uses %varname%, e,g., %CLASSPATH%.
  • Unix uses command "printenv" (print environment) or "env" to list all the environment variables. Windows uses command "set".
  • Unix's PATH is set permanently in the login or shell initialization script (e.g., "~/.login", "~/.profile", "~/.bashrc", "~/.bash_profile", or "/etc/profile"). Windows' PATH is set permanently via Control Panel ⇒ System ⇒ ....
  • The current directory is NOT included in the Unix's PATH implicitly. To run a program in the current directory, you need to issue "./programName" where "." denotes the current directory. It is recommended to include the current directory (.) in the PATH explicitly. On the other hand, current directory is included in Windows' PATH implicitly.
  • A Windows' path includes a drive letter and directories. Each drive has a root directory. It uses back-slash '\' as directory separator (e.g., "c:\jdk1.6\bin"). Linux's paths do not have drive letter. There is a single root. Unix uses forward slash '/' as the directory separator (e.g., "/usr/bin/jdk1.6").
  • Windows use semicolon ';' as path separator (e.g., in PATH environment variable), while Unix uses colon ':'.
  • Windows/DOS uses "0D0AH" (carriage-return plus line-feed) as line-break (or End-of-Line (EOL), or newline). Unixes/macOS uses "0AH" (line-feed) only.