File and Directory Permissions in Linux

Linux file and directory permissions might sound complex, but they’re like digital locks that keep your files safe and sound in the world of Linux. Imagine having a treasure chest, and you get to decide who can open it, who can peek inside, and who can add more treasures to it. That’s what file and directory permissions do for your files and folders in Linux.

In this article, we’ll take a close look at these permissions, demystify the cryptic symbols like “rwxr-xr-x,” and explain how you can use them to control who can do what with your files and directories. Whether you’re just starting with Linux or want to brush up on your skills, understanding permissions is a crucial step in becoming a Linux pro. So, let’s dive in and unravel the secrets of Linux file and directory permissions in simple, easy-to-understand language.

How do you view Linux file permissions?

In the world of Linux, every file and directory has a set of permissions that decide who can do what with them. These permissions are like rules that tell the system who can read, write, or execute files and folders.

To see these permissions, you can use a special command called ls along with a little helper called the -l option. When you use ls -l, it shows you a list of your files and directories with all the important details, including permissions.

Here’s a glimpse of what you might see:

-rw-r--r-- 1 user1 users 1024 Sep 20 15:00 myfile.txt

Now, let’s break this down step by step:

The first part, -rw-r--r--, is all about permissions. This tells you who can do what with the file.

  • The first character, “-“, indicates it’s a regular file (not a directory or something else).
  • The next three characters, rw-, show that the owner of the file can read and write it.
  • After that, r--, tells you that the group (a group of users) can only read it.
  • Lastly, r--, means that everyone else (others) can also read but not write the file.

The number “1" tells you how many hard links there are to the file. You can ignore this for now.

user1" is the owner of the file, and “users" is the group it belongs to. In Linux, you can have multiple users in a group, and they might share some permissions.

1024" shows the file size in bytes.

Sep 20 15:00" indicates when the file was last modified.

So, by using ls -l, you can easily check who can do what with your files and directories. If you want to see hidden files and directories (those sneaky ones with names starting with a dot, like .config), you can use ls -la. It’s like shining a light in the hidden corners of your system to see everything.

How do you read file permissions?

Now that we’ve seen how to view Linux file permissions, let’s decode what those strange-looking letters and symbols actually mean. These permissions are essential to control who can do what with a file or directory.

The Structure of Linux File Permissions:

Linux file permissions are usually represented as a string like rwxr-xr-x.

This string consists of nine characters, divided into three groups (Owner, Group, and Others).

Three Parts: Owner, Group, and Others:

These nine characters represent three different categories of users:

  • Owner: The user who created the file or directory.
  • Group: A group of users that may include the owner and others.
  • Others: Anyone else who is not the owner or in the group.

Meanings of ‘r’ (read), ‘w’ (write), and ‘x’ (execute) Permissions:

  • Each of the nine characters can be either ‘r,’ ‘w,’ ‘x,’ or ‘-‘ (a hyphen).
  • ‘r’ (read) allows users to view the contents of the file or list the directory’s contents.
  • ‘w’ (write) permits users to modify the file or add/remove files and directories within a directory.
  • ‘x’ (execute) allows users to run the file as a program or enter the directory.

Interpreting Permission Strings:

Let’s take an example: rw-r--r--.

The first three characters, rw-, represent the permissions for the owner. In this case, the owner can read and write but not execute the file.

The next three characters, r--, represent the group’s permissions. The group can only read the file but cannot write or execute it.

The last three characters, r--, represent permissions for others. Others can also only read the file.

In simpler terms, when you see rw-r--r--, it means that the owner can read and write the file, while the group and others can only read it. These permissions ensure that files are used safely and only by those who should access them.

What are Octal Values?

Understanding Linux file permissions doesn’t stop at reading ‘r,’ ‘w,’ and ‘x.’ There’s another way to express these permissions that’s a bit more numerical – octal values. Octal, which is base-8, provides a numeric representation of permissions, making it easier to work with permissions in a more mathematical way.

Octal (Base-8) Notation for Permissions:

Octal notation uses numbers from 0 to 7 to represent permissions.

Each permission (‘r,’ ‘w,’ ‘x’) gets a specific number:

  • ‘r’ (read) is represented by 4.
  • ‘w’ (write) is represented by 2.
  • ‘x’ (execute) is represented by 1.
  • If a permission is not granted, it’s represented by 0.

Calculating Octal Values:

To calculate the octal value based on a permission string (e.g., rw-r--r--), break it down into three groups (owner, group, and others).

For each group, add up the values of the permissions:

  • rw- (owner) → 4 (read) + 2 (write) + 0 (no execute) → 6
  • r-- (group) → 4 (read) + 0 (no write) + 0 (no execute) → 4
  • r-- (others) → 4 (read) + 0 (no write) + 0 (no execute) → 4

Combine these three values to get the octal permission: 644.

Common Octal Values and Their Meanings:

Knowing some common octal values can be handy:

  • 7xx: Full permissions (read, write, and execute) for owner, group, and others. (e.g., 755)
  • 6xx: Read and write permissions for owner, read-only for group and others. (e.g., 644)
  • 5xx: Read and execute permissions for owner, read-only for group and others. (e.g., 555)
  • 4xx: Read-only for owner, read-only for group and others. (e.g., 444)
  • 3xx: Write and execute permissions for owner, no permissions for group and others. (e.g., 311)
  • 2xx: Write-only for owner, no permissions for group and others. (e.g., 222)
  • 1xx: Execute-only for owner, no permissions for group and others. (e.g., 111)
  • 0xx: No permissions for anyone. (e.g., 000)

Octal values are like a secret code that simplifies permissions. They make it easier to set precise permissions on files and directories, especially when you need to do it quickly.

What do Linux File Permissions Actually Do?

Linux file permissions may seem like technical jargon, but they play a crucial role in keeping your files and directories safe and organized. Let’s explore what they actually do in plain language.

Control Who Can Read, Write, or Execute:

  • At its core, file permissions decide who gets access to your stuff and what they can do with it.
  • ‘Read’ permissions allow someone to open and view a file’s contents.
  • ‘Write’ permissions grant the ability to edit or add to a file.
  • ‘Execute’ permissions enable running a file as a program or script.

Security Aspects and Protecting Data:

  • Think of permissions as protective barriers around your files and directories.
  • They keep sensitive information secure by limiting who can access it.
  • For example, you wouldn’t want just anyone to be able to change your important work documents, right? Permissions ensure they can’t.

Real-World Examples:

Executable Scripts: When you have a script that needs to be run, you give it ‘execute’ permission. This way, you can run it without exposing the script’s code.

Private Files: Personal documents or files with sensitive data should only grant ‘read’ access to you and maybe a select group. Others should be locked out entirely.

Collaboration: If you’re working with others, you might create a shared directory. Here, you can set permissions to allow the group to read and write files, ensuring everyone can collaborate effectively.

In essence, Linux file permissions are like the locks on your doors and safes. They safeguard your data and ensure that only the right people can access, edit, or run your files and directories, keeping your digital world secure and organized.

How do Directory Permissions Work?

Directory permissions might seem like a separate topic, but they work in a similar way to file permissions in Linux. Let’s break down how they function and why they matter.

Similar to File Permissions:

Directory permissions are like guardians for folders. They determine who can enter, view, modify, or delete the contents inside.

Much like file permissions, they consist of ‘read,’ ‘write,’ and ‘execute’ permissions.

Significance of Read, Write, and Execute Permissions:

‘Read’ permission for a directory allows someone to see what’s inside, like listing the files and subdirectories.

‘Write’ permission enables adding, removing, or modifying files and directories within.

‘Execute’ permission, perhaps a bit counterintuitively, is required to enter the directory and access its contents.

Common Use Cases for Directory Permissions:

Sharing Files: You might set up a directory for sharing files with a group. In this case, you’d grant ‘read’ and ‘write’ permissions to the group, so they can see what’s there and add or edit files.

Restricting Access: For private or sensitive folders, you’d limit access. You might only allow yourself (‘read,’ ‘write,’ ‘execute’) and no one else (‘—‘) to ensure that no one else can peek inside.

User-Specific Directories: In scenarios where multiple users have their folders, you’d use ‘execute’ permission to let them enter their directories while keeping others out.

Emphasizing Execute Permission:

The ‘execute’ permission is particularly important for directories. Without it, even if you have ‘read’ and ‘write’ permissions on a directory, you can’t enter it or access its contents.

It’s like having the key to the door. You might see the house (‘read’) and even have permission to change things inside (‘write’), but if you don’t have the key (‘execute’), you can’t get in.

So, directory permissions work hand in hand with file permissions, helping you manage and secure your digital workspace. They control who can enter and interact with your folders, ensuring that your data stays organized and protected.


In the world of Linux, understanding file and directory permissions is like having the keys to your digital kingdom. These permissions might seem puzzling at first, but they’re your allies in maintaining order and safeguarding your data.

We’ve learned that file permissions determine who can read, write, or execute files, while directory permissions govern access to folders and their contents. By controlling these permissions, you keep your digital world organized and secure.

Whether you’re collaborating with others, protecting private files, or managing user-specific directories, permissions are your trusty gatekeepers. They make sure that only the right people can access, modify, or run your files and directories.

So, the next time you see those ‘r,’ ‘w,’ and ‘x’ characters or think about octal values, remember that they’re your tools for maintaining order and security in the Linux universe. With this knowledge, you’re better equipped to navigate the world of Linux file and directory permissions like a seasoned pro.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What are file permissions in Linux?

File permissions in Linux are rules that determine who can access, modify, or execute files. They are represented by characters like ‘r,’ ‘w,’ and ‘x,’ and they control access for owners, groups, and others.

How do I check file permissions in Linux?

What is octal notation for permissions?

Why do directory permissions matter?

When should I use ‘execute’ permission on a directory?

How can I protect sensitive files in Linux?

What’s the difference between ‘chmod’ and ‘chown’ commands in Linux?

Can I change permissions for multiple files at once?

What are some common octal values for permissions?

How can I ensure security while sharing files in Linux?

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