How to use Terminal on Mac: Basic commands and functions (2023)

The Terminal app allows you to control your Mac using a command prompt. Why would you want to do that? Well, perhaps because you're used to working on a command line in a Unix-based system and prefer to work that way. Terminal is a Mac command-line interface. There are several advantages to using Terminal to accomplish some tasks — it's usually quicker, for example. In order to use it, however, you'll need to get to grips with its basic commands and functions. Once you've done that, you can dig deeper and learn more commands and use your Mac's command prompt for more complex, as well as some fun, tasks.

How to use Terminal on Mac: Basic commands and functions (1)

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How to open Terminal on Mac

The Terminal app is in the Utilities folder in Applications. To open it, either open your Applications folder, then open Utilities and double-click on Terminal, or press Command-space to launch Spotlight and type "Terminal," then double-click the search result.

You'll see a small window with a white background open on your desktop. In the titlebar are your username, the word "bash" or "zsh," and the window's dimensions in pixels. Bash stands for "Bourne again shell." There are a number of different shells that can run Unix commands, and on the Mac, Bash is the one used by Terminal. Since macOS Catalina, zsh runs on top ofbash. Zsh iseasier to use compared with bash because it doesn't require strict user permissions. However, you can switch between the two based on your preferences. Just type bash or zsh in Terminal to enablethe change.

If you want to make the window bigger, click on the bottom right corner and drag it outwards. If you don't like the black text on a white background, go to the Shell menu, choose New Window and select from the options in the list.

If Terminal feels complicated or you have issues with the setup, let us tell you right away that there are alternatives. MacPilot allows getting access to over 1,200 macOS features without memorizing any commands. Basically, a third-party Terminal for Mac that acts like Finder.

For Mac monitoring features, try iStat Menus. The app collects data like CPU load, disk activity, network usage, and more —all of which are accessible from your menu bar.

How to use Terminal on Mac: Basic commands and functions (2)

Basic Mac commands in Terminal

The quickest way to get to know Terminal and understand how it works is to start using it. But before we do that, it's worth spending a little time getting to know how commands work. To run a command, you just type it at the cursor and hit Return to execute.

(Video) How To Use Terminal On Your Mac - Command Line Beginner's Guide

Every command comprises three elements: the command itself, an argument that tells the command what resource it should operate on, and an option that modifies the output. So, for example, to move a file from one folder to another on your Mac, you'd use the "move" command mv and then type the location of the file you want to move, including the file name and the location where you want to move it to.

Let's try it.

  1. Typecd ~/Documentsthen and press Return to navigate to your Home folder.

  2. Type lsthen Return —you type Return after every command.

How to use Terminal on Mac: Basic commands and functions (3)

You should now see a list of all the files in your Documents folder — ls is the command for listing files.

Unix has its own built-in manual. So, to learn more about a command type man [name of command], where "[command]" is the name of the command you want to find out more about.

Terminal rules

There are a few things you need to bear in mind when you're typing commands in Terminal or any other command-line tool. Firstly, every character matters, including spaces. So when you're copying a command you see here, make sure you include the spaces and that characters are in the correct case.

You can't use a mouse or trackpad in Terminal, but you can navigate using the arrow keys. If you want to rerun a command, tap the up arrow key until you reach it, then press Return. To interrupt a command that's already running, type Control-C.

Commands are always executed in the current location. So, if you don't specify a location in the command, it will run wherever you last moved to or where the last command was run. Use the cdcommand, followed by a directory path, like in Step 1 above, to specify the folder where you want a command to run.

There is another way to specify a location: go to the Finder, navigate to the file or folder you want and drag it onto the Terminal window, with the cursor at the point where you typed the path.

Here's another example. This time, we'll create a new folder inside your Documents directory and call it "TerminalTest."

  1. Open a Finder window and navigate to your Documents folder.

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  2. Type cd and drag the Documents folder onto the Terminal window.

  3. Now, type mkdir "TerminalTest"

Go back to the Finder, open Text Edit and create a new file called "TerminalTestFile.rtf." Now save it to the TerminalTest folder in your Documents folder.

In the Terminal window, type cd ~/Documents/TerminalTest then Return. Now type lsand you should see "TerminalTestFile" listed.

To change the name of the file, type this, pressing Return after every step:

  1. cd~/Documents/Terminal Test

  2. mv TerminalTestFile TerminalTestFile2.rtf

That will change the name of the file to "TerminalTestFile2". You can, of course, use any name you like. The mv command means "move," and you can also use it to move files from one directory to another. In that case, you'd keep the file names the same, but specify another directory before typing the second instance of the name, like this:

mv ~/Documents/TerminalTest TerminalTestFile.rtf ~/Documents/TerminalTest2 TerminalTestFile.rtf

More advanced Terminal commands

Terminal can be used for all sorts of different tasks. Some of them can be performed in the Finder but are quicker in Terminal. Others access deep-rooted parts of macOS that aren't accessible from the Finder without specialist applications. Here are a few examples.

Copy files from one folder to another
  1. In a Terminal window, type ditto [folder 1] [folder 2] where "folder 1" is the folder that hosts the files and "folder 2" is the folder you want to move them to.

  2. To see the files being copied in the Terminal window, type -v after the command.

    (Video) How to use the Command Line | Terminal Basics for Beginners

Download files from the internet

You'll need the URL of the file you want to download to use Terminal for this.

  1. cd ~/Downloads/

  2. curl [URL of the file you want to download]

If you want to download the file to a directory other than your Downloads folder, replace ~/Downloads/with the path to that folder, or drag it onto the Terminal window after typing the cd command.

Change the default location for screenshots

If you don't want macOS to save screenshots to your Desktop when you press Command-Shift-3, you can change the default location in Terminal.

How to use Terminal on Mac: Basic commands and functions (4)
  1. defaults write location

    [path to the folder where you want screenshots to be saved]

  2. Hit Return.

  3. killall SystemUIServer

  4. Hit Return.

Change the default file type for screenshots

By default, macOS saves screenshots as .png files. To change that to .jpg, do this:

  1. defaults write type JPG

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  2. Press Return.

  3. killall SystemUIServer

  4. Press Return.

Delete all files in a folder

The command used to delete or remove files in Terminal is rm. So, for example, if you wanted to remove a file in your Documents folder named "oldfile.rtf," you'd use cd ~/Documentsit to go to your Documents folder then delete the file. As it stands, that will delete the file without further intervention from you.

If you want to confirm the file to be deleted, use -i as in
rm -i oldfile.rtf

To delete all the files and sub-folders in a directory named "oldfolder," the command is rm -R oldfolder and to confirm each file should be deleted, rm -iR oldfolder

Just because you can use Terminal to delete files on your Mac doesn't mean you should. It's a relatively blunt instrument, deleting only those files and folders you specify.

Another way to free up space

If your goal in removing files or folders is to free up space on your Mac or to remove junk files that are causing your Mac to run slowly, it's far better to use an app designed for the purpose. CleanMyMac Xis one such app.

It will scan your Mac for files and recommend which ones you can delete safely, as well as telling you how much space you;ll save. And once you've decided which files to delete, you can get rid of them with a click. You candownload CleanMyMac X here.

How to use Terminal on Mac: Basic commands and functions (5)

As you can see, while Terminal may look scary and seem like it's difficult to use, it really isn't. The key is learning a few commands, such as those we've outlined above, and getting to know the syntax for those commands.

However, you should be careful when using Terminal; it's a powerful tool that has deep access to your Mac's system files. Check commands by googling them if you're not sure what they do. And if you need to delete files to save space, use an app like CleanMyMac X to do it. It's much safer!


How do I get all commands in Mac Terminal? ›

How to Show Every Terminal Command Available in Mac OS
  1. Open the Terminal app found in /Applications/Utilities/
  2. At a fresh bash prompt, hit the Escape key twice.
  3. You will see a message stating “Display all 1460 possibilities? ( ...
  4. Hit the Return key to scroll through the huge list of commands available.
Feb 6, 2017

What is the function of the Terminal on a Mac? ›

The Mac Terminal is a command line interface (CLI) for the macOS operating system (OS). Mac Terminal is typically used by network administrators and advanced technical users who want to initiate an action that is not supported by the operating system's graphical user interface (GUI).

How do I get all the commands in Terminal? ›

Just tap the Tab key twice ( Tab Tab ). You'll be prompted if you want to see all possible commands. Tap y and you'll be presented with a list. You can do that same thing for individual commands to see all options for that specific command.

How does the Terminal work? ›

A terminal is a window into which you can type commands that are then executed by your computer's operating system. The cursor point in the terminal where you type is called the command line, and so a terminal is sometimes also referred to as a command-line interface (CLI).

What key opens Terminal in Mac? ›

Here's how:
  1. Press Command + Space Bar on your Mac keyboard (alternatively, press F4)
  2. Type in “Terminal”
  3. When you see Terminal in the Spotlight search list, click it to open the app.
Jul 20, 2022

What command shows all commands? ›

Type help and press ↵ Enter . A list of all the available commands will be displayed. The listed is sorted alphabetically. The list is usually larger than the Command Prompt window, so you may need to scroll up to find the command you want.

What is zsh and bash on Mac? ›

The Z shell, more commonly referred to as zsh , is a UNIX shell that is built on top of the Bourne shell (macOS default shell), better known as bash . Z shell is basically an extended version of Bash, with many additional features. To learn more about the basics of Bash, read: Deck Out Your Mac Terminal: Bash Basics.

Is Terminal the same as command prompt? ›

A physical terminal is referred to as a console. The shell is a command-line interpreter. A command line, also known as a command prompt, is a type of interface. A terminal is a wrapper program that runs a shell and allows us to enter commands.

What is the purpose of the command Terminal? ›

While many users are accustomed to using a graphical user interface (GUI) with a mouse and keyboard, the terminal allows users to execute commands and perform tasks directly by typing in text commands.

What can you do in the terminal? ›

A terminal is simply a text-based interface to the computer. In a terminal, you can type commands, manipulate files, execute programs, and open documents. When working in a terminal, the current directory is called your working directory.

What is the command for all files in terminal? ›

  • To list all files in the current directory, type the following: ls -a This lists all files, including. dot (.) ...
  • To display detailed information, type the following: ls -l chap1 .profile. ...
  • To display detailed information about a directory, type the following: ls -d -l .

How do I connect to Terminal on Mac? ›

Connect to servers in Terminal on Mac
  1. In the Terminal app on your Mac, choose Shell > New Remote Connection.
  2. Select a protocol in the Service list.
  3. Select a shared server in the Server list.
  4. In the User field, enter a user name, then click Connect.

How do you use the Home and End keys on a Mac Terminal? ›

The Home and End keys on a MacBook Pro can be emulated with Fn + ← or f Fn + → . Or when certain settings are changed, with the ⌘ Command key instead of Fn .


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