Accessing Folders and Files via the OS X Command Line

By Mark L. Chambers

It’s important to understand how OS X arranges files into folders and how you go about accessing them via the command line. As a Mac user, you might not be familiar with how paths work in Unix. A path is simply a textual representation of a folder or file.

The simplest paths are the root, denoted by the forward slash (/), and your Home directory, denoted by a tilde character (~), which acts as the equivalent of /Users/<your short account name>. Any folder in the Home directory is represented by the folder’s name preceded by a forward slash (/). For example, a document titled myDoc that resides in the current user’s Documents folder would have a path like this:

~/Documents/myDoc

Similarly, a folder named myFolder that resides in the current user’s Documents folder would have a path like this:

~/Documents/myFolder/

A folder (Mac-speak) and a directory (Unix-speak) are simply two different names for the same thing.

Because OS X is a multiuser environment, you might sometimes want to work with folders or files somewhere other than in your Home folder. Starting from your Home folder, enter the following command:

cd ..

This moves you to the folder right above your Home folder, which happens to be the Users folder. Using another quick ls command shows you all users who are permitted to use the machine. (By the way, Shared isn’t a user — it’s a folder with privileges set so that any user can access its contents.)

Enter cd .. again, and you find yourself at the root of your main hard drive. The root directory is what you see in Finder when you double-click your hard drive icon on the Desktop. Remember that a user’s Home directory is represented by a tilde character (~), and the root of the hard drive is denoted by a forward slash (/), as displayed by the prompt:

WHITEDRAGON:/ markchambers$

Skip right back to your Home directory by following this sequence:

WHITEDRAGON:/ markchambers$ cd Users
WHITEDRAGON:/Users markchambers$ cd markchambers
WHITEDRAGON:~ markchambers$

And here’s an even faster way. Instead of moving through each successive folder until you reach your intended destination, you can specify the path by using just one cd command:

WHITEDRAGON:/ markchambers$ cd /Users/markchambers
WHITEDRAGON:~ markchambers$

The Home directory is a special folder in that you can also navigate there by simply entering cd ~, but the main point here is that you can navigate directly to specific folders by using a folder’s path in conjunction with the cd command.

Furthermore, when you navigate your hard drive by using paths, you can jump directly to your desired destination from any place. When you enter cd .., it’s in relation to your current position, whereas entering

cd /Users/markchambers

always takes you to the same directory, regardless of your starting point.