Quickstart guide to using a terminal


Dheepak Krishnamurthy


July 12, 2022


terminal, bash, zsh, shell

If you are typically used to GUI applications, you may feel lost when you are getting started with a terminal. In this post, I’ll share a number of basic things that I think you should know that will help you get familiar with a terminal based workflow.

Typically, when you open a terminal on a linux or a mac, you may see something like this:




This is your terminal prompt. In the examples below, I will elide the prompt characters and show only the command you would type or the output of the command.


One of the first things you should know is that you can’t use your mouse to move your cursor, and almost everything you do needs to be done using your keyboard.

For starters, you can use Ctrl + a to move to the beginning of the line and Ctrl + e to move to the end of the line.

Keyboard shortcut Action
Ctrl + h Delete one character back
Ctrl + d Delete one character forward
Ctrl + k Delete to the end of line
Ctrl + u Delete to the beginning of line
Ctrl + w Delete previous word
Ctrl + f Move forward one character
Ctrl + b Move backward one character

These are readline keybindings and we’ll talk more about this in a future post.

Useful built-in terminal utilties

  1. echo

Type the following in your terminal:

echo "hello world"
hello world
  1. ls

Now type the following:

ls $HOME

ls lists the files and folders in a particular directory.

Now try running ls -al $HOME. Notice the -al flags. The -a flag is for all files or folders and -l is for printing it out in a list form.

ls -al $HOME
Permissions Size Date Modified Name
drwx------     - 28 Jan  2020  .bash_sessions/
drwxr-xr-x     - 22 Jun 18:40  .cache/
drwxr-xr-x     - 15 Aug  2021  .cargo/
drwxr-xr-x     - 13 Apr  2020  .cmake/
drwxrwxr-x     - 12 Mar  2020  .conda/
drwxr-xr-x     -  6 Jun 09:23  .config/
drwxr-xr-x     - 23 Oct  2020  .gem/
drwxr-xr-x     -  5 Feb  2020  .ipython/
drwxr-xr-x     - 28 Feb  2021  .iterm2/
drwxr-xr-x     - 26 Jul  2020  .vit/
drwxr-xr-x     - 12 Jul  2020  .vscode/
drwxr-xr-x     -  4 Feb  2020  .yarn/
drwxr-xr-x     - 16 Sep  2021  .zfunc/
drwx--xr-x     - 26 Jul  2020  .zinit/
drwxr-xr-x     - 28 Jun 08:44  Applications/
drwxr-xr-x@    -  5 Jul 13:28  Desktop/
drwxr-xr-x     - 14 Dec  2021  Documents/
drwxr-xr-x@    -  5 Jul 13:21  Downloads/
drwxr-xr-x     - 28 Jun 14:39  gitrepos/
drwx------@    - 17 Feb 11:35  Library/
drwxr-xr-x     - 17 Jun 10:18  local/
drwxr-xr-x     -  9 May 11:34  miniconda3/
drwx------     -  2 Dec  2021  Movies/
drwx------     - 19 Feb  2020  Music/
drwx------     - 30 Jan  2020  Pictures/
drwxr-xr-x     - 28 Jan  2020  Public/

💡 Learning how to read permissions for files and folders when you use ls -al path/to/file-or-folder is crucial to debugging issues with permissions.

A couple of things to note about flags.

  • You can typically use them in any order, i.e. ls -al is equivalent to ls -la
  • You can see the full list of options available by using man ls.
  • Other command line tools might have a -h/--help flag that prints out all available flags.

I personally always want to see the output of ls in a list form. If you add the following alias to your .bashrc or .bash_profile, you can use ls to invoke ls -al.

alias ls="ls -al"
  1. pwd

Type pwd in your terminal. It should print the full path to the present working directory folder in your terminal. This can be useful to figure out in which directory your prompt is currently is in. Typically, any script or command you run will use the pwd as the current directory in the script.

  1. cd

You can use cd to change directory. Use cd or cd ~ to change to your home directory, and use cd - to go back to the last directory that you were in. Run the following line by line in your terminal:

cd ~
cd -
  1. cp

You can use cp /path/to/source /path/to/destination to copy a file from a source location to a destination location. If you want to copy a folder, you’ll need to use cp -r for recursively copy.

  1. mv

You can use mv /path/to/source /path/to/destination to move a file or folder from a source location to a destination location. If you want to rename a file or folder, you will have to mv oldname newname. You want to ensure that the destination does not exist or there is no folder by that name, otherwise you may end up overwriting or moving it to an unintended location.

mv has the following flags:

   -i      Cause mv to write a prompt to standard error before moving a file that would overwrite an existing file.  If
   the response from the standard input begins with the character `y' or `Y', the move is attempted.  (The -i option
   overrides any previous -f or -n options.)

   -v      Cause mv to be verbose, showing files after they are moved.

I like to alias mv to mv -iv since I always want to play it safe.

  1. rm

You can use rm to remove files. You can use rm -r to remove folders.

  1. mkdir

You can use mkdir /path/to/dir to make a directory if /path/to/ already exists. If you wish to create nested directories, you can use the -p flag, i.e. mkdir /path/to/nested/dir.

  1. cat

cat concatenates and prints files to the terminal standard out. This is useful for seeing the contents of a text file without opening it.

There are two additional commands that are useful for seeing the first or last n lines in a file, i.e. head and tail.

  1. find

find is extremely useful in finding if a file of a certain name or type exists.

find . -name *.md

You can use regular expressions to widen your search criteria.

  1. grep

grep is handy in finding text within files. I like to use -ri for recursively searching for a case insensitive match in a particular folder.

grep -ri "when I first" src/posts
src/posts/10-fast-track-to-being-productive-with-vim.md:summary: What I wish I had known when I first started using vim
src/posts/10-fast-track-to-being-productive-with-vim.md:When I first started using vim three months ago, I found it quite challenging to get meaningful work done.
  1. vi or vim or nano or emacs

Finally, learning how to use a text editor can go a long way in getting you comfortable with a terminal. Check out my post on how to get started with vim for more information.

Environment Variables

If you type the following and hit enter:

echo $HOME

you should see something like this being printed in your terminal:


$HOME is an environment variable that contains the value of your user’s home directory.

Type echo $PATH in your command line. On unix, the $PATH environment variable contains : separated paths to folders. Your shell looks through these in order when searching for binaries to execute.

.bashrc and .bash_profile

The bash shell, when invoked, can read and execute commands from a set of start up files.

When invoked as an interactive login shell, bash looks for /etc/profile, then ~/.bash_profile, then ~/.bash_login and then ~/.profile.

When invoked as an interactive non-login shell, bash reads and executes from ~/.bashrc.

~/.profile or ~/.bash_profile should contain modifications to $PATH whereas ~/.bashrc can contain modifications to your prompt or aliases or other customizations. ~/.profile is typically run just once, but ~/.bashrc is run everytime you run a new shell.

Ctrl + c

For long running processes, you can use Ctrl + c to kill the process. You can use Ctrl + z to background a currently running process and type fg to foreground the last backgrounded process.


One of the advantages of working from the terminal is that once you have some basics down, you can chain together commands really easily. You can do this using the pipe operator, i.e. |.

Let’s say I wanted to show the last 3 lines or the README.md in my current folder:

bat README.md | tail -n3
  44   │ ```bash
  45   │ npm run deploy
  46   │ ```

Let’s say I wanted to find all the files with vim in the name:

rg --files | rg vim

The | operator takes the stdout of one command and feeds it as input to the next.



BibTeX citation:
  author = {Krishnamurthy, Dheepak},
  title = {Quickstart Guide to Using a Terminal},
  date = {2022-07-12},
  url = {https://kdheepak.com/blog/quickstart-guide-to-using-a-terminal},
  langid = {en}
For attribution, please cite this work as:
D. Krishnamurthy, “Quickstart guide to using a terminal,” Jul. 12, 2022. https://kdheepak.com/blog/quickstart-guide-to-using-a-terminal.