Chown Command in Linux (Change File Ownership)

chown command in linux

In Linux and Unix-like operating systems, all files, directories and processes (which are again files) are owned by users. The group is a set of users that share the same access permissions (i.e read, write and execute) for that objects (files/directories).

The chown command is used in Linux to change the user and group ownership of files, directories and symbolic links.

In this tutorial, I will show you how to use the chown command with some practical examples.

Chown syntax

Let check the basic syntax of chown command as follows:


You can run ls -l command to print file ownership details.

In the following output, you can see the file 'myfile.txt' is owned by user 'tom' and the group is owned by 'developers':

$ ls -l
-rw-r--r-- 1 tom  developers   0 Apr  4 01:35 myfile.txt

Change Ownership of a file

To change the ownership of a file, use chown with new owner name and the file name for which the owner has to be changed.

The following command change ownership of the file named 'myfile.txt' to a new user 'tom':

# chown tom myfile.txt

If the command successfully executed it won't display any output on the terminal. Let verify using ls -l command as follows:

# ls -l myfile.txt
-rw-r--r-- 1 tom root 623 Dec 10 2012 myfile.txt

Changing the owner and group of a file

If the owner is followed by a colon (:) and a group name (without spaces), the group name is changed as well.

The following example shows how to change owner and group for the file named 'myfile.txt':

# chown tom:developers myfile.txt

Now the new owner of the file is 'tom' and the new group owner is 'developers' group.

# ls -l myfile.txt
-rw-r--r-- 1 tom developers 424 Dec 10 2012 myfile.txt

If you remove the group name after the colon the group of the file is changed to the specified user’s login group:

# chown tom: myfile.txt
# ls -l myfile.txt
-rw-r--r-- 1 tom tom 453 Dec 10 2012 myfile.txt

If the colon (:) and group are mentioned, only the group of the file is changed. In this case, the command works like chgrp command.

# chown :developers myfile.txt
# ls -l myfile.txt
-rw-r--r-- 1 tom developers 1579 Dec 10 2012 myfile.txt

Change ownership for directories recursively

To apply ownership recursively on all files and directories under a given directory use -R option

In the following example, the ownership of all the files and directories under '/var/www/html' will be recursively changed to 'linoxide' and group ownership to 'www-data':

# chown linoxide:www-data -R /var/www/html

Verbose output

The --verbose option shows all the ownership changing on the terminal. It outputs the diagnostics for each file processed.

For example:

# chown -R --verbose jones /home/jones/
changed ownership of `/home/jones/hello' to jones
changed ownership of `/home/jones/.emacs' to jones
changed ownership of `/home/jones/.bash_history' to jones
changed ownership of `/home/jones/.bash_logout' to jones
changed ownership of `/home/jones/.bashrc' to jones
changed ownership of `/home/jones/file1' to jones

The verbose option outputs the processing of each file even when the changes are not made. But with -c or --changes option, the output is reported only when changes are made.

Change ownership for symbolic links

By default chown command won't change ownership of symbolic links rather it changes ownership on the target file. Chmod has an option -h that can be used to change ownership for symbolic links.

Check the following example:

# chown -h tom vmlinuz
# ls -l
total 0
lrwxrwxrwx 1 tom root 31 Apr  5 00:50 vmlinuz -> /boot/vmlinuz-4.15.0-88-generic

Change ownership same as reference file

You can reference a file from which chown copy the same user and group ownership to a new file.

In following command --reference=myfile1.txt option to provide reference file and ownership assigned to file named 'myfile2.txt':

# chown --reference=myfile1.txt myfile2.txt

Silent operation

A normal user cannot change the ownership of files owned by others. So an error is displayed when a normal user tries to change the ownership.

[tom@node051 ~]$ chown tom /etc/
chown: changing ownership of `/etc/': Operation not permitted

But if we use -f or --silent or --quiet option, the error is not displayed.

[tom@node051 ~]$ chown -f tom /etc/
[tom@node051 ~]$

How to preserve the root

Chmod command has an option --preserve-root to prevent chmod from acting recursively on /.  This option should be used with -R option to take effect.

[root@node051 ~]# chown -c --preserve-root tom /
changed ownership of '/' from root to tom

Only the permissions of the / will be changed and ownership of files and directories inside / will remain the same.

[root@node051 ~]# ls -ld /
drwxr-xr-x 23 tom root 4096 Feb 19 14:36 /
[root@node051 ~]# ls -l
total 88
drwxr-xr-x   2 root root  4096 Feb 19 14:33 bin
drwxr-xr-x   3 root root  4096 Feb 19 14:36 boot
drwxr-xr-x  16 root root  3660 Mar 28 11:09 dev
drwxr-xr-x  90 root root  4096 Apr  4 02:28 etc
drwxr-xr-x   2 root root  4096 Feb 19 14:35 home
lrwxrwxrwx   1 root root    33 Feb 19 14:35 initrd.img -> boot/initrd.img-4.15.0-88-generic
lrwxrwxrwx   1 root root    33 Feb 19 14:29 initrd.img.old -> boot/initrd.img-4.15.0-76-generic
drwxr-xr-x  22 root root  4096 Feb 19 14:37 lib
drwxr-xr-x   2 root root  4096 Feb 19 14:28 lib64
drwx------   2 root root 16384 Feb 19 14:27 lost+found


In this tutorial, we learned how to change ownership of files and directories in Linux. Thanks for reading and let us know your comments.

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