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Creating Symbolic Links in Linux: A Step-by-Step Tutorial

Creating Symbolic Links in Linux: A Step-by-Step Tutorial
Reading time: 5 min
Hostman Team
Technical writer

Symlinks, also known as symbolic links, are like shortcuts in the Linux world. They allow you to create a new name (or link) that points to another file, directory, or any object within the file system. Their primary advantage lies in reducing redundancy by avoiding the need for multiple copies of the same file.

When you have a symlink, changes made to the original file reflect across all its symbolic links. This eliminates the hassle of updating numerous copies individually. Additionally, symlinks offer a flexible way to manage access permissions. For instance, different users with directories pointing to subsets of files can limit visibility beyond what standard file system permissions allow.

In essence, symlinks are indispensable for efficient file management and organization, streamlining updates and access control in complex systems.


To follow this tutorial, you will need:

  • A cloud server, virtual machine or computer running a Linux operating system.

On Hostman, you can deploy a server with Ubuntu, CentOS or Debian in under a minute.

Creating Symbolic Links with the ln Command

The ln command is used to create symbolic links in Linux. Follow these steps:

  1. Open a terminal window.
  2. Navigate to the directory where you want to create the symbolic link.
  3. Use the following command syntax to create a symlink:
ln -s /path/to/source /path/to/symlink

Replace /path/to/source with the actual path of the file or directory you want to link, and /path/to/symlink with the desired name/location of the symlink.

Understanding the ln Command Options

The ln command offers various options to customize symlink creation:

  •  -s: Creates a symbolic link.

  •  -f: Overwrites an existing symlink.

  •  -n: Treats symlink targets as normal files.

Explore these options based on your linking needs.

Creating Symbolic Links to Files

To create a symlink to a file, use the ln command with the -s option.

Here's an example of how you can create a symbolic link to a file using the ln command. The command below creates a symbolic link named symlink_file in the current directory, pointing to the file /path/to/file:

ln -s /path/to/file /path/to/symlink_file

Replace /path/to/file with the actual file path and /path/to/symlink_file with the desired symlink name.

In this example, the file path is absolute. You can also create a symbolic link with a relative path. However, keep in mind that for the symlink to work correctly, anything accessing it must first set the correct working directory, or the link may appear broken.

Creating Symbolic Links to Directories

You can use the ln command to create a symbolic link that points to a directory. For instance, the command below creates a symbolic link called symlink_directory in the current directory, which points to the directory /path/to/directory:

ln -s /path/to/directory /path/to/symlink_directory

This command creates a symbolic link named symlink_directory in your current location, linking it to the /path/to/directory directory.

Forcefully overwrite a symbolic link

You can use the -f flag with the ln command. For example, if the path in a symlink is incorrect due to a typo or if the target has moved, you can update the link like this:

ln -sf /path/to/new-reference-dir symlink_directory

Using the -f flag ensures that the old symlink's contents are replaced with the new target. It also automatically removes any conflicting files or symlinks if there's a conflict. If you attempt to create a symlink without the -f flag and the symlink name is already in use, the command will fail.

Verifying Symbolic Links

You can display the contents of a symlink using the ls -l command in Linux:

ls -l symlink_directory

The output will show the symlink and its target:

symlink_file -> /path/to/reference_file

Here, symlink_file is the name of the symlink, and it points to the file /path/to/reference_file.

ls -l /path/to/symlink

The output will show the symlink and its target.

Symbolic Link Best Practices

  • Use descriptive names for symbolic links.

  • Avoid circular links to prevent system confusion.

  • Update symlinks if the target's location changes.

Use Cases for Symbolic Links

  • Managing Configuration Files: Linking configuration files across systems.
  • Version Control: Symbolic linking common libraries for development projects.
  • Data Backup: Creating symbolic links to backup directories.

Potential Pitfalls and Troubleshooting

  • Permission Issues: Ensure proper permissions for source and symlink.

  • Broken Links: Update symlinks if target files are moved or deleted.

  • Cross-Filesystem Links: Symlinks may not work across different filesystems.


Symlinks are valuable for streamlining file management and system upkeep. They simplify updates across multiple applications sharing a common file, reducing maintenance complexity. They also offer an alternative to directories like /etc, often requiring root access for file modifications. Developers find symlinks useful for transitioning between local testing files and production versions seamlessly.

By following this tutorial, you've mastered the art of creating symbolic links in Linux. Leverage symlinks for efficient file management and customization.