15 Linux cp Command Examples – Create a Copy of Files and Directories

Copying files or directories is one of basic activity in every operating system. Backup activity is basically is creating a copy of files and directories. On Linux system, we can use cp command to do it.

What is copy command

As we mentioned above, cp command is a command to create copy of files and directories. Here’s some samples of cp command that might useful in day-to-day operation

1. Run cp without any options

This is a very basic cp usage. To copy a file name myfile.txt from one location to another location, we can type like this :

$ cp myfile.txt /home/pungki/office

Copy without options

If we don’t type absolute path, it mean that we are copying a file on current directory. From example above,myfile.txt is located in /home/pungki/Documents. We don’t have to type/home/pungki/Documents/myfile.txt to copy myfile.txt if we are in that /home/pungki/Documentsdirectory. While /home/pungki/office is a folder where the file will be copied.

2. Copy multiple files at the same time

To copy multiple file at the same time, we can just put the files behind the copy command which separated by space. Here’s an example :

$ cp file_1.txt file_2.txt file_3.txt /home/pungki/office

Copying multiple files

3. Copy a directory

Copying a directory is a little bit tricky. You need to add -r or -R option to do it. -r or -R option means recursive. This option is a must whether the directory is empty or not. Here’s an example :

$ cp -r directory_1 /home/pungki/office

Copy directory

One more thing to note is that you need to remove the trailing slash behind the directory name. Otherwise you will have an error message like cp : omitting directory ‘directory_1/’

Copy directory error

If you got that error, the directory will not copied to the destination folder.

4. Create hard links to files instead of copying them

Copying file means you must have some space on the storage to store the copied files. Sometimes for any reasons, you may want to create “shortcut” or links to the files instead of copying them. To do this, we can use -l option.

$ cp -l file_4.txt /home/pungki/office

Copy hardlinks

From screenshot above, we see that a hardlink of file_4.txt was copied into /home/pungki/office/file_4.txt. It marked by the same inode, 835386. But please note, hardlinks cannot be created into directories. Let’s take a look an example below.

The original directory_1 has inode number 278230
Inode number of original directory

The original file_5.txt has inode number 279231
Original inode number of file

Do cp command on directory_1
Copy using -rl options

The copied directory_1 has inode number 274800
Inode number of copied directory

The copied file_5.txt had inode number 279231. Same with its original file
Inode number of copied file

5. Create symbolic links to files

There is another type of links called softlinks or symbolic links. We use -s option to do this. Here’s a sample command.

$ cp -s /home/pungki/Documents/file_6.txt file_6.txt

Creating symlinks only can be done in current directory. On screenshot above, we want to create symbolic links from source directory – /home/pungki/Documents/file_6.txt to /home/pungki/office. But to create symbolic links, I must inside /home/pungki/office as a destination folder. Once I manage to be there, I can run cp -s command above.

Then when you list the file with detail, you will see that /home/pungki/office/file_6.txt is pointing to the original file. Its marked with arrow sign after the file name.

Symbolic links

6. Copy without following symbolic links in Source

To do this, we can use -P option. When cp command found a file with symbolic links, it will copy the as is. Take a look at the sample below.

$ cp -P file_6.txt ./movie

Copy using -P option

As you can see, the cp command will copy file_6.txt as is. The file type still a symbolic link.

7. Copy with following symbolic links in Source

Now we can do this with -L option. Basically, this is an opposite of -P option above. Here’s the sample.

$ cp -L file_6.txt ./movie

Copy using -L option

With this option, the copied file is the same file with the source file of file_6.txt. This is known from the file size. The copied file has 50 bytes file size while the file_6.txt as symbolic link has 33 bytes file size.

8. Archive the files

When we are going to copy a directory, we will use -r or -R option. But we can also use -a option to archive file. This will create an exact copy of files and directories including symbolic links if any. Here’s a sample :

$ cp -a directory_1/ /home/pungki/office

Copy using -a option

The above command will copy a directory named directory_1 into folder /home/pungki/office. As you can see, the file_6.txt still copied as symbolic links.

9. Explain what is being done

By default, when copying activity is success, we will see a command prompt again. If you want to know what happen during the copying file, we can use -v option.

$ cp -v *.txt /home/pungki/office

Verbose option

When we copying all txt files in current directory to /home/pungki/office/ directory, -v option will show what is being done. This additional information will make us more sure about the copying activity.

10. Copy only when the source file is newer

To do this, we can use -u option. Take a look this example below.

$ cp -vu *.txt /home/pungki/office

Copy only if newer

In the beginning, we see file_1.txt has 0 bytes file size. Then we edit it using vi, add some content and save it. Next, we see the file size has changed into 36 bytes.
Meanwhile in /home/pungki/office directory, we already have all *.txt files. When we use -u option, combine with -v option to see what is being done, cp command will only copy a file(s) which is newer from destination directory. As the result, we see that only file_1.txt is copied into /home/pungki/office directory.

11. Use interactive mode

Interactive mode will ask if the destination folder have already the file. To activate interactive mode, use -ioption.

$ cp -ir directory_1/ /home/pungki/office/

Interactive mode

12. Create backup date of each copied file

When the destination folder already have the file, by default cp command will overwrite the same file in the destination directory. Using –backup option, cp command will make a backup of each existing destination file. ../office will refer to /home/pungki/office. Here’s a sample :

$ cp –backup=simple -v *.txt ../office

Backup option

As we can see, –backup=simple option will create a backup file which marked by a tilde sign (~) at the end of the file. –backup option has some Control, which are :

  • none, off : never backups (even if –backup is given)
  • numbered, t : make numbered backups
  • existing, nil : numbered if numbered backup exist, simple otherwise
  • simple, never : always make simple backups

13. Copy only file attributes

Cp command also provide us with –attributes-only option. As we can guess from its name, this option will only copy a file name and its attributes without copying any data. Here’s a sample.

$ cp –attributes-only file_6.txt -v ../office

Copy attributes only

From screenshot above, the original file_6.txt file has 50 bytes file size. Using –attributes-only option,the copied file will have 0 bytes file size. This is because the content of file is not being copied.

14. Force copying

Using -f option will force the copying activity. If the destination files cannot be opened, then -f will try again.

$ cp -f *.txt -v ../office

Copy with force

15. Remove destination before copy

To do this, we can use –remove-destination option. This option is contrast with -f option above. If the cp command find the same file name on the destination folder, cp command will remove destination file first, the copy the new one. Here’s an example.

$ cp –remove-destination *.txt -v ../office

Remove destination option


Cp command is one of basic Linux commands. For those who want to learn Linux, must know this command. Of course you can type man cp or cp –help from your console to display its manual page to explore more detail.


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