Do You Need a Home Partition When Using Linux?

Learn the different partitions and the importance of a home partition

You generally want to create three partitions when installing a Linux distribution on your computer:

  1. Root: Non-swap partition where the filesystem goes, and required to boot a Linux system.
  2. Home: Holds user and configuration files separate from the operating system files.
  3. Swap: When the system runs out of RAM, the operating system moves inactive pages from RAM into this partition.

Some people suggest that the swap partition is no longer required. However, disk space is cheap, so it does no harm to create one, even if you never use it.

This article will outline what the home partition is used for and why it's so important.

Ubuntu Default Partitions

Do You Need a Separate Home Partition?

If you've installed Ubuntu and chose the default options while installing Ubuntu, you might not realize it but you won't have a home partition. Ubuntu generally creates just two partitions; root and swap.

The main reason for having a home partition is to separate your user files and configuration files from the operating system files.

By separating your operating system files from your user files, you're able to upgrade your operating system without fear of losing your photos, music, videos, and other files.

Other reasons it's better to create a separate home partition:

  • Migrating to a large home partition later is much easier.
  • If you store a very large number of small files in your home folder, it could slow overall access to the root filesystem files as well.
  • If the home partition completely fills up, the file system won't crash.
  • In the case of a failed system upgrade, all data on your home partition remains safe.
  • Reinstalling the OS is much faster when all data files are on a separate home partition.
  • Some swap and file system areas like temporary files or swap files are accessed frequently. Storing the home partition on a fast SSD drive and keeping swap and root partitions on a standard drive can extend the life of your SSD drive.

Another way to keep your photos, videos, and other important files safe is by not only storing them on a home partition. If you're running Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Debian, or Fedora, you can install Insync for Linux which allows you to sync important folders on your home partition to Google Drive. This way if your partition ever crashes, you still have access to all of your important files.

The Ubuntu Default Partition Structure

So why doesn't Ubuntu give you a separate home partition by default?

The upgrade facility that comes as part of Ubuntu is fairly decent and you can get from Ubuntu 12.04 to 12.10 to 13.04 to 13.10 to 14.04 and 14.10 without having to wipe your computer and reinstall. In theory, your user files are "safe" because the upgrade tool works properly.

This standard installation is similar to Windows, which doesn't separate operating system files from user files either. They all live on one partition.

Ubuntu has a home folder and under the home folder, and you will find sub-folders for music, photos, and videos. All of the configuration files will also be stored in your home folder. (They will be hidden by default). This is much like the documents and settings setup that has been part of Windows for so long.

Screenshot of a Linux home and root on the same partition

Not all Linux distributions are equal and some might not provide a consistent upgrade path. Some may require you to re-install the operating system to get to a later version. In this case, having a home partition is really very useful as it saves you copying all of your files off the machine and then back again afterward.

Using a separate home partition makes things much easier. 

Just because you have a separate home partition doesn't mean that you no longer need to do backups. Any partition can fail, and having a backup will protect all of your important files on the home partition.

How Big Should the Home Partition Be?

If you only plan to have one Linux distribution on your computer then your home partition can be set to the size of your hard drive minus the size of the root partition and the size of the swap partition.

For instance, if you have a 100-gigabyte hard drive you might choose to create a 20-gigabyte root partition for the operating system and an 8-gigabyte swap file. This would leave 72 gigabytes for a home partition.

If you have Windows installed and you are dual booting with Linux then you might choose to do something different.

Imagine you have a 1 terabyte hard drive with Windows taking the whole drive. The first thing you need to do is shrink the Windows partition to make space for Linux.

For example, if Windows needs 200 gigabytes, this would leave 800 gigabytes. It might be tempting to create three Linux partitions for the other 800 gigabytes. The first partition would be the root partition and you might set 50 gigabytes aside for that. The swap partition would be set to 8 gigabytes. This leaves 742 gigabytes for the home partition. 

Keep in mind that it will be very difficult to read Linux partitions using Windows. Because of this, creating a massive home partition is not the way to go. Instead, create a modest home partition for storing configurations files (say a maximum of 100 gigabytes). Then, create a FAT32 partition for the rest of the disk space to store music, photos, videos, and other files. This FAT32 partition can be accessed from either operating system.

What About Dual-Booting Linux with Linux?

If you are dual booting multiple Linux distributions, you can technically share one home partition between them all. However, there are potential issues when doing this.

Imagine that you're using Ubuntu on one root partition and Fedora on another and they both share a single home partition.

If these two operating systems have similar applications installed but the versions of the software are different, this could lead to issues where the configuration files become corrupted or other unexpected behavior occurs.

Again, the preference would be to create smaller home partitions for each distribution and have a shared data partition for storing photos, documents, videos, and music.

To sum up, we would always recommend having a home partition, but the size and use for the home partitions change depending on your requirements.