20 Handy Raspberry Pi Terminal Commands for Beginners

Get to grips with the terminal using these handy commands

Something many people struggle with when they begin using the Raspberry Pi computer is the terminal. The terminal may go from a Windows GUI to a retro-looking black and green screen with no buttons to double-click. However, there are many tricks and commands that can help you gain the confidence to use the system.

Start with the following commands to navigate and undertake simple tasks with your Raspberry Pi from a terminal window. Over time you'll find more, but this is a good core set to begin with.

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sudo apt update: Update Package Lists

Update Command in the Terminal

This is the first stage in updating your Raspberry Pi. See the next two items in this list for the other steps.

sudo apt update

This command downloads package lists from the repositories and retrieves information on the newest versions of these packages and any dependent packages.

It doesn't update in the traditional sense. Instead, it's a required step in the overall update process.

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sudo apt upgrade: Download and Install Updated Packages

Upgrade command in the terminal

This command follows the previous item, where the package list was updated.

sudo apt upgrade

With the updated package list in place, the sudo apt upgrade command looks at what packages are currently installed. It then looks at the latest package list (that was previously upgraded) and installs any new packages that aren't at the latest version.

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sudo apt clean: Clean Old Package Files

Clean command in the terminal

This is the final stage in the update and upgrade process and isn't always essential if you have plenty of disk space.

sudo apt clean

This command deletes the redundant package files (.deb files) that are downloaded as part of the update process.

This is a handy command if you're low on space or want to clean up the system.

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sudo raspi-config: The Raspberry Pi Configuration Tool

The Raspberry Pi Configuration Tool

This is one of the first steps you take when you first start using a Raspberry Pi. Use this command to make sure it's set up for your language, hardware, and projects.

The configuration tool is like a settings window. It allows you to set languages, time and date, enable the camera module, overclock the processor, enable devices, change passwords, and other options.

To access this, type the command below and press Enter.

sudo raspi-config

Depending on what you change, you may be prompted to reboot the Pi.

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ls: List Directory Contents

ls command in the terminal

The Linux directory is the same as a folder in Windows. There isn't an explorer in the terminal. To see what's inside the directory you're in at any given time, type:

ls

Then, press Enter.

You will see every file and directory within that directory listed and, usually, color-coded for the different items.

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cd: Change Directories

cd command in the terminal

If you want to go to a certain directory, use the cd command.

If the directory you're in has directories inside it, use cd directoryname (replace directoryname with the name of the directory you want to view). For example:

cd Documents

If the directory is somewhere else in the file system, enter the path after the command, such as:

cd /home/pi/Documents

Another handy use of this command is cd .. which takes you back one folder level, similar to the Back button.

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mkdir: Create a Directory

mkdir command in the terminal

If you need to create a new directory within an existing direction, use the mkdir command. This is the New > Folder equivalent of the terminal world.

To make a new directory, add the name of the directory after the command, such as mkdir new_directory. For example:

mkdir /home/pi/Documents/projects
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rmdir: Remove a Directory

rmdir command in the terminal

When you want to delete a directory, use rmdir followed by the directory name.

rmdir /home/pi/Documents/projects

For example, rmdir directory_name removes the directory directory_name.

The directory must be empty to perform this command.

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mv: Move a File

Move files with the mv command

Move files between directories by using the mv command.

To move a file, enter mv followed by the file name and then the destination directory. For example:

mv my_file.txt /home/pi/destination_directory

This command moves the my_file.txt file to /home/pi/destination_directory.

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tree -d: Show a Tree of Directories

The Tree command is a handy way to view the structure of your directories

After creating new directories, you might miss the visual folder structure view of the Windows file explorer. When you can't see a visual layout of your directories, things can get confusing. Use the tree -d command to display directories in a tree-like layout within the terminal. Type this command and press Enter:

tree -d
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pwd: Show the Current Directory

Using pwd can help you when you start feeling a bit lost

Another handy command to help you when you're lost is the pwd command. Use this command when you want to know where you are in the directory structure:

pwd

Enter pwd at any time to display the current directory path you're in.

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clear: Clear the Terminal Window

clear command in the terminal

As you start to get the hang of the terminal, you'll notice that it can become cluttered. After a few commands, you leave a trail of text on the screen, which for some, can be annoying.

clear

To wipe the screen clean, use the clear command. The screen will be cleared and ready for the next command.

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sudo halt: Shut Down a Raspberry Pi

Shut down a Raspberry Pi safely with the halt command

Turning off a Raspberry Pi safely avoids issues, such as SD card corruption. You can get away with a quick pull of the power cord sometimes, but eventually, you'll damage the card.

To shut down the Pi properly, use:

sudo halt

After the final flashes from the Pi's LEDs, remove the power cable.

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sudo reboot: Restart a Raspberry Pi

Restart a Pi using reboot in the terminal

Like the shutdown command, if you want to reboot your Raspberry Pi safely, use the reboot command. For example:

sudo reboot

Run the above command to restart the Pi.

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startx: Start the Desktop Environment (LXDE)

startx command in the terminal

If you set your Pi to always start in the terminal, here's how to start the desktop if you need to use it.

startx

Use startx to start the LXDE (Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment). This command doesn't work over an SSH session.

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ifconfig: Find a Raspberry Pi's IP Address

ifconfig can give you useful network information

There are several scenarios that may require you to know the IP address of your Raspberry Pi. For example, when configuring an SSH session to access a Pi remotely.

ifconfig

To find your IP address, type ifconfig into the terminal and press Enter. You can also use hostname -I to find the IP address.

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nano: Edit a File

Nano in the terminal, a preferred text editor for Raspberry Pi

Linux has several text editors, and some people prefer using one over the other for various reasons.

nano my_file.txt

To edit a file, type nano followed by the file name, such as nano myfile.txt. When your edits are complete, press Ctrl+X to save the file.

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cat: Show the Contents of a File

cat in the terminal

While you can use nano to open a file for editing, there is a separate command to list the contents of a file within the terminal.

Use cat followed by the file name to do this, for example:

cat myfile.txt
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rm: Remove a File

The rm command in the terminal helps remove files easily

Removing files is easy on the Raspberry Pi, and is something you will do as you make versions of Python files while you troubleshot code.

To remove a file, use the rm command followed by the filename. For example:

rm myfile.txt
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cp: Copy a File or Directory

The cp command in the terminal helps copy files

When you need to make a copy of a file or directory, use the cp command.

To make a copy of a file in the same directory, enter the command as:

cp original_file new_file

To make a copy in a different directory, with the same name, enter the command as:

cp original_file home/pi/subdirectory

To copy an entire directory (and its contents), enter the command as:

cp -R home/pi/folder_one home/pi/folder_two

This copies folder_one into folder_two.