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Zsh is a powerful shell that operates as both an interactive shell and as a scripting language interpreter. While being compatible with Bash (not by default, only if issuing "emulate sh"), it offers many advantages such as:

  • Speed
  • Improved tab completion
  • Improved globbing
  • Improved array handling
  • Fully customisable

The Zsh FAQ offers more reasons to use Zsh.

1 Installation

Before starting users may want to see what shell is currently being used:

$ echo $SHELL

Install the zsh package available in the official repositories.

1.1 Initial configuration

Make sure that Zsh has been installed correctly by running the following in a terminal:

$ zsh

You should now see zsh-newuser-install, which will walk you through some basic configuration. If you want to skip this, press q. If you did not see it, you can invoke it manually with

$ zsh /usr/share/zsh/functions/Newuser/zsh-newuser-install -f

1.2 Making Zsh your default shell

If the shell is listed in /etc/shells you can use the chsh command to change your default shell without root access. If you installed Zsh from the Official official repositories, it should already have an entry in /etc/shells.

Change the default shell for the current user:

$ chsh -s $(which zsh)
Note: Log out and log back in, in order to start using Zsh as the default shell.

After logging back in, notice Zsh's prompt, which by default looks different from Bash's. Also verify that Zsh is the current shell by issuing:

$ echo $SHELL
Tip: If replacing bash, users may want to move some code from ~/.bashrc to ~/.zshrc (e.g. the prompt and the aliases) and from ~/.bash_profile to ~/.zprofile (e.g. the code that starts the X Window System).

2 Configuration files

At login, Zsh sources the following files in this order:

This file should contain commands to set the command search path, plus other important environment variables; it should not contain commands that produce output or assume the shell is attached to a tty.
This file is sourced by all Bourne-compatible shells upon login: it sets up an environment upon login and application-specific (/etc/profile.d/*.sh) settings.
This file is generally used for automatic execution of user's scripts.
This is Zsh's main configuration file.
This file is generally used for automatic execution of user's scripts.

At logout it sources ~/.zlogout, which is used for automatic execution of user's scripts.

  • The paths used in Arch's zsh package are different from the default ones used in the man pages.
  • $ZDOTDIR defaults to $HOME
  • /etc/profile is not a part of the regular list of startup files run for Zsh, but is sourced from /etc/zsh/zprofile in the zsh package. Users should take note that /etc/profile sets the $PATH variable which will overwrite any $PATH variable set in ~/.zshenv. To prevent this, either replace the /etc/zsh/zprofile file with a custom one, or set the $PATH variable from ~/.zshrc.

3 ~/.zshrc configuration

Although Zsh is usable out of the box, it is almost certainly not set up the way most users would like to use it, but due to the sheer amount of customization available in Zsh, configuring Zsh can be a daunting and time-consuming experience.

3.1 Consider grml-zsh-config

Users not wanting to reinvent the wheel are encouraged to install grml-zsh-config which is pre-installed on the Arch Live CD. Many of zsh's features are enabled by default when using this package.

3.2 Simple .zshrc

Included below is a sample configuration file, it provides a decent set of default options as well as giving examples of many ways that Zsh can be customized. In order to use this configuration save it as a file named .zshrc. Apply the changes without needing to logout and then back in by running:

$ source ~/.zshrc

Here is a simple .zshrc:

autoload -U compinit promptinit

# This will set the default prompt to the walters theme
prompt walters

3.3 Configuring $PATH

Information about setting up the system path per user in zsh can be found here: http://zsh.sourceforge.net/Guide/zshguide02.html#l24

In short, put the following in ~/.zshenv:

typeset -U path
path=(~/bin /other/things/in/path $path)

3.4 Command completion

Perhaps the most compelling feature of Zsh is its advanced autocompletion abilities. At the very least, enable autocompletion in .zshrc. To enable autocompletion, add the following to:

autoload -U compinit

The above configuration includes ssh/scp/sftp hostnames completion but in order for this feature to work, users need to prevent ssh from hashing hosts names in ~/.ssh/known_hosts.

Warning: This makes the computer vulnerable to "Island-hopping" attacks. In that intention, comment the following line or set the value to no:
#HashKnownHosts yes

And move ~/.ssh/known_hosts somewhere else so that ssh creates a new one with un-hashed hostnames (previously known hosts will thus be lost). For more information, see the SSH readme for hashed-hosts.

For autocompletion with an arrow-key driven interface, add the following to:

zstyle ':completion:*' menu select
To activate the menu, press tab twice.

For autocompletion of command line switches for aliases, add the following to:

setopt completealiases

3.5 The "command not found" hook

The pkgfile package includes a "command not found" hook that will automatically search the official repositories when you enter an unrecognized command. Then it will display something like this:

$ abiword
abiword may be found in the following packages:
  extra/abiword-libre 2.8.6-7	usr/bin/abiword

Load pkgfile with the following:

source /usr/share/doc/pkgfile/command-not-found.zsh

An alternative "command not found" hook is also provided by the package command-not-found, which will generate an output like the following:

$ abiword
The command 'abiword' is been provided by the following packages:
abiword-libre (2.8.6-7) from extra
	[ abiword ]
abiword-libre (2.8.6-7) from staging
	[ abiword ]
abiword-libre (2.8.6-7) from testing
	[ abiword ]

for it to work, add the following to a zshrc:

[ -r /etc/profile.d/cnf.sh ] && . /etc/profile.d/cnf.sh

3.6 Prevent from putting duplicate lines in the history

It is very convinient to ignore duplicate lines in the history. To do so, put the following:


3.7 Key bindings

Zsh does not use readline, instead it uses its own and more powerful zle. It does not read /etc/inputrc or ~/.inputrc. zle has an emacs mode and a vi mode. By default, it tries to guess whether emacs or vi keys from the $EDITOR environment variable are desired. If it is empty, it will default to emacs. Change this with bindkey -v or bindkey -e.

To get some special keys working:

# create a zkbd compatible hash;
# to add other keys to this hash, see: man 5 terminfo
typeset -A key



# setup key accordingly
[[ -n "${key[Home]}"     ]]  && bindkey  "${key[Home]}"     beginning-of-line
[[ -n "${key[End]}"      ]]  && bindkey  "${key[End]}"      end-of-line
[[ -n "${key[Insert]}"   ]]  && bindkey  "${key[Insert]}"   overwrite-mode
[[ -n "${key[Delete]}"   ]]  && bindkey  "${key[Delete]}"   delete-char
[[ -n "${key[Up]}"       ]]  && bindkey  "${key[Up]}"       up-line-or-history
[[ -n "${key[Down]}"     ]]  && bindkey  "${key[Down]}"     down-line-or-history
[[ -n "${key[Left]}"     ]]  && bindkey  "${key[Left]}"     backward-char
[[ -n "${key[Right]}"    ]]  && bindkey  "${key[Right]}"    forward-char
[[ -n "${key[PageUp]}"   ]]  && bindkey  "${key[PageUp]}"   beginning-of-buffer-or-history
[[ -n "${key[PageDown]}" ]]  && bindkey  "${key[PageDown]}" end-of-buffer-or-history

# Finally, make sure the terminal is in application mode, when zle is
# active. Only then are the values from $terminfo valid.
if (( ${+terminfo[smkx]} )) && (( ${+terminfo[rmkx]} )); then
    function zle-line-init () {
        printf '%s' "${terminfo[smkx]}"
    function zle-line-finish () {
        printf '%s' "${terminfo[rmkx]}"
    zle -N zle-line-init
    zle -N zle-line-finish
Note: To get the proper sequences for certain key combinations, start cat or read without any parameters and press them; they should then be printed in the terminal. Both can be closed again via Ctrl+c.

3.7.1 Alternative method without using terminfo

Run autoload zkbd followed by just zkbd. If users cannot press the key it asks for (e.g. F11 maximizes the window), press space to skip it. After finishing with zkbd, add the following to ~/.zshrc:

autoload zkbd
source ~/.zkbd/$TERM-:0.0 # may be different - check where zkbd saved the configuration:

[[ -n ${key[Backspace]} ]] && bindkey "${key[Backspace]}" backward-delete-char
[[ -n ${key[Insert]} ]] && bindkey "${key[Insert]}" overwrite-mode
[[ -n ${key[Home]} ]] && bindkey "${key[Home]}" beginning-of-line
[[ -n ${key[PageUp]} ]] && bindkey "${key[PageUp]}" up-line-or-history
[[ -n ${key[Delete]} ]] && bindkey "${key[Delete]}" delete-char
[[ -n ${key[End]} ]] && bindkey "${key[End]}" end-of-line
[[ -n ${key[PageDown]} ]] && bindkey "${key[PageDown]}" down-line-or-history
[[ -n ${key[Up]} ]] && bindkey "${key[Up]}" up-line-or-search
[[ -n ${key[Left]} ]] && bindkey "${key[Left]}" backward-char
[[ -n ${key[Down]} ]] && bindkey "${key[Down]}" down-line-or-search
[[ -n ${key[Right]} ]] && bindkey "${key[Right]}" forward-char

3.7.2 Bind key to ncurses application

Bind a ncurses application to a keystoke, but it will not accept interaction. Use BUFFER variable to make it work. The following example lets users open ncmpcpp using Alt+\:

ncmpcppShow() { BUFFER="ncmpcpp"; zle accept-line; }
zle -N ncmpcppShow
bindkey '^[\' ncmpcppShow

3.8 History search

Add these lines to .zshrc

[[ -n "${key[PageUp]}"   ]]  && bindkey  "${key[PageUp]}"    history-beginning-search-backward
[[ -n "${key[PageDown]}" ]]  && bindkey  "${key[PageDown]}"  history-beginning-search-forward

Doing this, only past commands beginning with the current input would have been shown.

3.9 Prompts

There is a quick and easy way to set up a colored prompt in Zsh. Make sure that prompt is set to autoload in .zshrc. This can be done by adding these lines to:

autoload -U promptinit

Available prompts are listed by running the command:

$ prompt -l

To try one of the commands that is listed, use the command prompt followed by the name of the prompt to explore. For example, to use the walters prompt, enter:

$ prompt walters

To preview all available themes, use this command:

$ prompt -p

3.10 Customizing the prompt

For users who are dissatisfied with the prompts mentioned above(or want to expand their usefulness), Zsh offers the possibility to build a custom custom prompt. Zsh supports a left- and right-sided prompt additional to the single, left-sided prompt that is common to all shells. Customize it by using PROMPT= with the following variables:

3.10.1 Prompt variables

Command Description Comment
%n The username
%m The computer's hostname(truncated to the first period)
%M The computer's hostname
%l The current tty
%? The return code of the last-run application.
%# The prompt based on user privileges (# for root and % for the rest)
%T System time(HH:MM)
%* System time(HH:MM:SS)
%D System date(YY-MM-DD)
%~ The current working directory. If in $HOME, this will be replaced by ~. Prefix an integer to show only certain parts of the working path. If users entered %1d and were in /usr/bin it would show bin. This can also be done with negative integers: %-1d using the same directory as above would show /.
%d The current working directory.
%U [...] %u Begin and end underlined print
%B [...] %b Begin and end bold print
%{ [...] %} Begin and enter area that will not be printed. Useful for setting colors. In fact, this tag forces Zsh to ignore anything inside them when making indents for the prompt as well. As such, not to use it can have some weird effects on the margins and indentation of the prompt.
$fg[color] will set the text color (red, green, blue, etc. - defaults to bold) Zsh sets colors differently than Bash. Add autoload -U colors && colors before PROMPT= in .zshrc to use them. Usually you will want to put these inside %{ [...] %} so the cursor does not move.
$fg_no_bold[color] will set the non-bold text color
$fg_bold[color] will set the bold text color
$reset_color will reset the text color to the default color
Possible color values
black red
green yellow
blue magenta
cyan white
Note: Bold text does not necessarily use the same colors as normal text. For example, $fg['yellow'] looks brown or a very dark yellow, while $fg_no_bold['yellow'] looks like bright or regular yellow.

3.10.2 Example

To have a two-sided promptcould write:

PROMPT="%{$fg[red]%}%n%{$reset_color%}@%{$fg[blue]%}%m %{$fg_no_bold[yellow]%}%1~ %{$reset_color%}%#"

It would equal(without colors):

username@host ~ %                                                         [0]

3.11 Dirstack

Zsh can be configured to remember the DIRSTACKSIZE last visited folders. This can then be used to cd them very quickly. You need to add some lines to you configuration file:

if [[ -f $DIRSTACKFILE ]] && [[ $#dirstack -eq 0 ]]; then
  dirstack=( ${(f)"$(< $DIRSTACKFILE)"} )
  [[ -d $dirstack[1] ]] && cd $dirstack[1]
chpwd() {
  print -l $PWD ${(u)dirstack} >$DIRSTACKFILE


setopt autopushd pushdsilent pushdtohome

## Remove duplicate entries
setopt pushdignoredups

## This reverts the +/- operators.
setopt pushdminus

Now use

dirs -v

to print the dirstack. Use cd -<NUM> to go back to a visited folder. Use autocompletion after the dash. This proves very handy if using the autocompletion menu.

3.12 Sample .zshrc files

Here is a list of .zshrc files:

4 Global configuration

Occasionally users might want to have some settings applied globally to all Zsh users. The Zsh wiki tells us that there are some global configuration files, for example /etc/zshrc. This however is slightly different on ArchLinux, since it has been compiled with flags specifically to target /etc/zsh/ instead.

So, for global configuration use /etc/zsh/zshrc, not /etc/zshrc. The same goes for /etc/zsh/zshenv, /etc/zsh/zlogin and /etc/zsh/zlogout. Note that these files are not installed by default, so create them if desired.

The only exception is zprofile, use /etc/profile instead.

4.1 Autostarting applications

Zsh always executes /etc/zsh/zshenv and $ZDOTDIR/.zshenv so do not bloat these files.

If the shell is a login shell, commands are read from /etc/profile and then $ZDOTDIR/.zprofile. Then, if the shell is interactive, commands are read from /etc/zsh/zshrc and then $ZDOTDIR/.zshrc. Finally, if the shell is a login shell, /etc/zsh/zlogin and $ZDOTDIR/.zlogin are read.

See also the STARTUP/SHUTDOWN FILES section of man zsh.

5 Uninstallation

Change the default shell back to bash or csh or whatever, before removing the Zsh package.

Warning: Failure to follow the below procedures will result in all kinds of problems: users will no longer have a working shell program.

Paste the following command in terminal as root:

# chsh -s /bin/bash user

Use it for every user using Zsh.

Now the Zsh package can be removed.

Alternatively, change the default shell back to Bash by editing /etc/passwd as root.

Warning: It is strongly recommended to use vipw when editing user information as it prevents badly formatted entries.

For example:


username:x:1000:1000:Full Name,,,:/home/username:/bin/zsh


username:x:1000:1000:Full Name,,,:/home/username:/bin/bash

6 See also

  • IRC channel: #zsh at irc.freenode.org