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Published: Mar 2021
Updated: Jun 2021

find is a general purpose file/directory search tool. It combines various filters (such as comparing by modified time, executable files, types, and more) along with command execution. Create powerful pipelines by combining find with other commands. Here are some common examples:

# Recursively find all directories in the current directory
$ find . -type d
# Recursively find all files in the current directory
$ find . -type f
# Pipe find to xargs
$ find . -type -f -print0 | xargs -0

find is a powerful command with many options and features via expressions. Expressions include tests, actions, global options, positional arguments, and operators. Tests return true/false. Actions have side effects. Global options apply to everything in an expression. Positional options only affect tests or actions which follow them. Operators join other items in expressions.

Let’s unpack the examples.

find . -type d uses the -type test. -type returns true if the file matches the given type. Common types are d for directory, f for file, or l for symbolic links. find assume the -print action when nothing is provided. The second example uses -type f to print all files. The third example uses the -print0 action. This prints null terminated output for use combinations with xargs -0. These options make find and xargs place nice when files names include delimiting characters (such as whitespace).

Naturally there are more tests than just -type. Let’s cover the use cases before diving deeper into expressions and examples.

Use Case

find is a general purpose file and directory search. It is useful in shell programs with conditional logic (e.g. match this or that) or to recursively find everything in a set of directories. Generally ls is used for simple directory listings, while find is for searching and some form of batch processing.

Key Options

  • -type
  • -exec, -execdir, -ok, -okdir
  • -print0
  • -a/-and, -o/-or
  • -name, -iname
  • -path, -ipath, -regex, -iregex
  • -E
  • -L
  • -size
  • -delete


Here’s a summary of important differences between the GNU and BSD versions. This is not exhaustive, instead it is optimized for things you may encounter in day-to-day use. Refer to the BSD find manual and GNU find manual for complete information.

  • BSD find supports the -depth N option. Both versions support -depth without a value. This triggers depth first traversal in both cases. BSD -depth N test if the file/directory is depth N from the initial traversal point. GNU find does not support -depth N.
  • GNU find includes -executable, -readable, and -writable tests. BSD find uses -perm for similar functionality. GNU find effectively has shorthands for these common permissions.
  • BSD find supports -flags, with both BSD and GNU find support -perm. -perm test permissions (read/write/execute). -flags maps to BSD specific file system flags. Refer to the (Free)BSD chflags manual for more information.
  • BSD find supports the -X option to skip files names with delimiting characters. This option intends to make find work correctly with xargs (which would break normally). Both BSD and GNU find support -print0 which makes all files play nicely with xargs -0.
  • Both versions support -E for extended regex support. However the exact regex syntax varies between BSD and GNU.
  • GNU find uses -O LEVEL for query optimizations. BSD find has no such option. Refer to the GNU find manual for more information.
  • BSD find -s cause find to traverse the file hierarchies in lexicographical order, i.e., alphabetical order within each directory. Note that find -s and find | sort may give different results. GNU find has no such option.
  • GNU find -D OPTS manages debug options. Refer the GNU find manual for more information. BSD find has no such option.
  • Both BSD and GNU find includes compatible options to skip files that are on different file systems than the original traversal point. Both versions implement -mount, while BSD find, uses a global -x option in favor of a depcreated -xdev option. GNU find does not support the -x option, but does support -xdev.
  • GNU find supports the -printf action for formatting output. BSD find includes no similar feature.
  • BSD “primaries” refer to GNU tests, actions, global options, and positional options.