How to use find command

Linux find command may be used to find files and directories that meet specified conditions. The most popular conditions test file size, filename and file type (do we want regular files, directories or both). By default find prints paths to found files and directories but it can perform various operations on found files e.g. it may remove them. In this article I will present how to use find and how to create complex search conditions, so let’s begin.

Generally find invocation looks like this:

$ find startDirectory filterOrAction1 ... filterOrActionN

Here startDirectory is root of directories tree that we want to search. After startDirectory we pass zero or more filters and/or actions. Filters define conditions that given file/directory must meet, e.g. filter -type f tells find that it should only process regular files and skip other file system objects like directories or named pipes. Actions on the other hand define what should be done with found files/directories, we may for example print their filenames using -print action or we may delete them via -delete action.

If you pass no arguments to find as in:

$ find

it will assume that startDirectory is current directory and that you want to print filenames of all found files/directories. In other words it will be equivalent to invocation:

$ find . -print

find performs search by enumerating all files and directories contained in the startDirectory. For each file/directory find executes specified filters and actions, from left to right and stops on the first filter or action that returns false. Filters return false when filter condition is not met. Actions return false when action ends with an error e.g. user has insufficient permissions to remove file for -delete action.

Image below presents how find dir -type f -name '*.java' -print works assuming that dir contains two files and foo.cpp: Illustration how find works To keep image size reasonable I skipped one more “file” that was checked by find in our example - the dir directory itself.

Before you proceed please answer the following questions (use dir directory from previous example). Verify your answers by running find and checking it’s output:

  • What will be printed by find dir -print -print?
  • What will be printed by find dir -print -name '*.java' -print?
  • What will happen when we specify no action like in find dir -name 'foo*'?


After reading previous section you should have firm understanding how find works. Now let’s move to describing most usefull filters provided by find.

Type filter

We will start with -type filter that allows us to find filesystem objects that have specified type. For example to find only directories we will use -type d and to find only regular files we will use -type f. -type filter takes single parameter that is one letter abbreviation of filesystem object type. All available values are presented in table below:

Argument Description
b Block device e.g. /dev/sda on most modern systems
c Character device e.g. /dev/tty0
d Directory e.g. /etc
p Named pipe
f Regular file e.g. /etc/profile
l Symbolic link
s Socket
Name filter

-name filter allows us to find files/directories that have names that match specified pattern e.g. *.java. Only filename is checked against the pattern, rest of the file path is ignored e.g. ./usr/foo file doesn’t match u*foo pattern, but ./uberfoo file does. -name filter performs case sensitive comparisons so foo doesn’t match FOO pattern, to use case insensitive comparisons use -iname filter instead.

Inside name filter pattern some characters like * or expressions like [abc] have special meaning (see glob expression). Table below lists all special expressions that may be used inside patterns:

Special character / expression Meaning
* Matches zero or more characters
? Matches single character
[abc] Character set. Matches any character in set
[!abc] Inverted character set. Matches any character NOT in set
[a-z] Character range. Matches any character in range
[!a-z] Inverted character range. Matches any character NOT in range

BE CAREFUL: It is always good idea to quote patterns using single quotes to prevent shell expansion of the pattern


  • To find all java files we can use -name '*.java' filter
  • To find all files that have three letter names we may use -name '???' filter
  • To find all files that have names starting with a, b or c we can use -name '[abc]*' filter
  • To find all files that have names that doesn’t start with 1 we may use -name '[!1]*' filter
Size filter

-size filter can be used to search for files of given size, for example find dir -size 1M will find all one megabyte files in dir directory.

We may use + and - prefixes to signify that we want files bigger or smaller than specified size e.g. find dir -size +64k will find all files contained in dir directory that are bigger than 64 kilobytes. Conversely find dir -size -64k will find all files in dir directory that are smaller than 64 kilobytes.

We may use popular k, M, G suffixes to signify kilo-, mega- and gigabytes, c suffix can be used to specify file size in bytes.

Time filter

For every file filesystem tracks up to three times:

  • atime or Access time - time when give file was last read
  • mtime or Modification time - last time when contents of file changed
  • ctime or Change time - last time when contents or attributes of file changed. Here attributes refers to file metadata like filename or file permissions

To find all files that were modified exactly one day ago we may use -mtime 1 filter. And to find all files that were accessed exactly one minute ago we may use -amin 1 filter.

First letter of these filters (a, m or c) signifies on what file time filter should operate, next word (time or min) signifies in what time unit will be passed argument - we may use only days or minutes.

As with size filter we may use + and - prefixes to signify that we want to find files that were modified at most one day ago (-mtime -1) or at least one day ago (-mtime +1).

Permissions filter

-perm filter can be used to find files/dirs that have specific permissions set.

In the examples I will use octal notation for permissions e.g. -perm 644 but -perm filter also supports symbolic notation e.g. -perm u=rw.
Here is quick remainder of the octal notation:

    owner  |  group  |  others
    r w x  |  r w x  |  r w x
    4 2 1  |  4 2 1  |  4 2 1

To find all files/dirs that have permissions set exactly to 644 we may use find dir -perm 644, this will find all files/dirs that are readable/writable for file owner and readable for everyone else.

Often we want to find files that have at least specified permissions, to do so we must prefix permissions with minus sign (-) e.g. -perm -644. Filter -perm -644 will find all files that are at least readable/writable for file owner and readable for everybody else e.g. files with permissions 666, 655 and 777 will be included.

Sometimes we want to find files that have a common permission bit with specified permission, to do this we should prefix permissions with / character. For example to find files that have any permission for others set we may use find dir -perm /007.


No let’s see what we can do with found files. In this section I will describe most popular actions used with find.

-print and -print0 actions print on stdout path to found files. Printed path is relative to startDirectory so:

$ find dir -print

$ find ./././dir -print

$ readlink -f dir

$ find $(readlink -f dir) -print

In the last example I used readlink command to get absolute path to dir directory.

When we pipe find output to other programs like xargs we should definitely use -print0 action. The main difference between -print and -print0 is that the last one uses NUL character (\0) instead of new line to separate paths. This allows other tools to process paths that contains spaces including new lines without problems. Here’s how we use it with xargs:

find dir -print0 | xargs -0 -n 1 echo

The important part is to pass -0 or --null option to xargs so it will know that we will separate paths using NUL character.

delete action

This action is pretty self-explanatory, you may use it to remove files.

WARNING: Please remember that find processes filters and actions from left to right so if you you put -delete action first find will try to delete all found files and directories before trying other filters/actions.

If the delete operation fail -delete will return false, otherwise it will return true.

Example usage:

$ find dir -name '*foo*' -delete
exec action

-exec is the most useful action that you can use with find. It allows you to execute arbitrary command for each found file. You must pass command to execute after -exec argument and you must end it with ; character. Since semicolon has special meaning in the shell you must escape it using \; or ';'. Inside command you may use {} placeholder that will be replaced by the path to the found file before command execution. -exec action returns true if executed command returned 0 exit code, otherwise it will return false.

Let’s see some examples:

$ find dir -name 'foo*' -exec echo "found file: {}" ';'
found file: dir/
found file: dir/foo.cpp

$ ls -l dir/*
-rw-rw-r-- 1 user user 0 lip 30 11:22 dir/foo.cpp
-rw-rw-r-- 1 user user 0 lip 30 11:22 dir/

$ find dir -name 'foo*' -exec chmod o+w {} \;

$ ls -l dir/*
-rw-rw-rw- 1 user user 0 lip 30 11:22 dir/foo.cpp
-rw-rw-rw- 1 user user 0 lip 30 11:22 dir/
ok action

-ok is like -exec action with the exception that find will ask you for confirmation before executing command:

$ find dir -ok chmod o+w {} \;
< chmod ... dir > ? y
< chmod ... dir/ > ? n
< chmod ... dir/a > ? n
< chmod ... dir/foo.cpp > ? y
< chmod ... dir/c > ? y
< chmod ... dir/b > ? n
< chmod ... dir/d > ? n

Advanced expressions

As we have seen find command is very versatile. We already know how to create complex search conditions and how to execute actions for found files. Yet we still don’t know full power of find, now it’s time to change that.

Let’s start with simple example: we want to find all files in dir directory that have names that doesn’t end with .java. It’s impossible to do so with -name filter that we know. But if there was a way to negate a filter it would be simple, right? In fact there is, just precede a filter with ! character to negate it (since ! is special shell character we need to escape it e.g. \!).

$ tree dir
 |-- foo.cpp

$ find dir \! -name '*.java' -type f

Beside negation find also provides two other boolean operators: AND (-a) and OR (-o). We may also use parentheses to group filters/actions into subexpressions (as you probably guessed parentheses have special meaning in the shell and we must escape them e.g. \( or ')').

When find evaluates complex expressions it tries to short-circuit AND and OR operators. Short-circuiting means that if the left operand of the AND is false right operand is not evaluated, and if the left operand of OR is true the right operand is not evaluated. This is very important when we mix filters with actions. Let’s see some examples that show us AND and OR operators in action:

$ # find files ending with .cpp or .py
$ find dir \( -name '*.cpp' -o -name '*.py' \)

$ # print files once but directories twice
$ find dir \( -type f -a -print \) -o \( -type d -a -print -a -print \)

$ # this one is tricky, we remove all NON-DIRECTORIES
$ # e.g. files, pipes, sockets etc.
$ # here we use fact that OR operator short-circuit's
$ find dir -type d -o -delete

The last think to remember is that \( filter1 -a filter2 -a filter3 \) expression is equivalent to \( filter1 filter2 filter3 \).


Before we end I want to mention two handy options -mindepth and -maxdepth that allow us to limit search depth to a specific range. Here’s how to use them:

$ mkdir -p dir/dir1/dir2/dir3/dir4

$ tree dir
 `-- dir1
     `-- dir2
         `-- dir3
             `-- dir4

$ find dir -mindepth 1 -maxdepth 3

$ find dir

Intuitively mindepth/maxdepth tells us how many / characters we want to have in file path.

findform application

To help you quickly recall all most useful find options I created simple interactive app that provides GUI for find, you may add it as a bookmark if you find it useful.

Open FindFORM app

That’s all for today, thanks for reading!


A Programmer, A Geek, A Human