How to Use the Command-line to Copy files and folders in Ubuntu Linux?

Learning how to use the command-line for copying files and folders (or backing up etc) in GNU/Linux sometimes can come in real handy. Because the GNU/Linux operating system is fundamentally designed and run through the command-line interface, thus even if your desktop fails to load, there’s a good chance that you should still be able to use the command-line to login to your user account and backup your data (supposing that you don’t have an Ubuntu Live CD/USB flash drive around :)).

So if your desktop fails to load at the login screen and doesn’t takes you to a ‘login shell’ (a ‘Terminal’ in full-screen, without a desktop), then you can open one manually by pressing the ‘Alt’ + ‘Ctrl’ + ‘F1′ keys on your keyboard and it should open a new login shell for you.

Then you can use your existing user name and password to login to a non graphical interface and begin copying files.

You can also use these commands while the desktop is working, by using ‘Terminal’ just as you’d use it to install software using the ‘apt-get install …’ as well. For this example I’m using Ubuntu 12.04 Precise Pangolin and running the ‘Terminal’ (‘Terminal emulator’) inside the ‘Unity’ desktop rather than the ‘login-shell’.

How to do it …

Basically for copying a file or a folder, we have to know three main things. First you have to know its name and the ‘path’ (location) and also the path of the destination (where you want it to be copied). After you’ve figured that out, the rest is just bloody easy :).

For copying files and folders we’ll use a built in command-line utility called ‘cp’ and for figuring out the names and the path we’ll use another one called ‘dir’.

To copy a file into another location I’d use a built in command called ‘cp’ in the below format.

cp -vi source-file‘s-path destination’s-path

To do the same to a folder, I’ll use the ‘-a’ argument as shown below.

cp -via source-folder’s-path destination’s-path

You can also use ‘-r’ instead of ‘-a’ but that will replace some of the data of the files (not their content but things like ‘created date’ and ‘accessed date’ etc thus I prefer to use ‘-a’ so the data will be copied as it is. It’s also the way file managers of the desktops seem to be copying files and folders, I think).

What is that ‘-v’ argument?

The ‘-v’ argument gives you a simple output (basically tells you what file it’s currently copying).

Running it with ‘Mr. -v’ ;-)

This is very useful because by default, while copying one or multiple files, ‘cp’ doesn’t give you any output (unless there’s an error). So other than the HDD’s LED indicator, you’d wouldn’t know what going on.

As you can see, without the ‘-v’, until it finishes, you wouldn’t know anything about the process …

What is the ‘-i’ argument’?

If some of your files in the destination have the same names as the files that are being copied, then ‘cp’ automatically overwrite them!. But when you use the ‘-i’ argument, it’ll ask you before overwriting. So I highly recommend that you use it, all the time.

If your file or the folder has spaces in its name …

Let’s say I have a file called ‘test audio.mp3′ (note the space between ‘test’ and ‘audio.mp3′), then in the command-line, this file will be listed as  ‘test\ audio.mp3′ not ‘test audio.mp3′.

This is because, before each space in a file’s name, the command-line assigns a ‘\’ to it. If you have another file called ‘Ubuntu 12.04 review.avi’, then in the command-line it’ll be listed as ‘Ubuntu\ 12.04\ review.avi’. So by remembering this rule, if you know the file’s name, than you can easily figure its name in CLI.

Even if you don’t know the name, you can use the ‘dir’ command to list and find folder/file name with ease. Let’s say that I wanted get a list of all the files in my ‘Music’ folder, then I’ll use the below command.

dir Music

By default, ‘dir’ does not show hidden files. For that, you’ll have to use it with the ‘-a’ attribute. So to view all the files inside the ‘Music’ folder, I’ll use the below command.

dir -a Music

By simply using ‘dir’ will show you the folders and files inside your current location. So if I used it after logging into the shell (or in ‘Terminal’) then it’ll just show me the content inside my ‘Home’ folder as shown below.

Also remember that, whenever you insert a removable media (USB drive for example), or while accessing other partitions of your HDD or opening optical disc’s content etc, they’ll all first be ‘mounted’ (think of it as temporarily opening the content of a storage device into a folder where your OS is installed) in a location called ‘/media’.

So, after inserting your USB disk (or any other), because you’re gonna be needing its ‘mounted’ (opened) folder’s path while coping files to it later, then you can simply enter the below command in your Terminal and it’ll list all the currently mounted storage devices (=paths) in your OS.

dir /media

In this case, my USB drive is called ‘GAYAN’ and it’s opened on a folder called ‘GAYAN’ under the ‘/media’ location.

Examples …

Let’s say that I need to copy a recorded audio file inside the ‘Music’ folder and don’t remember the full file name, then I’ll use the above mentioned ‘dir’ command to get its full name.

dir Music

So the full path of the source file that I want to copy in this case is:


As I need to copy this audio file to my USB drive mounted at ‘/media/GAYAN’, the full path of the destination is:


So in order to copy the ‘audio-recording1.mp3′ into ‘GAYAN’ USB drive, I’ll use the below command.

cp -vi /home/gayan/Music/audio-recording1.mp3 /media/GAYAN

For any file or a folder that’s inside my ‘Home’, I can bypass typing ‘/home/gayan’ part (in your computer, ‘gayan’ will be replaced by your user name), so the short version of the above command is:

cp -vi Music/audio-recording1.mp3 /media/GAYAN

If I wanted to copy all the content of the folder ‘Music’, as it’s a folder, I’ll use the ‘cp’ command with the ‘-a’ argument:

cp -via Music /media/GAYAN

Make sure to use ‘-v’ argument and ‘-a’ when copying folders, and replace source file name (and path) and destination path with your own ones. If you want to automatically create a folder inside the destination and copy the file/folder inside it, then add a folder name to the end of the destination’s path.

So if I wanted to copy the ‘Music’ folder to a new folder called ‘music-backup’, then I’ll use the below command instead of the above one.

cp -via Music /media/GAYAN/music-backup

Well, that’s pretty much it. Once you get familiar with finding the name and the path of the file/folder that you want to copy, there isn’t a whole lot to it. If you want to know more about these two commands, then use the below commands to read their manuals.

man cp

man dir

Good luck.

9 thoughts on “How to Use the Command-line to Copy files and folders in Ubuntu Linux?

  1. Munnster

    Thank you for this information, it is very helpful.

    However I am having an issue with my desktop–it does not load, so I must use Ctrl+Alt+f1 to log in (as in your example), however when I try dir /media the thumb drive I have (waiting to copy files) does not show up–NOTHING shows up (I also have a disk in the drive to write to–if that is even possible.) Do I have to mount them to use them? if so, how do I do that? Thanks!

    1. Gayan Post author

      Hi Munnster,

      It seems that you’ll have to manually mount the USB pendrive first. You can also write your content to a disk, but doing so using the command-line can be a bit difficult, specially if your content is scattered in multiple locations. If interested doing that, then this page can help you out.

      If not, then you can follow the below steps for mounting the USB pendrive and copying the data later.

      Step 1:

      Enter the below command into the Terminal window. It’ll show you a list of currently attached disk drives, USB storage devices etc, and then by using that information, you can easily mount the desired USB drive.

      sudo fdisk -l

      Now, after adding a USB pendrive and logging into the system (using Ctrl + Alt + F1), I tested this and below is the output that I received (your output should vary, depending on the attached drives …).

      Disk /dev/sda: 320.1 GB, 320072933376 bytes
      255 heads, 63 sectors/track, 38913 cylinders, total 625142448 sectors
      Units = sectors of 1 * 512 = 512 bytes
      Sector size (logical/physical): 512 bytes / 512 bytes
      I/O size (minimum/optimal): 512 bytes / 512 bytes
      Disk identifier: 0x0bbcfd15

      Device Boot Start End Blocks Id System
      /dev/sda1 * 2048 206847 102400 7 HPFS/NTFS/exFAT
      /dev/sda2 206848 61442047 30617600 7 HPFS/NTFS/exFAT
      /dev/sda3 61442048 606210047 272384000 7 HPFS/NTFS/exFAT
      /dev/sda4 606212094 625141783 9464845 5 Extended
      /dev/sda5 606212096 625141783 9464844 83 Linux

      Disk /dev/sdb: 7742 MB, 7742685184 bytes
      255 heads, 63 sectors/track, 941 cylinders, total 15122432 sectors
      Units = sectors of 1 * 512 = 512 bytes
      Sector size (logical/physical): 512 bytes / 512 bytes
      I/O size (minimum/optimal): 512 bytes / 512 bytes
      Disk identifier: 0×00000000

      Device Boot Start End Blocks Id System
      /dev/sdb1 * 2048 15122431 7560192 b W95 FAT32

      As you can see this command lists my drives and their partitions (the output is more clear on the Terminal window than displayed here).

      The ‘/dev/sda’ is my primary HDD because it lists the capacity as 320.1 GB (it has 5 partitions ‘/sda1′ … ‘/sda5′), and the second one, ‘/dev/sdb’ is my USB pendrive (7742MB). The partition on the USB drive is ‘/dev/sdb1′, which is what we’re interested in.

      If you have no other USB storage device attached to your PC (other than the pendrive), then you should too mount the ‘/dev/sdb1′. But you can always figure that out by having a look at this output.

      Before we can mount this, enter the below command (this creates a folder into which we’re going to mount the pendrive).

      sudo mkdir /media/pen

      Then enter the below command to actually mount it.

      sudo mount /dev/sdb1 /media/pen

      Note: Replace the ‘/sdb1′ according to the ‘output’ of the ‘fdisk -l’ command. That’s it. Now you should be able to copy your data to the pendrive as shown in the article, but make sure to add ‘sudo’ argument while copying (because we just mounted the pendrive with ‘sudo’ permissions).

      (Optional)Quick tip: If you have to copy files (or folders) individually and they happen to contain ‘spaces’ in their names, then use the double quotation mark with the ‘cp’ command while entering the path, otherwise it’ll fail (this has nothing to do while copying a folder that contain multiple files that have ‘spaces’ in their names … it only applies when you copy files or folders individually).

      For instance, if I have a file (or a folder) called ‘cool video 4′ in my Home directory, then if I use the below command while copying, it’ll fail saying there’s no such file.

      cp -vi cool video 4 /media/pen

      The correct command will be the below one.

      cp -vi "cool video 4" /media/pen

      Hope this helps. Good luck (by the way, if you can create a Live USB of Ubuntu, then use that to copy your files because it’s much easier :) ).

  2. Munnster

    Apparently I’m missing something (I’m sorry to be so dense). I attempted multiple times to copy files to /media/pen with no success, so I made a live USB to try that. I have my 150GB partition mounted and attempted to drag and drop files. I keep getting a message that “the folder ____ cannot be handled because you do not have permissions to read it” (I have tried a file on the desktop as well as my .thunderbird folder in my home folder). I was able to drag and drop a picture from the desktop to the pen drive…but no file folder or open office file can be moved. I guess more instruction is needed if you don’t mind walking me through more of this…? Thank you.

  3. Munnster

    BTW, when I right click on the 150GB drive and go to permissions, it says Owner is root with folder access to create and delete files (which is grayed out and cannot be changed). Group is root with folder access to access files (also grayed out). Others has nothing listed and folder access is to access files (also grayed out) and at the bottom of the box it says “you are not the owner, so you cannot change these permissions”

    1. Gayan Post author


      Okay, once you’ve boot into the Live desktop, open the Terminal and enter the below command …

      sudo nautilus

      This should open up the file manager with ‘root’/’sudo’ privileges and now you should be able to copy the files.

  4. Leanne

    Ok, I tried using sudo nautilus and still got errors when trying to copy so I looked it up and tried sudo nautilus &> /dev/null
    SOMEHOW I got it to work–SOME of the time. However, I still can’t copy a couple folders from the desktop to the thumb drive. I was able to get to one of the (hidden) folders I wanted to copy for my son and actually could change the permissions, but they did not stick even though I clicked the button at the bottom to have permissions carry to all folders/files(?)

    I want to thank you for your help so far as it’s the farthest I’ve gotten in weeks!

    1. Gayan Post author

      Hi Leanne,

      I just unapproved my first answer because I found a way to copy data using a Live desktop session. I had not tried something like this in years (which is why I got a bit confused, sorry about that), so I created a live USB session for testing this out for you. I just followed my own advice, you know running ‘sudo nautilus’ as I told you, but it too, like yours, failed. So I played around a bit and found a way backup data. So this is what you should do.

      Step 1: Start the Live Ubuntu session and once you’re logged into the desktop open ‘Nautilus’ (file manager) from the Application Launcher as usual.

      *. If you haven’t plugged in the USB drive that you’re going to backup your data, then insert it also.

      Step 2: If ‘Nautilus’ doesn’t automatically opens the USB drive, click on its icon from under the ‘Devices’. We just want to make sure that it’s mounted.

      Step 3: Again from under the ‘Devices’, select the partition where the broken Ubuntu is installed and ‘Nautilus’ should mount it for you. When done simply close ‘Nautilus’.

      Step 4: Now open Terminal and enter the below command.

      sudo passwd root

      This will ask you to enter a new password for the ‘root’ user and upon entering one will enable it (which is disabled by default). Now simply enter a password (it’ll ask twice). When done go to the next step.

      Step 5: Now enter the below command and when asked, simply enter the password that you just entered.


      Once you enter the password you’ll be logged in as the actual ‘root’ (administrator) in a Terminal session. When done, go to the next step (don’t close the Terminal window).

      Step 6: Now all we have to do is to open ‘Nautilus’ with the actual ‘root’ permissions. For that, simply enter the below command


      *. The Terminal window might give you errors, just ignore them.

      That’s it!. Now you should see under the ‘Devices’ not all the available partitions/devices, but only the ones that you mounted previously (USB drive and the broken Ubuntu partition). Now navigate your way into the Ubuntu partition where your data resides and now you should be able to ‘copy’ & ‘paste’ your data freely.

      If you encounter any issues, feel free to contact me.

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