How to Use chown Command in Linux

chown Command in Linux

Welcome to our comprehensive guide on mastering the ‘chown’ command in Linux. Understanding file ownership is fundamental to managing a Linux system effectively. Whether you’re a seasoned Linux administrator or just starting your journey, this guide will take you from the basics to advanced usage of the ‘chown’ command. By the end, you’ll have the knowledge and confidence to wield this powerful tool efficiently.

Understanding File Ownership in Linux

In Linux, every file and directory is associated with an owner and a group. These ownership attributes play a crucial role in determining who can access, modify, or delete them.

User and Group Ownership

User ownership refers to the individual user who owns the file, while group ownership assigns a group to the file. Multiple users can belong to a group, and this group ownership allows for shared access among group members.

File ownership is presented in the format: <user>:<group>. For instance, if a file is owned by “alice” and belongs to the group “developers,” it would be represented as alice:developers.

File Ownership Examples

Let’s illustrate file ownership with some examples:

  • root:root indicates that the file is owned by the superuser, ‘root,’ and belongs to the ‘root’ group. This is common for system files.
  • john:staff means the file is owned by the user ‘john’ and is associated with the ‘staff’ group.

Syntax of the chown Command

The ‘chown’ command allows you to change the ownership of files and directories. Its syntax is as follows:


Breakdown of the Syntax

  • [OPTIONS]: Optional flags that modify the behavior of the ‘chown’ command.
  • [USER][:GROUP]: The new owner and/or group to assign to the file or directory.
  • FILE: The file or directory whose ownership you want to change.

Examples of Basic ‘chown’ Usage

Let’s explore some basic ‘chown’ usage scenarios:

  • To change the owner of a file to ‘alice’:

chown alice file.txt
  • To change the group ownership of a directory to ‘developers’:
chown :developers directory/
  • To change both user and group ownership simultaneously:
chown alice:developers file.txt

Changing Ownership of Files

Using ‘chown’ to Change the Owner

You can change the owner of a file using ‘chown‘ with the following syntax:

chown newowner file

For example, to change the owner of ‘file.txt’ to ‘bob,’ you’d run:

chown bob file.txt

Changing the Group Ownership

Similarly, you can change the group ownership of a file with ‘chown’:

chown :newgroup file

For example, to assign the group ‘admins’ to ‘file.txt,’ you’d execute:

chown :admins file.txt

Changing Both User and Group Ownership Simultaneously

To change both the user and group ownership simultaneously, you can use ‘chown’ like this:

chown newowner:newgroup file

For instance, to set both the user and group ownership of ‘file.txt’ to ‘alice’ and ‘developers,’ respectively:

chown alice:developers file.txt

Using Wildcard Characters with ‘chown’

Wildcard characters, such as ‘*’, can be combined with ‘chown’ to change ownership for multiple files matching a pattern. For instance:

chown alice:developers *.txt

This command changes the ownership of all files with the ‘.txt’ extension to ‘alice’ and ‘developers.’

Practical Examples for Each Scenario

Let’s walk through practical examples for each of the scenarios mentioned above:

Example 1: Changing File Ownership

Suppose you have a file named ‘important.doc’ owned by ‘john,’ and you want to change the owner to ‘alice.’ Here’s the command to use:

chown alice important.doc

Example 2: Changing Group Ownership

Imagine you have a directory named ‘project’ that currently belongs to the group ‘team1,’ but you need to change it to ‘team2.’ Execute the following command:

chown :team2 project/

Example 3: Changing Both User and Group Ownership

Suppose you have a file named ‘shared.txt’ owned by ‘bob’ and want to transfer ownership to ‘carol’ and the group ‘marketing.’ Use this command:

chown carol:marketing shared.txt

Recursively Changing Ownership

In some cases, you need to change ownership recursively for directories and their contents. The ‘-R’ or ‘–recursive’ option allows you to do this.

Explanation of the ‘-R’ Option

The ‘-R’ option tells ‘chown’ to perform the ownership change operation recursively. This means that not only the specified directory but also all its subdirectories and their contents will have their ownership changed.

How to Apply ‘chown’ Recursively

To apply ‘chown’ recursively to a directory, use the ‘-R’ option as follows:

chown -R newowner:newgroup directory/

For instance, to change the ownership of the ‘project’ directory and everything beneath it to ‘carol’ and ‘marketing’:

chown -R carol:marketing project/

Examples of Recursive Ownership Changes

Let’s delve into some real-world examples of applying ‘chown’ recursively:

Example 1: Recursively Changing Ownership of a Directory

Suppose you have a directory named ‘docs’ containing various subdirectories and files. You want to change the ownership of the entire ‘docs’ directory and its contents to ‘jane’ and ‘writers.’ Use the following command:

chown -R jane:writers docs/

Example 2: Recursively Changing Ownership of a Home Directory

In a multi-user environment, you might need to transfer all the files and subdirectories in a user’s home directory to a new user. To do this, use the ‘-R’ option like so:

chown -R newuser:newgroup /home/olduser/

Handling Special Cases

The ‘chown’ command can handle special cases and scenarios that require specific attention.

Changing Ownership of Symbolic Links

When dealing with symbolic links, ‘chown’ operates on the symbolic link itself, not the target file or directory. To change the ownership of the target file or directory, you’ll need to use ‘chown’ on the actual file or directory that the symbolic link points to.

Preserving or Modifying SELinux Context

If you’re using SELinux (Security-Enhanced Linux), you should be aware that changing file ownership can affect the SELinux context. To preserve the context, use the ‘-R’ option with ‘chown’ and the ‘–preserve-context’ option:

chown -R --preserve-context newowner:newgroup directory/

Changing Ownership of Multiple Files and Directories at Once

You can apply ‘chown’ to multiple files and directories simultaneously by specifying them as arguments. For example, to change the ownership of ‘file1.txt,’ ‘file2.txt,’ and ‘directory1,’ you can use:

chown alice:developers file1.txt file2.txt directory1

Advanced Use Cases and Precautions

While we’ve covered the basics, ‘chown’ can be used in more advanced ways, especially in scripting and automation. However, exercise caution when using ‘chown,’ especially with the ‘-R’ option, as it can lead to unintended consequences, such as data loss or security risks.


Mastering the ‘chown’ command is essential for Linux administrators and power users. By understanding file ownership and how ‘chown’ works, you gain control over your system’s security and permissions. Remember to use ‘chown’ with caution, following best practices to maintain a secure and well-managed Linux environment.

Marshall Anthony is a professional Linux DevOps writer with a passion for technology and innovation. With over 8 years of experience in the industry, he has become a go-to expert for anyone looking to learn more about Linux.

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