Copying Directories in Linux: A Comprehensive Guide


Copying directories is an everyday task for most Linux users. It is essential to know how to copy directories in Linux because it helps to preserve files, creates backups, or restores lost files. There are various methods of copying directories in Linux, and we’ll explore some of them in this article.

Using the “cp” Command to Copy a Directory

The “cp” (copy) command is the most commonly used command for copying directories in Linux. Its syntax follows this pattern:

cp source_directory destination_directory

Here, “source_directory” is the directory containing the files to copy, and “destination_directory” is the directory where the files will be copied. To copy directories and their contents instead of individual files, use the “-r” (recursive) flag:

cp -r source_directory destination_directory

To copy a directory called “mydir” located in your home directory to the “/tmp” directory, the command would be:

cp -r ~/mydir /tmp/

Backing Up a Directory

Creating backups of important directories is crucial to prevent data loss. Backups can be conveniently stored in a backup device or a cloud storage service. To copy a directory to a backup device, connect the device to your computer and copy the directory using the “cp” command. For example, to copy a directory called “important_files” to a USB drive mounted at “/mnt/usbdrive,” the command would be:

cp -r important_files /mnt/usbdrive

Alternatively, cloud storage services like Dropbox, Google Drive, or Amazon S3 can be used to back up your files. To copy a directory to a cloud storage service, you will first need to set up the service properly, then use the appropriate command to copy the files to the cloud. Consult your cloud storage service’s documentation for more information.

Comparing Different Linux File Managers

Linux file managers are applications that help users manage files and directories on their systems. They feature graphical interfaces that are easy to use, and users can copy directories with a few clicks. Some of the popular file managers include:

  • Nautilus
  • Thunar
  • Caja
  • Konqueror
  • PCManFM

Each file manager has its unique features, but they all make copying directories very easy. To copy a directory using a file manager, select the directory to copy, right-click it, and select “Copy.” Then, navigate to the destination directory and select “Paste.”

Using the “rsync” Command to Copy a Directory

The “rsync” command is a powerful tool that can synchronise directories between two locations. It is capable of copying and updating only the files that have changed since the last synchronisation. The syntax of the “rsync” command is:

rsync options source_directory destination_directory

The “-a” (archive) option is the most commonly used option in “rsync.” To copy a directory called “mydir” located in your home directory to the “/tmp” directory using “rsync,” the command would be:

rsync -a ~/mydir /tmp/

Understanding the Linux File System

The Linux file system is structured differently from other operating systems. It is hierarchical and has a directory tree-like structure. Directories are organised as branches from the root directory (“/”), and each directory name is separated by a forward slash.

The terminal is the primary user interface for navigating and interacting with the Linux file system. A few useful commands that can help with copying directories in the Linux file system include:

  • ls (List files and directories in the current directory)
  • cd (Change the current working directory)
  • mkdir (Create a new directory)
  • rm (Remove files and directories)

Secure Copy (SCP) Command

The “scp” (secure copy) command is similar to the “cp” command, but it transfers files securely over a network connection. It uses Secure Shell (SSH) protocol for encryption and authentication. To copy a directory with “scp,” use the “-r” flag to copy directories and their contents recursively:

scp -r source_directory user@remote_host:destination_directory

The command will prompt you for your password, then copy the directory to the remote host.

Graphical vs. Command-Line Tools

Graphical file managers are ideal for copying directories and files for users who are not familiar with the command-line interface. They provide a simple user interface and easy-to-use menus and tools. However, they may not be as efficient as command-line tools for experienced users or for copying large directories.

Command-line tools like “cp,” “rsync,” and “scp” are powerful and efficient. Copying directories using the command-line allows for more customisation and extends the possibilities of what can be done. Experienced users may find the command-line interface more comfortable and efficient when copying directories.


This article has explored various methods of copying directories in Linux. We discussed the “cp” command, backing up directories, using different file managers, the “rsync” command, navigating through the Linux file system, the “scp” command, and graphical and command-line tools. By using the right tool for each job, we can make the process of copying directories more efficient and straightforward.

For further reading, consult the online documentation for each tool or command, or find a Linux community forum or discussion group to learn more.

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