This is going to be an article for beginners but with a spin at the end even for the most advanced users that involves analyzing source code of bash to determine how it actually works.

Let's say you want to run a command inside of chroot as another user all in a single command and be back at your shell. How do you do it? Turns out it can be easily done by combining several commands in a beautiful way:

sudo chroot /chroot su - user -c "cmd args"

This command combines four commands together - sudeo, chroot, su and cmd. Each command calls the next and when the last command finishes we return back to our shell (instead of being left inside of chroot.) It may seem like a pretty crazy combination of commands but that's the only way to get it working.

First, let's take a look at man chroot. It says that to run command inside chroot, you do this:

sudo chroot /chroot command

With this command we can run command inside of chroot as root, but how do we run it as another user? How about using su for command? Let's try that:

sudo chroot /chroot su - user

Nice! This runs su inside of chroot as user but we get an interactive shell and we don't return back to our shell. Let's take a closer look at man su. It says that we could try:

sudo su - user -c "cmd args"

Man page says that this makes su run cmd with arguments args as a shell command. Great! So let's use this together with chroot again:

sudo chroot /chroot su - user -c "cmd args"

Excellent! So are we done? Turns out not quite. There's still one problem. If the user has a custom environment (such as different PATHs to executables or some other customizations), it won't get initialized and we've to source the initialization file(s) ourselves:

sudo chroot /chroot su - user -c ". ~/.bash_profile; cmd args"

This does what we wanted and runs cmd args inside of chroot located at /chroot as user, initializes .bash_profile and after running cmd it quits, and we're back at our shell.

On Sourcing ~/.bash_profile

Some people couldn't understand why I was sourcing ~/.bash_profile. The reason is because I was unable to find another way to invoke the login shell and have the environment initialized.

I tried this:

sudo chroot /chroot su -l user -c "cmd args"

And it just wouldn't execute ~/.bash_profile. Su's man page says that -l invokes a login shell, however I don't see that happening. Here's the transcript that demonstrates it:

pkrumins$ pwd

pkrumins$ sudo cat ./home/testuser1/.bash_profile 
echo "moo"

pkrumins$ sudo chroot /chroot su -l testuser1 -c 'echo $PATH'

pkrumins$ sudo chroot /chroot su -l testuser1 

testuser1$ echo $PATH

testuser1$ ^D

pkrumins$ sudo chroot /chroot su -l testuser1 -c '. ~/.bash_profile; echo $PATH'       

pkrumins$ sudo chroot /chroot su -l testuser1

testuser1$ /bin/bash -l -c 'echo $PATH'

This definitely looks like a bug in su to me when -l and -c are used together. So the only way to get the environment loaded is by sourcing the initialization files yourself.


I went through su's source code (can be found in util-linux package) and it turns out it's not a bug in su!

Here are the arguments that su passes to execv when I run su user -c 'echo $PATH' (see run_shell function in su.c):

shell: /bin/bash
args[0]: -bash
args[1]: -c
args[2]: echo $PATH

As you can see, args[0][0] is -, which makes bash a login shell, so bash should be executing the startup files, but it does not!

To figure out what was happening, I built a custom version of bash and added a bunch of debugging statements. I found that there are two different login-shell states! Who'd have thought? One that you get when you've set args[0][0] to -, the other that you get when you've used the -l argument (to bash, not su!).

In case args[0][0] is -, and you're using -c to execute code, bash will not execute startup files because it's in this "non-interactive positive-login-shell" state (see run_startup_files function in bash's shell.c source file.)

However if you use -l and -c, it goes into "non-interactive negative-login-shell" state, and it will execute startup files. But we can't pass -l argument to bash, we can only pass it to su, which is not the same as passing it to bash!

That was one hell of an adventure debugging this. So if you want bash to execute startup files through su, use the . ~/.bash_profile sourcing trick! (Or alternatively define NON_INTERACTIVE_LOGIN_SHELLS when building bash.)

Until next time!


lava Permalink
December 24, 2012, 16:58

> su - user sh -c ". ~/.profile; command args"

... I have no words.

su user -c ". ~/.profile; command args"

December 24, 2012, 20:00

Oh well, I missed that "-c" calls the commands via shell.

wjgeorge Permalink
December 25, 2012, 17:06

well fix the code in the article.

not sure why you're just not doing a 'sudo -u user cmd'

December 25, 2012, 17:19

Because then the cmd will not run inside of chroot.

dkr Permalink
December 24, 2012, 17:26

looks pretyt much the same?

Qwerty Uiop Permalink
December 24, 2012, 19:15

I am not convinced you understand what you're talking about. This isn't the first time I've unwittingly clicked a useless and uninformed submission you spammed on HN.

December 24, 2012, 20:01

Sorry, I don't understand your agression. I solved a complex problem we had at Browserling (for Testling) and it works. This was the only solution that I found. Debugging bash via compiling my own version was pretty interesting and complicated.

December 25, 2012, 09:28

"I am too dumb to understand this article, therefore the author must be clueless." I don't know if there is a fancy latin name for this logical fallacy, but I like to call it "Christ, what an asshole."

wjgeorge Permalink
December 25, 2012, 17:07

actually I agree with qwerty

no need for your attack.

December 25, 2012, 05:39

You do great work Peteris. I appreciate every post you have on your site. Keep up the great work and thanks for sharing.

December 25, 2012, 14:17

Thank you!

lkjasdf Permalink
December 25, 2012, 05:58

There is a severe disconnect between your self-image and reality.

December 25, 2012, 14:17

Huh? I was solving a very complex problem and this was the only solution that I found. I deployed it in production for Testling and it's now being used by 1,000+ users. And it works.

Sharif Olorin Permalink
December 26, 2012, 00:04

A login shell should source ~/.bashrc, to the best of my knowledge and experience. What environment are you using/what specifically in your .bashrc are you noting doesn't get executed?

yrougy Permalink
December 26, 2012, 09:26

Nope ! The behavior is:
Login shell -> profile
Non-login shell -> ressource file (.bashrc)

It's either one or the other.

However, most distros puts a profile with something like

if [ -f ~/.bashrc ]
. ~/bashrc

which "manually" source the rc file if it exists. This is the best way to keep things proper (environment goes to profile and variable non exported to the ressource file this way, so aliases or PS1 goes to the rc file and are usable even in a login shell).


December 27, 2012, 18:41

It's a bug in su. I just updated the article at the that demonstrates it.

Update: it's actually not a bug in su. Check out the last update.

yrougy Permalink
December 26, 2012, 09:21

You have to source .bashrc because, in case of a login shell, the bash process only loads the profile (/etc/profile, ~/.profile and/or ~/.bash_profile ) . The *profile may loads the ressource file by itself, but it's up to you to do so.

In case of a non-interactive shell, the bash process *doesn't* look for the ~/.bashrc specifically. Actually it searches for a environment variable BASH_ENV to know the ressource file to loads.


December 27, 2012, 19:59

That's right. However I discovered it was a bug in su. If you use su with -c and -l, it will not spawn the shell as a login shell.

Update: it's actually not a bug in su. Check out the last update.

Maxim Yegorushkin Permalink
December 26, 2012, 20:06

The way you pass commands to the shell may require akward quoting. Just pipe the commands into the shell. See

jaysunn Permalink
January 01, 2013, 14:02

I really enjoy your posts? Please do not let the trolls bite.. Keep the great tips coming.

Happy New Year!!!

January 02, 2013, 23:08

Happy new year!

January 07, 2013, 10:38

but what's the difference of positive-login-shell and negative-login-shell?

January 08, 2013, 13:36

Peteris Krumins,
I really appreciate your posts. Please do not give up listening to those dumb people. Keep on posting.
Happy New Year.

sapphirecat Permalink
April 11, 2013, 18:35

Random thought: if your working directory is already /chroot, you can use the current-dir syntax to expand the path: sudo chroot ~+ su ....

Manh Cuong Le Permalink
May 15, 2013, 15:30

Hi, Peteris Krumins.

This is a very nice article. But I have trouble in understanding what is "positive-login-shell" and "negative-login-shell".

Please give it more details.

poppinfresh Permalink
August 26, 2013, 21:14

This is not terribly safe and negates the purpose of using chroot. You want to remove all setuid binaries and interactive shells from a chroot environment.

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