Go os package

The os package provides cross-platform access to essential system functionality:

For starting and managing processes, the package os/exec is a bit simpler to use.

The global variable os.Args is a slice of strings storing the program arguments. The first string is always the name of the executable itself.

We’ll look here just at reading and writing files. The rest is easy enough to look up in the os package documentation.

If the os package seems oddly complicated and if many of its names seem ugly, keep in mind that the os package is designed to resemble the Unix platform libraries familiar to C programmers. A package that totally ditched the legacy of Unix and C would be easier to learn, but in this case, the authors of Go favored familiarity for experienced progammers. Worse, the package’s documentation leaves a lot of details unspecified; to fill in these details, consult documentation on the Linux system calls.

Before understanding function os.OpenFile, we first must understand bit flags and how to use octal digits to designate Unix file permissions:

bit flags

When we have many yes/no values to represent, rather than use booleans, it’s common to use the individaul bits of an integer to represent these values. These are called bit flags.

Consider that any power of two integer has just a single set bit:

0000_0001    (decimal 1)
0000_0010    (decimal 2)
0000_0100    (decimal 4)
0000_1000    (decimal 8)
0001_0000    (decimal 16)
0010_0000    (decimal 32)
0100_0000    (decimal 64)
1000_0000    (decimal 128)

If we bitwise or together powers of two, we get a number that is the combination of the bits represented by those powers:

var b byte = 4 | 16 | 128         // 1001_0100  (has just the bits represented by 4, 16, and 128)

(The order of the numbers we ‘or’ together does not matter: the result would be the same.)

Given a number, we can test whether it has an individual bit set by bitwise and’ing it with the power of two representing that bit:

var b byte = 79
var hasBit16 bool = (b & 16) > 0

So say we are dealing with many yes/no values, like the ingredients of a sandwich. Rather than use booleans, we define power of two constants denoting all the options:

const (
    lettuce = 1
    tomato = 2
    mustard = 4
    mayonaisse = 8
    cheese = 16
    pepper = 32
    salt = 64

We can these represent seven yes/no values in a single byte:

var ingredients byte = lettuce | tomato | cheese | salt   // hold the mustard, mayonaisse, and pepper

octal numbers designating file permissions

Every file and directory in Unix has nine yes/no permissions, expressed in this order:

The convention in Unix is to use three octal digits to represent these nine bits. Just like one hex digit corresponds directly to four binary digits, one octal digit corresponds directly to three binary digits:

So we can denote read, write, and execute permissions with one octal digit. We use one octal digit to denote the three permissions of the owning user, another to denote the permissions of the owning group, and another to denote the permissions of everyone else:

permissions := 0714   // (octal constants denoted by leading 0)
                      // 7 = 111, so owning user can read, write, and execute
                      // 1 = 001, so owning group can just execute
                      // 4 = 100, so non-users can just read

opening files

The os.File struct represents an open file. All of os.File’s fields are private because we are meant to interact with it using only its methods.

Internally, os.File stores a file descriptor, which we can retrieve with the Fd method (though we generally have no need to deal directly with file descriptors in Go).

Rather than create instances of os.File directly, we use os.OpenFile, which opens a new or existing file and returns a pointer to an instance of os.File. We pass a string path denoting the file to open, an integer denoting the mode (read-only, write-only, etc.), and another integer denoting the type of file and its permissions. Very confusingly, the first integer is just an int, but the second is a os.FileMode, which is defined as a uint32. Why define a custom type for one but not the other? Why is the integer denoting the file mode not a FileMode while the integer denoting everything but the file mode is a FileMode?! It’s baffling.

Anyway, for both integers, the individual bits represent various modes, types, and permissions as bit flags. The os package defines eight bit flag constants for the eight modes:

When opening a file, we specify the modes as a combination of these constants bitwise or’d together:

mode := os.O_RDWR | os.O_APPEND | os.O_TRUNC      // an integer denoting these three modes

Not all combinations are valid, e.g. a file cannot be both read-only and write-only. (This is an area where the os package documentation does not give details. Consult the Linux documentation about these flags.)

For the second integer, we have twelve os.FileMode bit flag constants:

Most of these denote special file types, so for opening most normal files, we won’t use any of these flags.

The lowest nine bits of the second integer denote the nine Unix file permissions. We combine ‘mode’ and permissions by bitwise or’ing ‘mode’ constants and an octal number for the permissions:

fileMode := os.ModeTemporary | 0777      // a temporary file with read, write, execute permissions for everyone

Most combinations of the os.FileModess are invalid, e.g. a file cannot be both a directory and a socket, so os.ModeDirectory | os.ModeSocket is invalid.

The second integer argument only matters when opening a new file: if the file already exists, we can just pass 0! If we don’t use os.O_CREATE, os.OpenFile will return an error if the file does not already exist:

f, err := os.OpenFile("/foo/ack", os.RDWR, 0)    // open file at path "/foo/ack" for reading and writing
if err != nil {
    // we get an error if a file at path "/foo/ack" did not already exist

// This time, the open will succeed and the file created if it doesn't exist already.
// Because this may create a new file, we should specify proper permissions.s
f, err = os.OpenFile("/foo/ack", os.RDWR | os.CREATE, 0777)   // everyone has full permissions for new file
if err != nil {
    // ...

As conveniences, we have os.Open as a simpler way to open an existing file for reading and os.Create as a simpler way to open a new file for reading and writing:

f, err := os.Open("/foo/bar")       // os.OpenFile("/foo/bar", O_RDONLY, 0)
if err != nil {
    // ... problem opening the existing file

f2, err := os.Create("/foo/ack")    // os.OpenFile("/foo/ack", O_RDWR | O_CREATE | O_TRUNC, 0666)
if err != nil {
    // ... problem opening the new file

reading and writing files

Once we have an os.File pointer returned by os.OpenFile, we can read and write the file (modes and permissions willing) using the os.File methods Read, ReadAt, Seek, Truncate, Write, WriteAt, WriteString. We’ll look here just at Read, Write, and Seek.


The Read method takes a slice of bytes and returns the number of bytes read (plus an error). The bytes read are copied to the slice. The number of bytes read will be less than or equal to the length of the slice:

(In all these examples, assume an os.File pointer f opened for reading and writing.)

b := make([]byte, 40)
n, err := f.Read(b)
if err != nil {
    // ... some error in reading the file
b2 := b[:n]    // get slice with just the read bytes

The Read method advances the file marker by the number of bytes read. When we read when the marker is at the end of file, Read will return 0 and io.EOF (a constant in the io package denoting End of File):

b := make([]byte, 40)
n, err := f.Read(b)
if err != nil {
    // err will be io.EOF if the file marker was at the end of the file

Because Read doesn’t necessarily read as many bytes as we request, we have to repeatedly read until we get all the bytes we want:

// read 40 bytes (or fewer if the file does not have 40 bytes left from where we start reading)
b := make([]byte, 40)
bytesRead := 0
for bytesRead < 40 {
    n, err := f.Read(b[bytesRead:])
    if err != nil {
        if err == io.EOF {
            // got all the bytes there are to read
            b = b[:bytesRead]
        // ... some other error
    bytesRead += n


The Write method takes a slice of bytes and returns the number of bytes written (plus an error). The bytes written are copied from the slice. The number of bytes written will be less than or equal to the length of the slice. The error will be io.ErrShortWrite if the number of bytes is less than the length. The Write method advances the file marker by the number of bytes written:

// write 40 bytes
b := make([]byte, 40)
// ... populate the slice with interesting data
bytesWritten := 0
for bytesWritten < 40 {
    n, err := f.Write(b[bytesWritten:])
    if err != nil && err != io.ErrShortWrite {            
        // ... some error (other than not writing all 40 bytes)
    bytesWritten += n


The Seek method moves the file marker. The first argument specifies the offset; the second argument specifies the position from which the offset is relative. This second argument is one of three constants defined in the io package:

The Seek method returns the new marker position and an error.

pos, err := f.Seek(35, io.SeekStart)     // seek to the 36th byte of the file (remember to import 'io')
if err != nil {
    // ... error moving file marker

closing files

Once our process is done with a file, it should close the file with the os.File method Close:

f, err := Open("somefile")
if err != nil {
    // ... file did not open successfully
// ... use the file
f.Close()              // we close the file once we no longer need it

Common practice in Go is to use a defer statement to close the file after opening it and checking for the error; this ensures the file will be closed once execution leaves the enclosing call:

f, err := Open("somefile")
if err != nil {
    // if an error occurs, 'f' will be nil, so we should only defer Close once we know no error occured 
defer f.Close()         // ensure we close the file when the enclosing call returns
// ... use the file

Because Close returns an error value, the really proper way to defer a close is like so:

defer func() {
    err := f.Close()
    if err != nil {
        // ... file didn't close properly

(It’s not always clear what we can do when closing a file fails, but this is how we would at least detect the problem.)

creating, reading, and modifying directories

If the open file is a directory (remember that a directory is technically just a special kind of file), we can read its contents with the os.File methods Readdir and Readdirnames. To create new directories, we use the functions os.Mkdir and os.MkdirAll (‘mk’ is short for ‘make’). To modify the contents of a directory, we create new files and use the functions os.Link, os.Rename, os.Remove, and os.Removeall.

deleting files and directories

To delete a file or directory, we simply remove it from all directories where it is listed. The filesystem will reuse the storage space occupied by a file once it is no longer listed in any directory of the partition.