How to create temporary files using mktemp on Linux

Temporary files and directories are very important: they can be used from shell scripts for example, to store information which are necessary to complete some tasks and can be safely removed once the work is done. In this tutorial we will see how to safely create temporary files and directories using the mktemp utility on Linux.

In this tutorial you will learn:

  • How to use mktemp
  • How to provide a custom template for temporary file names
  • How to specify an alternative directory for temporary files
  • How to create a temporary directory
How to create temporary files using mktemp on Linux
How to create temporary files using mktemp on Linux

Software requirements and conventions used

Software Requirements and Linux Command Line Conventions
Category Requirements, Conventions or Software Version Used
System Distribution-independent
Software mktemp
Other None
Conventions # – requires given linux-commands to be executed with root privileges either directly as a root user or by use of sudo command
$ – requires given linux-commands to be executed as a regular non-privileged user

Introducing mktemp

The mktemp utility lets us safely create temporary files and directories named using a predefined or optionally user-provided “template”. The utility is installed by default on all the major Linux distributions, usually as part of the “coreutils” package, so it is included even in minimal installations.

In its most basic usage it can be invoked without specifying any arguments or options. When used this way, it creates a temporary file in the /tmp directory.

To safely create a temporary file or directory, its name should not collide with an already existing one. To make sure this doesn’t happen, mktemp uses the following template:


The X characters in the template are replaced by random characters and numbers. Let’s try to invoke mktemp and see what result we obtain:

$ mktemp

As you can notice, by default mktemp creates a temporary file (to create a temporary directory we should use a specific option which we will see later), in the /tmp directory using the aforementioned naming template.

The name of the created file is printed on standard output; this makes us able to use it as the value of variables we can use to reference it for subsequent operations: write something to it, or delete it once a script task is performed.

Providing a custom template for temporary file names

We just saw the default naming template that is used by mktemp to safely create temporary files. If we want, however, we have the chance to provide our custom naming template: all we have to do is to invoke the application and pass our custom template pattern as argument. To be considered valid, the provided template must at least contain 3 X characters, which, as we saw, will be replaced by random ones. If this rule is not respected an error is generated:

$ mktemp customtemplatename.XX
mktemp: too few X's in template ‘customtemplatename.XX’

Specifying an alternative directory for temporary files

As we already said, if not specified otherwise, temporary files and directories are created by mktemp in the /tmp system directory. This makes sense since it is where temporary files are stored by default. In certain situations, however, we may want to specify a different path. We can basically do it in two ways:

  1. Using the TMPDIR environment variable
  2. Using the --tmpdir option when invoking mktemp

Let’s explore these options.

Using the TMPDIR variable

Assigning a value to the TMPDIR environment variable is recommended if we want to set an alternative path to be used for temporary files and directories without having to specify it each time we invoke the application. We can, for example, set the value of this variable in our ~/.profile or ~/.bash_profile files (depending on the shell we are using).

Suppose I always want to use the /customtempdir directory for temporary files created by mktemp. Inside the ~/.bash_profile file I would append the following content:

export TMPDIR="/customtempdir"

As you may know, it is a convention to use capital letters for the name of environment variables, that’s why TMPDIR is used. In the example above we assigned a value to the variable, but we also used the export shell builtin, why? It is used to make a variable available in the environment of all the child processes of the shell. In the example above we exported and assigned a value to the variable in the same line, but we could also have written:

export TMPDIR

The specified directory should already exist and have the appropriate permissions set applied to it. It will not be created on the fly by mktemp, and it should be writeable by all those who should use it. This is evident if we examine the permissions applied to the default /tmp directory:

$ ls -ld /tmp
drwxrwxrwt. 22 root root 520 Dec 22 12:45 /tmp

As we can see from the output of ls, the directory is owned by the root user and the root group, but is writable and explorable by everybody. The final t in the permissions report produced by ls, means that the sticky bit is set, so all the files created in the directory are modifiable only by their owners. Remember that we can easily set the sticky bit on a directory by running the following command:

$ sudo chown o+t /path/to/the/directory

To make the changes to our environment effective, we need to login an logout from the system, or use source to immediately (and temporarily – the changes will be lost when we close the current shell) re-source the file (~/.bash_profile, in this case):

$ source ~/.bash_profile

Once the variable is part of the environment, its value will be used by mktemp as the destination directory in which to create temporary files and directories:

$ mktemp

Using the –tmpdir option

The other way we can specify an alternative directory in which temporary files and directories should be created, is by using the --tmpdir option (-p) at runtime. The option takes the path of directory we want to use as argument. To use the /customtempdir directory this way, for example, we would run:

$ mktemp --tmpdir=/customtempdir


$ mktemp -p /customtempdir

Creating a temporary directory

As we saw in the previous examples, by default the mktemp utility creates temporary files . In some cases, however, we may want to create temporary directories instead. How can we do it? It is very simple: all we have to do is to invoke the utility with the -d option, which is the short version of --directory. The same pattern that is used for temporary file names is also used for directories:

$ mktemp -d

Closing thoughts

The ability to safely create temporary files and directories is sometimes needed, specially from shell scripts which should store temporary information. In this tutorial we saw how to perform such a task using the mktemp utility on Linux: we saw what is the default template which is used to name temporary files and how to provide a custom one, how to specify in which directory they should be created, (the default being /tmp), and finally we saw how to create temporary directories instead of regular files.

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