Setting User-Specific Paths in a Shell

linux, mac, windows comments edit

I used to think setting up your PATH for your shell - whichever shell you like - was easy. But then I got into a situation where I started using more than one shell on a regular basis (both PowerShell and Bash) and things started to break down quickly.

Specifically, I have some tools that are installed in my home directory. For example, .NET global tools get installed at ~/.dotnet/tools and I want that in my path. I would like this to happen for any shell I use, and I have multiple user accounts on my machine for testing scenarios so I’d like it to ideally be a global setting, not something I have to configure for every user.

This is really hard.

I’ll gather some of my notes here on various tools and strategies I use to set paths. It’s (naturally) different based on OS and shell.

This probably won’t be 100% complete, but if you have an update, I’d totally take a PR on this blog entry.

Shell Tips

Each shell has its own mechanism for setting up profile-specific values. In most cases this is the place you’ll end up setting user-specific paths - paths that require a reference to the user’s home directory. On Mac and Linux, the big takeaway is to use /etc/profile. Most shells appear to interact with that file on some level.


PowerShell has a series of profiles that range from system level (all users, all hosts) through user/host specific (current user, current host). The one I use the most is “current user, current host” because I store my profile in a Git repo and pull it into the correct spot on my local machine. I don’t currently modify the path from my PowerShell profile.

  • On Windows, PowerShell will use the system/user path setup on launch and then you can modify it from your profile.
  • On Mac and Linux, PowerShell appears to evaluate the /etc/profile and ~/.profile, then subsequently use its own profiles for the path. On Mac this includes evaluation of the path_helper output. (See the Mac section below for more on path_helper.) I say “appears to evaluate” because I can’t find any documentation on it, yet that’s the behavior I’m seeing. I gather this is likely due to something like a login shell (say zsh) executing first and then having that launch pwsh, which inherits the variables. I’d love a PR on this entry if you have more info.

If you want to use PowerShell as a login shell, on Mac and Linux you can provide the -Login switch (as the first switch when running pwsh!) and it will execute sh to include /etc/profile and ~/.profile execution before launching the PowerShell process. See Get-Help pwsh for more info on that.


Bash has a lot of profiles and rules about when each one gets read. Honestly, it’s pretty complex and seems to have a lot to do with backwards compatibility with sh along with need for more flexibility and override support.

/etc/profile seems to be the way to globally set user-specific paths. After /etc/profile, things start getting complex, like if you have a .bash_profile then your .profile will get ignored.


zsh is the default login shell on Mac. It has profiles at:

  • /etc/zshrc and ~/.zshrc
  • /etc/zshenv and ~/.zshenv
  • /etc/zprofile and ~/.zprofile

It may instead use /etc/profile and ~/.profile if it’s invoked in a compatibility mode. In this case, it won’t execute the zsh profile files and will use the sh files instead. See the manpage under “Compatibility” for details or this nice Stack Overflow answer.

I’ve set user-specific paths in /etc/profile and /etc/zprofile, which seems to cover all the bases depending on how the command gets invoked.

Operating System Tips


Windows sets all paths in the System => Advanced System Settings => Environment Variables control panel. You can set system or user level environment variables there.

The Windows path separator is ;, which is different than Mac and Linux. If you’re building a path with string concatenation, be sure to use the right separator.

Mac and Linux

I’ve lumped these together because, with respect to shells and setting paths, things are largely the same. The only significant difference is that Mac has a tool called path_helper that is used to generate paths from a file at /etc/paths and files inside the folder /etc/paths.d. Linux doesn’t have path_helper.

The file format for /etc/paths and files in /etc/paths.d is plain text where each line contains a single path, like:


Unfortunately, path_helper doesn’t respect the use of variables - it will escape any $ it finds. This is a good place to put global paths, but not great for user-specific paths.

In /etc/profile there is a call to path_helper to evaluate the set of paths across these files and set the path. I’ve found that just after that call is a good place to put “global” user-specific paths.

if [ -x /usr/libexec/path_helper ]; then
  eval `/usr/libexec/path_helper -s`


Regardless of whether you’re on Mac or Linux, /etc/profile seems to be the most common place to put these settings. Make sure to use $HOME instead of ~ to indicate the home directory. The ~ won’t get expanded and can cause issues down the road.

If you want to use zsh, you’ll want the PATH set block in both /etc/profile and /etc/zprofile so it handles any invocation.

The Mac and Linux path separator is :, which is different than Windows. If you’re building a path with string concatenation, be sure to use the right separator.