Recursively use chmod on all Files & Directories [SOLVED]

Written by - Deepak Prasad

Introduction to File Permissions

In UNIX/Linux, these permissions can be represented either symbolically (rwx) or numerically using octal numbers. The numerical representation is derived from the binary system: read is 4, write is 2, and execute is 1. By adding these numbers together, a numeric permission value can be produced for a set of permissions. For example, read and write permission would be 6 (4+2), while read and execute would be 5 (4+1).

Here's a simple table format:

Permission Type Symbol Octal Description
Read r 4 Allows the contents of a file to be read. For directories, it allows the listing of its contents.
Write w 2 Allows writing to a file or truncating it. For directories, it permits adding, removing, and renaming files in the directory.
Execute x 1 Allows executing a file (for scripts/programs). For directories, it permits accessing contents and entering the directory.

You can also add/modify/remove special permissions such as setuid , setgid, sticky bit with chmod

You can use this table to understand the different symbolic or octal value to use with chmod

Permission Type Octal Syntax (Symbolic)
read+write+execute 4+2+1=7 rwx
read+write 4+2+0=6 rw-
read+execute 4+0+1=5 r-x
read 4+0+0=4 r--
write+execute 0+2+1=3 -wx
write 0+2+0=2 -w-
execute 0+0+1=1 --x


Differentiating File and Directory Permissions

In UNIX/Linux systems, permissions work a bit differently for files and directories. While the same symbolic (r, w, x) and octal (4, 2, 1) representations are used for both, their implications vary depending on whether they're applied to a file or a directory.

1. Files:

  • Read (r / 4):
    • Allows the content of the file to be read.
    • Without this permission, a user cannot view the content of the file.
  • Write (w / 2):
    • Allows modification of the file, which includes writing new content, editing existing content, and truncating the file.
    • It doesn't mean you can delete the file. File deletion is a property of the directory containing the file.
  • Execute (x / 1):
    • Allows the file to be executed, provided it's a script or a program.
    • Without this permission, a user cannot run the file even if it's an executable script or binary.


2. Directories:

  • Read (r / 4):
    • Allows listing of the directory's content.
    • A user with read permission can see the names of files and subdirectories within the directory.
  • Write (w / 2):
    • Allows modification of the directory's content, including adding new files, deleting existing files, and renaming.
    • A user with write permission can modify the directory's content but may not be able to list its contents unless they also have read permission.
  • Execute (x / 1):
    • Allows access to the directory and its content. This is essential for directory traversal.
    • Even if a user has read permission for a directory, they cannot list its contents without execute permission. Conversely, even if they have execute permission, they cannot list the directory's content without read permission.
    • The execute permission on directories is sometimes referred to as the "search" permission, as it allows users to access the content of the directory when provided with a direct path.


Implications of Giving Certain Permissions to Directories:

When managing directory permissions, it's crucial to understand the broader implications:

  1. Write Without Execute: If a user has write but not execute permission on a directory, they can't access any of its content directly. However, if they know the name of a file inside it, they can still delete or rename it, which poses a security risk.
  2. Execute Without Read: A user with only execute permission on a directory can access its content if they know the exact path. However, they can't list the content of the directory itself.
  3. No Execute Permission: If a directory lacks execute permission for a user, that user can't access the directory or any of its subdirectories, even if they have read or write permissions.


Understanding chmod command

chmod stands for "change mode". It's a UNIX/Linux command used to change the permissions of files and directories. Permissions determine who can read, write, or execute a file or directory. They ensure the security and proper functioning of file systems, preventing unauthorized access or unwanted modifications.

Every file and directory in your UNIX/Linux system has associated access rights, which may be found by typing ls -l. The output will have a series of characters like -rwxr-xr--, indicating the permissions.


Using Octal Notation:

chmod [numeric permissions] [file/directory name]

Using Symbolic Notation:

chmod [who][operation][permissions] [file/directory name]


IMPORTANT: Take Backup before you start

Before making broad changes, it's a good practice to save the current permissions to a file. This can be done using the stat command in Linux:

find /path/to/directory -exec stat -c "%a %n" {} \; > permissions_backup.txt

This command will store the permission of all directories and files inside /path/to/directory so in case you mesh up the directory permission while applying chmod recursively, you can use this backup file to restore the permission.

For Example:

Here I have some temporary directory structure

# tree /tmp/dir1/
├── dir2
│   ├── dir3
│   │   ├── dir4
│   │   └── file3
│   └── file2
└── file1

3 directories, 3 files

This is the current permission for entire structure:

# find /tmp/dir1 -exec stat -c "%a %n" {} \;
755 /tmp/dir1
770 /tmp/dir1/dir2
750 /tmp/dir1/dir2/dir3
755 /tmp/dir1/dir2/dir3/dir4
777 /tmp/dir1/dir2/dir3/file3
640 /tmp/dir1/dir2/file2
644 /tmp/dir1/file1

Let me take a backup of the permission state of /tmp/dir:

find /tmp/dir1 -exec stat -c "%a %n" {} \; > permissions_backup.txt

Now I recursively apply 777 permission to all files and directories inside /tmp/dir:

chmod -R 777 /tmp/dir1/

Verify the new permission

# find /tmp/dir1 -exec stat -c "%a %n" {} \;
777 /tmp/dir1
777 /tmp/dir1/dir2
777 /tmp/dir1/dir2/dir3
777 /tmp/dir1/dir2/dir3/dir4
777 /tmp/dir1/dir2/dir3/file3
777 /tmp/dir1/dir2/file2
777 /tmp/dir1/file1

Now I want to revert to my earlier state of permission, so let's apply the permission from our backup file, here is a small shell script which reads our backup file line by line and applies the permission to respective file and directory:


while read -r line; do
    perms=$(echo "$line" | awk '{print $1}')
    file=$(echo "$line" | awk '{print $2}')
    chmod $perms "$file"
done < permissions_backup.txt

Execute the script:


Verify the new permission is same as before executing chmod -R 777 /tmp/dir:

# find /tmp/dir1 -exec stat -c "%a %n" {} \;
755 /tmp/dir1
770 /tmp/dir1/dir2
750 /tmp/dir1/dir2/dir3
755 /tmp/dir1/dir2/dir3/dir4
777 /tmp/dir1/dir2/dir3/file3
640 /tmp/dir1/dir2/file2
644 /tmp/dir1/file1


Examples: Applying recursive permissions using chmod

1. Change permissions for both files and directories recursively:

chmod -R 755 /path/to/directory

This sets read, write, and execute permissions for the owner and read and execute permissions for the group and others for every file and directory inside /path/to/directory.


2. Change permissions for directories only:

find /path/to/directory -type d -exec chmod 755 {} \;

Searches inside /path/to/directory and applies 755 permissions to all directories it finds. This means read, write, and execute permissions for the owner, with read and execute permissions for both the group and others.


3. Change permissions for files only:

find /path/to/directory -type f -exec chmod 644 {} \;

Searches inside /path/to/directory and adjusts permissions to 644 for all files. This provides read and write permissions for the owner and read-only for the group and others. It's a common setting for web files that shouldn't be executable.


4. Remove write permissions for group and others for all items:

chmod -R go-w /path/to/directory

Recursively removes write permissions from both the group and others for every item (files and directories) inside /path/to/directory, enhancing security by preventing unauthorized modifications.


5. Add execute permissions for the owner for all directories:

find /path/to/directory -type d -exec chmod u+x {} \;

Finds all directories inside /path/to/directory and gives execute permissions to the owner. Execute permissions are essential for accessing or traversing through directories.


6. Remove execute permissions for all files:

find /path/to/directory -type f -exec chmod a-x {} \;

Searches for all files inside /path/to/directory and removes execute permissions for everyone (owner, group, and others). This ensures no file becomes accidentally executable.


Bonus Tip: What is --preserve-root? Why you should use it?

  • In this tutorial I will be using --preserve-root with all of my chmod commands
  • This is a recommended option to use when you are planning to assign permission recursively as this can be destructive
  • Imagine by mistake you removed all permission from / (root) directory, this would lead in an unusable system
  • It is similar to running rm -rf / which if you are a Linux Administrator should know, this can destroy your server
  • With --preserve-root we inform the command not to modify root directory permission


# chmod --changes --recursive 755 /

Snippet from my terminal with this command, see the damage this command can do to your server when using without (--preserve-root).

chmod recursive usage guide for absolute beginners
chmod recursive

This would recursively change the permission of all files and dir under / which can also destroy your system

In such case it is always recommended to use

# chmod --changes --recursive --preserve-root 755 /
chmod: it is dangerous to operate recursively on '/'
chmod: use --no-preserve-root to override this failsafe

It may not be possible to use this additional option every time with chmod so you can create an alias

# alias chmod='chmod --preserve-root'

and also add this to your /etc/bashrc or individual user's .bashrc file for permanent changes

Now if we use chmod, it does not allow to modify root permission

# chmod -c --recursive 755 /
chmod: it is dangerous to operate recursively on '/'
chmod: use --no-preserve-root to override this failsafe



chmod can be used with -R or also referred as --resursive to assign/modify permission to files and directories recursively. Although it is recommended to use --changes and --preserve-root along with the command to avoid any destruction.
It is possible that you may not want out STDOUT on the screen so you can choose to reduce all messages and errors to a different file by using

# chmod --recursive --changes 755 /tmp/dir1/ >& /tmp/logfile

So this would store all the output to /tmp/logfile which you can use for debug purpose.

Lastly I hope the steps from the article to apply chmod recursively on Linux was helpful. So, let me know your suggestions and feedback using the comment section.



I have used below external references for this tutorial guide
man page for chmod


Deepak Prasad

He is the founder of GoLinuxCloud and brings over a decade of expertise in Linux, Python, Go, Laravel, DevOps, Kubernetes, Git, Shell scripting, OpenShift, AWS, Networking, and Security. With extensive experience, he excels in various domains, from development to DevOps, Networking, and Security, ensuring robust and efficient solutions for diverse projects. You can reach out to him on his LinkedIn profile or join on Facebook page.

Can't find what you're searching for? Let us assist you.

Enter your query below, and we'll provide instant results tailored to your needs.

If my articles on GoLinuxCloud has helped you, kindly consider buying me a coffee as a token of appreciation.

Buy GoLinuxCloud a Coffee

For any other feedbacks or questions you can send mail to

Thank You for your support!!

Leave a Comment