What Is Terminal on Mac: How to Open and Use It, Commands to Know, and More

If you have become fluent with all of what Mac offers and you’re now ready to make the most out of it, then we believe it’s time you get started with Terminal and learn how to use macOS’s command line. With the right set of commands, you can have full control of your Mac computer using just your keyboard. 

In the following post, we’ll explain what Terminal is, how you can access it, the basics and some rules you should follow and how to use Terminal to get things done on macOS. 

What is Terminal and what can you do with it?

Terminal is a native program that comes preinstalled on a Mac and allows you to perform functions on your operating system directly using text-based communication. Known otherwise as a command-line interface (CLI), Terminal helps those of you who don’t wish to go through a bunch of menus and moving your mouse to them. In many ways, it can be compared to Windows’ Command Prompt as it uses commands to accomplish some tasks more efficiently. 

When you use Terminal as your Mac’s system administrator, you will be able to tweak the most complex of things on macOS. Terminal can be utilized to open files, make files hidden on Mac, tweak your Mac’s performance, remove files, keep your Mac from going to sleep, and more. 

Related: How to Record Your Voice on a Mac

How to open Terminal on a Mac

There are several ways you can access Terminal on your Mac.

The simplest way to do it is using the Launchpad function on macOS. For this, press the Launchpad key on your keyboard and then click on the Terminal app from the list of apps available on the screen. By default, the Terminal will be inside the “Other” folder inside Launchpad. 

You can also get to the Terminal application from the Finder app. Launch the Finder app from the dock, go to Applications > Utilities, and double-click the Terminal from this window. 

You can also make use of the Spotlight feature on your Mac to gain access to Terminal. For this, press the “Command + Spacebar” keyboard shortcut and when the Spotlight screen pops up, type “Terminal”, double-click on the Terminal app when the results appear. You can also press the ‘Return’ key on the keyboard to open the selected result from Spotlight. 

Once the Terminal app is open on Mac, you can choose to keep it on the dock so that it’s easily accessible at a later time for convenience. You can do that by right-clicking the Terminal icon on the dock and going to Options > Keep in Dock. 

Terminal can also be launched using Siri on your Mac. To do this, click the Siri button from the Menu bar, and say “Open Terminal”.

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Terminal on Mac: Getting started

Before you start using Terminal and its commands, it’s important to know that learning Terminal is essentially like learning a new language and there are a handful of basic rules you should know. You will be able to get your desired output only if you’re precise and careful about the commands you enter; so be wary of the characters and spaces in between. 

When you open Terminal for the first time, you will see a window with a white background pop up on your screen and you can resize it however you want. At the top of this window, you should be able to see your Mac username, the dimensions of the window, and “bash” or “zsh”.

“bash” stands for “Bourne again shell” which was the default shell macOS Mojave and earlier. “zsh” labeled as Z shell is the default shell for all user accounts from macOS Catalina.

But the things you mostly deal with inside Terminal are: Command, Argument, and Modifier. 

Command: These are the skeleton of the Terminal app and determine what happens with the code that you typed. You can use a slew of commands to achieve the results you want within macOS. Be aware of the commands you use as some of them might even harm your Mac or delete files off of it. 

Argument: This is the resource or location where you tell your Mac to apply your preferred command to. 

Output: This part of the code is where you want Terminal to show you the output. 

To explain the above elements, let’s show you a sample code below:

cp ~/Documents/sample.pdf ~/Desktop

We can break this code into three parts. “cp” is the command that executes a particular function which, in this case, copies a file from one location to the other. Here, “cp” (Command) is used to copy a file named sample.pdf (Argument) from the Documents folder to the Desktop (Output) on your Mac. 

Once you have got an idea of these three elements, we can move on to understanding some rules when it comes to using Terminal. 

  • For a command to get executed, you must press the “Return” key on your keyboard.
  • You cannot interact with any Terminal using your mouse except for moving or closing the Terminal window.
  • Make sure the capitalization of alphabets, spaces you leave, and punctuations you enter are precise because syntax plays a huge part in how commands work. 
  • You can execute a command inside a particular folder by dragging the folder inside Terminal. This way, the selected folder’s path is copied onto Terminal so that you can use it with your preferred command.
  • If you fail to mention the location with a command, the command will be executed where it was the last run.
  • File or folders with empty spaces in their names should be written next to the command as “<file name>”. For instance, if you’re dealing with a folder named “Sample Folder”, the command to list its contents should be ls /Documents/”Sample Folder” and not ls /Documents/Sample Folder.

Mac Terminal Keyboard shortcuts

Once you have familiarized yourself with how Terminal works, you can go ahead and start using the macOS’ command-line interface.

Since everything on Terminal is done using your keyboard as the primary source of input, here are some keyboard shortcuts that you may use to perform specific tasks. Make sure you have your Terminal window open on the screen before trying any of these shortcuts. 

Keyboard Shortcut Purpose
Ctrl + A Move the cursor to the start of the line
Ctrl + B Move cursor one space backward
Ctrl + C Kill current Terminal process
Ctrl + D Exit current shell
Ctrl + E Move the cursor to the end of the line
Ctrl + F Move cursor one space forward
Ctrl + L Clear Terminal screen
Ctrl + R Search previous commands
Ctrl + T Swap two characters before the cursor
Ctrl + W Delete one word before the cursor
Ctrl + Y Paste a previously cut element 
Ctrl + _ Undo the last command
Esc + T Swap two words before the cursor
Option + → Move cursor forward by one word
Option + ← Move cursor backward by one word

Mac Terminal Commands

Here are some basic commands you can use to get things done when dealing with files on your Mac:

Command Purpose
cd Reveal home directory on Mac
cd <folder> Go to a specific directory
cd ~ Go to a folder’s home directory
cd / Go to the root of the drive
cd ../../ Go 2 levels before the current directory
q Exit
top Shows you an active process on Terminal
clear Clear the screen
touch <file> Create a file with no established extension
cp <file> <newfile> Copy a file into a new file
cp <file> <dir> Copy a file into another directory
cp <file>~/<dir>/<newfile> Copy a file to a directory and rename the file
cp -R <dir> <“new dir”> Copy a file to a directory and rename the file with spaces in the name
cp -i <file><dir> Copy a file with a prompt before the copying process
cp <file1> <file2> <file3>/Users/<dir> Copy several files to the same directory
mv <file> <dir> Move a file to a specific folder
mv <file> <new filename> Rename a file
mv *.png ~/<dir> Move all PNG files from current folder to another
rm <file> Remove a file
rm -i <file> Remove a file after confirmation
rm -r <dir> Remove a directory and all files in it
rm -f <file> Remove a file without confirmation
rm -i <file> Remove a file with a prompt before
rmdir <dir> Remove a directory
mkdir <dir> Create new directory with a name “dir”
mkdir <dir> <dir2> <dir3> Create multiple directories at once with names “dir”, “dir2”, “dir3”
mkdir -p <dir>/<dir> Create nested directories
pwd Show full path to current directory
.. Go to the parent directory 
. Go to the current folder
cat Show current folder
ls Show all files in the current directory in list format
ls -C Show a list of files sorted by size
ls -lt Show a list of files sorted by modified time
ls -l Show a list of files in the current directory
ls -a Show a list including hidden files
ls -lh Show a list with file sizes mentioned in KB, MB, or GB
ls -R Show a list of files in a folder recursively
ls -l .. Show a list of files in the parent directory
find <dir> -name <“file”> Find a file named “file” inside the “dir” directory
grep “<text>” <file> Find all occurrences of <text> inside <file>
grep -rl “<text>” <dir> Look for all files in the “dir” directory containing <text>
open <file> Open a specific file
nano <file> Open the file inside Terminal
sudo <command> Execute a command with super user privileges
<command> -h Show help for a specific command
man <command> Show the command’s manual

More Mac Terminal commands to get things done easily

While the aforementioned commands are some of the most basic ones you can learn, if you’re someone who doesn’t wish to actually learn them, you can check out these Terminal tricks that can accomplish specific tasks, some that even macOS doesn’t offer inside its System Preferences.  

Some commands have different versions for which explanations are mentioned in brackets. Secondary commands (wherever they’re mentioned) need to type after pressing the Return key and also require you to type Return after you enter them. 

What you can achieve Terminal command to use
Show/hide hidden files on your Mac defaults write com.apple.finder AppleShowAllFiles TRUE (for showing files)/FALSE (for hiding files)
killall Finder
Modify the location of screenshots on Mac defaults write com.apple.screencapture <location of the folder you want save screenshots to>
killall SystemUIServer
Change screenshot file type defaults write com.apple.screencapture type JPG (for outputting JPG files)/PNG (for outputting PNG files)
killall SystemUIServer
Disable shadows from a screenshot $ defaults write com.apple.screencapture disable-shadow -bool TRUE
killall SystemUIServer
Rename how screenshots are saved defaults write com.apple.screencapture name “Give it a new name here”
killall SystemUIServer
Download files quickly without a browser curl -O [type URL of file]
Enable charging sound for Mac when connected to power defaults write com.apple.PowerChime ChimeOnAllHardware -bool true; open /System/Library/CoreServices/PowerChime.app
Check for updates on Mac everyday defaults write com.apple.SoftwareUpdate ScheduleFrequency -int 1
Watch Star Wars but in ASCII telnet towel.blinkenlights.nl
See your dock slide up/down more quickly defaults write com.apple.dock autohide-delay -float 0 (you can change this to any numerical value to change the speed of dock)

killall Dock

You can also follow the step below to change the speed of dock sliding

defaults write com.apple.dock autohide-time-modifier -float 0

killall Dock

Make your Mac read out something Say “what you want your Mac to say”
Remove Dashboard from your Mac defaults write com.apple.dashboard mcx-disabled -boolean TRUE (replace TRUE with FALSE if you want to see Dashboard again)

killall Dock

See how long your Mac has been up for uptime
Prevent your Mac from sleeping  caffeinate

To close your Mac’s continuous awake state, use CTRL + C shortcut. 

Create an empty and transparent dock icon to be used as a separator defaults write com.apple.dock persistent-apps -array-add ‘{“tile-type”=”spacer-tile”;}’
killall Dock
Play a game inside Terminal emacs

That’s all there is to know about Terminal on Mac. 


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