With or without export for variables in bash?

March 6th, 2024


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In bash scripts, you can create variables with:

export VARIABLE="value"

or without:


...the export keyword. But, what difference does this keyword bring, and when should you use it?

Parent process and subprocesses

Say you have a script like this:

echo "hello world"

Then you open a new terminal session, and you run:


In the process of executing this, you have created and closed a subprocess.

The parent process (or the main process) is the terminal session you opened. When you run ./myScript.sh, a new session, subprocess, is opened and the script is run in that context--that environment. Now you have the parent process and the subprocess (created from the parent process).

After the execution of this script, the subprocess is closed, and all you have left is the parent process.

The same thing happens when you run bash in your terminal:


This command starts a new bash process (session). And what you have is this subprocess, run from the parent process where you executed this command.

How does all these matter and what does have to do with export? Well let's talk about local variables and environment variables.

Local Variables

When you create a variable, it stays local to that session. In your terminal, you have a process; now let's say you create a variable there:

echo "my name is $myName"
my name is dillion

Here, we created a variable called myName. However, it is local to this process.

echo "my name is $myName"
my name is dillion
bash # create subprocess
$$ echo "his name is not $myName"
$$ his name is not

So here we create a variable in the "current" process called myName. Then we use the variable in the same process.

Then we run bash which creates another process from the current process. This created process is a subprocess. In this subprocess, we try to access myName but as you notice, we get an empty string. That's because the variable does not exist in the subprocess environment.

Environment Variables

When you define a variable as an "environment variable" in a process, that variable will be available in the process, and also from other processes (subprocesses) that are created from it. This is where you use the export keyword:

export myName="dillion"
echo "my name is $myName"
my name is dillion
bash # create subprocess
$$ echo "his name is not $myName"
$$ his name is not dillion

As you see here, myName is now available in the subprocess. myName is no longer local to just the main process, but it is exported to the main process' environment such that all subprocesses have access to it.

Should you use export or not?

It depends on what you want to achieve. If it's just a variable you want to use in one place (process), for example in a loop, then you can create local variables. If it's a variable that you want to be "always accessible" for example, for subprocesses, then you want to use export.

This is why configuration files like .bashrc or .zshrc sometimes have variables with export. Here's a small section of my .zshrc:

# some stuff
export ZSH="$HOME/.oh-my-zsh"
# ...
# ...

When I open my terminal for the first time, this configuration file is read/run in the current process. Now let's say I access ZSH_THEME in the current process and in subprocesses:

echo "$ZSH_THEME"
$$ echo "$ZSH_THEME"

You see here that ZSH_THEME is unavailable in the subprocess. What aobut ZSH?

echo "$ZSH"
$$ echo "$ZSH"
$$ /Users/dillionmegida/.oh-my-zsh

As you see here, ZSH is also available in the subprocess and that's because........it is exported. That makes it an environment variable available in the environment of the process and accessible by the subprocesses.

By the way, if you want to learn why you have to source .bashrc or .zshrc, I have an article on that 😉

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