Files in Python

In this part of the Python programming tutorial, we work with files and standard input and output. We show how to read from a file and write to a file. We briefly introduce the pickle module.

Everything in Python is an object. Everything in UNIX is a file.

The open function

The open() function is used to open files in Python.

open(file, mode='r', buffering=-1, encoding=None, errors=None, newline=None)

The file is the name of the file to be opened. The mode indicates how the file is going to be opened: for reading, writing, or appending. The buffering is an optional integer used to set the buffering policy. The encoding is the name of the encoding used to decode or encode the file. The errors is an optional string that specifies how encoding and decoding errors are to be handled. The newline controls the behaviour of the newline character.

The file modes are:

Mode Meaning
'r'Reading (default)
'b'Binary data
'+'Updating (reading and writing)
'x'Exclusive creation, failing if file exists

In the following examples, we use this text file.

Lost Illusions
The firm of Nucingen
Old Goriot
Colonel Chabert
Cousin Bette

The with statement

Working with files leads often to errors; and therefore, we have to manage possible exceptions. In addition, the file object must be closed when the file object is not needed anymore. The with statement simplifies exception handling by encapsulating common preparation and cleanup tasks. It also automatically closes the opened file.


# read_width.py

with open('works.txt', 'r') as f:

    contents = f.read()

The example reads the contents of the works.txt file.

with open('works.txt', 'r') as f:

With the open() function, we open the works.txt file for reading. The file object is aliased as f. The with statement takes care of exceptions and the closing of the opened file.

contents = f.read()

The read() method reads all the content until the EOF. It returns the data as one big string.

The read function

The read() function reads the specified number of bytes from the file. If the number of bytes is not specified, it reads the whole file.


# read_data.py

import sys

with open('works.txt', 'r') as f:


The code example read five letters from the file and prints them to the console. Then it reads and prints another nine letters. The second operation continues reading from the position where the first has ended.

$ ./read_data.py 

This is the output.

The file positions

A file position is a place in the file from where we read data. The tell() method gives the current position in a file and the seek() method moves the position in a file.


# file_positions.py

import sys

with open('works.txt', 'r') as f:

    print("The current file position is {0}".format(f.tell()))
    f.seek(0, 0)

In the example, we read 14 bytes, then we determine and print the current file position. We move the current file position to the beginning with seek() and read another 30 bytes.

$ ./file_positions.py 
Lost Illusions
The current file position is 14
Lost Illusions

This is the output.

The readline method

The readline() method reads a line from the file. A trailing newline character is kept in the string. When the function reaches the end of file, it returns an empty string.


# readbyline.py

import sys

with open('works.txt', 'r') as f:

    while True:
        line = f.readline()
        if not line: 

With the readline() method and a while loop, we read all the lines from the file.

while True:

We start and endless loop; therefore, we must later jump of the loop with a break statement.

line = f.readline()

A line is read from the file.

if not line: 

We call the break statement if we reach the EOF; otherwise, we print the line to the console while stripping the newline character at the end of the line.

In the following example, we use a more convenient way of going through the lines of the file.


# read_file.py

with open('works.txt', 'r') as f:

    for line in f:

Internally, a file object is an iterarator. We can pass the file object to the for loop to traverse it.

The readlines method

The readlines() method reads data until the end of the file and returns a list of lines.


# readlines.py

with open('works.txt', 'r') as f:

    contents = f.readlines()
    for i in contents:

The readlines() method reads all the contents of a file into the memory. This may be problematic with very large files, though.

The write method

The write() method writes a string to a file.


# strophe.py

text = '''Incompatible, it don't matter though
'cos someone's bound to hear my cry
Speak out if you do
You're not easy to find\n'''

with open('strophe.txt', 'w') as f:

This time we open the file in a 'w' mode so that we can write into it. If the file does not exist, it is created. If it exists, it is overwritten.

$ cat strophe.txt
Incompatible, it don't matter though
'cos someone's bound to hear my cry
Speak out if you do
You're not easy to find

Standard I/O

There are three basic I/O connections: standard input, standard output and standard error. Standard input is the data that goes to the program. The standard input comes from a keyboard. Standard output is where we print our data with the print keyword. Unless redirected, it is the terminal console. The standard error is a stream where programs write their error messages. It is usually the text terminal.

The standard input and output in Python are objects located in the sys module.

Object Description
sys.stdinstandard input
sys.stdoutstandard output
sys.stderrstandard error

Conforming to the UNIX philosophy, the standard I/O streams are file objects.

Standard input

Standard input is the data that goes to the program.


# read_name.py

import sys

print('Enter your name: ', end='')

name = ''


while True:
   c = sys.stdin.read(1)
   if c == '\n':
   name = name + c

print('Your name is:', name)

The read() method reads one character from the standard input. In our example we get a prompt saying "Enter your name". We enter our name and press Enter. The Enter key generates the new line character: \n.

$ ./read_name.py 
Enter your name: Peter
Your name is: Peter

For getting input we can use higher level functions: input() and raw_input() .

The input() function prints a prompt if it is given and reads the input.


# input.py

data = input('Enter value: ')

print('You have entered:', data)
$ ./input.py 
Enter expression: 3*3
You have entered: 9

Standard output

The standard output is where we print our data.


# std_output.py

import sys

sys.stdout.write('Honore de Balzac, Father Goriot\n')
sys.stdout.write('Honore de Balzac, Lost Illusions\n')

In the example, we write some text to the standard output. This is in our case the terminal console. We use the write() method.

$ ./stdout.py 
Honore de Balzac, Father Goriot
Honore de Balzac, Lost Illusions

The print function puts some text into the sys.stdout by default.


# print_fun.py

print('Honore de Balzac')
print('The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans', 'Gobseck', 'Father Goriot', sep=":")

vals = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

for e in vals:
    print(e, end=' ')


In this example, we use the sep and end parameters. The sep separates the printed objects and the end defines what is printed at the end.

$ ./print_fun.py 
Honore de Balzac
The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans:Gobseck:Father Goriot
1 2 3 4 5 

This is the output.

It is possible to use the print() function to write to a file. The print() function contains a file parameter, which tells where we print data.


# print2file.py

with open('works.txt', 'w') as f:

    print('Beatrix', file=f)
    print('Honorine', file=f)
    print('The firm of Nucingen', file=f)

We open a file and write three titles of Balzac books into it. The file object is given to the file parameter.

$ cat works.txt
The firm of Nucingen


Standard output can be redirected. In the following example, we redirect the standard output to a regular file.


# redirect.py

import sys

with open('output.txt', 'w') as f:
    sys.stdout = f

    sys.stdout.writelines(['Camusot\n', 'Collin\n'])

    sys.stdout = sys.__stdout__


In the redirect.py script, we redirect a standard output to a regular file output.txt. Then we restore the original standard output back. The original value of the std.output is kept in a special sys.__stdout__ variable.

$ ./redirect.py 
$ cat output.txt

The pickle module

So far, we have been working with simple textual data. What if we are working with objects rather than simple text? For such situations, we can use the pickle module. This module serializes Python objects. The Python objects are converted into byte streams and written to text files. This process is called pickling. The inverse operation, reading from a file and reconstructing objects is called deserializing or unpickling.


# pickle_ex.py

import pickle

class Person(object):
   def __init__(self, name, age):
      self.name = name
      self.age = age

   def getName(self):
      return self.name

   def getAge(self):
      return self.age

person = Person('Monica', 15)

with open('monica', 'wb') as f:
    pickle.dump(person, f)

with open('monica', 'rb') as f2:
    monica = pickle.load(f2)


In our script, we define a Person class. We create one person. We pickle the object using the dump() method. We close the file, open it again for reading, and unpickle the object using the load() method.

$ ./pickle_ex.py 

In this part of the Python tutorial, we work with files and standard input and output in Python.