Tar Command in Linux (Create and Extract Archives)

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The tar command is used to create tar archives by converting a group of files into an archive. It also has the ability to extract tar archives, display a list of the files included in the archive, add additional files to an existing archive, as well as various other kinds of operations.

Tar was originally designed for creating archives to store files on magnetic tape which is why it has its name “Tape ARchive”.

In this tutorial, we will show you how to use the tar command to extract, list and create tar archives through practical examples and detailed explanations of the most common tar options.

Tar Command Syntax

There are two versions of tar, BSD tar and GNU tar with some functional differences between. Most Linux systems come with GNU tar pre-installed by default.

The general syntax for the tar command is as follows:

tar [OPERATION_AND_OPTIONS] [ARCHIVE_NAME] [FILE_NAME(s)]
  • OPERATION - Only one operation argument is allowed and required. The most frequently used operations are:
    • --create (-c) - Create a new tar archive.
    • --extract (-x) - Extract the entire archive or one or more files from an archive.
    • --list (-t) - Display a list of the files included in the archive
  • OPTIONS - The most frequently used operations are:
    • --verbose (-v) - Show the files being processed by the tar command.
    • --file=archive=name (-f archive-name) - Specifies the archive file name.
  • ARCHIVE_NAME - The name of the archive.
  • FILE_NAME(s) - A space-separated list of filenames to be extracted from the archive. If not provided the entire archive is extracted.

When executing tar commands, you can use the long or the short form of the tar operations and options. The long forms are more readable while the short forms are faster to type. The long-form options are prefixed with a double dash (--). The short-form options are prefixed with a single dash (-) which can be omitted.

Creating Tar Archive

Tar supports a vast range of compression programs such as gzip, bzip2, lzip, lzma, lzop, xz and compress. When creating compressed tar archives it is an accepted convention to append the compressor suffix to the archive file name. For example, if an archive has been compressed with gzip it should be named archive.tar.gz.

To create a tar archive use the -c option followed by -f and the name of the archive.

For example, to create an archive named archive.tar from the files named file1, file2, file3, you would run the following command:

tar -cf archive.tar file1 file2 file3

Here is the equivalent command using the long-form options:

tar --create --file=archive.tar file1 file2 file3

You can create archives from the contents of one or more directories or files. By default, directories are archived recursively unless --no-recursion option is specified.

The following example will create an archive named user_backup.tar of the /home/user directory:

tar -cf backup.tar /home/user

Use the -v option if you want to see the files that are being processed.

Creating Tar Gz Archive

Gzip is the most popular algorithm for compressing tar files. When compressing tar archives with gzip the archive name should end with either tar.gz or tgz.

The -z option tells tar to compress the archive using the gzip algorithm as it is created. For example, to create a tar.gz archive from given files you would use the following command:

tar -czf archive.tar.gz file1 file2

Creating Tar Bz2 Archive

Another popular algorithm for compressing tar files is bzip2. When compressing tar archives with bzip2 the archive name should end with either tar.bz2 or tbz.

When -j option is specified tar will use bzip2 algorithm to compress the archive. The following command will create a tar.bz2 archive from the given files:

tar -cjf archive.tar.bz2 file1 file2

Listing Tar Archives

When used with the --list (-t) option, the tar command will list the content of a tar archive without extracting it. The command bellow, will list the content of the archive.tar file:

tar -tf archive.tar

The output will list the names of all files in the archive:

file1
file2
file3

To get more information such as the file owner, file size, timestamp use the --verbose (-v) option:

tar -tvf archive.tar
-rw-r--r-- linuxize/users       0 2018-09-08 01:19 file1
-rw-r--r-- linuxize/users       0 2018-09-08 01:19 file2
-rw-r--r-- linuxize/users       0 2018-09-08 01:19 file3

Extracting Tar Archive

Most of the archived files in Linux are archived and compressed using a tar or tar.gz format. Knowing how to extract these files from the command line is important.

To extract a tar archive use the --extract (-x) option followed by the archive name:

tar -xf archive.tar

It is also common to add the -v option to print the names of the files being extracted.

tar -xvf archive.tar

Extracting Tar Archive in a Different Directory

By default, tar will extract the archive contents in the current working directory. Use the --directory (-C) to extract archive files in a specific directory:

For example, to extract the archive contents to the /opt/files directory, you can use:

tar -xf archive.tar -C /opt/files

Extracting Tar Gz and Tar Bz2 Archives

When extracting compressed archives such as tar.gz or tar.bz2 you do not have to specify a decompression option. The command is the same as when extracting tar archive:

tar -xf archive.tar.gz
tar -xf archive.tar.bz2

Extracting Specific Files from a Tar Archive

Sometimes instead of extracting the whole archive, you might need to extract only a few files from it.

To extract a specific file(s) from a tar archive, append a space-separated list of file names to be extracted after the archive name:

tar -xf archive.tar file1 file2

When extracting files, you must provide their exact names including the path, as printed by --list (-t).

Extracting one or more directories from an archive is the same as extracting files:

tar -xf archive.tar dir1 dir2

If you try to extract a file that doesn’t exist, an error message similar to the following will be displayed:

tar -xf archive.tar README
tar: README: Not found in archive
tar: Exiting with failure status due to previous errors

Extracting Files from a Tar Archive using Wildcard

To extract files from an archive based on a wildcard pattern, use the --wildcards switch and quote the pattern to prevent the shell from interpreting it.

For example, to extract files whose names end in .js (Javascript files), you can use:

tar -xf archive.tar --wildcards '*.js'

Adding Files to Existing Tar Archive

To add files or directories to an existing tar archive, use the --append (-r) operation.

For example, to add a file named newfile to archive.tar, you would run:

tar -rvf archive.tar newfile

Removing Files from a Tar Archive

Use the --delete operation to remove files from an archive.

The following example shows how to remove the file file1 from archive.tar,:

tar --delete -f archive.tar file1

Conclusion

The most common uses of the tar command are to create and extract a tar archive. When extracting an archive use the tar -xf command followed by the archive name and to create a new one use tar -czf followed by the archive name and the files and directories you want to add to the archive.

For more information about the tar command, consult the Gnu tar documentation page.