How to call an external command?


How do you call an external command (as if I'd typed it at the Unix shell or Windows command prompt) from within a Python script?

8/24/2020 12:25:41 PM

Accepted Answer

Look at the subprocess module in the standard library:

import subprocess["ls", "-l"])

The advantage of subprocess vs. system is that it is more flexible (you can get the stdout, stderr, the "real" status code, better error handling, etc...).

The official documentation recommends the subprocess module over the alternative os.system():

The subprocess module provides more powerful facilities for spawning new processes and retrieving their results; using that module is preferable to using this function [os.system()].

The Replacing Older Functions with the subprocess Module section in the subprocess documentation may have some helpful recipes.

For versions of Python before 3.5, use call:

import subprocess["ls", "-l"])
8/31/2019 3:17:55 AM

Typical implementation:

import subprocess

p = subprocess.Popen('ls', shell=True, stdout=subprocess.PIPE, stderr=subprocess.STDOUT)
for line in p.stdout.readlines():
    print line,
retval = p.wait()

You are free to do what you want with the stdout data in the pipe. In fact, you can simply omit those parameters (stdout= and stderr=) and it'll behave like os.system().


Some hints on detaching the child process from the calling one (starting the child process in background).

Suppose you want to start a long task from a CGI script. That is, the child process should live longer than the CGI script execution process.

The classical example from the subprocess module documentation is:

import subprocess
import sys

# Some code here

pid = subprocess.Popen([sys.executable, ""]) # Call subprocess

# Some more code here

The idea here is that you do not want to wait in the line 'call subprocess' until the is finished. But it is not clear what happens after the line 'some more code here' from the example.

My target platform was FreeBSD, but the development was on Windows, so I faced the problem on Windows first.

On Windows (Windows XP), the parent process will not finish until the has finished its work. It is not what you want in a CGI script. The problem is not specific to Python; in the PHP community the problems are the same.

The solution is to pass DETACHED_PROCESS Process Creation Flag to the underlying CreateProcess function in Windows API. If you happen to have installed pywin32, you can import the flag from the win32process module, otherwise you should define it yourself:


pid = subprocess.Popen([sys.executable, ""],

/* UPD 2015.10.27 @eryksun in a comment below notes, that the semantically correct flag is CREATE_NEW_CONSOLE (0x00000010) */

On FreeBSD we have another problem: when the parent process is finished, it finishes the child processes as well. And that is not what you want in a CGI script either. Some experiments showed that the problem seemed to be in sharing sys.stdout. And the working solution was the following:

pid = subprocess.Popen([sys.executable, ""], stdout=subprocess.PIPE, stderr=subprocess.PIPE, stdin=subprocess.PIPE)

I have not checked the code on other platforms and do not know the reasons of the behaviour on FreeBSD. If anyone knows, please share your ideas. Googling on starting background processes in Python does not shed any light yet.


import os
os.system("your command")

Note that this is dangerous, since the command isn't cleaned. I leave it up to you to google for the relevant documentation on the 'os' and 'sys' modules. There are a bunch of functions (exec* and spawn*) that will do similar things.


I'd recommend using the subprocess module instead of os.system because it does shell escaping for you and is therefore much safer.['ping', 'localhost'])

import os
cmd = 'ls -al'

If you want to return the results of the command, you can use os.popen. However, this is deprecated since version 2.6 in favor of the subprocess module, which other answers have covered well.


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