The Open Group Base Specifications Issue 7, 2018 edition
IEEE Std 1003.1-2017 (Revision of IEEE Std 1003.1-2008)
Copyright © 2001-2018 IEEE and The Open Group


getenv - get value of an environment variable


#include <stdlib.h>

char *getenv(const char *


[CX] [Option Start] The functionality described on this reference page is aligned with the ISO C standard. Any conflict between the requirements described here and the ISO C standard is unintentional. This volume of POSIX.1-2017 defers to the ISO C standard. [Option End]

The getenv() function shall search the environment of the calling process (see XBD Environment Variables) for the environment variable name if it exists and return a pointer to the value of the environment variable. If the specified environment variable cannot be found, a null pointer shall be returned. The application shall ensure that it does not modify the string pointed to by the getenv() function.

[CX] [Option Start] The returned string pointer might be invalidated or [Option End]  the string content might be overwritten by a subsequent call to getenv(), [CX] [Option Start] setenv(), unsetenv(), [Option End]
[XSI] [Option Start]  or (if supported) putenv() [Option End]  but they shall not be affected by a call to any other function in this volume of POSIX.1-2017.

[CX] [Option Start] The returned string pointer might also be invalidated if the calling thread is terminated. [Option End]

[CX] [Option Start] The getenv() function need not be thread-safe. [Option End]


Upon successful completion, getenv() shall return a pointer to a string containing the value for the specified name. If the specified name cannot be found in the environment of the calling process, a null pointer shall be returned.


No errors are defined.

The following sections are informative.


Getting the Value of an Environment Variable

The following example gets the value of the HOME environment variable.

#include <stdlib.h>
const char *name = "HOME";
char *value;

value = getenv(name);




The clearenv() function was considered but rejected. The putenv() function has now been included for alignment with the Single UNIX Specification.

The getenv() function is inherently not thread-safe because it returns a value pointing to static data.

Conforming applications are required not to directly modify the pointers to which environ points, but to use only the setenv(), unsetenv(), and putenv() functions, or assignment to environ itself, to manipulate the process environment. This constraint allows the implementation to properly manage the memory it allocates. This enables the implementation to free any space it has allocated to strings (and perhaps the pointers to them) stored in environ when unsetenv() is called. A C runtime start-up procedure (that which invokes main() and perhaps initializes environ) can also initialize a flag indicating that none of the environment has yet been copied to allocated storage, or that the separate table has not yet been initialized. If the application switches to a complete new environment by assigning a new value to environ, this can be detected by getenv(), setenv(), unsetenv(), or putenv() and the implementation can at that point reinitialize based on the new environment. (This may include copying the environment strings into a new array and assigning environ to point to it.)

In fact, for higher performance of getenv(), implementations that do not provide putenv() could also maintain a separate copy of the environment in a data structure that could be searched much more quickly (such as an indexed hash table, or a binary tree), and update both it and the linear list at environ when setenv() or unsetenv() is invoked. On implementations that do provide putenv(), such a copy might still be worthwhile but would need to allow for the fact that applications can directly modify the content of environment strings added with putenv(). For example, if an environment string found by searching the copy is one that was added using putenv(), the implementation would need to check that the string in environ still has the same name (and value, if the copy includes values), and whenever searching the copy produces no match the implementation would then need to search each environment string in environ that was added using putenv() in case any of them have changed their names and now match. Thus, each use of putenv() to add to the environment would reduce the speed advantage of having the copy.

Performance of getenv() can be important for applications which have large numbers of environment variables. Typically, applications like this use the environment as a resource database of user-configurable parameters. The fact that these variables are in the user's shell environment usually means that any other program that uses environment variables (such as ls, which attempts to use COLUMNS), or really almost any utility (LANG, LC_ALL, and so on) is similarly slowed down by the linear search through the variables.

An implementation that maintains separate data structures, or even one that manages the memory it consumes, is not currently required as it was thought it would reduce consensus among implementors who do not want to change their historical implementations.


A future version may add one or more functions to access and modify the environment in a thread-safe manner.


exec, putenv, setenv, unsetenv

XBD Environment Variables, <stdlib.h>


First released in Issue 1. Derived from Issue 1 of the SVID.

Issue 5

Normative text previously in the APPLICATION USAGE section is moved to the RETURN VALUE section.

A note indicating that this function need not be reentrant is added to the DESCRIPTION.

Issue 6

The following changes were made to align with the IEEE P1003.1a draft standard:

The normative text is updated to avoid use of the term "must" for application requirements.

Issue 7

Austin Group Interpretation 1003.1-2001 #062 is applied, clarifying that a call to putenv() may also cause the string to be overwritten.

Austin Group Interpretation 1003.1-2001 #148 is applied, adding the FUTURE DIRECTIONS.

Austin Group Interpretation 1003.1-2001 #156 is applied.

POSIX.1-2008, Technical Corrigendum 1, XSH/TC1-2008/0238 [75,428], XSH/TC1-2008/0239 [167], and XSH/TC1-2008/0240 [167] are applied.

POSIX.1-2008, Technical Corrigendum 2, XSH/TC2-2008/0157 [656] is applied.

End of informative text.


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