How to Use the macOS Terminal: A Beginners’ Guide

Macos Terminal Keyboard

There’s nothing more fear-inducing for a regular user than having to use the macOS Terminal. This is in part because it doesn’t look inviting, and it’s often considered a “hacker’s tool,” though nothing could be further from the truth.

In this post, we show you how to use the macOS Terminal, how you can customize it to your liking, and whether there are any better alternatives on the market.

Introducing the macOS Terminal

In short, the macOS Terminal is a way to talk to the computer on a deeper level than you could achieve through a Graphical User Interface (GUI). It’s a holdover from pre-graphical displays, although it’s vital for many day-to-day and advanced tasks.

The macOS Terminal.

You’ll use a Terminal with a specific “shell.” This is an interpreter, command language, and scripting language rolled into one. You don’t need to know more than which shell your Terminal uses. For macOS Catalina users and later, you’ll use the Z shell (zsh). Older systems will use the Bash shell.

Using the Terminal can help you achieve many basic (and not-so-basic) tasks. For example:

  • Create file and folder hierarchies quickly.
  • Browse the Web with a little work.
  • Log in to your site from within the Terminal if you run a website.
  • Use package managers to install and update software from the Terminal.
  • Many ways to program within the Terminal, with Python interpreter being one example.
  • Run programs from within the Terminal, too.

Though, before you can do any of this, you need to know how to get around. We cover this next.

How to Navigate the macOS Terminal

The Terminal itself is simple to use. The title bar will show you details on the current user and directory, and the prompt screen is where you type commands and read the output.

A basic Terminal screen.

You can also open new tabs within the macOS Terminal, and they represent separate shell windows.

Opening new tabs within the Terminal.

This also extends to new windows.

Opening multiple windows with the Terminal.

We talk some more about some of the other screens within the macOS Terminal later. For now, let’s run through how to use it.

Basic Shell Commands You Need to Know

The basic concept of using the macOS Terminal is that you give commands to move around your hard drive and perform an action. As such, there is a basic set of commands you’ll want to write to your own memory.

CommandAction
cd <directory>Move to the named directory or path.
lsDisplays the folders in the current working directory or one you name.
rm <object>Remove (i.e. delete) a named file or directory. If you use the -r option, it will remove all of the files and folders within a directory.
mkdir <object>This creates a directory with a specified name in the current working directory.
touch <object>This creates a file in the current working directory. Remember to also tack the file extension onto your named file.
sudo <action>If you want to run an action as a root administrator would, sudo is the command you need. In fact, it’s a program, not a command. Even so, it’s dangerous to use, so it should be used with caution.

These commands will get you around your filesystem quickly and help perform simple actions. There are also many other commands, and specific programs will add their own commands in too. For example, if you want to find your current installed version of Python, you would type python --version into the Terminal and press Enter.

How to Customize the macOS Terminal

In its default state, the Terminal is a bland and monochrome tool that doesn’t look inviting. If you head to the Preferences (using Command + ,), you have a wealth of tools to help you customize the macOS Terminal.

The Terminal Preferences screen.

Here, you can change the font type and size, the color scheme, the cursor style, and much more.

We have a full article on customizing the Terminal, including how to edit your zsh profile like a pro – it’s worth a read once you have the basics down.

Alternatives to the Default Terminal

For most users, the macOS Terminal is a solid and powerful tool. After all, it’s what it can do for you, not how it looks. Though, some users prefer a different Terminal app depending on their needs.

For example, iTerm2 is a popular choice for many, as it lets you use split panes and perform search.

The iTerm2 logo.

In fact, we’ve looked at a bunch of alternatives to the macOS Terminal in the past. Even so, there are more still to choose from – Upterm and MacTerm are also popular.

In Summary

If you’d like to find a faster way to work with macOS, the Terminal is a great way to do it. With a handful of commands, you can zip around your hard drive quickly with a greater amount of power at your fingertips than a GUI could give you.

If you want to learn more about the zsh shell in general, we have an article to help you. Will you use the Terminal more after reading this article? Let us know in the comments section below!

Tom Rankin Tom Rankin

Tom Rankin is a quality content writer for WordPress, tech, and small businesses. When he's not putting fingers to keyboard, he can be found taking photographs, writing music, playing computer games, and talking in the third-person.

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