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Understanding imports and PYTHONPATH

by Dan Fairs last modified Mar 03, 2009 03:36 PM
An understanding of PYTHONPATH is key when developing new Python modules, or installing third-party packages and eggs. This article gives an overview of PYTHONPATH and the way Python imports modules.

Something I've heard a few times from developers coming to Python from languages such as PHP is that module importing and the PYTHONPATH is a bit of a mystery. I remember understanding PYTHONPATH when I learned Python since I'd done a bit of Java at university (and PYTHONPATH is conceptually the same as Java's CLASSPATH), but several flavours of import confused me. This post covers both; first we'll talk about the import statement, and then we'll cover PYTHONPATH.

Understanding import and from ... import ...

Python has two forms of import statement. They look something like this:

import z3c.form.form
from z3c.form import form

Python is all about binding (or assigning) names to values, and the primary purpose of the import statement is to bind names to modules. The key difference between the two forms above is what names are made available. The first form lets you reference 'z3c.form.form' in your code; the latter lets you reference 'form' directly. Let's examine the first case:

>>> import z3c.form.form
>>> z3c.form.form
<module 'z3c.form.form' from '/eggs/z3c.form-1.9.0-py2.5.egg/z3c/form/form.pyc'>
>>> form
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<console>", line 1, in <module>
NameError: name 'form' is not defined

Contrast this with the second case:

>>> from z3c.form import form
>>> z3c.form.form
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<console>", line 1, in <module>
NameError: name 'z3c' is not defined
>>> form
<module 'z3c.form.form' from '/eggs/z3c.form-1.9.0-py2.5.egg/z3c/form/form.pyc'>

The only difference between the two cases is the name which is available after the import. (OK, that's a bit of a lie, but we'll gloss over that for now). The rule of thumb is that you will always refer to the bit after the 'import' in following code; so, when you say 'import z3c.form.form' you'll be able to refer to 'z3c.form.form', and when you say 'from z3c.form import form' you'll simply be able to refer to 'form'. In both cases, what you are actually dealing with when you actually use that name (be that 'z3c.form.form' or just 'form') is exactly the same - in this case, the 'form.pyc' module from the z3c.form package.

PYTHONPATH

So how does PYTHONPATH fit into this?

PYTHONPATH is an environment variable, much like PATH. You can get a list of environment variables on UNIX-like operating systems by running the 'env' command. It's available in the Properties of My Computer in Windows. PYTHONPATH is similar to PATH in another way, in that it defines a search path. However, unlike PATH (which tells the operating system which directories to look for executable files in), PYTHONPATH is used by the Python interpreter to find out where to look for modules to import.

This is probably best demonstrated with an example. Let's create a file called hello.py in a directory ~/pymodules:

hornet:~ dan$ mkdir pymodules
hornet:~ dan$ cd pymodules/
hornet:pymodules dan$ emacs hello.py
hornet:pymodules dan$ cat hello.py
def print_hello():
    print 'hello!'

Now, as my current directory is the pymodules directory, I can fire up Python, import my hello module, and run print_hello():

hornet:pymodules dan$ python
Python 2.5.1 (r251:54863, Jan 13 2009, 10:26:13)
[GCC 4.0.1 (Apple Inc. build 5465)] on darwin
Type "help", "copyright", "credits" or "license" for more information.
>>> import hello
>>> hello.print_hello()
hello!

However, this doesn't work if I'm not in that pymodules directory:

hornet:pymodules dan$ cd
hornet:~ dan$ python
Python 2.5.1 (r251:54863, Jan 13 2009, 10:26:13)
[GCC 4.0.1 (Apple Inc. build 5465)] on darwin
Type "help", "copyright", "credits" or "license" for more information.
>>> import hello
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
ImportError: No module named hello

To fix this, we need to tell Python to look in our new pymodules directory for libraries. We do this by setting the PYTHONPATH variable:

hornet:~ dan$ export PYTHONPATH=$PYTHONPATH:/Users/dan/pymodules 
hornet:~ dan$ python
Python 2.5.1 (r251:54863, Jan 13 2009, 10:26:13)
[GCC 4.0.1 (Apple Inc. build 5465)] on darwin
Type "help", "copyright", "credits" or "license" for more information.
>>> import hello
>>> hello.print_hello()
hello!

The magic is in that 'export' line, which is appending the path '/Users/dan/pymodules' to the environment variable PYTHONPATH. Note how we append, to avoid completely overwriting any existing values.

Special cases and examining the search path

There are a few of 'special cases' to be aware of when thinking about where Python modules may be imported from. The first is that the Python installation's site-packages directory will always be placed on the search path automatically. Secondly, as we saw in the first 'hello' example, the current module's directory is placed on the search path, allowing relative imports (more on this shortly). Finally, the current directory is also placed on the search path.

This begs the obvious question: how can you definitively find out where Python is looking for modules? Well, like this:

hornet:~ dan$ python
Python 2.5.1 (r251:54863, Jan 13 2009, 10:26:13)
[GCC 4.0.1 (Apple Inc. build 5465)] on darwin
Type "help", "copyright", "credits" or "license" for more information.
>>> import sys
>>> from pprint import pprint as pp
>>> pp(sys.path)
['',
 '/Library/Python/2.5/site-packages/virtualenv-1.0-py2.5.egg',
 '/System/Library/Frameworks/Python.framework/Versions/2.5/lib/python25.zip',
 '/System/Library/Frameworks/Python.framework/Versions/2.5/lib/python2.5',
 '/System/Library/Frameworks/Python.framework/Versions/2.5/lib/python2.5/plat-darwin',
 '/System/Library/Frameworks/Python.framework/Versions/2.5/lib/python2.5/plat-mac',
 '/System/Library/Frameworks/Python.framework/Versions/2.5/Extras/lib/python',
 '/System/Library/Frameworks/Python.framework/Versions/2.5/lib/python2.5/lib-tk',
 '/System/Library/Frameworks/Python.framework/Versions/2.5/lib/python2.5/lib-dynload',
 '/Library/Python/2.5/site-packages',
 '/System/Library/Frameworks/Python.framework/Versions/2.5/Extras/lib/python/PyObjC']

That's using a my MacBook's system Python in a fresh terminal. As you can see, there's quite a lot of items in there! (Note also the use of pprint, the 'pretty printer' library to format the output nicely). Note that the first item is the empty list (the current directory) - this is what made our very first 'import hello' work, as noted before. Also notice that the site-packages directory has been placed on the search path. Finally, there's a bunch of items on there that Apple set up. You can also see that I have the virtualenv package installed in my system Python.

Contrast this with the list after we've set our PYTHONPATH manually as before:

hornet:~ dan$ export PYTHONPATH=$PYTHONPATH:/Users/dan/pymodules
hornet:~ dan$ cd /tmp
hornet:tmp dan$ python
Python 2.5.1 (r251:54863, Jan 13 2009, 10:26:13)
[GCC 4.0.1 (Apple Inc. build 5465)] on darwin
Type "help", "copyright", "credits" or "license" for more information.
>>> import sys
>>> from pprint import pprint as pp
>>> pp(sys.path)
['',
 '/Library/Python/2.5/site-packages/virtualenv-1.0-py2.5.egg',
 '/private/tmp',
 '/Users/dan/pymodules',
 '/System/Library/Frameworks/Python.framework/Versions/2.5/lib/python25.zip',
 '/System/Library/Frameworks/Python.framework/Versions/2.5/lib/python2.5',
 '/System/Library/Frameworks/Python.framework/Versions/2.5/lib/python2.5/plat-darwin',
 '/System/Library/Frameworks/Python.framework/Versions/2.5/lib/python2.5/plat-mac',
 '/System/Library/Frameworks/Python.framework/Versions/2.5/Extras/lib/python',
 '/System/Library/Frameworks/Python.framework/Versions/2.5/lib/python2.5/lib-tk',
 '/System/Library/Frameworks/Python.framework/Versions/2.5/lib/python2.5/lib-dynload',
 '/Library/Python/2.5/site-packages',
 '/System/Library/Frameworks/Python.framework/Versions/2.5/Extras/lib/python/PyObjC']

The two important things to note are:

  • My changed current working directory (/tmp) has been added to the search path
  • /Users/dan/pymodules has been added to the path, having been read from the PYTHONPATH environment variable.

You can dynamically add and remove paths from sys.path to change where Python looks for modules on-the-fly. It's not really recommended, however, unless you're specifically writing package management software.

Relative Imports

There's one final type of import that we haven't considered yet: the relative import. Consider this:

hornet:~ dan$ cd pymodules/
hornet:pymodules dan$ mkdir p
hornet:pymodules dan$ touch p/__init__.py
hornet:pymodules dan$ touch p/m1.py
hornet:pymodules dan$ touch p/m2.py
hornet:pymodules dan$ emacs p/m1.py
hornet:pymodules dan$ cat p/m1.py
import m2
hornet:pymodules dan$

What's happened here?

Well, we've gone back to our pymodules directory (which is now on the PYTHONPATH, so we can import things directly from it). We've created a package called 'p' by creating a directory of that name and adding an __init__.py, making that directory importable. We've then created two modules in that 'p' package, called m1 and m2. Now - look at the following session:

hornet:pymodules dan$ cd /tmp
hornet:tmp dan$ python
Python 2.5.1 (r251:54863, Jan 13 2009, 10:26:13)
[GCC 4.0.1 (Apple Inc. build 5465)] on darwin
Type "help", "copyright", "credits" or "license" for more information.
>>> import m1
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
ImportError: No module named m1
>>> import m2
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
ImportError: No module named m2
>>> import p.m1
>>>

Firstly, we demonstrate that just typing 'import m1' and 'import m2' don't work. This is expected: they're not on the PYTHONPATH. 'import p.m1' does work, though; again, this is expected, since p's parent directory, pymodules, is on the PYTHONPATH.

But hold on a minute - let's take another look at m1.py:

hornet:pymodules dan$ cat p/m1.py
import m2

What's going on here? We just showed that 'import m2' by itself doesn't work, right?

Well, almost. Python allows relative imports. Basically, you can say 'import m2' from inside m1.py because m1.py and m2.py are in the same package (same directory). This looks like a handy feature - if you use relative imports everywhere, then you can freely move your modules around and their relative imports will keep working. However, there is a danger here: if I were to create a file called 'os.py' in that pymodules directory, it would mask the system Python's 'os' module when I try to import it. The problem is one of transparency: from looking at the import line, you can't tell whether an import is relative or absolute.

It's worth noting that this behaviour has changed in Python 3: you now say 'import .m2' to do a relative import of the m2 module. To put it another way, imports are always absolute unless you specifically make them relative.

Modules are only imported once

The final thing to note is that modules are only imported once, the first time that they're used. You can generally forget about this fact, though remember that some modules (particularly in the Zope 2 world) have code which runs upon import. Let's modify hello.py to demonstrate this:

hornet:pymodules dan$ cat hello.py
print 'Importing hello'

def print_hello():
    print 'hello!'
hornet:pymodules dan$ python
Python 2.5.1 (r251:54863, Jan 13 2009, 10:26:13)
[GCC 4.0.1 (Apple Inc. build 5465)] on darwin
Type "help", "copyright", "credits" or "license" for more information.
>>> import hello
Importing hello
>>> import hello
>>>

Even though we imported the hello module twice, the code at the module level was only executed once.

Managing PYTHONPATH

Not too long ago, that was pretty much all there was to know. To use a third-party package, you'd download it and either install it in your Python's site-packages directory (as that's already on the PYTHONPATH), or you'd create a new directory for it to live in, and add that directory to your PYTHONPATH in a wrapper script, or in your ~/.bash_profile. As we've demonstrated, this still works just fine.

The problem with that approach, however, is that it affects every Python program you run. They'll all get the same (probably large) PYTHONPATH, and the chance of them accidentally importing code from an unexpected location rises. Unfun debugging sessions ensue.

A better approach these days is to use virtualenv. As discussed in previous articles, a virtualenv isolates gives you a place to install packages without interfering with the main Python install; refer to those articles for more information on installing and using virtualenv.

That about wraps up this look at imports and PYTHONPATH. As ever, more information on all this can be found in the official Python documentation.


Filed under:
John
John says:
Oct 01, 2010 10:42 PM
Thanks. helpful. Have been doing dive in and python main site. helpful side explanation of pythonpath. Have been having a few challenges but have successfully trouble-shooted most of them, with importing modules. I have to copy the source code .py file to the same file as the python shell for it to be able to import said module. I'm, thus, interested in defining paths so python can recognize hte .py source files in any path I define as modules capable of being imported.
John
John says:
Oct 01, 2010 10:49 PM
The part I need to understand is: "The magic is in that 'export' line, which is appending the path '/Users/dan/pymodules' to the environment variable PYTHONPATH. Note how we append, to avoid completely overwriting any existing values. "

but I don't understand that part. what would the universal path be (like not specific to your machine)?
Jon
Jon says:
Jan 05, 2011 02:28 PM
The approach you describe only works if the PYTHONPATH variable is already defined by default. In my case it isn't (typical for Linux, I think), which leads to python using the default path. I could simply define PYTHONPATH myself, I guess, manually inserting the default directories, but I wonder if that's the best approach. What do you suggest?
Raj
Raj says:
Jan 31, 2011 08:14 PM
Very well written and helpful article. Helps me clearly understand the python imports and how their connection to PYTHONPATH. Thanks!
LJ
LJ says:
Feb 18, 2011 09:56 PM
I agree with Raj! Well-written and very useful--especially if you are new to Python and Django.
Now I just need to find more info on how the site packages work.
Jayesh
Jayesh says:
Sep 27, 2011 04:32 PM
Thanks a lot !
it help a lot and is given in simple language
Laxmikant Gurnalkar
Laxmikant Gurnalkar says:
Dec 27, 2011 11:25 AM
I'm bored of typing, SORRY JOHN
"Really Thanks. very helpful. Have been doing dive in and python main site. helpful side explanation of pythonpath. Have been having a few challenges but have successfully trouble-shooted most of them, with importing modules. I have to copy the source code .py file to the same file as the python shell for it to be able to import said module. I'm, thus, interested in defining paths so python can recognize the .py source files in any path "

I am not newbie to python , but I was not confident about PYTHONPATH.
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