How to Install and Use the ‘su’ Command in Linux

How to Install and Use the ‘su’ Command in Linux

Installation of su in a Linux terminal for user switching

Are you trying to install the su command on your Linux system but feeling a bit lost? If you’re new to Linux, installing commands can sometimes seem a bit daunting. However, the su command is definitely worth learning to install and use. The su command simplifies user management on your Linux system. It’s available on most package management systems, making the installation process straightforward once you understand the steps.

In this guide, we will navigate you through the process of installing the su command on your Linux system. We will provide instructions for APT-based distributions like Debian and Ubuntu, as well as YUM-based distributions like CentOS and AlmaLinux. We’ll also delve into advanced topics like compiling from source and installing a specific version of the command. Finally, we will guide you on how to use the su command and verify that the correct version is installed.

So, let’s get started and master user switching by installing the su command on your Linux system!

TL;DR: How Do I Install and Use the ‘su’ Command in Linux?

The ‘su’ command typically comes pre-installed on most Linux distributions. You can verify this with the command, su --version. If it isn’t installed you can add it via the ‘util-linux’ package, sudo [yum/apt-get] install util-linux. To use it, you simply type ‘su’ followed by the username of the account you want to switch to.

Here’s an example:

su username

This command will prompt you for the password of the user you’re trying to switch to. Once you enter the correct password, you’ll be switched to that user’s environment.

[user@hostname ~]$ 

This is a basic way to use the ‘su’ command in Linux, but there’s much more to learn about user management and switching. Continue reading for a more detailed guide and advanced usage scenarios.

Understanding and Installing the ‘su’ Command

The ‘su’ command, short for ‘substitute user’, is a powerful tool in Linux. It allows you to switch to another user account without logging out and back in. This can be particularly useful for system administrators who need to perform tasks with different user privileges.

Let’s start with how to install the ‘su’ command on your Linux system, if it isn’t already pre-installed.

Installing with APT

If you’re using a Debian-based distribution like Ubuntu, you can use the Advanced Package Tool (APT) to install the ‘su’ command. Here’s how:

sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install util-linux

The util-linux package contains the ‘su’ command among other utilities. After running these commands, you can verify the installation by checking the version of the ‘su’ command:

su --version

The terminal should print out the version of your ‘su’ command.

Installing with YUM

For CentOS and other RHEL-based distributions, you can use the Yellowdog Updater, Modified (YUM) to install the ‘su’ command:

sudo yum check-update
sudo yum install util-linux

Again, util-linux is the package that contains the ‘su’ command. To verify the installation, check the version of the ‘su’ command as shown above.

Installing with Zypper

If you’re using an openSUSE distribution, you can use the Zypper package manager to install the ‘su’ command:

sudo zypper refresh
sudo zypper install util-linux

Just like with APT and YUM, you can verify the installation by checking the ‘su’ command’s version.

Installing ‘su’ Command from Source

For those who prefer to compile from the source code, you can download the source code for the ‘util-linux’ package (which includes the ‘su’ command) from the website. Here’s how you do it:

tar -xvf util-linux-2.36.tar.xz
cd util-linux-2.36
sudo make install

This will download the source code, extract it, change into the extracted directory, configure the build, compile the code, and then install it.

Installing Different Versions of ‘su’ Command

From Source

To install a different version of the ‘su’ command from source, you simply need to replace ‘2.36’ in the download URL with the version number you want. The rest of the commands remain the same.

Using Package Managers


With APT, you can install a specific version of a package using the following syntax:

sudo apt-get install util-linux=version

Replace ‘version’ with the version number you want to install.


With YUM, you can list all available versions of a package using the following command:

yum --showduplicates list util-linux

To install a specific version, use the following syntax:

sudo yum install util-linux-version

Replace ‘version’ with the version number you want to install.

Version Comparison

Different versions of the ‘su’ command might include bug fixes, performance improvements, or new features. Here’s a comparison of some recent versions:

VersionKey Changes
2.36Added support for JSON output
2.35Improved compatibility with other UNIX systems
2.34Added support for persistent systemd sessions

Using the ‘su’ Command

Basic Usage

To switch to another user account, you simply type ‘su’ followed by the username. For example, to switch to the user ‘bob’, you would type:

su bob

You’ll be prompted to enter Bob’s password. Once you do, you’ll be switched to Bob’s environment.

Verifying Installation

To verify that the ‘su’ command is installed and working correctly, you can check its version:

su --version

The terminal should print out the version of your ‘su’ command. If it does, this means the ‘su’ command is installed and working correctly.

Alternative Methods for User Switching in Linux

While the ‘su’ command is a powerful tool for user switching, Linux provides other methods that offer different functionalities and advantages. One of those methods is the ‘sudo’ command.

The ‘sudo’ Command

The ‘sudo’ command, short for ‘superuser do’, allows a permitted user to execute a command as the superuser or another user, as specified by the security policy. Here’s a basic example of using ‘sudo’ to execute a command as another user:

sudo -u bob ls

This command will run the ‘ls’ command as the user ‘bob’. The terminal will print out the contents of Bob’s current directory.

Advantages of ‘sudo’

  1. Granular Control: With ‘sudo’, you can control which commands a user can execute on a per-command basis. This is more granular than the ‘su’ command, which only controls access to another user’s shell.

  2. Audit Trail: ‘sudo’ logs all commands and failed access attempts for review later. This can be helpful for understanding who did what on a system.

  3. No Need to Share Root Password: ‘sudo’ allows users to execute commands as root without needing to know the root password.

Disadvantages of ‘sudo’

  1. Complex Configuration: ‘sudo’ requires careful configuration to ensure users can only execute the commands they need to. Misconfiguration can lead to security issues.

  2. Not Always Installed by Default: Unlike ‘su’, ‘sudo’ is not always installed by default on all Linux distributions.


If you need granular control over what commands a user can execute, or if you want an audit trail of commands, ‘sudo’ is a great choice. However, if you just need a simple way to switch to another user’s environment, the ‘su’ command is sufficient.

Troubleshooting the ‘su’ Command

Despite its simplicity, using the ‘su’ command can sometimes lead to unexpected results. Here are some common issues you might encounter and how to solve them.

Authentication Failure

An ‘Authentication failure’ message usually means you’ve entered the wrong password. Make sure you’re entering the correct password for the user you’re trying to switch to. Here’s an example of what this might look like:

su bob
su: Authentication failure

In this case, double-check the password for the user ‘bob’ and try again.

Cannot Execute Binary File

If you see a ‘cannot execute binary file’ message, this usually means the ‘su’ command is not installed or not found in your PATH. You can check if ‘su’ is installed and in your PATH with the following command:

which su

This command should print out the path to the ‘su’ command. If it doesn’t, this means ‘su’ is not installed or not in your PATH.

Permission Denied

A ‘Permission denied’ message usually means the user you’re trying to switch to does not have permission to log in. This is common with system users like ‘www-data’ or ‘nobody’. Here’s an example:

su www-data
su: Permission denied

In this case, you might need to modify the user’s shell or use the ‘sudo’ command instead.

Tips for Using ‘su’ Effectively

  1. Use the ‘-l’ Option: The ‘-l’ option provides a login shell, which means the environment will be similar to what you would get if you logged in as that user from the login screen.

  2. Switch to Root User: If you run ‘su’ without a username, it will default to the root user. Be careful with this, as the root user has full system privileges.

  3. Use the ‘-c’ Option to Run Commands: The ‘-c’ option allows you to run a command as another user. For example, su -c 'ls' bob will run the ‘ls’ command as the user ‘bob’.

Understanding User Management in Linux

To fully grasp the utility and power of the ‘su’ command, it’s crucial to understand the fundamentals of user management in Linux. User management is a core part of Linux system administration, offering a way to control who has access to the system and what they can do.

Regular Users vs. System Users

In Linux, there are two main types of users: regular users and system users.

Regular users, also known as normal users, are typically the ones created during the installation of the system. They are primarily used for day-to-day tasks and have home directories where they can store personal files.

On the other hand, system users are typically used to run system services and do not have home directories. They are created when certain packages are installed.

To list all users on your system, you can use the following command:

awk -F: '{ print $1}' /etc/passwd

This command reads the ‘/etc/passwd’ file, which contains a list of all users, and prints out the usernames.

The Importance of User Management in Linux

User management is crucial for maintaining the security and stability of a Linux system. It allows administrators to control who can access the system, what they can do, and track their activities.

The ‘su’ command is a vital tool in this regard. It allows administrators to switch between user accounts without logging out and back in, making it easier to perform tasks with different user privileges.

Understanding these fundamentals will help you better appreciate the ‘su’ command’s role and functionality within the Linux operating system.

The Relevance of User Management in System Administration and Security

User management is a cornerstone of system administration and security in a Linux environment. By carefully managing users, system administrators can control who has access to the system and what they can do. This is crucial for maintaining the security and stability of the system.

For example, by using the ‘su’ command, administrators can switch between user accounts without logging out and back in. This makes it easier to perform tasks that require different user privileges. It also provides a way to limit the potential damage that could be caused by a user with malicious intent or by a user who makes a mistake.

Exploring Related Concepts: User Groups and Permissions in Linux

User management in Linux isn’t just about switching between user accounts. It also involves managing user groups and permissions. User groups are a way to manage multiple users at once, while permissions control what users and groups can do.

For example, you can use the ‘groupadd’ command to create a new user group:

groupadd developers

This command creates a new group called ‘developers’. You can then add users to this group with the ‘usermod’ command:

usermod -aG developers alice

This command adds the user ‘alice’ to the ‘developers’ group.

Permissions, on the other hand, control what users and groups can do. For example, you can use the ‘chmod’ command to change the permissions of a file:

chmod 755 myfile.txt

This command sets the permissions of ‘myfile.txt’ to ‘755’, which means the owner can read, write, and execute the file, while other users can only read and execute it.

Further Resources for Mastering User Management in Linux

  1. The Linux Command Line: A Complete Introduction – This book provides a comprehensive introduction to the Linux command line, including user management.

  2. Linux Administration: A Beginner’s Guide – This guide covers all aspects of Linux administration, including managing users and groups.

  3. The Linux System Administrator’s Guide – This online guide covers a wide range of system administration topics, including user management, file permissions, and security.

Wrapping Up: Installing the ‘su’ Command in Linux

In this comprehensive guide, we’ve delved into the nuances of the ‘su’ command in Linux, a powerful tool for managing user switching on your system.

We began with the basics, demonstrating how to install the ‘su’ command on various Linux distributions. We then advanced to compiling from source and installing different versions of the command. We also explored how to use the ‘su’ command effectively, from basic usage to more advanced scenarios.

Throughout our journey, we tackled common challenges you might encounter when using the ‘su’ command, such as authentication failures and permission issues. We provided practical solutions and tips for each issue, equipping you with the knowledge to troubleshoot effectively.

We also looked at alternative approaches to user switching in Linux, particularly the ‘sudo’ command. Here’s a quick comparison of these methods:

‘su’ CommandSimple, comes pre-installed on most distributionsLess granular control compared to ‘sudo’
‘sudo’ CommandGranular control, audit trailComplex configuration, not always pre-installed

Whether you’re a Linux newbie or a seasoned system administrator, we hope this guide has deepened your understanding of the ‘su’ command and its role in user management.

With its simplicity and power, the ‘su’ command is a fundamental tool for efficient user management in Linux. Happy Linuxing!