Building a Basic Shell in C


A shell is a command-line interface that allows users to interact with an operating system. This guide explores the fundamentals of building a basic shell in C and provides sample code to illustrate key concepts and techniques.

Key Shell Features

A basic shell should provide the following features:

  • Prompting the user for commands.
  • Parsing and tokenizing user input.
  • Executing external commands and managing processes.
  • Handling signals and managing background processes.

Sample Code for a Basic Shell

Let's create a simple C program that serves as a basic shell. This code reads user input, tokenizes it, and executes external commands using `fork()` and `execvp()`. Here's a basic example:

#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
#include <unistd.h>
#include <string.h>
#include <sys/types.h>
#include <sys/wait.h>
#define MAX_INPUT_SIZE 1024
int main() {
char input[MAX_INPUT_SIZE];

while (1) {
printf("BasicShell> ");
fgets(input, sizeof(input), stdin);

// Remove the trailing newline character
input[strcspn(input, "\n")] = '\0';

// Tokenize the input
char *tokens[MAX_INPUT_SIZE];
char *token = strtok(input, " ");
int token_count = 0;

while (token != NULL) {
tokens[token_count] = token;
token = strtok(NULL, " ");
tokens[token_count] = NULL;

// Check for built-in commands
if (strcmp(tokens[0], "exit") == 0) {
printf("Exiting the shell\n");

// Create a child process to execute the command
pid_t pid = fork();

if (pid == 0) {
// Child process
execvp(tokens[0], tokens);
perror("Execution failed");
} else if (pid > 0) {
// Parent process
int status;
waitpid(pid, &status, 0);
} else {
perror("Fork failed");

return 0;

This code allows users to enter commands, executes them, and provides a simple exit command to exit the shell. It's a minimal example, but building a complete shell involves handling more complex features, such as piping, redirection, and background processes.


Building a basic shell in C is a valuable exercise for understanding command-line interfaces and process management. This guide introduced the fundamentals of building a shell and provided sample code for a basic shell. By extending this code and adding additional features, you can create a functional shell for various purposes.