Files & Directories : Java Glossary


Files & Directories
Without even opening the file, File lets you find out about a file or directory and lets you rename or delete it.

Because can represent a file, wildcard, or directory node, this class has many more uses than its name would suggest. File is a misnomer because File does not represent a file at all, but rather the name of a file or directory that may or may not actually exist.

Using new File( name ) Taking Apart A Filename Real World Platforms
Using new File( dir, name ) Combining Parts of A Filename Console I/O
File Naming Permanent Files Applets
Filename not URL Temporary Files File I/O Amanuensis
Sample Code Tips Learning More
Manipulating Filenames and Files Locking Links
Manipulating Directories Platform Specific

Using new File( name )

File myFile = new File( "C:\\temp\\abc.txt" );

File myDir = new File( "/home/fundir" );

Using new File( dir, name )

constructor builds file name out of two pieces. The first directory parameter may optionally a String or a File object that represents a directory, not a file! The second filename parameter must be a String. This is not nearly as clever as you might imagine. All does is glue the two pieces together with a / between. So you can’t do things like this:
new File ( ".", "C:/fileInRoot.txt" )
new File ( "myDir", "/otherDir" )
File( "myDir/OtherDir" )
File( "/OtherDir" );
In other words, the file parameter has to be truly relative to the directory parameter. However, embedded /s like this
new File ( "species", "clan/individual.txt" )
new File ( "species/clan/individual.txt" );

Under the hood, File is surprisingly lightweight. It is just a String and an int to record the prefix length. The prefix is the drive specifier, or the lead /. There is no OS (Operating System) file handle of any kind. Since the current directory cannot change throughout the execution of a program, the File constructor does not need to embed it in each File object.

You might think you could do:
// this does not work.
File base = new File ( "mydir/myfile.txt" );
File f2 = new File( base, "myfile2.txt"  );
to create a file mydir/myfile2.txt. This does not work. You will get mydir/myfile.txt/myfile2.txt instead.

Filename not URL (Uniform Resource Locator)

gets you access to a file. You feed it a filename or directory name suitable for the native platform, not an URL. On windows, you can use / and \ interchangeably. \ has to be doubled
// if E:\mindprod is a directory, then these
// four different ways of specifying it are
// all equivalent in Windows.
// You can use / or \ (coded as \\)
// You can optionally have a trailing / or \.
File dir1 = new File ( "E:\\mindprod" );
File dir2 = new File ( "E:\\mindprod\\" );
File dir3 = new File ( "E:/mindprod" );
File dir4 = new File ( "E:/mindprod/" );

If you need an URL or URI (Uniform Resource Indicator), you can use File.toURL or File. toURI.

Sample Code

Here is how you use most of the File methods. The listing comments also tell you what to expect from each of the methods, especially the many different ways you can get a file’s name.

Methods For Manipulating Filenames and Files

I have ordered these with the ones you are most likely to use near the top.


Atomically creates a new, empty file named if and only if a file with this name does not yet exist. Normally you don’t explicitly create the file. It is created as a side effect of writing to an OutputStream or Writer.


does a file or directory of this name exist?. Beware of code like this:
String f = null;
if ( new File( f + ".ext" ) .exists() )  ...
will return true because null.ext is considered to exist as the null device. In a similar way com1.txt is considered to exist as the com1: port even when there is no such file. Avoid filenames of the form com?.* and lpt?.*.


erase, remove, kill, destroy, unlink and nuke a file. The File object is completely unaffected by deleting the file on disk, whether you do it with File.delete () or by any independent means. See also File.deleteOnExit. Can also be used to delete empty directories. It won’t delete directories containing files or directories trees. You have to recurse the tree to remove files and branches one by one. Apache Commons-io has a method called FileUtils.deleteDirectory() that will delete a directory tree.
  • Reasons for failure to delete include:
    • The file/directory did not exist/was already deleted.
    • The file has the system attribute.
    • The file is owned by some other user than the one currently logged on, especially the system. It won’t let you even delete temporary system files. You have to boot from a startup disk and delete the file from the miniature Windows OS.
    • The file is still in use by this program. You must close all references/streams using it first.
    • The file is in use by some other program, Java or non Java.
    • Sometimes delete fails because of an indexing-local search program getting in too quickly to index the file about to be deleted. If the file is in-use, you can’t delete it. I turn off my Copernic indexing program any time I am running Java batch jobs.
  • delete() returns true if the file was successfully deleted, false if it did not exist, was already deleted or could not be deleted because it was in use or lack of sufficient privilege. Normally that is not the status you want. You want to know if the file is now gone. To do that you need code like this:


renaming (or moving) a file. Note, it does not change the name inside the File object, just the name of the corresponding file on disk. You can’t use the File object to access the renamed file. You need a fresh one with the new name. renameTo could fail if:
  • the file is open
  • the file in open by someone else
  • the new name is invalid
  • the new name is on another drive
  • the new name already exists
  • the file is read-only


how many bytes are in this file. Coded as  File.length () not File. length as you would with an array.


does this file exist and do you have permission to read it?


Does this file exist and do you have permission to write it? It is not sufficient that you can create and write this file.

Returns false if the file does not exist, even though you probably could write such a file.

Note that if it does not exist, you can write it, but canWrite will return false. setReadOnly lets you make a file read-only, but there is no way to undo the read-only status, other than by copying it or using exec.


get last modified timestamp. setLastModified lets you change the lastModified date If you don’t have proper access permission, you will get -1 results. With Java version 1.4 you can now set the date as well with File.setLastModified( long timestamp ). Windows keeps file timestamps accurate to 100 nanoseconds with 10,000 times as much precision as Java’s 1 ms. This means if you copy a file in Java, the new file might not have the exact same timestamp as the old. When you reconstitute a zipped file, its timestamp will be reconstituted accurate only to the even 2 seconds.


is there a file by this name? Is this file a true file rather than a directory?


chop/grow this file to n bytes long.Java version 1.2 or later only. You can’t use this directly on the File. You must create a RandomAccessFile object first with new RandomAccessFile( file, rw );


Lets you make a file read-only. There is no way to undo this in Java.


set last modified timestamp. This happens anyway automatically when you modify and close a file. You cannot read or access the last access date or the create date without using the FileTimes class, JNI (Java Native Interface) or exec.

Manipulating Directories

The file methods work on directories. These methods are primarily for working on directories. File is used to represent both a directory and a file.


String[] fileNames = file.list();
get list of files in this directory. Wildcards won’t work. Note it returns an array of Strings, not including the directory, not File objects. Files are not in any particular order. They include the subdirectories, but not the . or .. entries. The lists include all files and directories, hidden or revealed. It is as if Java ignores the hidden attribute.

If the directory is empty, you will get an empty list new String[0]. However, if the file you give it is not a directory or does not exist, you will get null. So whenever you use File.list() check for filenames == null before you do for ( String filename : filenames)

Often used with a FilenameFilter to select some of the files.

String[] fileNames = file.list( someFilter );
Your FilenameFilter needs at a minimum to filter with File.isDirectory().


is there a directory by this name. Is this file a directory rather than in individual file?


a list of available drives,Java version 1.2 or later only. Note it returns you an array of File objects, not Strings. If you print them, on Windows, they will have the form A:\. On Linux, there is only one root //, so it is not useful to get you a list of mount points.


alternate way to get a list of available drives.


// Creating several levels of directory all in one pop as needed.
// Note mkdirs is an instance method, so you specify the directory tree
// to create in the File constructor.
final boolean success = new File( "C:/temp/wombats" ).mkdirs();

// That is single line is equivalent to:
final File dirs = new File( "C:/temp/wombats" );

// true if created dir, false if could not create, or already created.
final boolean success = dirs.mkdirs();
(It violates Oracle’s naming conventions, but it is mkdirs, not mkDirs), make a directory and any necessary parent directories. mkdir is similar, but does not create parent directories. This is an instance method of File. You define the directory first with new File then create the tree. Returns true if all directory nodes were successfully created. Returns false if it can’t complete the job, or if directories were already existing. It may have created some but not all of the directories when it fails. If it succeeds you are certain they are all there.
  • Windows takes a short while after you make a successful mkdirs request to actually post the addition to the directory structure. So if you do an File. exists immediately afterward, it can sometimes fail. So close your eyes and trust the result of mkdirs. The directories will be there by the time you create and close a file.
  • The way mkdirs works is illogical. In my opinion it should have returned true if the directories already exist. What is important is are the directories ready to go, not how they got created. It is too late to fix now. To use mkdirs, you need to do an exists first and avoid calling mkdirs if the dir already exists.
  • mkdirs will not work on a file to create its parent dirs. You must give it just the dir part.


Java version 1.6 or later, How much free space is on a drive/partition that is free for you to use.


Java version 1.6 or later, How much free space is on a drive/partition. You might not necessarily be allowed to write to all or any of it.


Java version 1.6 or later, How much free space is on a drive/partition combined used/unused.

Taking Apart A Filename:

There are strange filenames like C:, .., /sub, C:. Make sure you test that your code works with them as well. I have ordered this list with the ones you will use most often near the top. What you get depends on what you put in. Look at the sample code to see the fine points. Here I am presuming you put in minimal relative filenames.


partially qualified directory + core + extension. If you do a System. out. println ( someFile ) you will get the toString version.


fully qualified drive + directory + core + extension. It won’t give you the precise case of the file! It will echo back to you the case you used.


just the core + extension. For a directory gets the last leg of the directory name.


partially qualified directory + core + extension.


partially qualified directory.
Uses \ instead of / for the separator in Windows. Study the test results below to learn how File.getParent works. A rule of thumb: always feed it Files with fully qualified filenames.


drive + fully qualified directory + core + extension.
Uses \ instead of / for the separator in W95, W98, Me, NT, W2K, XP, W2003, Vista, W2008, W7-32, W7-64, W8-32, W8-64, W2012, W10-32 and W10-64. Gets you the precise case. May throw an IOException. To avoid that use the cruder getAbsolutePath. In canonical form on Windows, drive letters are upper case.


drive + fully qualified directory + core + extension packaged up in a new File Object.
Uses \ instead of / for the separator in W95, W98, Me, NT, W2K, XP, W2003, Vista, W2008, W7-32, W7-64, W8-32, W8-64, W2012, W10-32 and W10-64. Gets you the precise case. In canonical form on Windows, drive letters are upper case.


true if the file name is absolute, false if relative to the current directory.


extension Gets the extension, the part of the filename after the dot.


core Gets the core, getName with the .extension chopped off, with no directory.

Combining Parts of A Filename:

Permanent Files

Finding a suitable spot to place permanent files is much more difficult than it should be. Here are some approaches.

Temporary Files

Here are the methods useful for manipulating temporary files.


Create a temporary file whose name is guaranteed to be unique. You specify a prefix, suffix and directory to use. Always name your temporary files with a prefix temp and a suffix .tmp so that they can easily be scavenged and deleted after a crash by generic junk cleaning utilities. To put the temporary in the same directory as another file, use getParent to find the directory. The file will not be automatically deleted on exit, unless you use deleteOnExit.


Arrange for this temporary file to be automatically deleted on exit if we forget to. This is more efficient than setting up a Runtime. getRuntime().addShutdownHook( new Thread(). There is no equivalent closeOnExit for various file


Delete the temporary file now.


File and Record Locking

Java has no features for file or record locking. You can kludge them by creating a dummy file whenever you are using the main file and deleting it when you are done. If all threads and processes using the file do likewise and sleep while the dummy semaphore file is present, waking periodically to see if it has disappeared, you can arrange exclusive access. Other than that, you would have to use JNI to hook into the OS ’s native file locking scheme.
Peter van der Linden’s FAQ for more detail on file locking

The easiest way to deal with this is to use an SQL database manager which can deal with concurrent updates.

Platform Specific Filenames

Every platform uses a different filename format. Your Java apps will deal directly with those filenames. You have only For WORA (Write Once, Run Anywhere), it is best to use very conservative file naming conventions: Anything else is bound to confuse some OS somewhere.

Real World Platforms

Windows Linux Apple iMac Groupe Bull GCOS 8
(JDK (Java Development Kit) 1.1.6)
lineSeparator \r\n \n \r \n
separatorChar '\\' '/' ':' '/'
pathSeparatorChar ';' ':' N/A ':'
absolute C:\\myDir\\myFile.txt /usr/local/my.Dir/my.File.txt ::myVolume:myDir:file.txt gcosuser/catalog/file.txt
relative myDir\\myFile.txt my.Dir/my.File.txt myDir:file.txt /catalog/file.txt
(subordinate to the current GCOS 8 userid)
root C:\\. /. ::myVolume: N/A
parent ..\\. ../. File.getParent() N/A
case-sensitive no yes no no
charset A-Z a-z 0-9 accented - _ ~ ! @ # $ A-Z a-z 0-9 accented - _ ~ ! @ # $ Almost anything, Full Unicode, even control chars a-z 0-9 - _ .
avoid . : ; * @ % ^ & ( ) [ ] { } " ' < > ? + = / | : ; * @ % ^ & ( ) [ ] { } " ' < > ? + = / | : (. at beginning) ; * @ % ^ ( ) " ' < > ? + = / | : ; * @ % ^ & ( ) [ ] { } " ' < > ? + = / | ~ ! @ # $ accented
zip and jar files       These files types are treated as a container database for a collection of Java class files and other resources. The pathnames stored within these files are not case-sensitive and can be arbitrarily long.

GCOS 8 supports read-access to these files.

  1. Each directory or file component must be less than or equal to 12 characters.
  2. Both . and .. can be valid file names.
  3. The construct . does not refer to the current directory.
  4. The construct .. does not refer to the parent directory.
GCOS is a mainframe JVM (Java Virtual Machine) implementation without GUI (Graphic User Interface). It runs on mainframes that use 36-bit words with non-IEEE floating point hardware. It has its roots in GE’s GECOS, was later taken over by Honeywell and had been run by the French Company, Groupe Bull since 1989. It is included mainly to show you just how different a platform can be and still run Java apps unmodified.

Console I/O

The console I/O methods are in System, e.g.; read a byte
System.err.print() print a value
System.err.println(); print a value followed by a newline
System.out.print(); print a value
System.out.println(); print a value followed by a newline.
System.setIn(); redirect stdin to a file
System.setErr(); redirect stderr to a file
System.setOut(); redirect stdout to a file


Unsigned Applets cannot read files on the local hard disk. The class won’t let you read or write files on some other remote machine, e.g. Applets can’t read or write files on the server, even if they are signed.

Learning More

Oracle’s Javadoc on File class : available:
Oracle’s Javadoc on File.canRead : available:
Oracle’s Javadoc on File.canWrite : available:
Oracle’s Javadoc on File.exists : available:
Oracle’s Javadoc on File.getAbsolutePath : available:
Oracle’s Javadoc on File.getCanonicalPath : available:
Oracle’s Javadoc on File.getTotalSpace : available:
Oracle’s Javadoc on File.getUsableSpace : available:
Oracle’s Javadoc on File.isDirectory : available:
Oracle’s Javadoc on File.lastModified : available:
Oracle’s Javadoc on File.length : available:
Oracle’s Javadoc on File.listFiles : available:
Oracle’s Javadoc on File.mkDir : available:
Oracle’s Javadoc on File.renameTo : available:
Oracle’s Javadoc on Files.setPosixFilePermissions : available:
Oracle’s Javadoc on Files.setOwner : available:
FileSystemView gives you more platform specific information about files. I have a RFE (Request For Enhancement) in asking for it to give more information e.g. isDisk, isSSD, isDVD, isCD, isUSB, isRemote
Oracle’s Javadoc on FileSystemView class : available:

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