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What Is a Symbolic Link?

By Alex Newth
Updated May 17, 2024
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A symbolic link often is a small file on a computer that is made to point to a different file. The majority of operating systems (OSs) support the symbolic link file. Such a link usually is transparent, meaning it will not get in the way of the real file to which it is pointing. If the referenced file is erased, then there is a chance the link file will linger in the computer. This should not result in any major problems, but the link will be unable to open anything, though it may continuously try to do so.

Most files on a computer have coding or information and open a document or application. A symbolic link functions differently, because the link does not have any document or application information. All this file has is a reference code, which means that launching the link will open the linked file. This most often is used as a desktop shortcut, or a shortcut within other files to make it easier to find the connected files.

The symbolic link file is not available on every OS, though most of them support it because many users find it convenient. OSs that lack symbolic link support will not enable users to make shortcuts, so users always have to open documents and applications directly. While this may slow down users, it usually does not result in any major problems.

When a symbolic link is opened, it should be transparent. This means users should not see any trace of the link while it is working. It will be as if the link is not there and is not doing anything, which is the way it should be for most functions. Other functions work directly with these link files and may bring the link out into the open.

Unlike a hard link, which will disappear if the referenced file is erased or otherwise gone, a symbolic link usually will remain on the computer even if the referenced file is no longer on the computer. This means that, when someone opens the link, it will attempt to open the deleted file. This normally does not result in any major problems or errors. The worst thing a user should see is the link continuously attempting to open the file, though this should be easy to stop or shut down. The user may have to shut down the entire computer and restart it if the link refuses to accept commands.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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