When I read a file in Linux with the command less or more, how can I get the content in colors?

  • 5
    This seems related: superuser.com/questions/36022/less-and-grep-color - does it help? – Jonik Mar 9 '10 at 13:40
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    The title of this question is very misleading. Many people landing on this page expect a solution to the coloring issue you will get when piping a command with colored output to less: colors are lost. (The answers to that ”piping issue“ involve less -R, unbuffer etc.) But the actual question refers to opening a file! — The ambiguity lies primarily in the question's title, but even besides that, IMHO the question is still too broad: ”read a file“ could refer to any file (probably plain text). (well, ”get the content in colors“ is probably referring to syntax highlighting.) – myrdd Dec 3 '18 at 23:05
  • I need to correct myself, only 3 (or 4) of 14 answers are missing the OP's actual question: the answers by ChristopheD, Puneet and Onlyjob; and maybe jbbr. Still, two of those answers are part of the three highest-voted ones. – myrdd Dec 3 '18 at 23:38
  • @myrdd "syntax highlighting" is the relevant term then... (It asks about showing colors, not adding colors?) less -R will work on files as well, e.g. ls --color=always > /tmp/file && less -R /tmp/file – Gert van den Berg Jul 5 '19 at 10:20
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    @myrdd It might make most sense for the question to be closed as "unclear what is being asked" since questions asking any of the two would likely get marked as duplicates of this... (And answers for any of the two can get downvoted based on how the voter interprets it...) (My use case was a log file that (annoyingly) has color escape codes in it) – Gert van den Berg Jul 7 '19 at 12:36

17 Answers 17


(update on 2020)

The faster way would be using less -R ref. https://superuser.com/a/117842/34893

You can utilize the power of pygmentize with less - automatically! (No need to pipe by hand.)

Install pygments with your package manager or pip (possibly called python-pygments) or get it here http://pygments.org/download/.

Write a file ~/.lessfilter

case "$1" in
        pygmentize -f 256 "$1";;

        pygmentize -f 256 -l sh "$1";;

        if grep -q "#\!/bin/bash" "$1" 2> /dev/null; then
            pygmentize -f 256 -l sh "$1"
            exit 1

exit 0

In your .bashrc add

export LESS='-R'
export LESSOPEN='|~/.lessfilter %s'

Also, you need to make ~/.lessfilter executable by running

chmod u+x ~/.lessfilter

Tested on Debian.

You get the idea. This can of course be improved further, accepting more extensions or parsing the shebang for other interpreters than bash. See some of the other answers for that.

The idea came from an old blog post from the makers of Pygments, but the original post doesn't exist anymore.

| improve this answer | |
  • 6
    If you want to have coloring of the source code files, you also need to make ~/.lessfilter executable by running chmod u+x ~/.lessfilter. You also need to have pygmentize (pygments.org/download) installed. – Sergiy Belozorov Dec 18 '12 at 11:07
  • 7
    @puk you can do something like ls --color=always -l | less -R. Obviously a lot to type but you could alias it to something like ll. That is if you don't want to use any extra libraries. – PhilT Jul 23 '14 at 16:17
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    added @SergiyByelozyorov's comment into the answer. – andrybak Jan 18 '15 at 12:54
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    My edit was rejected so I guess I'll post it as a comment instead: Don't test the exit codes of commands indirectly. You can use if grep -q "#\!/bin/bash" "$1" (the -q suppresses standard output). You may want to redirect standard error with 2>/dev/null. – Tom Fenech Oct 23 '15 at 13:16
  • 1
    To get a list of all unique file extensions supported by your currently installed pygmentize version, in a format suitable for pasting into this .lessfilter script, run pygmentize -L | grep -o "(filenames .*)" | sed -E "s,\(filenames (.*)\),\1,gm;s/, /\n/g" | sort -u | tr "\n" "|". Note that on certain Linuxes, setting LESSOPEN may not be necessary because it is already setup to use lesspipe which detects the .lessfilter file already (run echo $LESSOPEN to check). – Bart May 17 '19 at 9:38

Try the following:

less -R

from man less:

-r or --raw-control-chars

Causes "raw" control characters to be displayed. (...)


Like -r, but only ANSI "color" escape sequences are output in "raw" form. (...)

| improve this answer | |
  • 17
    This is useful when the file itself contains the escape codes that will need to be displayed. – Nitrodist Dec 16 '11 at 21:16
  • 56
    It should be noted that most programs use the isatty(2) syscall to check whether their standard output is a terminal, and usually disable colorized output if it is not. For any pipe to less, isatty will return 0. To check whether this works, try echo -e '\x1b[32;1mtest\x1b[m' | less -r – mic_e Sep 24 '13 at 22:53
  • 11
    This answer does not excel in the actually does something test. – Michael Wolf May 9 '14 at 22:24
  • 18
    You can also type -R when you already opened less to achieve this. – Scz Sep 1 '16 at 7:56
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    IMHO this should actually be the accepted answer, it is much more simple – Willian Mitsuda Apr 5 '17 at 7:14

I got the answer in another post: Less and Grep: Getting colored results when using a pipe from grep to less

When you simply run grep --color it implies grep --color=auto which detects whether the output is a terminal and if so enables colors. However, when it detects a pipe it disables coloring. The following command:

grep --color=always "search string" * | less -R

Will always enable coloring and override the automatic detection, and you will get the color highlighting in less.

Warning: Don't put --color=always as an alias, it break things sometimes. That's why there is an --color=auto option.

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  • 6
    Nice, thanks. Except that I need to use -R as an option to less, as well. – naught101 May 8 '12 at 6:41
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    I believe grep -R is for specifying recursive search. less -R is necessary for less to correctly spit the colors back out. grep --color=always [grep cmds] | less -R works for me on OS X 10.7.3! – Steven Lu May 9 '12 at 13:56
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    Is there anyway to let grep know just pipe less -R command and then just do coloring? So, we don't have to put --color=always and less -R all the time. – A-letubby Feb 27 '15 at 7:50
  • 1
    This is by far the simplest working answer. Thanks! – Danny Staple Oct 3 '15 at 11:16
  • 1
    This also works when you need to pipe git diff to less. Doing just this: git diff | less won't show you any colors. You need to do this instead: git diff --colors=always | less or git diff --colors=always some_file | less. (I'm using cygwin on Windows 10, by the way.) – CSCH Aug 27 '18 at 20:17

Use view instead of less. It opens the file with vim in readonly mode.

It's practically a coloured less: a pager where you can search with / (and more). The only drawback is that you can't exit with q but you need :q

Also, you get the same colouring as vim (since you're in fact using vim).

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  • How about the performance of big files? Vim syntax highlighting is know to be slow on huge files. – pihentagy Feb 20 '14 at 10:28
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    I upvoted (I didn't know about view) but another downside is that j/k/up/down don't instantly scroll, since there is a cursor. – Tyler Collier Mar 1 '15 at 17:38
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    Note that you may need to add view - when piping – user45909 Mar 2 '15 at 0:54
  • 7
    vim is an editor, which loads the complete file into memory, whereas less is a pager, loading the file only partially into memory. You will know the difference with huge files. – sjas Jul 20 '16 at 12:13
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    @RiccardoGalli - Cool idea, but i would agree about the performance concern, it's not instantaneous. When viewing huge logs or greps, especially over-the-line (SSH), less is faster since it's not dumping the entire output line by line via "inserts" into vim. Also, you can search with less using '/'. Additionally it has a "tail" mode using shift-F which is handy. – dhaupin Sep 29 '16 at 17:49

To tell less to show colors call it with -R:

less -R

Unfortunately some programs detect that their stdout is not a terminal and disable colors - e.g pacman (Arch Linux package manager).

In those cases its possible to use unbuffer:

unbuffer <command> | less -R

Example using pacman

unbuffer pacman -Ss firefox | less -R

The unbuffer command is usually part of the package expect (Arch Linux, Debian/Ubuntu) or expect-dev (legacy versions of Debian/Ubuntu).

To answer the question for completeness:

As others already answered, pygmentize is great for colorizing source code. It does not require unbuffer. Easiest call:

pygmentize someSource.cpp | less -R
| improve this answer | |
  • 2
    To use unbuffer on Ubuntu, sudo apt install expect – wisbucky Dec 4 '18 at 18:37
  • This answer needs more upvotes. – Thomas Dignan Apr 19 '19 at 14:26
  • I was trying to pipe dmesg output to check on boot errors but the colours didn't work unless I use unbuffer, which was confusing the heck out of me: unbuffer dmesg | less -R works as expected. – pbhj May 12 '19 at 9:49
  • on macOS brew install expect gets you the necessary unbuffer command. – luckman212 Oct 19 '19 at 20:30

pygmentize supports the -g option to automatically guess the lexer to be used which is useful for files read from STDIN without checking any extension type.

Using that, you only need to set the following 2 exports in your .bashrc without any additional scripts:

export LESS='-R'
export LESSOPEN='|pygmentize -g %s'
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  • 4
    Concise and effective. I prefer defining an alias, because sometimes less is better. So: alias lesc='LESS="-R" LESSOPEN="|pygmentize -g %s" less' – Tiago Apr 28 '14 at 18:27

You didn't say what this color should mean, e.g. what should the colors be for a text file?

If what you want is syntax highlighting for source code, you need a source code highlighter. I sometimes use pygmentize like this

pygmentize file.cpp | less


pygmentize file.cpp | more

There are other highlighters around.

This is pretty fast. If you don't mind firing up vim there is a read-only mode that can give you syntax highlighting if you have it in vim.

view file.cpp

or alternatively see churnd's answer.

| improve this answer | |

This is yet another pygments-based answer, with several major improvements:

  • does not break lesspipe or lessfile filters
  • works with multiple inputs to less
  • correctly parses the script type from the shebang header
  • works for all 434 file types lexable by Pygments
  • color scheme is parameterized as an environment variable

Install Pygments and Gawk

sudo apt-get install python-pygments python3-pygments gawk

Set Environment Variables

Check whether lesspipe or lessfile is already enabled:


If you don't see either program referenced there, ensure that lesspipe is installed (most distros come with it).

Add the following to ~/.bashrc:

# sets LESSOPEN and LESSCLOSE variables
eval "$(SHELL=/bin/sh lesspipe)"

# interpret color characters
export LESS='-R'

# to list available styles: `pygmentize -L styles`
export PYGMENTIZE_STYLE='paraiso-dark'

# optional
alias ls='ls --color=always'
alias grep='grep --color=always'

If you don't want lesspipe, replace the eval statement with:

export LESSOPEN='|~/.lessfilter %s'

Create ~/.lessfilter

Add the following code and make the file executable: chmod u+x ~/.lessfilter

for path in "$@"; do
    # match by known filenames
    filename=$(basename "$path")
    case "$filename" in
            # shell lexer
            pygmentize -f 256 -O style=$PYGMENTIZE_STYLE -l sh "$path"
            # filename recognized
            pygmentize -f 256 -O style=$PYGMENTIZE_STYLE "$path"
            ext=$([[ "$filename" = *.* ]] && echo ".${filename##*.}" || echo '')
            case "$ext" in
                    # extension recognized
                    pygmentize -f 256 -O style=$PYGMENTIZE_STYLE "$path"
                    # parse the shebang script header if it exists
                    lexer=$(head -n 1 "$path" |grep "^#\!" |awk -F" " \
'match($1, /\/(\w*)$/, a) {if (a[1]!="env") {print a[1]} else {print $2}}')
                    case "$lexer" in
                            # workaround for lack of Node.js lexer alias
                            pygmentize -f 256 -O style=$PYGMENTIZE_STYLE \
                                -l js "$path"
                            exit 1
                            pygmentize -f 256 -O style=$PYGMENTIZE_STYLE \
                                -l $lexer "$path"
exit 0
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  • Nice! Really comprehensive. – Dario Seidl Nov 11 '18 at 16:01
  • TIL: If you get an error like "awk: line 1: syntax error at or near ," with the above .lessfilter in place, check that gawk is installed. – Bryce Oct 23 '19 at 23:38

Use the GNU Source-highlight; you can install it with apt if you have it, or otherwise install it from source. Then set up an "input preprocessor" for less, with help from the Source-highligh' documentations for setting up with less:

This was suggested by Konstantine Serebriany. The script src-hilite-lesspipe.sh will be installed together with source-highlight. You can use the following environment variables:

 export LESSOPEN="| /path/to/src-hilite-lesspipe.sh %s"
 export LESS=' -R '

This way, when you use less to browse a file, if it is a source file handled by source-highlight, it will be automatically highlighted.

Xavier-Emmanuel Vincent recently provided an alternative version of ANSI color scheme, esc256.style: some terminals can handle 256 colors. Xavier also provided a script which checks how many colors your terminal can handle, and in case, uses the 256 variant. The script is called source-highlight-esc.sh and it will be installed together with the other binaries.

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To expand upon another answer, you can make it work for most if not all of your scripts that don't have extensions by changing the .lessfilter file around just a bit:

    case "$1" in
        pygmentize -f 256 "$1";;
        pygmentize -f 256 -l sh "$1"
        scriptExec=$(head -1 "$1" |grep "^#\!" |awk -F" " '{print $1}')
        if [ "$scriptExecStatus" -eq "0" ]; then
            lexer=$(echo $scriptExec |awk -F/ '{print $NF}')
            pygmentize -f 256 -l $lexer "$1"
            exit 1

exit 0

You'd still need to add the two variables to .bashrc:

export LESS='-R'
export LESSOPEN='|~/.lessfilter %s'

And you'll still need to make .lessfilter executable:

$ chmod 700 ~/.lessfilter

Also I wanted to add that under debian the pygments package is called python-pygments. I had trouble locating it at first because the obvious misspelling of "pigments" as "pygments" wasn't enough of a hint to me that it was a package that might be prefixed with "python-" by the package manager.

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  • 2
    2 comments: 1) Thanks for the improvement. 2) Phrases like "voted best answer" aren't great; that may change (in fact, if this is better than that answer, this post might become the top answer, at which point it'll just be confusing. Maybe just say "to expand upon another answer" or "captaincomic's answer"? – cpast Feb 27 '13 at 23:07

Condensed from my full blog post about improving less experience: https://www.topbug.net/blog/2016/09/27/make-gnu-less-more-powerful/

For colorful manpages, add the following to your .bashrc or .zshrc:

export LESS_TERMCAP_mb=$'\E[1;31m'     # begin bold
export LESS_TERMCAP_md=$'\E[1;36m'     # begin blink
export LESS_TERMCAP_me=$'\E[0m'        # reset bold/blink
export LESS_TERMCAP_so=$'\E[01;44;33m' # begin reverse video
export LESS_TERMCAP_se=$'\E[0m'        # reset reverse video
export LESS_TERMCAP_us=$'\E[1;32m'     # begin underline
export LESS_TERMCAP_ue=$'\E[0m'        # reset underline

For syntax highlighting, using an existing powerful lesspipe.sh to handle it instead of writing your own: https://github.com/wofr06/lesspipe

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You can consider using most utility which is colour-friendly alternative for less and more.

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  • can you show us one example? I tried here, and the output was black and white. – danilo Jun 13 '19 at 17:47
  • Your input should contain colours. First produce a colorised sample (e.g. ccze -A </var/log/dpkg.log, ls -1 --color /var/log) then pipe it to most: ls -1 --color /var/log | most. – Onlyjob Jun 15 '19 at 0:06
  • yes, I used: git status | less --color, git status | most --color – danilo Jun 15 '19 at 0:14
  • I used most, more, less, and all tools show black and white – danilo Jun 15 '19 at 0:17
  • Make sure that your command produces colours before piping to less or others. Make sure your terminal emulator can output colours. Check TERM environment variable. Read more in unix.stackexchange.com/questions/148/… When possible use modern GNU+Linux distribution like Debian. Use search engine (e.g. duckduckgo.com startpage.com) to find answers. Remember that comments are not for discussion. – Onlyjob Jun 16 '19 at 5:06

I found this simple elegant solution. You don't have to install anything extra as it is already there by default on most machines. As vim is installed by default on most machines, it includes a macro to run vim like less

Some of the options to use it are to create an alias: alias vless='vim -u /usr/share/vim/vim74/macros/less.vim'

or create a symbolic link: ln -s /usr/share/vim/vim74/macros/less.sh ~/bin/vless

Then you just run vless myfile.py

I got most of the information here

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  • 1
    I have alias lesser='/usr/share/vim/vim80/macros/less.sh' in ~/bash_aliases (in Ubuntu 18.04). Can use shortcuts such as f forward, b backward, d half down, u half up, q quit, etc... – Daniel Jun 5 '19 at 14:01

The most intuitive and straight forward solution for me was using pygmentize
by adding the lines below to .bashrc

export LESS='-R'
export LESSOPEN='|pygmentize -g %s'

In case you couldn't call pygmentize, just install like

pip install pygments

ps. The pygmentize executable binary would sit in /usr/local/bin/ or in your /home/username/.virtualenv/venvname/bin/ or somewhere.

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An alternative to less/more that works with colors out of the box is bat. You can install it with most package managers use it as a pager as well as a cat replacement.


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None of these were working out of the box for me and I figured out an easy way to make this work so I thought I would share.

Just use tmux, that allows you access and scroll through a larger history and preserves the colors perfectly.

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  • 1
    Doesn't tmux permit multiple terminals from one screen, how does it change less's display of colours? – Xen2050 Oct 26 '18 at 13:23
  • @Xen2050 I think it's a neat workaround although this answer doesn't explain how to enter scroll mode (Ctrl-b + [) – siikamiika Apr 18 '19 at 18:30

As long as the output text have color control characters, less -R will do.

| improve this answer | |
  • This is what another answer (from 9 years ago) says. Answers that duplicate other answers are not useful. – Kamil Maciorowski Jul 15 '19 at 12:54
  • Fair, but that answer doesn't make it explicit that it only works on files that were built with color control characters. – Leonardo Raele Jul 15 '19 at 13:13

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