How can I change the default text editor for console programs in Ubuntu. When I run mutt and send a message, it currently loads up Joe and I would prefet to load Vim. I know I can change $EDITOR for me only, but would prefe to do it system wide.

2 Answers 2


You can change $EDITOR systemwide. Just drop a short script into /etc/profile.d/ which does this. The file only needs a single line:

export EDITOR=/usr/bin/myeditor


There are two ways (at least :-/) in which a program can find an editor to launch. The traditional Unix/Linux mechanism is to use $EDITOR. In addition to that, Debian (and therefore Ubuntu) has special aliases for various kinds of programs. These are provided by the "alternatives" system (a system of configurable symlinks). For editors this provides the aliases editor and sensible-editor. These can be updated using update-alternatives:

sudo update-alternatives --config editor

(same for sensible-editor). This will prompt you for the editor to use.

However, in Debian programs are suppposed to read $EDITOR first:

Thus, every program that launches an editor or pager must use the EDITOR or PAGER environment variable to determine the editor or pager the user wishes to use. If these variables are not set, the programs /usr/bin/editor and /usr/bin/pager should be used, respectively.

These two files are managed through the dpkg "alternatives" mechanism.


If it is very hard to adapt a program to make use of the EDITOR or PAGER variables, that program may be configured to use /usr/bin/sensible-editor and /usr/bin/sensible-pager as the editor or pager program respectively.

(Debian Policy Manual, http://www.debian.org/doc/debian-policy/ch-customized-programs.html#s11.4 )

In one sentence: Setting $EDITOR globally should be enough.

  • Thanks - I had heard of the "alternatives" mechanism but counldnt remember enough to find it. It is really complicated though.
    – justintime
    Aug 10, 2010 at 20:23
  • 2
    Actually visudo will not typically work with $EDITOR as it is a security concern (at least for ubuntu). The /usr/bin/editor is used.
    – Adam Gent
    Nov 30, 2016 at 17:22
  • visudo now uses $EDITOR in Ubuntu 18.04. Apr 2, 2020 at 15:53

the mechanism in ubuntu (debian) used to solve this problem is described in man update-alternatives. essentially it provides a "pseudo binary" (/usr/bin/editor) which points to the right binary (the "best" alternative)


% sudo update-alternatives --config editor

to change the current "default". with

% update-alternatives --list editor
% update-alternatives --display editor

you can see the currently available alternatives.

  • This is correct, but editor/sensible-editor is only meant as a fallback mechanism. You can just set $EDITOR. Also, editor/sensible-editor is a Debian convention. Third-party software may not use it, while $EDITOR is a general Unix tradition.
    – sleske
    Jul 28, 2010 at 9:58
  • correct (i am aware of that). it is just a bit tricky to enforce EDITOR to all kind of shells (tcsh, zsh) anyway ... so changing /usr/bin/editor to the wanted default is enough, imho. as a "user" i set my own EDITOR anyway.
    – akira
    Jul 28, 2010 at 10:23

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.