Environment Variables in Python

Janne Kemppainen |

Environment variables are key-value pairs that are defined in your shell environment outside of the Python executable. You can access them in Python with the os.environ mapping object.

Environment variables are really useful for passing secret information or other configurations that you don't want to pass as command line arguments. A good use case for example is a containerized application running in Docker or Kubernetes where you can configure the application using environment variables.

They can also be used to define the operating mode of your software, for example if some code needs to be executed only in some of your production environments. An environment flag could also be used to enable verbose logging and so on.

Defining environment variables

Your operating system defines many environment variables by default. For example, on my Ubuntu server the PATH and HOME variables look like this:

>> [email protected]:~$ echo $PATH
>> [email protected]:~$ echo $HOME

As you may have noticed they are written in all capital letters. If your variable names consist of multiple parts you can separate them with underscores.

There are two ways to assign them. The first option is to define the values on the same line with the actual command:

>> [email protected]:~$ MY_ENV_VAR=hello env | grep MY_ENV_VAR

The above command defines MY_ENV_VAR and then uses the env command to print all environment variables. The output is piped to a program called grep which filters the final output to contain only the line with the given text.

The other option is to use the export command:

>> [email protected]:~$ export MY_OTHER_VAR="Hello again!"
>> [email protected]:~$ echo $MY_OTHER_VAR
Hello again!

The difference between these options is that export makes the variable available to all commands that are executed afterwards. When the variables are defined on the same line than the command itself it only applies to that single call and is not visible to subsequent program calls.

Reading and writing env in Python

The os.environ object works quite like a normal dictionary and with it you can get and set the environment values. The object is initialized during Python startup so any changes that are made after that are not reflected to the os.environ object unless they are made in the code itself.

Let's assume that you want to read an API key from the environment. This is a typical use case as you don't want to add sensitive credentials to source control systems. The key should be defined in your production server environment and fetched during runtime.

This is a minimal example that just prints the value on the console:

import os

API_KEY = os.environ.get("API_KEY")

I've stored the code to a file called env.py, let's see what happens if we run it.

[email protected]:~$ python env.py

The program prints out “None” because the variable has not been set yet. Note that the program doesn't crash even though the value is missing, the get method just returns None. You can define a default value to be assigned when the variable is not found.

API_KEY = os.environ.get("API_KEY", "mydevkey")

It's quite obvious how this works:

>> [email protected]:~$ python3 env.py
>> [email protected]:~$ export API_KEY=deadbeef123badfeed
>> [email protected]:~$ python3 env.py

You can write to the environment as if you were changing a dictionary value.

import os

API_KEY = os.environ.get("API_KEY", "mydevkey")
os.environ["API_KEY"] = "Overridden!"

Note that the value can also be read like a dictionary. Be aware that using square brackets will cause a KeyError if the variable has not been set. Running this code gives the expected result:

>> [email protected]:~$ python3 env.py

As you can see the API_KEY value was overridden. If you set a new value in the code it will be available whenever the value is requested, also in child processes spawned by the Python executable. However, if the value has been read during module import it wont be loaded again unless done explicitly.

But how did this affect our shell?

>> [email protected]:~$ echo $API_KEY

As you can see the original value is still there. Changes made in Python don't show up after the execution has ended.

The os module also contains a wrapper module around the environ.get method that saves you a few keystrokes. The equivalent call is

API_KEY = os.getenv("API_KEY")

Dotenv files

You can also load the values from a file and then access the values normally. For this purpose there is the python-dotenv package that you can install with:

>> python3 -m pip install -U python-dotenv

Now you can create a file called .env with all of your configurations, for example:


Then, if you create your Python app in the same directory with the environment file you can use this code to read the values.

import os

from dotenv import load_dotenv

DB_USER = os.environ.get("DB_USER")

print(f"User: {DB_USER], password: {DB_PASSWORD}")

I have stored the code as myapp.py and running it gives the following results:

>> [email protected]:~$ python3 myapp.py
User: postgres, password: supersecret

As you can see the values were successfully fetched from the environment file and then printed to the console.

You can also specify the file path manually, override values from the system, or read values from file-like objects. For these and other more advanced use cases you should take a look at the python-dotenv GitHub repo.


Environment files are really powerful and easy! Now you know how to get started using them. You know how to read them, change their values, and how to use dotenv files.

Hopefully you've learned something new and found this post helpful. How and where do you use environment files?

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