Master the Command Line: Comprehensive Cheat Sheets for Windows, Linux & macOS

The command line allows you to control your computer by typing text-based commands to perform tasks rather than using traditional graphical interfaces. While often seen as an obscure developer tool, CLI skills unlock immense power and flexibility for all computer users.

According to Stack Overflow‘s 2022 survey, over 65% of professional developers use the command line daily while working. The CLI remains widely popular in industries like software engineering, cybersecurity, DevOps, cloud infrastructure and more due to the precise control it enables.

As Thomas Fuchs puts it: "The command line is the closest the computer gets to exposing its true nature and potential to you." Especially for tech professionals, knowing the CLI trumps point-and-click apps in boosting one‘s speed, efficiency and flexibility in managing systems.

This guide aims to ease that learning process for both beginners getting started with the CLI and intermediate users looking to advance their skills. We bring together the best command line cheat sheets for the most popular environments – Windows, Linux/Unix and macOS systems.

Here‘s what we‘ll be covering:

  • Popular Command Line Environments
  • Must-Know CLI Concepts
  • Basic to Advanced Commands
  • Text Editors, Package Installs
  • Command Line Scripting Tutorial
  • Learning Resources for Leveling Up

Let‘s master that blinking cursor!

The Rise of Command Line Interfaces

The CLI harkens back to the early days when interacting with computers meant just typing text commands. Though graphical interfaces have mostly displaced text-based ones, CLI remains integral in many domains.

As per W3Techs, over 95% of web servers run on Linux. Linux administration relies heavily on CLI and shell scripting skills. The CLI also rules in application deployment, infrastructure automation, DevOps and other tech disciplines.

Even Windows PowerShell has seen massive enterprise adoption due to the CLI management power it brings. macOS users also leverage the Unix terminal to access advanced customization options.

The CLI likely won‘t displace GUI apps for casual users soon, but it remains the true administrator‘s interface for systems.

Popular Command Line Environments

While all operating systems feature a command line, some common environments include:


Command Prompt

The default shell interface in consumer Windows versions provides access to system commands and other CMD executables. It features basic scripting and task automation.


An advanced CLI shell from Microsoft focused on system administrators. Offers strong scripting capabilities and tight integration with the Windows ecosystem from files to cloud services. PowerShell has over 60% adoption among Windows enterprises needing automation and flexibility beyond traditional CMD.exe.

Linux & Unix


The Bourne Again SHell is the standard command line interface for most Linux distributions and macOS. It is very powerful with excellent scripting abilities and access to Linux system commands. Advanced users can customize Bash heavily with extensions like aliases, completion etc.


An alternative shell inspired by Bash with additional features like autocomplete menus, inline globbing, spell correction and theming options. Its configurability has sparked soaring popularity recently among developers with some estimates placing its adoption as high as 10% on Linux.


A friendly, interactive shell aimed at beginner friendliness and Web 2.0 pizzazz. It offers handy features like syntax highlighting, autosuggestions and manpage completions out of the box. As user Craig Maloney puts it: "It‘s the shell that doesn‘t make me feel stupid."

And other more esoteric shells like Dash, tcsh etc. catering to specific needs.



The macOS Terminal provides access to the Unix CLI based on Bash. Tech savvy Mac users rely on the CLI for advanced customization and system access beyond what the Finder GUI allows. Terminal usage is ubiquitous in programming fields where Macs are popular.

So those are some of the major command line environments used daily by millions worldwide. Understanding the common target environments will help guide your learning.

Next, let‘s demystify some core CLI concepts.

Must-Know Command Line Concepts

Like any interface, the command line too has its own share of abstract jargon. Let‘s clarify them before proceeding:

Shell – The shell refers to the command line interpreter actually processing your text input and executing system commands accordingly. Popular shells include Bash, Zsh, Fish, PowerShell etc. as covered earlier.

Terminal – Terminal emulator applications like Command Prompt, iTerm2 etc. provide access to the shells and CLI of your system. They render the text interfaces where you input commands.

CLI – Command line interface generically refers to text-based shells and terminals as opposed to graphical point-and-click ones.

Commands – Commands are essentially system executables exposed by shells allowing you to perform text-based operations – manage files, administer systems, automate tasks etc.

Arguments – Commands typically accept additional parameters like options, filenames etc. to alter their functioning. For example, ls -l where -l is an argument.

Flags / Switches – Special arguments that control and modify commands‘ behavior, enabling additional functionality. Usually they are single-character options prefixed with a dash like -l.

Man Pages – Documentation systems built into CLI systems providing help and usage info for commands. Access them via man <command>.

Piping – Piping allows chaining multiple commands by redirecting the output of one command to another as input. Like command1 | command2.

So that covers some core CLI concepts useful for understanding how these interfaces function in contrast to GUI applications. Keep these basics in mind as we dive into actual CLI usage next.

Essential Commands for Beginners

While commands vary greatly across operating systems, shells and user environments, some beginner actions are fairly standard. Familiarizing with these will build initial comfort:

Navigate Directories

Moving across folder hierarchies forms the backbone of file management:

cd foldername (Linux, macOS, PowerShell)
cd \folderpath (Windows cmd)  

cd .. (Go up one folder)
cd /  (Go to root folder)

Tab-completion of paths is invaluable here: Type initial letters and hit tab to auto-complete.

List Folder Content

View files and subfolders within directories:

dir (Windows)
ls  (Linux, macOS) 

ls -l (Long list format) 

View Files

Cat files to print content or utilize pagers for scrollable content:

type filename (Windows)
cat filename (Linux, macOS)

more filename (Paginated view)
less filename (Scrollable view )  

Open Files & Programs

Executables and scripts can be launched directly from the CLI:

start program (Windows) 
open program (macOS)  

./scriptname (Execute script in current folder)  

Get Help

Get on-demand assistance for commands and tools:

command /? (Windows)
man command (Linux, macOS) 

whatis command (Brief description)  

This covers the basic file management and navigation needs. Let‘s graduate to more advanced usage next.

Power User CLI Tips and Tricks

As you become comfortable on the CLI, explore these advanced features to truly harness its potential:

Command Piping

Piping delivers one of the most potent examples of CLI power. It allows chaining commands by redirecting the output of one as input to another:

command1 | command2

cat file.txt | grep "searchphrase"  

Piping promotes composability – connecting discrete commands to perform complex operations.

[Pipeline diagram]

Job Control

Send processes to the background and foreground:

command & (Run in background)
fg (Bring to foreground)
CTRL+Z (Suspend process)

Useful for long-running tasks.

Permission Control

Manage file and command permissions for users:

chmod 600 file (Change permissions)
sudo command (Run command as superuser)  

Grant the minimum needed access.

Environment Customization

Tweak auto-completion, aliases, prompts and more by modifying your shell‘s environment variables and dotfiles (e.g. .bashrc):

nano .bashrc (Linux/macOS config file)  
nano $PROFILE (PowerShell config) 

Personalize to maximize productivity.

And Expanding on many more advanced features with examples…

This should spur you to learn commands actively rather than just refer cheat sheets passively. We‘ll cover useful CLI tools next.

Top Command Line Text Editors

For working with code or scripts, having a CLI-based text editor can be critical compared to GUI apps. Some popular options:

Vi / Vim – One of the most ubiquitous text editors due to being installed on practically every Linux system by default.

Emacs – A hugely customizable editor boasting strong extensibility via Lisp scripts. Has an intensely loyal user base.

Nano – A compact and user-friendly CLI text editor designed as an easy alternative to Vi and Emacs.

Here is an annotated Vim cheat sheet chronicling the key commands for navigation, editing, search/replace and other core functions:

[Embed Vim cheat sheet]

And many other great console-based editors are available as well like Atom, VS Code etc.

CLI Package Management & Installs

Command line package managers streamline installing and updating apps without manual effort. Some popular tools include:


APT (Debian/Ubuntu):

apt update
apt install package

YUM (Red Hat/CentOS/Fedora):

yum install package  

DNF (Newer Red Hat):

dnf install package  


Homebrew – De facto standard for macOS package management:

brew install package


Chocolatey – Features apt/yum style syntax on Windows:

choco install package

Scoop – A lighter-weight alternative to Chocolatey:

scoop install package

For example to install Git version control across different systems:

apt install git 
dnf install git
brew install git   
choco install git

This enables fast program installation and updating across platforms.

Now let‘s graduate to automating the CLI…

Command Line Scripting Tutorial

You can code scripts with various commands, executables and logical structures to automate workflows rather than manually run each CLI step.

Scripting basics involve:

  • Using the default system shell (bash, PowerShell etc.)
  • Creating executable script files
  • Adding interpreter directive like #!/bin/bash
  • Writing commands, arguments and options
  • Adding logic and control flows (loops, conditionals etc.)
  • Allowing execute access with chmod +x
  • Running scripts by path or with ./scriptname

Here is a simple sample bash script to demonstrate CLI scripting:



echo "Hello $NAME!"  

if [ "$NAME" == "John" ]; then
  echo "Name variable matches"

This prints output and showcases substituting variables, an if check and other basic concepts.

Scripting allows combining commands arbitrarily to create specialized tools. Entire applications and Linux services are built as collection of CLI scripts!

Resources for Advancing CLI Skills

Here are some recommended resources to actively build comfort with the command line:

Many more online training programs and tutorials are available for all expertise levels across various operating systems.

Learning CLI usage in a hands-on fashion is critical rather than just memorizing syntax. Target the essential commands for your OS and environment to boost efficiency.

Conclusion: Embrace the Power

This guide aimed to demystify the command line across various operating systems with annotated cheat sheets and actionable examples for both beginning and intermediate users.

The terminal welcomed many of us to computing in the 80s and still remains the ultimate interface for those needing to unlock a system‘s fullest potential today. Mastering CLI usage pays dividends in productivity and control regardless of one‘s domain.

Hopefully the distilled cheat sheet wisdom along with tutorials here provided the right launch pad to embrace command line power users again! Feel free to bookmark for reference.

Now go dazzle your coworkers with brilliant pipes and scripts!