What Is sudo rm -rf in Linux and Is It Dangerous?

October 19, 2022


Terminal commands are intimidating to new Linux users. Running anything without knowing the result can have irrevocable consequences. On Linux, dangerous commands are often a result of a simple typing mistake.

Knowing what every part of a Linux command does and the potential dangers helps to avoid such situations. A typical example is the sudo rm -rf command, which is very helpful when used correctly but may result in consequences if mistyped or misused.

This article explains the sudo rm -rf command in Linux, what it does, and how to use it properly.

What Is sudo rm -rf in Linux and Is It Dangerous?


  • Access to the command line/terminal.
  • A user with sudo privileges.
  • Files or directories to delete.

sudo rm -rf Syntax

The sudo rm -rf command is often avoided by users and cited as a dangerous command. The command syntax is:

sudo rm -rf <directory or file>

Below is a breakdown of each part of the command:

  • sudo - elevates a user's privileges to the root user. Allows removing root-owned files and directories.
  • rm - Linux command for removing files or directories.
  • -r - The option indicates recursive removal and helps remove non-empty directories.
  • -f - The option allows removal without confirmation, even if a file does not exist.
  • <directory or file> - The path of a directory or file to remove.

Use the command to remove files or non-empty directories where the owner is root.

Follow the steps below to create an example use case:

1. Open the terminal (CTRL+ALT+T).

2. Create a test directory with a subdirectory:

sudo mkdir test1 && sudo mkdir test1/test2

The creator and owner of both directories is the root user.

3. Attempt to remove the directory as a regular user:

rm -rf test1
rm -rf permission denied terminal output

The output shows the permission denied message.

4. Use the command with sudo to remove the directory:

sudo rm -rf test1

The command does not output a message and automatically deletes the directories without confirmation.

Why Is sudo rm -rf Dangerous?

The sudo rm -rf command is dangerous when not used properly. The rm command does its job to delete, but a typing mistake or not knowing what is being deleted can make it dangerous.

Warning: Do not run the commands in the following examples.

The following examples showcase how and when the rm -rf command is potentially dangerous:

1. When removing directories, the following typo is barely noticeable:

sudo rm -rf / directory/subdirectory
sudo rm -rf root danger message temrinal output

The space after the first forward slash (/) passes the root directory as the deletion parameter. The command deletes the root directory and all subdirectories due to the -r flag. The result is the same as running the following:

sudo rm -rf /
sudo rm -rf terminal output

Although most modern systems display a warning message and require additional options, the -f flag overrides confirmation in some scenarios.

2. Deleting multiple files with different names and the same extension using the asterisk sign (*) helps match zero or more characters. The following typo in the command results in a mistake:

sudo rm -rf * .txt
sudo rm rf current directory terminal output

Similar to the previous example, adding an extra space after the asterisk (*) passes the working directory and all its subdirectories for deletion. Therefore, the command runs as follows:

sudo rm -rf *

As a result, everything from the current directory is deleted without warning. The command deletes the system if the current working directory is root (/).

3. A dangerous form of sudo -rm rf can occur when deleting directories that end in the same characters:

sudo rm -rf /* -directory

Due to the spacing, the command becomes:

sudo rm -rf /*
sudo rm rf root contents

Since the command removes content inside the root directory, there are no warnings.


After reading this guide, you know about the dangers of using sudo rm -rf. Although the command is not dangerous and serves a purpose, it could potentially delete your whole system or critical data.

Check out our backup and disaster recovery guide to prevent irrevocable data loss situations.

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Milica Dancuk
Milica Dancuk is a technical writer at phoenixNAP who is passionate about programming. Her background in Electrical Engineering and Computing combined with her teaching experience give her the ability to easily explain complex technical concepts through her content.
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