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Changing the default shell to zsh

September 02, 2019

By default, the shell on a Mac is bash. Changing this should be a simple three step process:

  1. Make sure that zsh is installed and is an accepted shell $ cat /etc/shells
  2. Change the shell $ chsh -s $(which zsh)
  3. Restart your shell

Install zsh and verify that it’s listed among the accepted shells

Apple preinstalls zsh at /bin/zsh, however, if you use homebrew, you will have to take a few extra steps (see below).

$ cat /etc/shells
# List of acceptable shells for chpass(1).
# Ftpd will not allow users to connect who are not using
# one of these shells.


Change Shells

Using the Change Shell and Which programs, you can change the default with a one line command:$ chsh -s $(which zsh)

The -s flag “Attempt[s] to change the user’s shell to newshell.”

With this done - restart the terminal and you should be in the new shell.

Homebrew specifics

If you use homebrew (like I do) you’ll need to take a few extra steps.

  1. Install zsh with homebrew -> brew install zsh.
  2. Confirm it is installed with zsh --version.
  3. Find where it’s located with which zsh
  4. Make sure that this location is listed in the /etc/shells

Step three and four is where things diverge from the default since homebrew installs zsh to /usr/local/bin/zsh not /bin/zsh as is default - so it won’t be listed in /etc/shells by default.

When you try to run $ chsh -s $(which zsh), you’ll likely get the following:

$ chsh -s $(which zsh)
Changing shell for stephen.
Password for stephen:
chsh: /usr/local/bin/zsh: non-standard shell

The last line tells you what the problem is: chsh: /usr/local/bin/zsh: non-standard shell. The location of zsh (/usr/local/bin/zsh) was not among our accepted list of locations in /etc/shells.

Adding Homebrew’s zsh to /etc/shells

To add zsh to /etc/shells start with the simple command: $ echo "$(which zsh)" >> /etc/shells.

You may run into permissions issues (as I did) and need to use a sudo variant: $ sudo sh -c "echo $(which zsh) >> /etc/shells".

I took this from the StackOverflow discussion, however, I believe the sh -c is unnecessary.1

What the sh -c says is the following: As a super user, use the shell and take commands from the following string. This is why we now include the echo in the string where it was not previously.

None-the-less, it worked. When I restarted my shell, I was now in zsh.

Other Notes: Changing Shells

The first time I installed zsh, I used oh-my-zsh. This got me up and running quickly, but also didn’t give me as much exposure to what I was doing.

I bring that up, because I actually didn’t know how to change back and forth between shells.

Not that there’s a lot of reason to, but knowing how makes me feel more in control.

Now, if I want to use bash, I can do that with $ chsh ($which bash) and then return to zsh with $ chsh ($which zsh).

This is changing the shell for the user — which is probably not the most efficient way, but it works. I’ll keep an eye out for a better way in the future.


  • 1 StackOverflow discussion For more info look at the man pages for how this works. man chsh and man which.

Stephen Weiss

Thanks for reading! My name's Stephen Weiss. I live in Chicago with my wife, Kate, and dog, Finn.
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