open(filename): global function that opens a file and returns a stream object.

It takes an optional encoding parameter to specify the encoding of the file. The default encoding is platform dependent and specified in sys.getdefaultencoding(), so always specify encoding when reading/writing a file. To get the default encoding, import locale and call locale.getpreferredencoding().

An optional parameter mode specifies the file to be opened in mode:

  • read: 'r', by default
  • write 'w', will override the file. If the file doesn’t exist, a new file is automatically created.
  • exclusive write 'x', will create a file to write if it does not already exist. Python3 specific
  • append 'a'.
  • text mode 't', by default
  • '+': open a disk file for updating (reading and writing)
  • If a bindary file is handled, include a 'b' character in mode.

Python3 operates in “universal newline support” (specified as 'U' in Python2), which maps all newlines to \n when reading, and maps all \n to system default when writing.

with statement

with open(filename, encoding = 'utf-8') as a_file:

doElse() # a_file is closed

Use a with statement, which creates a runtime context. When exiting with block, the stream object a_file will automatically call its own close() method. The as clause assign the with context to a variable, but it’s optional.

The with statement takes a comma-separated list of contexts acting like a series of nested with statements, so the context managers form a last-in-first-out stack.

Binary file

When reading binary, it is important to stress that all data returned will be in the form of byte strings, not text strings. Similarly, when writing, you must supply data in the form of objects that expose data as bytes (e.g., byte strings, bytearray objects, etc.).

If you ever need to read or write text from a binary-mode file, make sure you remember to decode or encode it. For example:

with open('somefile.bin', 'rb') as f:
    data =
    text = data.decode('utf-8')

with open('somefile.bin', 'wb') as f:
    text = 'Hello World'

Objects such as arrays and C structures can be used for writing without any kind of intermediate conversion to a bytes object.

import array
nums = array.array('i', [1, 2, 3, 4])
with open('data.bin','wb') as f:

This applies to any object that implements the so-called “buffer interface,” which directly exposes an underlying memory buffer to operations that can work with it. Writing binary data is one such operation.

Many objects also allow binary data to be directly read into their underlying memory using the readinto() method of files. However, it is tricky to get it right as it is platform specific.

Wrap a File Descriptor

A file descriptor is different than a normal open file in that it is simply an integer handle assigned by the operating system to refer to some kind of system I/O channel. open(fd), where file descriptor is supplied as the first parameter to the open() function, wraps the file descriptor in a file object.

On Unix systems, this technique of wrapping a file descriptor can be a convenient means for putting a file-like interface on an existing I/O channel that was opened in a different way (e.g., pipes, sockets, etc.).

Stream object

Many other datatypes can be turned into stream objects, not only files.

  • io.StringIO(str) from io module turns a string to a stream object.
  • io.ByteIO(byte_array) does the same thing to a byte array.


  • returns the whole content as a string. It takes an optional parameter to specify how many characters to read. Python does not consider reading past end-of-file to be an error; it simply returns an empty string.
  • a_file.readinto(arr) fills the preallocated array arr. It works with the array module and numpy. Make sure to check its return value, which is the number of bytes actually read.
  • a_file.readline() read one line.
  • a_file.readlines() read all lines and return a list of each line.
  • a_file.write(str) writes or appends str to the stream object.
  • moves to a specific byte position in a file.
  • a_file.tell() returns the current byte location.
  • a_file.close() closes the file. close() an already closed file won’t raise an exception.

  • name is filename you pass into open(), without normalization to an absolute path.
  • encoding is the encoding method. If a binary file is opened, there is no encoding.
  • mode defaults to r (read), you can specify it by passing it into open().

You can have a for loop to read the file line-by-line:

for a_line in a_file:

It will automatically breaks a_file into lines. You might want to call a_line.rstrip() to get rid of tailing white spaces because a_line contains them.

Compressed files

Python provides modules to read and write compressed files via stream objects. The gzip and bz2 modules work with gzip and bz2 compressions. They provide an alternative open() implementation that has the same signature as regular one, so it can also work with with statement. However, if no mode is specified, it will always open file in binary mode. Always specify file mode!

Moreover, the file path in and can be a stream object, allowing it to work on various file-like objects such as sockets, pipes, and in-memory files.

import gzip

f = open('somefile.gz', 'rb')
with, 'rt') as g:
    text =