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Changing login shell without chsh

For my daily terminal life, I use fish shell. Fish shell can be largely described by the headline on its official website:

Finally, a command line shell for the 90s
fish is a smart and user-friendly command line shell for macOS, Linux, and the rest of the family.

Among all of its features, I particularly enjoy how the autocompletions are widely available and easy to use for generally all common commands and operations. I think I’ve got spoiled by the autocompletion so much that sometimes I get lazy at typing the full commands. Undoubtedly, fish is my login shell, replacing the ubiquitous Bash shell.

Most of the time, one can change the login shell by the command chsh. In order to let chsh accept the new fish shell, it must be added into the list of all accepted shells which requires root permission. However, in many occasions including working on a large shared server, one may not has the permission to add new shell and thus the options for the login shell are often limited.

Replacing login shell by exec

Alternative solution will be calling the new shell upon the execution of current shell. A POSIX-compliant shell1 should always read the .profile configuration file upon login, the following command execute fish and sweep the process with the current running shell (usually, bash).

exec -l $SHELL -l

-l tells shell to act like a login shell. For more explanation about login and non-login (as well as (non-)interactive) shells can be found at this StackOverflow answer. By pointing $SHELL to the desired shell binary, one can achieve the similar behavior to chsh.

However putting exec in the login profile comes with a risk that if the new shell executable crashes (e.g. failed symlink, erroneous compilation and failed dynamic library linking), one cannot establish proper shell connections. I’ve experienced these catastrophic failures for a couple of times. Since the new shell crashes when the original shell is replacing its process, one cannot set up the proper terminal session, or simply put, one will fail to login. It was not fun at all to recover.

Fail-safe shell changing

To provide a fail-safe mechanism, I use the following code in my ~/.profile to change the shell. Only login shells will read this file so it won’t be executed when one runs a bash script.


# The replacement is only done in non-fish login interactive shell in
# SSH connection and fish executable exists.
if [                                                            \
     "$SHELL" != "$FISH_BIN" -a -n "$SSH_TTY" -a -x "$FISH_BIN" \
] ; then
    # we first check whether fish can be executed, otherwise the
    # replacement will cause immediate crash at login (not fun)
    if "$FISH_BIN" -c 'echo "Test fish running" >/dev/null' ; then
        export SHELL="$FISH_BIN"
        echo "One can launch the fish shell by 'exec -l \$SHELL -l'"
        # exec -l $SHELL -l   # launch the fish login shell
        echo "Failed to launch fish shell. Go check its installation!"
        echo "Fall back to default shell $SHELL ..."

Basically we ensure whether fish executable work by running echo '...' before we change the shell. By uncommenting the exec .. line one will get automatically directed to fish shell. But the safest option is to run the shell change oneself. This kind of “shell swapping” will only happen when we log in the server by ssh

The actual setting is quite straight-forward. While the backstory here is that I messed up a few times and I was lucky enough to keep another session alive. At first I only checked fish --version but it was not sufficient, since it didn’t actually execute fish’s main code instructions. I got a illegal instruction after changing to fish even though printing its version was fine.

  1. Interestingly, fish is not a POSIX-compliant shell so it won’t read ~/.profile configuration file.