26.6.4 File Attributes

This section describes the functions for getting detailed information about a file, including the owner and group numbers, the number of names, the inode number, the size, and the times of access and modification.

Function: file-newer-than-file-p filename1 filename2

This function returns t if the file filename1 is newer than file filename2. If filename1 does not exist, it returns nil. If filename1 does exist, but filename2 does not, it returns t.

In the following example, assume that the file aug-19 was written on the 19th, aug-20 was written on the 20th, and the file no-file doesn’t exist at all.

(file-newer-than-file-p "aug-19" "aug-20")
     ⇒ nil
(file-newer-than-file-p "aug-20" "aug-19")
     ⇒ t
(file-newer-than-file-p "aug-19" "no-file")
     ⇒ t
(file-newer-than-file-p "no-file" "aug-19")
     ⇒ nil
Function: file-has-changed-p filename tag

This function returns non-nil if the time stamp of filename has changed since the last call. When called for the first time for some filename, it records the last modification time and size of the file, and returns non-nil when filename exists. Thereafter, when called for the same filename, it compares the current time stamp and size with the recorded ones, and returns non-nil only if either the time stamp or the size (or both) are different. This is useful when a Lisp program wants to re-read a file whenever it changes. With an optional argument tag, which must be a symbol, the size and modification time comparisons are limited to calls with the same tag.

Function: file-attributes filename &optional id-format

This function returns a list of attributes of file filename. If the specified file does not exist, it returns nil. This function does not follow symbolic links. The optional parameter id-format specifies the preferred format of attributes UID and GID (see below)—the valid values are 'string and 'integer. The latter is the default, but we plan to change that, so you should specify a non-nil value for id-format if you use the returned UID or GID.

On GNU platforms when operating on a local file, this function is atomic: if the filesystem is simultaneously being changed by some other process, this function returns the file’s attributes either before or after the change. Otherwise this function is not atomic, and might return nil if it detects the race condition, or might return a hodgepodge of the previous and current file attributes.

Accessor functions are provided to access the elements in this list. The accessors are mentioned along with the descriptions of the elements below.

The elements of the list, in order, are:

  1. t for a directory, a string for a symbolic link (the name linked to), or nil for a text file (file-attribute-type).
  2. The number of names the file has (file-attribute-link-number). Alternate names, also known as hard links, can be created by using the add-name-to-file function (see Changing File Names and Attributes).
  3. The file’s UID, normally as a string (file-attribute-user-id). However, if it does not correspond to a named user, the value is an integer.
  4. The file’s GID, likewise (file-attribute-group-id).
  5. The time of last access as a Lisp timestamp (file-attribute-access-time). The timestamp is in the style of current-time (see Time of Day) and is truncated to that of the filesystem’s timestamp resolution; for example, on some FAT-based filesystems, only the date of last access is recorded, so this time will always hold the midnight of the day of the last access.
  6. The time of last modification as a Lisp timestamp (file-attribute-modification-time). This is the last time when the file’s contents were modified.
  7. The time of last status change as a Lisp timestamp (file-attribute-status-change-time). This is the time of the last change to the file’s access mode bits, its owner and group, and other information recorded in the filesystem for the file, beyond the file’s contents.
  8. The size of the file in bytes (file-attribute-size).
  9. The file’s modes, as a string of ten letters or dashes, as in ‘ls -l’ (file-attribute-modes).
  10. An unspecified value, present for backward compatibility.
  11. The file’s inode number (file-attribute-inode-number), a nonnegative integer.
  12. The filesystem’s identifier of the device that the file is on (file-attribute-device-number), an integer or a cons cell of two integers. The latter is sometimes used by remote files, in order to distinguish remote filesystems from local ones.

The file’s inode and device together give enough information to distinguish any two files on the system—no two files can have the same values for both of these attributes. This tuple that uniquely identifies the file is returned by file-attribute-file-identifier.

For example, here are the file attributes for files.texi:

(file-attributes "files.texi" 'string)
     ⇒  (nil 1 "lh" "users"
          (20614 64019 50040 152000)
          (20000 23 0 0)
          (20614 64555 902289 872000)
          122295 "-rw-rw-rw-"
          t 6473924464520138

and here is how the result is interpreted:


is neither a directory nor a symbolic link.


has only one name (the name files.texi in the current default directory).


is owned by the user with name ‘lh’.


is in the group with name ‘users’.

(20614 64019 50040 152000)

was last accessed on October 23, 2012, at 20:12:03.050040152 UTC. (This timestamp is (1351023123050040152 . 1000000000) if current-time-list is nil.)

(20000 23 0 0)

was last modified on July 15, 2001, at 08:53:43.000000000 UTC. (This timestamp is (1310720023000000000 . 1000000000) if current-time-list is nil.)

(20614 64555 902289 872000)

last had its status changed on October 23, 2012, at 20:20:59.902289872 UTC. (This timestamp is (1351023659902289872 . 1000000000) if current-time-list is nil.)


is 122295 bytes long. (It may not contain 122295 characters, though, if some of the bytes belong to multibyte sequences, and also if the end-of-line format is CR-LF.)


has a mode of read and write access for the owner, group, and world.


is merely a placeholder; it carries no information.


has an inode number of 6473924464520138.


is on the file-system device whose number is 1014478468.

This function returns the number of names (i.e., hard links) that file filename has. If the file does not exist, this function returns nil. Note that symbolic links have no effect on this function, because they are not considered to be names of the files they link to. This function does not follow symbolic links.

$ ls -l foo*
-rw-rw-rw- 2 rms rms 4 Aug 19 01:27 foo
-rw-rw-rw- 2 rms rms 4 Aug 19 01:27 foo1

(file-nlinks "foo")
     ⇒ 2
(file-nlinks "doesnt-exist")
     ⇒ nil