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13.3 Setting the File Position of a Descriptor

Just as you can set the file position of a stream with fseek, you can set the file position of a descriptor with lseek. This specifies the position in the file for the next read or write operation. See File Positioning, for more information on the file position and what it means.

To read the current file position value from a descriptor, use lseek (desc, 0, SEEK_CUR).

Function: off_t lseek (int filedes, off_t offset, int whence)

Preliminary: | MT-Safe | AS-Safe | AC-Safe | See POSIX Safety Concepts.

The lseek function is used to change the file position of the file with descriptor filedes.

The whence argument specifies how the offset should be interpreted, in the same way as for the fseek function, and it must be one of the symbolic constants SEEK_SET, SEEK_CUR, or SEEK_END.


Specifies that offset is a count of characters from the beginning of the file.


Specifies that offset is a count of characters from the current file position. This count may be positive or negative.


Specifies that offset is a count of characters from the end of the file. A negative count specifies a position within the current extent of the file; a positive count specifies a position past the current end. If you set the position past the current end, and actually write data, you will extend the file with zeros up to that position.

The return value from lseek is normally the resulting file position, measured in bytes from the beginning of the file. You can use this feature together with SEEK_CUR to read the current file position.

If you want to append to the file, setting the file position to the current end of file with SEEK_END is not sufficient. Another process may write more data after you seek but before you write, extending the file so the position you write onto clobbers their data. Instead, use the O_APPEND operating mode; see I/O Operating Modes.

You can set the file position past the current end of the file. This does not by itself make the file longer; lseek never changes the file. But subsequent output at that position will extend the file. Characters between the previous end of file and the new position are filled with zeros. Extending the file in this way can create a “hole”: the blocks of zeros are not actually allocated on disk, so the file takes up less space than it appears to; it is then called a “sparse file”.

If the file position cannot be changed, or the operation is in some way invalid, lseek returns a value of -1. The following errno error conditions are defined for this function:


The filedes is not a valid file descriptor.


The whence argument value is not valid, or the resulting file offset is not valid. A file offset is invalid.


The filedes corresponds to an object that cannot be positioned, such as a pipe, FIFO or terminal device. (POSIX.1 specifies this error only for pipes and FIFOs, but on GNU systems, you always get ESPIPE if the object is not seekable.)

When the source file is compiled with _FILE_OFFSET_BITS == 64 the lseek function is in fact lseek64 and the type off_t has 64 bits which makes it possible to handle files up to 2^63 bytes in length.

This function is a cancellation point in multi-threaded programs. This is a problem if the thread allocates some resources (like memory, file descriptors, semaphores or whatever) at the time lseek is called. If the thread gets canceled these resources stay allocated until the program ends. To avoid this calls to lseek should be protected using cancellation handlers.

The lseek function is the underlying primitive for the fseek, fseeko, ftell, ftello and rewind functions, which operate on streams instead of file descriptors.

Function: off64_t lseek64 (int filedes, off64_t offset, int whence)

Preliminary: | MT-Safe | AS-Safe | AC-Safe | See POSIX Safety Concepts.

This function is similar to the lseek function. The difference is that the offset parameter is of type off64_t instead of off_t which makes it possible on 32 bit machines to address files larger than 2^31 bytes and up to 2^63 bytes. The file descriptor filedes must be opened using open64 since otherwise the large offsets possible with off64_t will lead to errors with a descriptor in small file mode.

When the source file is compiled with _FILE_OFFSET_BITS == 64 on a 32 bits machine this function is actually available under the name lseek and so transparently replaces the 32 bit interface.

You can have multiple descriptors for the same file if you open the file more than once, or if you duplicate a descriptor with dup. Descriptors that come from separate calls to open have independent file positions; using lseek on one descriptor has no effect on the other. For example,

  int d1, d2;
  char buf[4];
  d1 = open ("foo", O_RDONLY);
  d2 = open ("foo", O_RDONLY);
  lseek (d1, 1024, SEEK_SET);
  read (d2, buf, 4);

will read the first four characters of the file foo. (The error-checking code necessary for a real program has been omitted here for brevity.)

By contrast, descriptors made by duplication share a common file position with the original descriptor that was duplicated. Anything which alters the file position of one of the duplicates, including reading or writing data, affects all of them alike. Thus, for example,

  int d1, d2, d3;
  char buf1[4], buf2[4];
  d1 = open ("foo", O_RDONLY);
  d2 = dup (d1);
  d3 = dup (d2);
  lseek (d3, 1024, SEEK_SET);
  read (d1, buf1, 4);
  read (d2, buf2, 4);

will read four characters starting with the 1024’th character of foo, and then four more characters starting with the 1028’th character.

Data Type: off_t

This is a signed integer type used to represent file sizes. In the GNU C Library, this type is no narrower than int.

If the source is compiled with _FILE_OFFSET_BITS == 64 this type is transparently replaced by off64_t.

Data Type: off64_t

This type is used similar to off_t. The difference is that even on 32 bit machines, where the off_t type would have 32 bits, off64_t has 64 bits and so is able to address files up to 2^63 bytes in length.

When compiling with _FILE_OFFSET_BITS == 64 this type is available under the name off_t.

These aliases for the ‘SEEK_…’ constants exist for the sake of compatibility with older BSD systems. They are defined in two different header files: fcntl.h and sys/file.h.


An alias for SEEK_SET.


An alias for SEEK_CUR.


An alias for SEEK_END.

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