Chapter 25. Using PHP from the command line

As of version 4.3, PHP supports a new SAPI type (Server Application Programming Interface) named CLI which means Command Line Interface. As the name implies, this SAPI type main focus is on developing shell (or desktop as well) applications with PHP. There are quite some differences between the CLI SAPI and other SAPIs which are further explained throughout this chapter.

The CLI SAPI was released for the first time with PHP 4.2.0, but was still experimental back then and had to be explicitely enabled with --enable-cli when running ./configure. Since PHP 4.3.0 the CLI SAPI is no longer experimental and is therefore always built and installed as the php (called php.exe on Windows) binary.

Remarkable differences of the CLI SAPI compared to other SAPIs:

The list of command line options provided by the PHP binary can be queried anytime by running PHP with the -h switch:
Usage: php [options] [-f] <file> [args...]
       php [options] -r <code> [args...]
       php [options] [-- args...]
  -s               Display colour syntax highlighted source.
  -w               Display source with stripped comments and whitespace.
  -f <file>        Parse <file>.
  -v               Version number
  -c <path>|<file> Look for php.ini file in this directory
  -a               Run interactively
  -d foo[=bar]     Define INI entry foo with value 'bar'
  -e               Generate extended information for debugger/profiler
  -z <file>        Load Zend extension <file>.
  -l               Syntax check only (lint)
  -m               Show compiled in modules
  -i               PHP information
  -r <code>        Run PHP <code> without using script tags <?..?>
  -h               This help

  args...          Arguments passed to script. Use -- args when first argument 
                   starts with - or script is read from stdin

The CLI SAPI has three different ways of getting the PHP code you want to execute:

  1. Telling PHP to execute a certain file.

    php my_script.php
    php -f my_script.php
    Both ways (using the -f switch or not) execute the given file my_script.php. You can choose any file to execute, your PHP scripts do not have to end with the .php extension but can give them any name or extension you want them to have.

  2. Pass the PHP code to execute directly on the command line.

    php -r 'print_r(get_defined_constants());'
    Special care has to be taken in regards of shell variable substitution and quoting usage.

    Note: Read the example carefully, thera are no beginning or ending tags! The -r switch simply does not need them. Using them will lead to a parser error.

  3. Provide the PHP code to execute via standard input (stdin).

    This gives the powerful ability to dynamically create PHP code and feed it to the binary, as shown in this (fictional) example:
    $ some_application | some_filter | php | sort -u >final_output.txt

You cannot combine any of the three ways to execute code.

Like every shell application, the PHP binary accepts a number of arguments but also your PHP script can receive them. The number of arguments which can be passed to your script is not limited by PHP (the shell has a certain size limit in numbers of characters which can be passed; usually you won't hit this limit). The arguments passed to your script are available in the global array $argv. The zero index always contains the script name (which is - in case the PHP code is coming from either standard input or from the command line switch -r). The second registered global variable is $argc which contains the number of elements in the $argv array (not the number of arguments passed to the script).

As long as the arguments you want to pass to your script do not start with the - character, there's nothing special to watch out for. Passing an argument to your script which starts with a - will cause trouble because PHP itself thinks it has to handle it. To prevent this use the argument list separator --. After the argument has been parsed by PHP, every argument following it is passed untoched/unparsed to your script.

# This will not execute the given code but will show the PHP usage
$ php -r 'var_dump($argv);' -h
Usage: php [options] [-f] <file> [args...]

# This will pass the '-h' argument to your script and prevent PHP from showing it's usage
$ php -r 'var_dump($argv);' -- -h
array(2) {
  string(1) "-"
  string(2) "-h"

However, there's another way of using PHP for shell scripting. You can write a script where the first line starts with #!/usr/bin/php and then following the normal PHP code included within the PHP starting and end tags and set the execution attributes of the file appropriately. This way it can be executed like a normal shell or perl script:
Assuming this file is named test in the current directory, we can now do the following:
$ chmod 755 test
$ ./test -h -- foo
array(4) {
  string(6) "./test"
  string(2) "-h"
  string(2) "--"
  string(3) "foo"
As you see no care has to be taken when passing parameters to your script which start with -.

Table 25-3. Command line options


Display colour syntax highlighted source.

This option uses the internal mechanism to parse the file and produces a HTML highlighted version of it and writes it to standard output. Note that all it does it to generate a block of <code> [...] </code> HTML tags, no HTML headers.

Note: This option does not work together with the -r option.


Display source with stripped comments and whitespace.

Note: This option does not work together with the -r option.


Parses and executed the given filename to the -f option. This switch is optional and can be left out. Only providing the filename to execute is sufficient.


Writes the PHP, PHP SAPI, and Zend version to standard output, e.g.
$ php -v
PHP 4.3.0-dev (cli), Copyright (c) 1997-2002 The PHP Group
Zend Engine v1.2.1, Copyright (c) 1998-2002 Zend Technologies


With this option one can either specify a directory where to look for php.ini or you can specify a custom INI file directly (which does not need to be named php.ini), e.g.:
$ php -c /custom/directory/ my_script.php

$ php -c /custom/directory/custom-file.ini my_script.php


Runs PHP interactively.


This option allows to set a custom value for any of the configuration directives allowed in php.ini. The syntax is:
-d configuration_directive[=value]

# Ommiting the value part will set the given configuration directive to "1"
$ php -d max_execution_time -r '$foo = ini_get("max_execution_time"); var_dump($foo);'
string(1) "1"

# Passing an empty value part will set the configuration directive to ""
php -d max_execution_time= -r '$foo = ini_get("max_execution_time"); var_dump($foo);'
string(0) ""

# The configuration directive will be set to anything passed after the '=' character
$  php -d max_execution_time=20 -r '$foo = ini_get("max_execution_time"); var_dump($foo);'
string(2) "20"
$  php -d max_execution_time=doesntmakesense -r '$foo = ini_get("max_execution_time"); var_dump($foo);'
string(15) "doesntmakesense"


Generate extended information for debugger/profiler.


Load Zend extension. If only a filename is given, PHP tries to load this extension from the current default library path on your system (usually specified /etc/ on Linux systems). Passing a filename with an absolute path information will not use the systems library search path. A relative filename with a directory information will tell PHP only to try to load the extension relative to the current directory.


This option provides a convenient way to only perform a syntax check on the given PHP code. On succes, the text No syntax errors detected in <filename> is written to standard output and the shell return code is 0. On failure, the text Errors parsing <filename> in addition to the internal parser error message is written to standard output and the shell return code is set to 255.

This option won't find fatal errors (like undefined functions). Use -f if you would like to test for fatal errors too.

Note: This option does not work together with the -r option.


Using this option, PHP prints out the built in (and loaded) PHP and Zend modules:
$ php -m
[PHP Modules]

[Zend Modules]

-i This command line option calls phpinfo(), and prints out the results. If PHP is not working well, it is advisable to make a php -i and see if any error messages are printed out before or in place of the information tables. Beware that the output is in HTML and therefore quite huge.

This option allows execution of PHP right from within the command line. The PHP start and end tags (<?php and ?>) are not needed and will cause a parser errors.

Note: Care has to be taken when using this form of PHP to not collide with command line variable substitution done by the shell.

Example showing a parser error
$ php -r "$foo = get_defined_constants();"
Command line code(1) : Parse error - parse error, unexpected '='
The problem here is that the sh/bash performs variable substritution even when using double quotes ". Since the variable $foo is unlikely to be defined, it expands to nothing which results in being the code passed to PHP for executin in fact reads:
$ php -r " = get_defined_constants();"
The correct way would be to use single quotes '. variables in strings quoted with single quotes are not expanded by sh/bash.
$ php -r '$foo = get_defined_constants(); var_dump($foo);'
array(370) {
If you are using a shell different from sh/bash, you might experience further issues. Feel free to open a bug report or send a mail to One still can easily run intro troubles when trying to get shell variables into the code or using backslashes for escaping. You've been warned.

-h With this option, you can get information about the actual list of command line options and some one line descriptions about what they do.

The PHP executable can be used to run PHP scripts absolutely independent from the web server. If you are on a Unix system, you should add a special first line to your PHP script, and make it executable, so the system will know, what program should run the script. On a Windows platform you can associate php.exe with the double click option of the .php files, or you can make a batch file to run the script through PHP. The first line added to the script to work on Unix won't hurt on Windows, so you can write cross platform programs this way. A simple example of writing a command line PHP program can be found below.

Example 25-1. Script intended to be run from command line (script.php)


if ($argc != 2 || in_array($argv[1], array('--help', '-help', '-h', '-?'))) {

This is a command line PHP script with one option.

  <?php echo $argv[0]; ?> <option>

  <option> can be some word you would like
  to print out. With the --help, -help, -h,
  or -? options, you can get this help.

} else {
    echo $argv[1];

In the script above, we used the special first line to indicate, that this file should be run by PHP. We work with a CLI version here, so there will be no HTTP header printouts. There are two variables you can use while writing command line applications with PHP: $argc and $argv. The first is the number of arguments plus one (the name of the script running). The second is an array containing the arguments, starting with the script name as number zero ($argv[0]).

In the program above we checked if there are less or more than one arguments. Also if the argument was --help, -help, -h or -?, we printed out the help message, printing the script name dynamically. If we received some other argument we echoed that out.

If you would like to run the above script on Unix, you need to make it executable, and simply call it as script.php echothis or script.php -h. On Windows, you can make a batch file for this task:

Example 25-2. Batch file to run a command line PHP script (script.bat)

@c:\php\php.exe script.php %1 %2 %3 %4

Assuming, you named the above program as script.php, and you have your php.exe in c:\php\php.exe this batch file will run it for you with your added options: script.bat echothis or script.bat -h.

See also the Readline extension documentation for more functions you can use to enhance your command line applications in PHP.