The umount Command

The umount command is used to manually unmount filesystems on Linux and other Unix-like operating systems.

A filesystem in this context is a hierarchy of directories that is located on a single partition (logically independent section of a hard disk drive) or other device, such as a CDROM, DVD, floppy disk or USB key drive, and has a single filesystem type (i.e., method for organizing data).

Mounting refers to logically attaching a filesystem to a specified location on the currently accessible (and thus already mounted) filesystem(s) on a computer system so that its contents can be accessed by users. Unmounting refers to logically detaching a filesystem from the currently accessible filesystem(s).

All mounted filesystems are unmounted automatically when a computer is shut down in an orderly manner. However, there are times when it is necessary to unmount an individual filesystem while a computer is still running. A common example is when it is desired to remove an external device such as a USB key drive; should such device be removed before the filesystem on it is properly unmounted, it is possible that any data recently added to it might not be saved.

The basic syntax of umount is

umount [options] filesystem

umount is most commonly used without any of its several options. The filesystem is identified by the full pathname of the directory in which it has been mounted, not by its type. Thus, for example, to unmount a filesystem that is mounted in a directory called /dir1, all that would be necessary is to type in the following at the keyboard and press the Enter key:

umount /dir1

Likewise, a USB key device, assuming that it had been mounted in the directory /mnt/usb, would be unmounted with the following:

umount /mnt/usb

Attempts to unmount a filesystem are not always successful. The most common problem is that the filesystem is busy. That is, it is currently being used by some process (i.e., instance of a program in execution). In such case an error message such as umount: /dir1: device is busy will be displayed on the screen. This busy state could be the result of something as simple as an GUI window being open that shows an icon of the directory containing the filesystem, in which case it can be easily solved by closing the window. Or it could be the result of a file on that filesystem being open, in which case all that is necessary is to close the file. In less obvious cases, it may be necessary to use a command such as ps or pstree to try to locate the offending process(es) and then use a command such as kill to terminate such process(es).

Another cause of failure is when a user attempts to unmount a filesystem that has already been unmounted. In such case an error message such as umount: /dir1: not mounted will be returned.

In the event that the unmounting is successful, umount usually works silently; that is, there is no message on the screen to confirm its success. However, umount can be made to provide such a message by using the -v (i.e., verbose) option. (This should not be confused with the -V option, which merely returns information about the currently installed version of umount.)

umount allows the name of the physical device on which the filesystem is mounted to be included in the command if desired. This is convenient because it can minimize typing by allowing the user to utilize the upward pointing arrow on the keyboard to display the command that was previously used to mount that filesystem (i.e., to use the history command) and then merely insert the letter u before the word mount and press the Enter key in order to unmount the filesystem. Thus, for example, if a filesystem that is physically located on the second partition of the first HDD (which is designated by dev/hda2) is mounted in a directory called /dir2, it can be unmounted with either of the following:

umount /dir2


umount /dev/hda2 /dir2

Interestingly, when the physical device is included, a confirmation message is automatically supplied.

There are several options that can be tried in the event that umount refuses to unmount a filesystem for no immediately apparent reason. Perhaps the most useful is the -l (i.e., lazy) option, which immediately detaches the filesystem from the main filesystem and then cleans up all references to the unmounted filesystem as soon as it is no longer busy. This capability requires Linux kernel 2.4.11 or later.

Another way to deal with an unmounting failure is to use the -r option, which remounts the filesystem as read-only. This presumably allows devices or media to be removed without affecting data which has just been written to them. In addition, the -f option forces unmounting in the case of an unreachable NFS (network filesystem) filesystem.

The -a option causes all of the filesystems described in /etc/mtab to be unmounted. (However, with umount version 2.7 and later the proc filesystem is not unmounted.) /etc/mtab is a file that is similar to /etc/fstab and which is updated by mount and umount whenever filesystems are mounted or unmounted. The -n option causes unmounting to occur without writing to /etc/mtab.

The -t option followed by the filesystem type indicates that the actions should only be taken on filesystems of that type. Multiple types can be specified in a comma-separated list. This list can be prefixed with the word no to specify filesystem types on which no action should be taken.

The -O options indicate that the actions should only be taken on filesystems with the specified options in /etc/fstab. Multiple option types can be specified in a comma-separated list. Those options for which no action should be taken can be prefixed with no.

umount will free any loop device associated with a mounted filesystem if it finds the option loop=... in /etc/mtab or if the -d option is used. A loop device is a pseudo-device that is able to redirect and transform data that goes through its loop and which is used mainly used for encrypting filesystems.

Note the symmetry between the umount and mount commands, including the fact that many of the options are identical or very similar (including -a, -h, -r, -t, -O, -v and -V). This is consistent with the Unix philosophy, a fundamental component of which is simplicity (and hence consistency to the extent practical among commands), in that it eliminates unnecessary complexity.

umount could have instead been called unmount. This might have simplified things for people who are new to the command line (i.e., text-only operation). However, eliminating unnecessary typing is also a part of the Unix philosophy, and thus the n was not used.

Created September 24, 2007.
Copyright © 2007 The Linux Information Project. All Rights Reserved.