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How To Edit A File Without Changing Its Timestamps In Linux

By sk
Published: Last Updated on 12.4K views

As you may know, the "access time" and "modify time" timestamps of a file will be changed to the current time after the file is edited or modified. Sometimes, you might want to preserve the old timestamps for any reason even after editing or modifying the files. This brief guide explains how to edit a file without changing its timestamps in Linux.

If you don't know much about Linux file timestamps, refer the following guide.

Edit A File Without Changing Its Timestamps In Linux

A file's timestamps can be updated using touch command. The timestamps also gets updated when we manually add contents in a file or remove data from it. If you want change the contents of files without changing its timestamps, there is no direct way to do it. But it is possible!

We can use one of the touch command's option -r (reference) to preserve file timestamps after editing or modifying it. The -r option is used to set the timestamps of one file to the timestamp values of another.

I have a text file named ostechnix.txt . Let us have look at the timestamps of this file with stat command:

$ stat ostechnix.txt 
  File: ostechnix.txt
  Size: 38        	Blocks: 8          IO Block: 4096   regular file
Device: 801h/2049d	Inode: 4351679     Links: 1
Access: (0775/-rwxrwxr-x)  Uid: ( 1000/      sk)   Gid: ( 1000/      sk)
Access: 2020-11-12 19:47:55.992788870 +0530
Modify: 2020-11-12 19:47:55.992788870 +0530
Change: 2020-11-12 19:47:55.992788870 +0530
 Birth: -

As stated already, if we change the contents or metadata of this file, the timestamps will also change.

Now create a new, empty file, for example ostechnix.timestamp, with the same timestamps as ostechnix.txt file using touch command:

$ touch -r ostechnix.txt ostechnix.timestamp

Check the timestamps of the new file:

$ stat ostechnix.timestamp 
  File: ostechnix.timestamp
  Size: 0         	Blocks: 0          IO Block: 4096   regular empty file
Device: 801h/2049d	Inode: 4328645     Links: 1
Access: (0664/-rw-rw-r--)  Uid: ( 1000/      sk)   Gid: ( 1000/      sk)
Access: 2020-11-12 19:47:55.992788870 +0530
Modify: 2020-11-12 19:47:55.992788870 +0530
Change: 2020-11-12 19:48:48.934235300 +0530
 Birth: -
Edit a file without changing its timestamp in Linux
Edit a file without changing its timestamp in Linux

See? Both files' atime and mtime timestamps are same!

Now make the changes in the main file i.e. ostechnix.txt. As you guessed, the main file's timestamps will change.

Finally, copy the timestamps of new file i.e. ostechnix.timestamp to the main file:

$ touch -r ostechnix.timestamp ostechnix.txt

Now the main file has its old timestamps before it was edited/modified.

Please note that we can't preserve the change time (ctime) timestamps. It will always update to the current time.


Create a new file with same timestamps as main file with touch command, do the changes in the main file and set the timestamps of the new file to main file with -r option.

Hope this helps.

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Jalal November 13, 2020 - 11:28 am

Thanks a lot…

good November 14, 2020 - 10:59 am

Nice, but…
1. When/why to do that?
2. What about the change time?

Jan Peterson January 23, 2023 - 7:08 am

I’m not the original author, but I can answer your questions.

Why do it? In my environment, I use blogging software that determines the order to show the entries based on the modification time of the file (i.e. newer files show first so blog entries appear in the order they were written). Occasionally, I want to go back to a previous entry and make a correction, fix a typo, or similar, but I don’t want that post to suddenly appear to be a new post (I want it to stay where it was in the display order). With this mechanism, I can edit the file but keep the modification time the same and the blog entry will stay in the right place relative to other entries.

What about the ctime? Well, you can’t do anything to keep the ctime from changing. The ctime refers to the inode “change” time. Any time you modify the timestamps, you change the inode, so the ctime gets updated. There is no system call interface that will let you modify the ctime. Now, that said, there IS a way to tweak the ctime on a file. It isn’t for the faint of heart, though. You have to use the file system debugger tools (fsdb and similar depending on the filesystem you are monkeying with). You’ll want to operate on an unmounted filesystem. These applications let you open the filesystem directly, browse around, find the particular inode you want to fiddle with, and edit it in place. Yeek. No, it’s not recommended, but it is doable.

Yves De Billoëz November 15, 2020 - 10:56 pm

What about mounting with NFS and using noatime?

sk November 16, 2020 - 11:20 am

If you mount a filesystem with noatime timestamp, the last accessed date will not be recorded. I haven’t personally tested “noatime” yet. But I think it increases speed because when a file is accessed (read from), it will also record that as being a time the file was accessed, and that writing to the file takes extra time, as does writing that extra data when it is being written to.


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