Interactive vs. Non-Interactive Users in Linux

Updated: 2023-09-01
3 min read
[Linux User Management Docker]


In a Linux environment, users can be broadly categorized as “interactive” and “non-interactive”. These distinctions stem from how these user accounts interact (or don’t interact) with the system.


  • Interactive Users: These are users who interact directly with the system, usually through a shell. When you log into a computer using SSH or a terminal, you’re operating as an interactive user.
  • Non-Interactive Users: These users are designed to perform specific tasks without direct human intervention. Examples include system accounts running services like apache or mysql.

Interaction, Usage, Environment


  • Interactive: Engages with the system via interfaces like shells.
  • Non-Interactive: Executes tasks automatically, often without a shell or user interface.


  • Interactive: Utilized for general-purpose tasks, from browsing directories to installing software.
  • Non-Interactive: Specific to particular duties, often system-related.


  • Interactive: Has a full user environment. This includes a HOME directory, user-specific settings, etc.
  • Non-Interactive: Limited or no user environment. Typically lacks things like a HOME directory.

Creating user

When creating users in Linux, there’s often no distinction between interactive and non-interactive users. The difference arises in how the user is utilized. However, for security and operational reasons, non-interactive users might have restricted shells or no shell at all.

Why Not Simply Create a User and Use It Non-Interactively?

Even if a user is created as interactive, it can be used non-interactively. However, for security reasons, services or tasks might be assigned to users with restricted permissions or shells to minimize potential risks.



Create a file Dockerfile

FROM ubuntu:20.04

## Create interactive and non-interactive users
RUN useradd interactiveUser && \
    useradd -s /sbin/nologin noninteractiveUser

Build image

docker build -t custom-users-ubuntu .

Connect/Switch to each user:

For interactiveUser:

❯ docker run -it custom-users-ubuntu su - interactiveUser
su: warning: cannot change directory to /home/interactiveUser: No such file or directory
$ id
uid=1000(interactiveUser) gid=1000(interactiveUser) groups=1000(interactiveUser)

For noninteractiveUser (This will not give a shell because of the nologin shell):

❯ docker run -it custom-users-ubuntu su - noninteractiveUser
su: warning: cannot change directory to /home/noninteractiveUser: No such file or directory
This account is currently not available.

Verify that noninteractiveUser exists:

❯ docker run -it custom-users-ubuntu bash

root@495500b9c069:/## cat /etc/passwd

Run commands for each user:

  • You’ll find that the interactiveUser can run commands, but the noninteractiveUser cannot due to its restricted shell.

Show difference in environments:

❯ docker run -it custom-users-ubuntu /bin/bash -c "su - interactiveUser -c env > /tmp/interactiveEnv; su - noninteractiveUser -c env > /tmp/noninteractiveEnv; diff /tmp/interactiveEnv /tmp/noninteractiveEnv"
su: warning: cannot change directory to /home/interactiveUser: No such file or directory
su: warning: cannot change directory to /home/noninteractiveUser: No such file or directory
< MAIL=/var/mail/interactiveUser
< USER=interactiveUser
< HOME=/home/interactiveUser
< LOGNAME=interactiveUser
< TERM=xterm
< PATH=/usr/local/sbin:/usr/local/bin:/usr/sbin:/usr/bin:/sbin:/bin:/usr/games:/usr/local/games:/snap/bin
< SHELL=/bin/sh
< PWD=/
> This account is currently not available.