OS X: Edit a file using TextEdit as root or superuser

Editing some files on an OS X system requires superuser or root permissions. Typically, this is accomplished using sudo (which lets authorized users assume superuser powers, cape and tights optional) and vi. To the uninitiated, vi can cause intestinal distress and hair loss. An alternative is the use of TextEdit, the graphical text editor application, but under normal circumstances, you can open a system file like hosts but cannot save it. Following the steps in this recipe, you can edit a system file using TextEdit and put off learning vi for another day.

The sudo command line application allows a user to run another application as though they are another user. Most commonly (and by default) the other user is root, the superuser of the system who can do anything to any file on the box. In this case we want to launch the TextEdit application.

If you’ve never poked around at an application in OS X, it’s interesting to take a peek. When you look at the /Applications folder in a finder window, you’ll see the applications listed by name such as TextEdit. If you list the files from the command line ( ls -l /Applications ) they are actually directories, not simply files, and have a .app extension like TextEdit.app. You can change directory into one of these directories and look around. If you look in a few, you’ll see that there is some standard organization in them and that should make you feel a little warmer and possibly fuzzier about this whole situation. This directory structure allows the applications to have many supporting files and resources neatly contained within them. Of interest to us is the location of the actual executable file inside the app directory. In the case of TextEdit, the path to this executable is /Applications/TextEdit.app/Contents/MacOS/TextEdit

Based on this information, running TextEdit with sudo to edit the /etc/hosts file becomes a simple task (if a rather long command line, sorry):

sudo /Applications/TextEdit.app/Contents/MacOS/TextEdit /etc/hosts

In many systems this terminal command may work better:

sudo open -t /etc/hosts

When you run this command from a command line (in a Terminal window), you’ll be prompted for a password. The correct password is your own (the password of the user logged into OS X, also the password you provide when doing system updates and so on), not the root user’s password (which doesn’t exist by default, anyway).

Once you enter your password, a TextEdit window will open and the contents of the file you are editing will appear. Edit to your heart’s content and save normally when you are done. Just keep in mind that most system files are protected from writing for a good reason (like if you make a mistake editing them, bad things may happen) so edit at your own risk.


The versioning functions of OS X Lion will prevent this tutorial from working correctly. Even though you are running as a superuser, the file within textedit will be locked. Since Lion has rolled out, I have reverted back to the old standby of using nano to edit.

sudo nano /etc/hosts

Sure nano has that retro terminal feel, but it’s an easy enough method to make simple host file changes.


About Quinn McHenry

Quinn was one of the original co-founders of Tech-Recipes. He is currently crafting iOS applications as a senior developer at Small Planet Digital in Brooklyn, New York.
View more articles by Quinn McHenry

The Conversation

Follow the reactions below and share your own thoughts.