Why are environment variables different with `bash -c`

Solution 1:

In your first example:

docker exec -i -t my_container bash -c "echo $PATH"

That will evaluate the $PATH variable with your shell on your docker client, outside of the container, and then pass the expanded value as the command to run inside the container. You can compare the value of the above to running echo $PATH on the command line outside of docker and see that they are the same.

In your second example:

docker exec -i -t my_container bash 
[email protected]:/# echo $PATH

That will evaluate the $PATH variable inside the container.

You can escape your first example, or single quote it to prevent the bash shell on your workstation from expanding it, so that it is evaluated inside the container. Either of the following would work:

docker exec -i -t my_container bash -c "echo \$PATH"
docker exec -i -t my_container bash -c 'echo $PATH'

Solution 2:

When -c is specified bash is not running as interactive or a login shell so it won't read the same startup scripts. Anything set in /etc/profile, ~/.bash_profile, ~/.bash_login, or ~/.profile would definitely be skipped.

Also, as explained by the bash man page:

Bash attempts to determine when it is being run with its standard input connected to a network connection, as when executed by the remote shell daemon, usually rshd, or the secure shell daemon sshd. If bash determines it is being run in this fashion, it reads and executes commands from ~/.bashrc and ~/.bashrc, if these files exist and are readable.

So if it doesn't think you're connecting across the network it might not read the .bashrc file either which would skip everything not skipped by the previous step.


To work around this issue I would create a script that sets the PATH to something suitable and then run the command. If you want to use the existing .profile or other files then you can just source it in your script.

Solution 3:

Try the -l option for bash. It will run in login shell and load /etc/profile.

docker exec -i -t my_container bash -lc "echo $PATH"