Cron Jobs In Linux - How To Use Cron Jobs To Automate And Schedule Tasks

Published March 19, 2024


What is Cron?

Cron is a job scheduling utility included in most Unix-like operating systems. It allows users to schedule and automate the execution of repetitive tasks at specific intervals. The crond daemon is the background process that enables cron functionality. It continuously runs in the background, checking for predefined scripts or commands to run in crontab files.

How Cron Jobs Work

The cron daemon, crond, reads the crontab (cron tables) to determine which jobs to run and when to run them. Cron jobs for each user are stored in individual crontab files located at /var/spool/cron/crontabs/$USER, where $USER is the username. System-wide cron jobs are defined in the /etc/crontab file. Cron checks these files every minute to see if any jobs are scheduled to run at that time.

Controlling Access to Crons

System administrators can control which users have permission to create and manage cron jobs. To allow a user to use cron, their username needs to be added to the '/etc/cron.allow' file. To deny a user access to cron, their username can be added to the '/etc/cron.d/cron.deny' file.

Before using cron jobs, it's important to check the status of the cron service and make sure it is running. On most systems, you can use the command sudo systemctl status cron to verify the cron service status. If cron is not installed, you can usually install it using the package manager for your Linux distribution, such as Ubuntu or Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

Cron is a powerful tool that helps us automate our routine tasks on Linux systems. With cron, you can schedule scripts, commands, or shell scripts to run at specific intervals, such as every minute, hour, day, month, or on a specific day of the week. Cron jobs are useful for performing tasks like running backups, monitoring your system, or executing any other repetitive tasks.

To create or edit a cron job, use the crontab -e command in the Linux command line. This will open the user's crontab file in the default text editor. You can then add your cron job using the basic crontab syntax, which consists of five fields specifying the minute, hour, day of the month, month, and day of week, followed by the command to be executed.

For example, to schedule a cron job to run every day at midnight, you would use the following cron expression:

0 0 * * * /path/to/command

After saving the file and exiting the editor, the cron daemon will read the updated crontab and execute the scheduled jobs according to their specified intervals.

To view your current crontab entries, use the crontab -l command. This will display a list of all your scheduled cron jobs.

Remember that cron jobs run with the permissions of the user who created them, so make sure to configure your cron jobs with the appropriate user account and permissions.

By mastering the basics of cron and understanding how to create, edit, and monitor your cron jobs, you can automate various tasks on your Linux system and save time in the process.

Syntax and Examples

Cron jobs are defined using a syntax that has five fields for the minute, hour, day of the month, month, and day of the week, followed by the command to run. Each field can have a single value, a range of values, a list of values, or an asterisk (*) for all possible values.


The basic cron job syntax is:

* * * * * command

The five fields are:

  • Minute (0-59)
  • Hour (0-23)
  • Day of the month (1-31)
  • Month (1-12)
  • Day of the week (0-6, where 0 is Sunday)

For example, this cron job will run the script every day at 2:30 AM:

30 2 * * * /path/to/

Crontab File

Cron jobs for each user are in a crontab file. To edit your crontab file, use the crontab -e command. This will open the file in the text editor.

Each line in the crontab file is a separate cron job. Lines starting with # are comments and ignored by the cron daemon.

Here's an example crontab file with multiple cron jobs:

# Run backup script every day at 2:30 AM
30 2 * * * /path/to/

# Run system update every Sunday at 10:00 PM 
0 22 * * 0 /usr/bin/apt-get update

# Delete temporary files every 15 minutes
*/15 * * * * /usr/local/bin/

Common Examples

Some common examples of cron job schedules:

  • Run a job at 00:05 in August: 5 0 * 8 *
  • Run a job at 04:05 on Saturdays: 5 4 * * 6
  • Run a job at 22:00 every weekday (Monday to Friday): 0 22 * * 1-5
  • Run a job every 10 minutes: */10 * * * *
  • Run a job every hour on the 15th minute: 15 * * * *

Setting Up a Cron Job

To set up a new cron job:

  1. Create a script to run on a schedule. Make sure the script has execute permissions.

  2. Open your crontab file with crontab -e.

  3. Add a new line with the schedule and command to run. For example:

    */30 * * * * /path/to/your/

    This will run every 30 minutes.

  4. Save the file and exit. The cron daemon will read the updated crontab and start running the new job on the schedule.

Use the full path to your script or command in the crontab file so the cron daemon can find the executable.

By learning the cron job syntax and using the crontab file, you can automate many tasks on your Linux system. Try different schedules and commands to make the most of cron jobs in your work.


Cron Jobs Directory

Along with user crontab files, you can store system-wide cron jobs in the /etc/cron.d/ directory. This directory has files with the same syntax as user crontab files, but they schedule jobs that need higher privileges or run as a specific user. Each file in /etc/cron.d/ is a separate system-wide cron job configuration.

To create a new system-wide cron job, make a new file in the /etc/cron.d/ directory with the cron schedule and command. For example, you could create a file named backup with the following content:

0 2 * * * root /usr/local/bin/

This would run the /usr/local/bin/ script every day at 2:00 AM as the root user.

Using the /etc/cron.d/ directory is useful for scheduling jobs that need root privileges or run as a specific system user, rather than an individual user's crontab.

Using Environment Variables

When cron jobs run, they have a limited set of environment variables compared to a regular user session. This means that some environment variables set in .bashrc or .profile may not be available when a cron job runs.

If your cron job needs specific environment variables, you can:

  1. Set the environment variables in the crontab file. For example:

    0 * * * * /path/to/command

    This sets the PATH environment variable before running the command.

  2. Set the environment variables in the script or command run by the cron job. For example:

    0 * * * * /bin/bash -c 'export PATH=/usr/local/bin:/usr/bin:/bin; /path/to/command'

    This runs a bash shell that exports the PATH variable and then runs the command.

Make sure any required environment variables are set in your cron job to avoid issues with missing dependencies or incorrect paths.

Running Cron Jobs as a Different User

By default, cron jobs run under the user account that owns the crontab file. However, you may need to run a cron job as a different user, such as running a job with higher privileges or as a system service account.

To run a cron job as a different user, use the sudo command in the crontab file. The sudo command lets you run commands as another user, usually with higher privileges.

For example, to run a cron job as the root user, add this line to your crontab file:

0 * * * * sudo /path/to/command

This would run the command every hour as the root user.

When using sudo in a cron job, make sure the user running the cron job has the sudo permissions to run the command as the specified user. You may need to configure sudo to allow the user to run the command without a password.

Consider the security implications of running cron jobs with higher privileges, and only grant the necessary permissions for the specific tasks.

By understanding how to use the /etc/cron.d/ directory, set environment variables, and run cron jobs as different users, you can configure and manage cron jobs on your Linux system to automate various tasks.


Although cron jobs are useful, they can sometimes fail to run as expected. If your cron job is not working properly, you can take several steps to troubleshoot the issue.

Check the Schedule

First, verify that the cron schedule is set correctly using the proper cron syntax. Even a small mistake in the cron expression can cause the job to run at the wrong time or not at all. Double-check the minute, hour, day, month, and weekday fields to make sure they are correct for your desired schedule.

If you are unsure about the cron syntax, you can use online tools like to generate and verify your cron schedules. These tools provide a simple interface to create cron expressions and explain what they mean in plain language.

Review Cron Logs

Next, check the system logs to see if the cron job ran at the intended time. The cron daemon logs its activity to the /var/log/cron or /var/log/syslog file, depending on your Linux distribution.

Look for log entries that include a timestamp and the path to your script or command. If you find a matching entry, it means the cron daemon tried to run your job at the scheduled time. If there is no entry, it suggests a problem with the cron schedule or the cron daemon itself.

Redirect Cron Output

By default, cron jobs do not display any output or errors. To capture the output of your cron job for debugging purposes, redirect the standard output and standard error to a log file.

To redirect the output, modify your cron job to include the following syntax:

* * * * * command &> log_file.log

Replace command with your actual command or script path, and log_file.log with the desired path and filename for the log file. The &> operator redirects both standard output and standard error to the specified file.

After the cron job runs, review the log file for any error messages or unexpected output that may show issues with your script or command.


If the cron job appears to run but does not produce the expected results, you may need to add debugging statements to your script to gather more information.

One way to enable verbose output in a bash script is to add the set -x command at the beginning of the script. This will cause the script to print each command it executes, along with any variables and their values. The output will help you identify where the script may be failing or behaving differently than expected.

For example:


set -x

# Your script commands here

In addition to debugging output, check the system logs for any error messages related to your cron job. The /var/log/syslog or /var/log/messages file may contain relevant information if the cron daemon encountered an error while running your job.

By following these troubleshooting steps, you can identify and fix common issues with cron jobs on your Linux system. Remember to carefully check the cron schedule syntax, review the logs for any errors, redirect the output to a log file, and add debugging statements to your scripts as needed. With a systematic approach, you can make sure your cron jobs run smoothly and automate your tasks effectively.

Common Errors

While cron jobs are a useful tool for automating tasks on Linux systems, they can sometimes fail to run properly due to various issues. Let's look at some common cron job errors and how to fix them.

Environment Variables

One frequent problem with cron jobs is that they do not have access to the same environment variables as a regular user session. When you run a command or script from the command line, it inherits the environment variables defined in your shell configuration files, such as .bashrc or .bash_profile. However, cron jobs run in a separate environment and do not load these files by default.

If your cron job needs specific environment variables, such as PATH or HOME, you must set them explicitly in the cron job itself. You can either hard-code the required values directly in the command or script, or you can load the necessary environment files manually.

For example, to set the PATH variable in a cron job:

0 * * * * /path/to/command

Alternatively, you can load the environment files in your script:


source ~/.bashrc

# Your script commands here

Make sure to use the full path to any executables or scripts in your cron job to avoid issues with the PATH variable.

Script Permissions

Another common issue with cron jobs is that the scripts or commands they run do not have the necessary execute permissions. For cron to be able to run a script, the file must have the execute permission bit set.

To check the permissions of a script, use the ls -l command:

$ ls -l
-rw-rw-r-- 1 user user 100 May 1 12:00

In this example, the script does not have execute permissions, as shown by the lack of an x in the permissions string.

To grant execute permissions to the script, use the chmod command with the +x option:

$ chmod +x
$ ls -l
-rwxrwxr-x 1 user user 100 May 1 12:00

Now the script has execute permissions and can be run by cron.

Resource Issues

Cron jobs can also fail if the system does not have enough resources to run them. This can happen if the server is low on disk space, memory, or other system resources.

For example, if a cron job tries to write to a log file but the disk is full, the job may fail with an error. Similarly, if a job requires a large amount of memory but the system is already under memory pressure, the job may be terminated by the kernel's out-of-memory (OOM) killer.

To avoid resource-related issues, make sure to monitor your system's resource usage regularly. Use tools like df to check disk space, free to monitor memory usage, and top or htop to view running processes and their resource use.

If a cron job fails due to resource constraints, you may need to optimize the job to use fewer resources, free up space by removing unneeded files, or upgrade the system's hardware to handle the workload.

By being aware of these common cron job errors and taking steps to prevent or fix them, you can make sure that your automated tasks run smoothly and reliably on your Linux system. Set up cron jobs using the crontab command, configure cron syntax, and monitor your cron jobs to keep your Linux commands and shell scripts running on schedule.


While cron jobs are a useful tool for automating tasks on Linux systems, it's important to monitor their execution to make sure they are running smoothly and completing successfully. In this section, we'll look at a few methods for monitoring your cron jobs.

System Logs

By default, the cron daemon writes basic information about job executions to the system logs. On most Linux distributions, you can find these logs in the /var/log/syslog or /var/log/cron file. The log entries will show when the cron daemon started or stopped a job, but they do not provide any details about the job's success or failure.

For example, a typical cron log entry might look like this:

May 1 12:00:01 hostname CRON[1234]: (username) CMD (/path/to/command)

This entry shows that the cron daemon started the /path/to/command job as the specified user at the given date and time. However, it does not tell you whether the job completed successfully or had any errors.

Custom Logging

To get more detailed information about your cron jobs, you can add logging statements directly within your job's script or command. By redirecting the output and errors to a custom log file, you can capture useful debugging information and monitor the job's behavior more closely.

For example, you can modify your cron job to redirect the standard output and standard error streams to a log file:

0 * * * * /path/to/command >> /var/log/command.log 2>&1

In this example, the >> operator appends the command's output to the /var/log/command.log file, while the 2>&1 redirection sends the standard error to the same file as the standard output.

Within your script, you can add logging statements to record important events, such as the start and end times of the job, any errors encountered, and the final exit status. For example:


echo "Starting job at $(date)" >> /var/log/command.log

# Your script commands here

echo "Job finished at $(date) with exit status $exit_status" >> /var/log/command.log

By including logging statements in your script, you can capture useful information about the job's execution and easily spot any issues or problems.

Automating Tasks with Cron Jobs


Cron jobs can automate regular backups of important files and databases. Schedule cron to run daily, weekly, or monthly backups based on your needs. Copy the files you want to back up to a local backup directory or transfer them to a remote server for added protection. To save disk space and speed up transfers, compress the backup files using a tool like tar or gzip.

For example, you could create a cron job to run a backup script every night at 2:00 AM:

0 2 * * * /usr/local/bin/

The script could contain commands to copy important directories, dump databases, and compress the files into a dated archive.

Log Rotation

System logs can quickly use up disk space if not managed properly. Use cron to automatically rotate and compress log files on a regular schedule. This involves moving the current log file to a new name (often with a date stamp) and starting a new log file. The rotated log files can then be compressed to save space.

While you can write your own log rotation scripts, it's often easier to use a tool like logrotate. Logrotate can rotate logs daily, weekly, or monthly, compress the rotated files, and remove old logs after a certain period.

To set up log rotation with cron and logrotate:

  1. Install logrotate if not already available: sudo apt install logrotate
  2. Create a configuration file for the log you want to rotate in /etc/logrotate.d/
  3. Add a cron job to run logrotate daily:
    0 0 * * * /usr/sbin/logrotate /etc/logrotate.conf

This will run logrotate every day at midnight to rotate and compress the configured log files.

System Maintenance

In addition to backups and log rotation, cron is useful for scheduling various system maintenance tasks. These might include:

  • Updating package lists and installing security updates
  • Cleaning up temporary files and caches
  • Running disk scans and defragmentation
  • Performing system health checks and monitoring

By automating these tasks with cron, you can keep your Linux system running smoothly without manual work.

For example, to run a daily package update and cleanup on an Ubuntu system, you could create a maintenance script with these commands:


apt update
apt upgrade -y
apt autoremove -y
apt autoclean

find /tmp -type f -atime +7 -delete

Then schedule the script to run every morning at 3:00 AM:

0 3 * * * /usr/local/bin/

This will keep your packages up to date, remove old files, and clean up old temporary files automatically.

Using cron jobs for backups, log rotation, and system maintenance tasks can greatly simplify the management of your Linux servers. By automating these regular tasks, you make sure that important maintenance activities are not forgotten or skipped, leading to a more stable and secure system overall.

Best Practices

Keep It Simple

When creating cron jobs, keep them simple and focused. Avoid complex logic or long-running tasks directly in the cron job. Break down complex tasks into smaller, manageable scripts that can run separately.

If your cron job needs to perform multiple actions, create a wrapper script that calls the individual scripts in the proper order. This makes the cron job easier to understand and maintain, and allows you to reuse the individual scripts in other contexts.

For advanced workflows with dependencies, conditionals, or error handling, a dedicated job scheduler like Jenkins or Airflow might be better than cron. These tools provide features like job chaining, parallel execution, and logging that can simplify the management of complex job workflows.

Test and Monitor

Before deploying a new cron job to production, test it thoroughly in a staging environment. Verify that the job runs at the expected time, produces the desired output, and handles errors gracefully. Test the job under different scenarios, such as low disk space or network failures, to make sure it is reliable.

Once the cron job is in production, monitor it regularly to make sure it runs smoothly. Enable logging for the job and check the logs for any errors or warnings. Use monitoring tools to track the job's status and send alerts if it fails or produces unexpected results.

Consider setting up an external monitoring service that can ping your cron jobs and notify you if they miss a scheduled run or exceed a runtime threshold. This can help you quickly identify and fix issues before they impact your system or users.

Document Everything

To make cron jobs maintainable over time, document their purpose, schedule, and dependencies. Create a README file or wiki page that describes each cron job in detail, including:

  • The purpose of the job and what it does
  • The cron schedule (in cron syntax and plain English)
  • Any input files or dependencies required by the job
  • The expected output or results of the job
  • Any special considerations or error handling behavior

Include instructions for modifying, disabling, or troubleshooting the cron job if needed. Keep the documentation up to date as the job evolves, and review it regularly to make sure it accurately reflects the current state of the job.

Good documentation can help team members understand the role of cron jobs in your system and reduce the risk of mistakes or unintended changes.

Scheduling Considerations

When scheduling cron jobs, be mindful of the load they place on your system resources. Avoid scheduling too many jobs to run at the same time, as this can lead to resource contention and performance issues.

If you have multiple jobs that perform similar tasks (e.g., database backups or log rotation), consider staggering their start times to spread out the load on your system. Use the cron syntax to specify different minutes or hours for each job, rather than running them all at the same time.

Also, be aware of the impact of daylight saving time (DST) on your cron job schedules. By default, cron uses the system time, which may change when DST begins or ends. This can cause jobs to run an hour earlier or later than intended, or to be skipped or run twice in a day.

To avoid DST issues, you can use the UTC parameter in your crontab file to specify that jobs should run in Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) rather than the local system time. Alternatively, you can adjust your job schedules to account for DST changes, or use a time synchronization service like NTP to keep your system clock accurate.

By keeping cron jobs simple, well-tested, and well-documented, and by considering the scheduling implications, you can use cron effectively to automate tasks on your Linux system without introducing unnecessary complexity or risk.

Advanced Techniques

While basic cron jobs are good for many tasks, you may need more advanced techniques for complex scenarios. In this section, we'll explore some advanced cron job techniques, including using Bash scripts, error handling, and job locking.

Using Cron with Bash Scripts

For more complex tasks, you can write Bash scripts and schedule them with cron. Bash scripts let you use variables, control structures, and other programming constructs to add logic and flexibility to your cron jobs.

To use a Bash script with cron, first create your script with the necessary logic and save it with a .sh extension. Make sure to include the shebang line (#!/bin/bash) at the top of the script to specify the interpreter.

For example, let's create a script called that backs up a directory using the date as part of the filename:


date=$(date +%Y-%m-%d)

tar -czf "$backup_dir/backup-$date.tar.gz" /path/to/source

This script uses the date command to get the current date in the format YYYY-MM-DD and stores it in a variable. It then uses tar to create a compressed archive of the source directory with the date as part of the filename.

To schedule this script with cron, add an entry to your crontab file:

0 2 * * * /path/to/

This will run the script every day at 2:00 AM.

You can also pass arguments to your Bash scripts from the crontab file. For example, you could modify the script to accept the source and destination directories as arguments:


date=$(date +%Y-%m-%d)

tar -czf "$backup_dir/backup-$date.tar.gz" "$source_dir"

Then update your crontab entry to pass the necessary arguments:

0 2 * * * /path/to/ /path/to/backup /path/to/source

This lets you reuse the same script for different backup tasks by specifying the directories as arguments.

Error Handling

To make your cron jobs more reliable, add error handling logic to your scripts. This can help you detect and recover from failures, and notify you when something goes wrong.

One way to handle errors is to use exit codes. By convention, an exit code of 0 indicates success, while a non-zero exit code indicates an error. You can use the exit command in your script to set the exit code based on the success or failure of your operations.

For example, modify the script to check if the tar command succeeded and exit with an appropriate code:


date=$(date +%Y-%m-%d)

if tar -czf "$backup_dir/backup-$date.tar.gz" "$source_dir"; then
    echo "Backup completed successfully"
    exit 0
    echo "Backup failed"
    exit 1

Now if the tar command fails for any reason (e.g., insufficient disk space or permissions), the script will exit with a non-zero code.

You can capture the exit code in your crontab entry and send an alert if the job fails. For example:

0 2 * * * /path/to/ /path/to/backup /path/to/source || echo "Backup failed" | mail -s "Cron job failed"

This will run the script and send an email to if the job exits with a non-zero code.


Another advanced technique is to use locking to prevent multiple instances of the same cron job from running simultaneously. This can happen if a job takes longer to run than the interval between its scheduled times.

To implement locking, you can use tools like flock or lockrun. These tools create a lock file when a job starts and remove it when the job completes. If another instance of the job tries to start while the lock file exists, it will exit immediately to avoid conflicts.

Here's an example of using flock in a script:


date=$(date +%Y-%m-%d)

    flock -n 200 || exit 1
    echo "Acquiring lock..."

    if tar -czf "$backup_dir/backup-$date.tar.gz" "$source_dir"; then
        echo "Backup completed successfully"
        echo "Backup failed"
) 200>"$lock_file"

echo "Releasing lock..."

This script uses flock to create a lock file at /var/lock/backup.lock. The -n option tells flock to exit immediately if the lock cannot be acquired (i.e., if another instance of the script is already running).

The script then proceeds with the backup operation inside the flock block. When the script exits (either successfully or with an error), flock automatically releases the lock.

Make sure to use a unique lock file path for each cron job to avoid conflicts between different jobs.

By using Bash scripts, error handling, and locking techniques, you can create more advanced and dependable cron jobs. These advanced techniques help you automate complex tasks, recover from failures, and avoid race conditions in your scheduled operations.

Experiment with these techniques and adapt them to your own use cases to get the most out of cron on your Linux system. Remember to test your jobs thoroughly, monitor their output and exit codes, and include error handling and locking where necessary for reliable operation.