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A Comprehensive Guide to File Modes in Python

Updated: at 03:23 AM

In Python, files can be opened in different modes by specifying a mode parameter in the open() function. The mode determines how the file will be accessed, whether for reading, writing, appending, or in binary or text format. Mastering the use of file modes is essential for proper file handling in Python programming. This guide will provide a comprehensive overview of the different file modes available in Python.

Overview of File Modes

The mode parameter is an optional string argument that defaults to 'r' if omitted. Here are the most common file modes used in Python:

The modes 'r', 'w', 'a', 'r+', 'w+', and 'a+' are text modes, meaning strings are read/written as str objects. Binary modes add 'b' to the mode string. For example, 'rb', 'wb', 'ab', etc. In binary modes, data is read/written in bytes objects.

Here is an overview of what each mode allows:


Now let’s look at how to use each of these file modes with examples.

Reading Files with ‘r’ Mode

The default 'r' mode opens a file for reading in text format. For example:

file = open('data.txt', 'r')

This will open ‘data.txt’ for reading, print the contents, then close the file.

If the file does not exist, an IOError occurs:

file = open('nonexistent.txt', 'r')

Some key points about 'r' mode:

So 'r' mode is used when we want to read an existing file.

Writing Files with ‘w’ Mode

To open a file for writing, use 'w' mode:

file = open('data.txt', 'w')
file.write('This text will overwrite the file')

This will overwrite any existing contents of ‘data.txt’ or create a new file if it does not exist.

Key properties of 'w' mode:

So 'w' mode is suitable for when we want to write to a new or existing file and overwrite any current contents.

Appending Files with ‘a’ Mode

To add data to the end of an existing file, use 'a' mode:

file = open('data.txt', 'a')
file.write('\nNew line appended')

The key behaviors of 'a' mode:

So 'a' mode is useful for appending data to existing files.

Reading and Writing with ‘r+’ Mode

In some cases, we want to both read and write to a file. This can be done with 'r+' mode:

file = open('data.txt', 'r+')
file.write('New line')

Here’s how 'r+' mode behaves:

So 'r+' allows full read/write access without truncating the file initially.

Overwriting Files with ‘w+’ Mode

The 'w+' mode opens a file for reading and writing, but truncates any existing contents:

file = open('data.txt', 'w+')
file.write('This overwritten text')

Here are the properties of 'w+' mode:

So 'w+' is suitable for cases where we want to overwrite an existing file or create a new file and need read/write access.

Appending and Reading with ‘a+’ Mode

For appending data while also allowing reading from the start, use 'a+' mode:

file = open('data.txt', 'a+')
file.write('Appended text')

The properties of 'a+' mode:

So 'a+' is useful for cases where we want to add data to a file while also reading the existing contents.

Working with Binary File Modes

The text modes we’ve covered so far default to reading and writing strings. To work with binary data instead, add 'b' to the mode string:

data = bytes([0, 1, 2])

file = open('data.bin', 'wb')

file = open('data.bin', 'rb')
data =

In binary modes:

Binary modes are useful for reading/writing binary data like images, audio, serialized objects, etc.

Context Managers for Automatic Closing

Using the with statement is the preferred way to open files in Python, as it automatically closes the file when the block exits:

with open('data.txt', 'w') as file:
   file.write('Hello World!')

# File is automatically closed here

Some key advantages of using context managers for file handling:

So rather than manually calling close(), use with open() for automatic clean up.

Checking File Access Modes

We can check the mode in which a file was opened using the mode attribute:

file = open('data.txt', 'w')
print(file.mode) # 'w'

file = open('data.bin', 'rb')
print(file.mode) # 'rb'

The mode attribute contains a string indicating the file access mode. This can be useful for confirming how a file was opened or handling different file modes programmatically.


To recap, the main file access modes in Python include:

The appropriate mode depends on the specific file access needed. Use 'r' for reading, 'w' for overwriting, 'a' for appending, and the '+' modes when both reading and writing is required. Binary modes handle bytes while text modes handle strings. Context managers provide the best way to manage files. By understanding the different file modes in Python, you can properly handle file I/O in your programs.