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A Comprehensive Guide to Reading Data from Files in Python

Updated: at 02:01 AM

Reading data from files is an essential skill for any Python developer. Whether you need to load configuration files, process log files, import datasets, or work with any other text-based data format, knowing how to read files in Python unlocks countless data processing capabilities.

In this comprehensive guide, you’ll learn foundational techniques for reading data from files in Python using the built-in open() function and file objects. We’ll specifically focus on the versatile read() and readline() methods for fetching data from text files.

Through clear explanations, annotated code examples, and recommendations from Python’s official documentation, you’ll gain a solid understanding of how to use these file reading methods for different data processing tasks. We’ll also cover best practices for loading data efficiently and handling errors when working with files.

By the end of this guide, you’ll have the knowledge to confidently read file data in Python scripts, automate data processing tasks, build data pipelines, and more. The skills you gain will equip you to work with files of any size, type, or format using Python’s robust, industry-standard data manipulation tools.

Table of Contents

Open Table of Contents

Overview of Reading Files in Python

Before diving into the specifics of read() and readline(), let’s briefly overview the general process for reading data from files in Python:

1. Open a File Object

To read from a file, you first need to open the file and get a file object. This is done with Python’s built-in open() function:

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

This opens the file data.txt and returns a file object file. The 'r' mode opens the file for reading.

2. Read File Contents

Once you have a file object, you can start reading the contents of the file using various methods:

data =

This will read the full contents of the file into a string variable data.

3. Close the File

When you’re done, close the file to free up resources:


Now let’s take an in-depth look at the read() and readline() methods for reading file data.

The read() Method for Reading File Contents

The read() method reads the entire contents of a text file as a string. Here’s how it works:

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

This opens data.txt, reads everything into the file_contents variable, then closes the file.

By default, read() will read the entire file. But you can also pass an integer argument to specify the number of bytes to read.

For example:

first_5_bytes =

This will read just the first 5 bytes of the file into first_5_bytes.

Key Facts about read():

When to Use read()

The read() method works well for reading smaller files into memory at once as a string or bytes object. Some examples:

Be careful using read() on very large files that don’t fit comfortably into memory, as that can slow down your code and crash your program.

Here is an example of safely loading a JSON configuration file with read():

import json

with open('config.json', 'r') as config_file:

  config_data =

config = json.loads(config_data)


This uses a context manager to ensure the file is closed automatically after loading the data. The config JSON can then be parsed and used.

Line By Line File Processing with readline()

For text-based files, the readline() method reads just a single line from the file at a time as a string.

Basic usage:

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

line = file.readline()
second_line = file.readline()


This reads the first line of the text file into line, then reads the second line into second_line.

Key Facts about readline():

Because it reads incrementally, readline() is ideal for looping through large files line by line without loading the entire file into memory.

For example:

with open('large_data.csv', 'r') as file:

  while True:

    line = file.readline()

    if not line:

    # Process line of data

This safely iterates through each line of a large CSV, processing the data in chunks.

Common Uses of readline()

Some typical applications of readline():

Efficient Line Reading with readline()

To iterate through lines efficiently in Python, you can combine readline() with useful patterns like generator expressions.

Here’s an optimized example for processing a large CSV file:

import csv

def process_line(data):

with open('large_data.csv', 'r') as file:

  lines = (line for line in file if line.strip())

  reader = csv.reader(lines)

  for row in reader:

This uses a generator expression to read lines only if they aren’t blank, avoiding wasting cycles on empty lines. The CSV reader then handles the delimited data.

By mixing readline() and generators wisely, you can process large files in Python efficiently and with lower memory usage than loading the entire file.

Handling Exceptions When Reading Files

When working with files in Python, you need to handle exceptions properly to make your code resilient to errors.

Some common errors that can occur when reading files include:

To handle these errors gracefully in Python, use try/except blocks:

import errno

  file = open('data.txt', 'r')
  data =
except FileNotFoundError as e:
  print("File not found, with error:", e)
except PermissionError:
  print("Permission denied when accessing the file")
except UnicodeDecodeError:
  print("Unable to decode data from the file")

This prints a specific error message for common exceptions when opening and reading files.

You can also catch the base OSError to handle any file errors:

  # File processing here
except OSError as e:
  if e.errno == errno.ENOENT:
    print("File not found")
  elif e.errno == errno.EACCES:
    print("Permission denied")
    print("Unexpected error:", e)

Catching specific OS errors makes handling file reading exceptions more precise.

With robust exception handling, you can create reliable data pipelines and scripts that gracefully handle file reading errors.

Best Practices for Reading Files in Python

To leverage Python’s file reading capabilities effectively, keep these best practices in mind:

By following best practices and the examples in this guide, you’ll be able to effectively use Python’s built-in file reading capabilities for many data processing tasks.

Applications and Examples

Let’s look at some real applications and examples that use Python’s file reading powers:

Processing Log Files

Python’s readline() method excels at handling large log files:

import re

LOG_REGEX = r'^(\d{4}-\d{2}-\d{2})\|(.+)'

with open('server.log', 'r') as log:

  for line in log:

    match =, line)

    if match:
      date =
      message =

      print(f'[{date}] {message}')

This processes a server log file line-by-line, parsing each using a regex to extract the timestamp and log message.

Reading Configuration Files

For configuration, JSON is a popular file format in Python:

import json

with open('config.json', 'r') as config_file:

  config = json.load(config_file)


By loading the JSON config into a dict, individual keys can be conveniently accessed.

Data Analysis from CSV Files

For analytics, data is often loaded from CSV files:

import csv

with open('data.csv', 'r') as data_file:

  reader = csv.DictReader(data_file)

  for row in reader:
    process(row) # Calculate statistics

This enables iterating through structured data in CSV format, while handling column names and types automatically.

The examples show just a subset of the many uses of file reading when doing practical Python programming.


This comprehensive guide covered foundational techniques for reading data from files in Python using open(), read(), and readline().

Key takeaways:

You should now feel confident reading data from files of any size in Python using its built-in methods and powerful data analysis libraries.

The skills you’ve learned will enable you to develop advanced scripts, automate file processing, build data pipelines, and execute other file-driven workflows using Python’s renowned data handling capabilities.

So start reading some files!