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Working with Files in Python Using the with Statement for Improved File I/O

Updated: at 03:34 AM

Working with files is an essential skill for any Python developer. Files provide persistent storage for data that can be loaded, modified, and saved as needed by a program. However, file input/output (I/O) operations can be tricky to handle correctly, especially when working with multiple files concurrently or in complex programs.

Python provides a useful tool for managing file I/O called the with statement. The with statement allows you to encapsulate file operations within a context manager that handles opening and closing the file properly. Using with for file handling brings several key benefits:

In this comprehensive guide, we will cover everything you need to know about working with files using the with statement in Python. Topics include:

Table of Contents

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Understanding Context Managers for File I/O

The key to understanding the with statement is learning how context managers work in Python. A context manager is an object that implements the context management protocol by defining the __enter__() and __exit__() dunder methods.

The context management protocol allows you to initiate resource setup and teardown logic simply by using the with keyword. The overall flow is:

  1. __enter__() is called when execution enters the with block, setting up the context.
  2. The code in the with block executes using the resource.
  3. __exit__() is called automatically when exiting the block, handling any cleanup irrespective of exceptions.

For file handling, Python’s built-in open() function returns a file object that acts as a context manager. Let’s break down what happens:

with open("file.txt") as f:
   # do stuff with file
  1. open("file.txt") opens the file and returns a file object f
  2. Entering the with block calls f.__enter__(), which simply returns f itself back. This gives us access to operate on the open file within the block.
  3. Upon exiting the with block, f.__exit__() is called automatically, which closes the file properly.

By using with, we avoid having to explicitly call f.close() ourselves and the file gets closed correctly even if exceptions occur.

Opening and Closing Files with the with Statement

The primary use case for with is opening a file, performing operations on it, then having it close automatically.

Here is a simple example printing a file’s contents:

with open('data.txt') as f:

The key advantage is how with handles closing the file for us automatically. Without with, we would have to write:

f = open('data.txt')

We are responsible for calling close() after we are done with the file operations. Using a with block ensures files are closed properly even if exceptions happen:

  f = open('data.txt')

The finally block guarantees close() is called, but this pattern is more verbose than using with.

File Modes with the with Statement

When opening a file with Python’s open(), you can specify the optional mode parameter to control how the file is opened:

For example, to open a file for writing:

with open('output.txt', 'w') as f:
  f.write('Hello world!')

The with statement works seamlessly with different file modes. The file will be opened in the specified mode, then closed automatically when exiting the with block irrespective of mode.

Handling Exceptions with with

A key benefit of using with is it allows file I/O exceptions to be handled gracefully and properly closed.

For example, an exception gets raised if we try to open a non-existent file:

with open('missing.txt') as f:

This will raise a FileNotFoundError. But notice how the exception isn’t raised until after we exit the with block. This allows us to handle the exception with try/except:

  with open('missing.txt') as f:
except FileNotFoundError:
  print('Could not open file')

The file closing is deferred using the context manager protocol. Even though an exception occurred, __exit__() still gets called to close the file. This helps avoid resource leaks.

Nesting with Blocks

It is common to open multiple files in a program. The with statement allows you to nest blocks to manage multiple context managers simultaneously:

with open('file1.txt') as f1:
  with open('file2.txt') as f2:
    # work with both files

Nesting like this ensures all files opened are closed properly in the right order.

The with Statement Across Python Versions

The with statement was introduced in Python 2.5. For legacy Python 2 code, you can use the contextlib.nested() function to achieve similar nested with statement behavior:

from contextlib import nested

with nested(open('file1.txt'), open('file2.txt')) as (f1, f2):
  # work with files

For Python 3.3+, the nested() function is no longer needed as nested with blocks are fully supported.

Always use the with statement when working with files in Python 3. For Python 2, try to migrate to with where possible for cleaner and more robust file handling.

Using with for File-like Objects

The with statement works for file-like objects beyond just files opened with open(). Any object that implements the context manager interface can be used.

For example, Python’s tarfile module returns file-like objects supporting with:

import tarfile
with'example.tar') as f:

The tarfile object f will automatically close after the with block.

Some other file-like objects that work with with include:

Consult individual library documentation to check if they return a context manager. The with statement can provide the same advantages of automatic cleanup and exception handling.

Practical Examples

Let’s look at some real-world examples demonstrating best practices for working with files using with in Python.

Reading a CSV file row by row

import csv

with open('data.csv') as f:
  reader = csv.reader(f)
  for row in reader:

Writing to a log file

import datetime

with open('log.txt', 'a') as f:
  now =
  log = f'{now}: Cron job executed\n'

Zipping multiple files

import zipfile

with zipfile.ZipFile('', 'w') as z:

Copying image files

from shutil import copyfile

with open('image1.png', 'rb') as rf:
  with open('image1_copy.png', 'wb') as wf:
    chunk_size = 4096
    rf_chunk =
    while len(rf_chunk) > 0:
      rf_chunk =


The with statement is an elegant and robust way to handle file I/O operations in Python. By using with, you can simplify file handling code and make it more reliable by linking the file lifetime to the enclosing scope.

Key takeaways:

For any file handling in Python, get in the habit of using the with idiom. Your code will be cleaner and more robust as a result!