Using dpkg and apt facilities (mostly under Ubuntu)

dpkg and related command examples

Perhaps also see:

Basic package maintenance

The original focus of this page was "non-obvious" commands not related to normal package installation, with a view to possible package authorship. However, it seems appropriate to review here the basic use of apt-get also.

Bring all installed packages up-to-date

    sudo apt-get update
Followed by one of...
    sudo apt-get upgrade
    sudo apt-get dist-upgrade

Install a new package and its dependencies

   sudo apt-get install _packagename_

Redo configuration of a previously installed package

   sudo apt-get --reconfigure install _packagename_

Determine what an apt-get upgrade will do

    sudo apt-get update
    sudo apt-get --assume-no -u upgrade

Simulate root well enough that non-superuser could build a .deb

Crude look at .deb file contents

   ar tv _file.deb_
Contents are always one file, plus two compressed tars. The tar files can be examined using tar. That is, after extracing them using ar x. See ar(1). Caveat: More recent .deb files tend to contain data.tar.xz which can be difficult to decompress on older systems. (Or even on a modern system; you need to install xz-utils; apparently dpkg and friends can do the expansion without that package installed!(?!)

Inspect contents of a .deb without unpacking

Control information:
   dpkg --info _file.deb_
   dpkg -I _file.deb_
   dpkg --contents _file.deb_
   dpkg -c _file.deb_

A deb view of the current machine architecture

This requires the dpkg-dev package.

Fundamental command to create a .deb package file from prepared contents

   dpkg-deb -b . debfile
   dpkg-deb --build directory . debfile
Current directory must contain DEBIAN directory with appropriate contents (which become the control.tar.gz ), and a number of trees of files to install. This contstructs the ar format .deb file from those current directory contents; it does not run any compilers or makefiles, etc.

Alternately, a different directory name can be specified instead of ".".

Warning: Reading around the web, you find it unlikely that you will get the contents correct. Suggestions are to use the dpkg-buildpackage command (from package dpkg-dev), likely via a cover debuild. (from package devscripts). Testing the debuild procedure, e.g. with a seemingly simple package like binutils can take a long time. And use a somewhat surprising amount of filespace.

A better candidate seems to be the chrpath package. In fact, it looks like the "build all architectures" phenomenon may be specific to binutils (perhaps related to being run in a container?)

Regarding simple dpkg-deb -b however, see #RawExpansion.

Reveal where apt-get will fetch a package from

   apt-get --print-uris download _packagename_

Caveat: It seems this command might not work (will give null output) if you are in a directory to which the dpkg file has already been downloaded.

Note: the option is --print-uris not --print-urLs.

Reveal where apt-get will fetch package source from

   apt-get --print-uris source _packagename_
Typically three files, plus a note about the maintenance repository.

Note: the option is --print-uris not --print-urLs.

Consequently, obtain .deb file or source

   apt-get download _packagename_
   apt-get source _packagename_
apt-get source actually clutters the current directory with files and a directory having old time stamps. So you want to cd to an appropriate directory first.

Caveat: When working as super-user, download often seems to fail the first time, then apparently work after repeated. (Although, in fact, the file was likely actually downloaded the first time).


   apt-get --download-only source _packagename_
will suppress the expansion of the tar files. Note that the "expansion of tar files" is not simple.

Do a raw expansion of a .deb file

   sudo dpkg-deb -R _debfile_ _directory_
   sudo dpkg-deb --raw-extract _debfile_ _directory_
This is very useful for getting an understanding of the Debian package structure. Medium-sized packages, with some installation complexity are good candidates to look at, since they will reveal more facilities available in the DEBIAN subdirectory. postfix is a good such example.

Expansion can be done without sudo, but some file characteristics will not be set. Using fakeroot can be a good option.

Note that this command is sort of the complement of dpkg-deb -b. That is, it produces a directory which can be turned back into a .deb file by using dpkg-deb -b. Perhaps after making small changes, such as to version number.

Determining build-dependencies

Sometimes the installation (or deinstallation!) of other packages is required to build a package.
    sudo apt-get --assume-no build-dep _packagename_
will preview those requirements. (Without --assume-no installation changes might proceed without confirmation). As non-superuser, one can do the following:
    apt-get --assume-no --simulate build-dep _packagename_
    apt-get --assume-no -s build-dep _packagename_
However, that produces more output because it seems to go ahead and print all the downloads which would be required.

Caveat: Especially if trying to experiment in minimalist containers, it is quite easy to have your environment in a state where source locations cannot be determined.

/etc/apt/sources.list and /etc/apt/sources.list.d; perhaps the simple solution is replicating any URL lines there with "deb" changed to "deb-src"?

Will that ever go wrong? Has this gotten worse in 16.04?

Download and compile ("build") source

And to download source and unpack and compile it (does not require superuser, if all build dependencies were previously installed).

   apt-get --compile source _packagename_
   apt-get -b source _packagename_

Remember to chdir to an appropriate directory first, because files with old timestamps are created.

A conveniently simple example to try, which has few build dependencies, is

   apt-get -b source openssl-blacklist

It would seem these "apt-get" options are distinct from the elsewhere mentioned dpkg-buildpackage and debuild (and also the -b option of dpkg )

And in more recent distributions openssl-blacklist seems to have gone away?

chrpath is perhaps a suitable small test replacement.

Check for installation status, or guess at packagename

You can run the following as non-superuser. It will tell you if a package is already installed (and up-to-date), and alert you if you give an invalid name.

    apt-get --simulate install _packagename_
    apt-get -s install _packagename_
You can also do it as super-user, but you want to be sure to specify the "--simulate" option or unwanted installation can result.

The above has some advantages over the similar

  dpkg-query --list _packagename_
  dpkg-query -l _packagename_
  dpkg-query --list | grep _pattern_
The apt-get approach will search for packages at other (configured) repositories, not just on the current host. On the other hand, apt-get cannot search for packages matching a pattern.

List the files contributed by (attributed to) a package

  dpkg-query --listfiles _packagename_
  dpkg-query -L _packagename_

Install a package from a local .deb file

  dpkg --install _file.deb_
  dpkg -i _file.deb_

Determine what process has dpkg directory locked

  sudo apt-get install psmisc
  fuser /var/lib/dpkg/lock

Search for subset of all available packages

  sudo apt-cache search _pattern_
In particular, if you have the repository correctly configured, using pattern of "uwcs" should show you a reasonably large list of local "uwcs" packages (mostly metapackages).

Update tzdata package timezone with no interaction

This section should be moved to another page when I find or create such a page.
  echo 'America/Toronto' > /etc/timezone
  rm /etc/localtime
  dpkg-reconfigure -f noninteractive tzdata
rm /etc/localtime should not be necessary, but it apparently is. See

Obviously(?) you can use any stream source for /etc/timezone. E.g. when setting up a container (as in /usr/share/lxc/templates/* ) you might want to use the baremetal /etc/timezone to do this setup.

file and directory locations related to dpkg and apt


  • This is the registry of installed packages. It is immensely useful. It is actually the raw material for dpkg-query --list


  • This is the lockfile used to allow only one dpkg process at a time to attempt to change the package registry.


  • There are lots of files here, with names corresponding to installed packages. Many of them correspond directly to files you see under the DEBIAN directory in the result of dpkg-deb -R packagename.


  • These files, with names generated to correspond to all (successfully installed?) packages, list the registered contents of each package.


  • There is more stuff here, but the previous is the most useful.


  • File containing information on what repositories apt-get will use.


  • Directory analogous to previous, with potentially many files to be processed.


  • Directory containing the information apt-get install, etc, used to find the location of packages available for downloading.
  • This is what gets updated when you run apt-get update.


  • There is other related information under /etc/apt

Heretical thoughts about dpkg-deb -b and dpkg-deb -R

While it is easy to find admonition to use complex tools to generate a .deb ( dpkg ) file, fundamentally a .deb file is just a tar file together with a set of control files which can perform operations pre- and post- expansion. Upon success, the contents of the archive are registered (by dpkg in /var/lib/dpkg/status and /var/lib/dpkg/info/*, principally /var/lib/dpkg/info/packagename.list ) as "belonging" to the package.

Therefore, if you can create a tree of files, perhaps including architecture-dependant binaries, by some well-defined methodology (or perhaps initially not so well-defined, hoping to migrate to better definition later), placing them manually under the directory and file structure such as you can infer by dpkg -R of a few packages, and then manually creating suitable DEBIAN directory contents, and then using dpkg-deb -b to create a .deb file can be a useful way to easily transport such files from machine to machine (or, for initial experimentation, container (lxc container, perhaps) to container).

-- AdrianPepper - 2019-03-04

Topic revision: r22 - 2019-03-04 - AdrianPepper
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