How to rsync dotfiles between Macs

Many CLI apps - like git, vim, zsh and tmux - use dot files to save their configuration. A dot file is a file or directory located in the user’s home directory that begins with the “.” character.

Moving these files to a new laptop can save a lot of configuration time and keep a consistent development experience accross devices. However, we want to avoid accidentally deleting existing dotfiles, and avoid copying junk dirs like .Trash..


  1. Make sure your computers are on the same network.
  2. Enable remote login on the source laptop. The remote login window should list your username and address, e.g. adam@adams-mbp or adam@ My helpful screenshot
  3. Create a temporary directory in the new computer and cd into it - you don’t want to accidentally override existing dot files on the new computer.
  4. Test:

     $ rsync --archive --verbose --dry-run -f"- */" 'adam@adams-mbp:~/.*' .

    Giving something like:

     receiving file list ... done
     .zcompdump-Adam\#200\#231s MacBook Pro-5.2
     .zcompdump-Adam\#200\#231s MacBook Pro-5.3
         * `--archive`: rsync [archive mode]( (essentially, preserve attributes).
         * `--verbose`: verbose: list files.
         * `--dry-run`: dry run. Just list, don't copy yet.
         * `-f"- */"`: Copy files, but not directories. This is important to avoid cache dirs like `.npm` or `.Trash`.
         * `'adam@adams-mbp:~/.*'`: Change `adam@adams-mbp` to the address given on the remote login screen. `.*` means all files beginning with `.`.
  5. Once you’re happy with the list, remove the --dry-run flag and copy the files. Selectively copy the dot files to your home directory. For example, you probably want to copy the .zshrc and .zsh_history file but avoid .zcompdump and .zsh-update.

dot dirs

Some users have meaningful data in dot directories, for example .aws or .ssh. To selectively copy these directories, but avoid digital atrocities like copying .Trash, start with:

 rsync --archive --verbose --dry-run 'adam@adams-mbp:~/.*' .

Start excluding junk directories, till you reach a reasonable list:

 rsync --archive --verbose --dry-run --exclude '.Trash' 'adam@adams-mbp:~/.*' .
 rsync --archive --verbose --dry-run --exclude '.Trash' --dry-run --exclude '.vscode' 'adam@adams-mbp:~/.*' .

When done, copy the relevant dirs with cp -R <dirname> ~ to your home (~) directory. Double-check before overriding existing dirs, especially .ssh.

Written on May 21, 2019