Python Environment Variables – understand, different types, how to access, delete process and more

Environment variables are essential for storing configuration data and system-specific data in the realm of programming. Python has strong support for working with environment variables because it is a diverse and well-liked programming language. In this comprehensive article, we will explore what environment variables are, the different types of environment variables, how to access them using Python, how to get, set, and delete environment variables, ways to retrieve a list of environment variables, and various examples showcasing Python environment variables in action. By the end of this article, you will have a solid understanding of how to work with environment variables in Python and their use cases.

Understanding Python Environment Variables

The operating system’s environment includes dynamic values called environment variables. They are used to store different configuration settings and system data that are accessible to the system’s apps and scripts. These variables are kept in a key-value format, which assigns each variable a distinct name (key) and a corresponding value.

In Python, the ‘os' module provides functions to interact with environment variables, allowing developers to access, modify, and use these variables within their scripts.

Types of Python Environment Variables

Environment variables can be categorized into two main types:

1. System Environment Variables

Global settings that affect the entire operating system are known as system environment variables. Every user and application on the system has access to them since they are set by the system administrator. Examples of system environment variables include PATHTEMP, and USERNAME.

2. User Environment Variables

User environment variables are specific to each user account on the system. They only apply to the user account they are defined for and override any corresponding system environment variables. Examples of user environment variables include USERPROFILELANG, and HOME.

Accessing Environment Variables using Python

Python provides the ‘os' module, which includes functions to work with environment variables. The main functions used for accessing environment variables are:

os.environ: This is a dictionary-like object containing the current environment variables. os.getenv(var_name, default): This function retrieves the value of the environment variable with the given var_name. If the variable does not exist, it returns the default value.

Example of how to access an environment variable in Python

import os

# Accessing the value of the PATH environment variable
path_value = os.getenv('PATH', 'default_path_value')
print(f"The value of PATH is: {path_value}")

How to Get an Environment Variable

Thanks to the os.getenv() function, obtaining the value of an environment variable in Python is straightforward. The function will return the value of the environment variable if it is present; else, it will return the designated default value.

Example of  How to Get an Environment Variable

import os

# Get the value of the 'HOME' environment variable
home_directory = os.getenv('HOME', 'not_found')
print(f"The user's home directory is: {home_directory}")

How to Set an Environment Variable in Python

The dictionary-like object os.environ can be used in Python to set an environment variable. This enables you to change current variables or add new ones. It should be noted that modifications to os.environ only impact the active process and its offspring.

Example of how to set an environment variable in python

import os

# Set a new environment variable 'MY_VARIABLE'
os.environ['MY_VARIABLE'] = 'my_variable_value'

# Access the value of the newly set environment variable
my_variable = os.getenv('MY_VARIABLE')
print(f"The value of MY_VARIABLE is: {my_variable}")

How to Delete an Environment Variable

In Python, you can delete an environment variable using the os.environ.pop() method. This method removes the specified variable from the environment. Here’s an example:

Example of How to Delete an Environment Variable in python

import os

# Check if the variable exists before attempting to delete
if 'MY_VARIABLE' in os.environ:
    print("MY_VARIABLE has been deleted.")
    print("MY_VARIABLE does not exist.")

How to Retrieve a List of Python Environment Variables

You can loop through the os.environ object, which is similar to a dictionary, to get a list of all environment variables accessible in the current process. You will receive a list of all the key-value pairs used to represent the environment variables as a result.

import os

# Retrieve a list of all environment variables
all_variables = list(os.environ.items())
for key, value in all_variables:

Using Environment Variables for Configuration:

Environment variables are frequently used to hold application configuration settings. You can update configurations without changing the code by storing credentials for databases, APIs, or file locations as environment variables, for instance.

import os

# Accessing database credentials from environment variables
db_username = os.getenv('DB_USERNAME')
db_password = os.getenv('DB_PASSWORD')
db_host = os.getenv('DB_HOST')

Environment Variables for Appropriate Behavior:

In certain cases, applications might behave differently based on environment variables. For instance, you can use a DEBUG variable to enable or disable debug mode in your application.

import os

# Check if the 'DEBUG' environment variable is set
if os.getenv('DEBUG', '').lower() == 'true':
    # Enable debug mode
    print("Debug mode enabled.")
    print("Debug mode disabled.")

Use Cases of Environment Variables

  1. Securing Sensitive InformationPasswords, tokens, and API keys can all be stored securely in environment variables. In order to prevent hardcoding this information into your code and lower the possibility of unintentional exposure, use environment variables.
  2. Configuration ManagementYou may adjust many configuration options without changing the code by using environment variables. This is especially helpful in continuous integration/continuous deployment (CI/CD) pipelines and containerized apps.
  3. Multi-Environment SupportUsing environment variables makes it easier to alter configurations when designing applications that must function in several environments (such as development, staging, and production).
  4. Deployment FlexibilityEnvironment variables make it easier to deploy the same application code to many environments while modifying parameters according to the demands of each environment.
  5. Dynamic Application BehaviorEnvironment variables give apps more flexibility and scalability by allowing them to change how they behave depending on the environment in which they are running.


1. How can I check if an environment variable exists in Python?

Ans. You can use the os.getenv() function to check if an environment variable exists. If the variable is not found, the function will return None.

2. Can I modify environment variables permanently?

Ans. In Python, modifications to environment variables are only effective for the current process and its children. To make permanent changes, you need to set the variables at the system level, which requires administrative privileges.

3. Is it safe to store sensitive information in environment variables?

Ans. Storing sensitive information in environment variables is generally safer than hardcoding them in the code. However, it is essential to protect access to these variables to prevent unauthorized access.

4. Can environment variables be used across different programming languages?

Ans. Yes, environment variables are part of the operating system’s environment and can be accessed by any programming language that supports environment variable access.

5. How can I clear all environment variables in Python?

Ans. Clearing all environment variables is not recommended, as it may lead to unexpected behavior in the system. However, you can delete specific variables using the os.environ.pop() method.

6. Can I use spaces in environment variable names?

Ans. While some operating systems allow spaces in environment variable names, it is generally discouraged. It’s best to use alphanumeric characters and underscores for clarity and consistency.


In this article, we delved into the world of environment variables in Python. We explored what environment variables are and learned about the different types—system and user environment variables. We also discussed how to access environment variables using Python, retrieve their values, and manipulate them by setting and deleting variables. Additionally, we explored real-world examples of using environment variables in Python for configuration management, securing sensitive data, and achieving dynamic application behavior.

Understanding environment variables is essential for creating current software, especially when it needs to run in a variety of settings and contexts. Through the os module, Python’s strong support for environment variables enables programmers to build more adaptable and secure programmes. So, use environment variables to your advantage in Python projects to speed up development and improve the adaptability of your apps.

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