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Guide on virtual environments
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Guide on virtual environments in Python

schedule Aug 12, 2023
Last updated
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What is a virtual environment?

Virtual environments are used for isolating the dependencies (e.g. libraries, Python version) of every application. By default, the packages we install using pip install will end up in what's known as the global site-packages folder. For my MacOS, this folder is located in the following directory:


Now, suppose we have an Python application that depends on the latest version (say 2.0) of a library called pandas. If we run pip install pandas, then the pandas library will be installed into the global-site packages folder. Now, in our Python application, we will be able to import this library:

import pandas as pd

When Python runs this script, it will retrieve the pandas library from the global-site packages.

Now, suppose we have another Python application that can only use an outdated version of pandas, say version 1.0. In other words, pandas version 2.0 that we have installed in our global-site packages is not compatible with this application. Calling import pandas in our script will therefore break the application.

One quick fix is to install the desired version of pandas like so:

pip install pandas==1.0

Running this command will install pandas version 1.0 and overwrite the previously installed pandas library in the global site-packages folder. The problem with this approach is that the second application now runs fine but the first application does not because it depends on another version of pandas.

This is where virtual environments come into play. Instead of using the libraries installed in global site-packages, every application will use libraries installed specifically for its application. More precisely, every application will have its own virtual environment and calling pip install pandas will install the library in this virtual environment instead of the global-site packages. Running import pandas in the application's script will import pandas installed in the virtual environment instead of the one in global-site packages. Going back to our example, the two applications can now safely each use its own version of pandas.

Suppose our application contains a file. In our terminal, head over to the application's directory:


Let's create a virtual environment:

python -m venv my_venv

This will create a new virtual environment in the form a folder called my_venv in the current directory:

ls my_venv

Note that the version of Python used by our virtual environment will be the same as the one used by your terminal by default. For instance, my terminal uses the following version of Python:

python --version
Python 3.9.6

This means that my virtual environment my_venv will use Python version 3.9.6. We will later see how we can change the Python version when creating the virtual environment later.

Now that we've created a virtual environment, we now must activate it:

my_venv\Scripts\activate # For Windows
source my_venv/bin/activate # For Linux and MacOS

Here, the source command reads and run the script file my_venv/Scripts/activate in the current terminal environment. Running the above command will activate the virtual environment:

(my_venv) (base) isshininada@Isshins-MBP tutorial %

Notice how we now see the virtual environment that is now active (my_venv in this case). Let's first see what python packages are already installed for use in our virtual environment:

(my_venv) (base) isshininada@Isshins-MBP pytest_tutorial % pip list
Package Version
--------------- -------
pip 21.1.3
setuptools 56.0.0

We see that pip is installed, which means that we can start installing Python packages!

Now, let's install the latest pandas library:

pip install pandas

This will install the pandas library (along with all its dependencies like numpy) into the folder my_venv folder like so:
├── bin
├── include
└── lib/
└── python3.9/
└── site-packages/
├── pandas
├── numpy
└── ...

Notice how the packages are installed under Python version 3.9 - this is because my virtual environment was created using version 3.9 as discussed earlier.

Now, within our file, we can import this latest version of pandas like so:

import pandas as pd

Here, pd.__file__ represents the location of pandas that this script has imported. We can see that it's imported the library from our my_venv folder as expected!

Sharing and reproducing virtual environments

Suppose we wanted to share our code to someone else, say Alex. A common practice when sharing code is to distribute:

  • the source code of our application.

  • text file called requirements.txt that lists all the packages and their versions required for the application to run.


We rarely ever share the virtual environment folder itself because:

  • it works only on our machine. Some of the files in the virtual environment folder contain paths that are specific to our machine. This means that the virtual environment will not work properly on someone else's machine.

  • we can save bandwidth and storage space by distributing only our application's source code without the source code of all the libraries installed within the virtual environment. Others who wish to run the application must install the libraries by themselves - we will cover this later.

To be able to run the code, Alex should create his own virtual environment for this application and install all the packages (e.g. pandas) of the right version in that virtual environment. We must therefore provide Alex with a requirements.txt that contains this information.

To obtain a list of packages currently installed in our virtual environment:

pip freeze

We can output this list as a text file called requirements.txt in our current folder like so:

pip freeze > requirements.txt

By convention, the requirements.txt file contains all the packages as well as their versions required for the application to run.

We now pass our application's source code and this requirements.txt file to Alex. To set up his virtual environment, he first has to create one and activate it like so:

python venv -m MY_VENV
MY_VENV\Scripts\activate # For Windows
source MY_VENV/bin/activate # For Linux and MacOS

Finally, he can install all the packages listed in requirements.txt like so:

pip install -r requirements.txt

Here, the -r flag tells pip to install all the libraries installed in requirements.txt. Great, Alex now has a virtual environment with the same packages installed!

Deactivating and deleting virtual environments

To deactivate our virtual environment:

(base) isshininada@Isshins-MBP pytest_tutorial %

To delete our virtual environment, we can delete its folder like so:

rm -rf ./my_venv


  • rm is the remove command.

  • -r flag stands for recursive and is for removing a folder and all its content.

  • -f flag allows us to specify the folder name to delete.

Published by Isshin Inada
Edited by 0 others
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