How to Compile and Run Java Code from a Command Line

Being spoiled by IDEs and automated building tools I recently realized that I don’t know how to run java code from a command line anymore. After playing a guessing game for an hour trying to compile a simple piece of code that took 5 minutes to write, I thought maybe it’s time to do a little


Lets say we have a fairly standard java project that consists of three top level folders:

/bin – empty folder that will contain compiled .class files

/lib – contains third party .jar files

/src – contains .java source files

Our task would be to compile and launch the project from its root folder. We will use Windows OS as example (on Unix systems the only difference would be path separation symbol – ":" instead of ";").

Compiling Java Code

The first step is compiling plain text .java sources into Java Virtual Machine byte code (.class files). This is done with javac utility that comes with JDK.

Assuming we are at the application root folder trying to compile file from com.example package that uses lib1.jar and lib2.jar libraries from lib folder to a destination bin folder, compilation command should have the following format:

javac -d bin -sourcepath src -cp lib/lib1.jar;lib/lib2.jar src/com/example/

As a result bin/com/example/Application.class file should be created. If uses other classes from the project, they all should be automatically compiled and put into corresponding folders.

Running Java Code

To launch a .class file we just compiled, another JDK utility called java would be needed.

Assuming we are at the application root folder trying to launch Application.class file from com.example package that uses lib1.jar and lib2.jar libraries from lib folder, the launch command should have the following format

java -cp bin;lib/lib1.jar;lib/lib2.jar com.example.Application

Note that we don’t provide a filename here, only an actual class name that java would attempt to find based on provided classpath.

Some Notes About Classpath

Lets say during compilation a compiler stumbles upon some com.example.Util class. How to find it in the file system? According to Java file naming rules, Util class has to be located somewhere in file under /com/example/ folder, but where to start searching for this path? Here is where classpath comes into play which sets the starting folder for searching for classes. Classpath can be set in 3 different ways:

  • If no --classpath parameter is passed, CLASSPATH environment variable is used
  • If CLASSPATH environment variable is not found, current folder (".") is used by default
  • If --classpath is explicitly set as a command line parameter, it overrides all other values

The fact that classpath when set overrides default value (current folder) can cause some unexpected results.

For example if we don’t use any third party libraries, only our own com.example.Util class, and try to compile from the src folder:

javac com/example/

this would work, but then if we decide to add a third party libarary to the classpath:

javac -cp lib/lib1.jar com/example/

it would cause an error:

package com.example.Util does not exist

This happens because when we set -cp lib/lib1.jar we override default value for the classpath – current folder. Now a compiler will be looking for all classes only inside that jar file. To fix this we need to explicitly add the current folder to the classpath:

javac -cp .;lib/lib1.jar com/example/