5 Best Ways to Compare Files in Python

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πŸ’‘ Problem Formulation: You have two files and you need to determine if they are identical or, if not, where the differences lie. For instance, you might want to verify if a file has changed after an update, or if two configuration files have the same content. Your desired output is a clear indication of whether files are the same or, if there are differences, what those differences are.

Method 1: Using filecmp module

The filecmp module in Python provides functions for comparing files and directories, with the filecmp.cmp() function being an easy way to compare two files. This method checks if two files are identical based on file metadata or contents.

Here’s an example:

import filecmp

file1 = 'file1.txt'
file2 = 'file2.txt'

are_files_identical = filecmp.cmp(file1, file2, shallow=False)

print(f'Files are identical: {are_files_identical}')


Files are identical: True

In this example, the filecmp.cmp() function compares 'file1.txt' and 'file2.txt' and returns a boolean indicating whether they are identical. The shallow=False argument specifies that the comparison is based on file content rather than just metadata.

Method 2: Using difflib module

The difflib module provides tools for comparing sequences, including files. difflib.unified_diff() generates a delta: a string that can be used to transform one file into the other.

Here's an example:

import difflib

with open('file1.txt', 'r') as file1, open('file2.txt', 'r') as file2:
    file1_lines = file1.readlines()
    file2_lines = file2.readlines()

diff = difflib.unified_diff(file1_lines, file2_lines, fromfile='file1.txt', tofile='file2.txt')



--- file1.txt     
+++ file2.txt     
@@ -1,2 +1,2 @@
-Hello world
+Goodbye world

This code reads the contents of 'file1.txt' and 'file2.txt' into lists, and then difflib.unified_diff() generates a delta between these files. This delta indicates lines that are different and is presented in a format that is standard for diff tools.

Method 3: Hash comparison

By generating a hash (like SHA256) of both files and comparing these, you can determine if the files are identical. This method is especially useful for large files as it is memory-efficient.

Here's an example:

import hashlib

def file_hash(filename):
    with open(filename, 'rb') as f:
        file_content = f.read()
        return hashlib.sha256(file_content).hexdigest()

hash1 = file_hash('file1.txt')
hash2 = file_hash('file2.txt')

print(f'File 1 Hash: {hash1}')
print(f'File 2 Hash: {hash2}')
print(f'Files are identical: {hash1 == hash2}')


File 1 Hash: 11cfa...a5e3
File 2 Hash: 58ac2...7b4e
Files are identical: False

The function file_hash() computes the SHA256 hash of the file content. Comparing the hash values of 'file1.txt' and 'file2.txt' reveals if the files are exactly the same, as identical files will have the same hash.

Method 4: Using os and file operations

Basic file operations along with the os module can be used to compare files by reading them byte-by-byte. This method is very simple but not suitable for very large files due to memory constraints.

Here's an example:

def are_files_identical(file1, file2):
    if os.path.getsize(file1) != os.path.getsize(file2):
        return False

    with open(file1, 'rb') as f1, open(file2, 'rb') as f2:
        file1_content = f1.read()
        file2_content = f2.read()

    return file1_content == file2_content

print(f'Files are identical: {are_files_identical("file1.txt", "file2.txt")}')


Files are identical: False

This code checks file sizes for an early-out in case files are of different lengths, which guarantees they are not identical. Then it reads the complete contents of the files and compares them. Reading entire files into memory might not be efficient for large files.

Bonus One-Liner Method 5: Using command-line tools in Python

Python can invoke command-line comparison tools like diff or cmp for Unix-like environments using the subprocess module, which is suitable for integrating external tools into a Python script.

Here's an example:

import subprocess

result = subprocess.run(['diff', 'file1.txt', 'file2.txt'], text=True, capture_output=True)


 Goodbye world

This code uses the subprocess module to run the 'diff' command on two files, 'file1.txt' and 'file2.txt', and captures the output. This output is a standard diff of the files, showing the changes line by line.


  • Method 1: filecmp. Quick metadata/content comparison. Limited to yes/no result.
  • Method 2: difflib. Detailed text differences. Not suitable for binary files.
  • Method 3: Hash. Great for large files. Requires reading entire file content.
  • Method 4: os and file operations. Simple byte-by-byte comparison. Memory-intensive for large files.
  • Method 5: subprocess with command-line tools. Access to powerful external tools. Depends on the operating system and external tool availability.