The right way to read files with PHP

Let us count the ways

One of the joys of dealing with modern programming languages like PHP is the amount of options available. PHP could easily steal the Perl motto, “There’s more than one way to do it,” especially when it comes to file processing. But with the plethora of options available, what’s the best tool for the job? Of course, the real answer depends on your goal when parsing the file, so it’s worth the time to explore all your options.

Traditional fopen methods

The fopen methods are probably the most familiar to old-time C and C++ programmers because they’re more or less the tools you’ve had under your belt for years if you’ve worked with these languages. For any of these methods, you go through the standard process of using fopen to open the file, a function to read the data, then fclose to close the file, as shown in Listing 1.

Listing 1. Opening a file and reading it with fgets

$file_handle = fopen("myfile", "r");
while (!feof($file_handle)) {
   $line = fgets($file_handle);
   echo $line;

Although these functions are familiar to most long-time programmers, let me break them down. Effectively, you perform the following steps:

  1. Open the file. $file_handle stores a reference to the file itself.
  2. Check whether you are already at the end of the file.
  3. Keep reading the file until you are at the end, printing each line as you read it.
  4. Close the file.

With that in mind, I’ll review each file function used here.


The fopen function creates the connection to the file. I say “creates the connection” because in addition to opening a file, fopen can open a URL:

$fh = fopen("", "r");

This line of code creates a connection to the page above and allows you to start reading it much like a local file.

Note: The "r" used in fopen indicates that the file is open for reading only. Because writing to files is beyond the scope of this article, I’m not going to list all the other options. However, you should change "r" to "rb" if you’re reading from binary files for cross-platform compatibility. You’ll see an example of this later.


The feof command detects whether you have already read to the end of the file and returns True or False. The loop in Listing 1 continues until you have reached the end of the file “myfile.” Note that feof also returns False if you’re reading a URL and the socket has timed out because you no longer have data to read.


Skipping ahead to the end of Listing 1, fclose serves the opposite function of fopen: It closes the connection to the file or URL. You are no longer able to read from the file or socket after this function.


Jumping back a few lines in Listing 1, you get to the heart of file processing: actually reading the file. The fgets function is your weapon of choice for this first example. It grabs a single line of data from your file and returns it as a string. From there, you can print or otherwise process your data. The example in Listing 1 nicely prints out an entire file.

If you decide to limit the size of the data chunks that you’ll deal with, you can add an argument to fgets to limit the maximum line length. For example, use this code to limit the line to 80 characters:

$string = fgets($file_handle, 81);

Hearkening back to the “\0” end-of-string terminator in C, set the length to one number higher than you actually want. Thus, the example above uses 81 when you want 80 characters. Get in the habit of remembering to add that extra character whenever you use the line limit on this function.


The fgets function is only one of many file-reading functions available. It is one of the more commonly used functions because line-by-line parsing often makes sense. In fact, several other functions provide similar functionality. However, line-by-line parsing is not always what you want.

This is where fread comes in. The fread function serves a slightly different purpose from fgets: It is intended to read from binary files (that is, files that don’t consist primarily of human-readable text). Because the concept of “lines” isn’t relevant for binary files (logical data constructs are not generally terminated by newlines), you must always specify the number of bytes that you wish to read in.

$fh = fopen("myfile", "rb");
$data = fread($file_handle, 4096);

The above reads in 4,096 bytes (4 KB) of data. Note that no matter what number you specify, fread will not read more than 8,192 bytes (8 KB).

Assuming that the file is no bigger than 8 KB, the code below should read the entire file into a string.

$fh = fopen("myfile", "rb");
$data = fread($fh, filesize("myfile"));

If the file is longer than this, you will have to use a loop to read the rest in.


Coming back to string processing, fscanf again follows the traditional C file library functions. If you’re unfamiliar with it, fscanf reads field data into variables from a file.

list ($field1, $field2, $field3) = fscanf($fh, "%s %s %s");

The formatting strings used for this function are described in many places, such as, so I won’t reiterate them here. Suffice it to say that the string formatting is extremely flexible. What is worth noting is that all the fields are placed in the return value of the function. (In C, they would be passed as arguments.)


The fgetss function breaks away from the traditional file functions and gives you a better idea of the power of PHP. The function acts like fgets, but strips away any HTML or PHP tags it finds, leaving only naked text. Take the HTML file shown below.

Listing 2. Sample HTML file

    <head><title>My title</title></head>
        <p>If you understand what "Cause there ain't no one for to give you no pain"
            means then you listen to too much of the band America</p>

Then filter it through the fgetss function.

Listing 3. Using fgetss

$file_handle = fopen("myfile", "r");
while (!feof($file_handle)) {
   echo fgetss($file_handle);

Here’s your output:

    My title

        If you understand what "Cause there ain't no one for to give you no pain"
            means then you listen to too much of the band America

The fpassthru function

No matter how you’ve been reading your file, you can dump the rest of your data to your standard output channel using fpassthru.


Again, this function prints the data, so you don’t need to grab the data in a variable.

Nonlinear file processing: Jumping around

Of course, the above functions only allow you to read a file in order. More complex files might require you to jump back and forth to different parts of the file. This is where fseek comes in handy.

fseek($fh, 0);

The above example jumps back to the beginning of a file. If you don’t want to go back quite all the way — let’s say a kilobyte into it — then you just write:

fseek($fh, 1024);

From PHP V4.0 on, you have a few other options. For example, if you want to jump ahead 100 bytes from your current position, you can try:

fseek($fh, 100, SEEK_CUR);

Similarly, you can jump back 100 bytes by using:

fseek($fh, ‑100, SEEK_CUR);

If you want to jump back 100 bytes before the end of the file, use SEEK_END, instead.

fseek($fh, ‑100, SEEK_END);

After you’ve reached the new position, you can use fgets, fscanf, or anything else to read the data.

Note: You can’t use fseek on file handles referring to URLs.

Grabbing an entire file

Now we get to some of PHP’s more unique file-processing strengths: dealing with massive chunks of data in a line or two. For example, how might you grab a file and display the entire contents on your Web page? Well, you saw an example using a loop with fgets. But how can you make this more straightforward? The process is almost ridiculously easy with fgetcontents, which places an entire file within a string.

$my_file = file_get_contents("myfilename");
echo $my_file;

Although it isn’t best practice, you can write this command even more concisely as:

echo file_get_contents("myfilename");

This article is primarily about dealing with local files, but it’s worth noting that you can grab, echo, and parse other Web pages with these functions, as well.

echo file_get_contents("");

This command is effectively the same as:

$fh = fopen("", "r");

You must be looking at this and thinking, “That’s still way too much effort.” The PHP developers agree with you. So you can shorten the above command to:


The readfile function dumps the entire contents of a file or Web page to the default output buffer. By default, this command prints an error message if it fails. To avoid this behavior (if you want to), try:


Of course, if you actually want to parse your files, the single string that file_get_contents returns might be a bit overwhelming. Your first inclination might be to break it up a little bit with the split() function.

$array = split("\n", file_get_contents("myfile"));

But why go through all that trouble when there’s a perfectly good function to do it for you? PHP’s file() function does this in one step: It returns an array of strings broken up by lines.

$array = file("myfile");

It should be noted that there is a slight difference between the above two examples. While the split command drops the newlines, the newlines are still attached to the strings in the array when using the file command (as with the fgets command).

PHP’s power goes far beyond this, though. You can parse entire PHP-style .ini files in a single command using parse_ini_file. The parse_ini_file command accepts files similar to Listing 4.

Listing 4. A sample .ini file

; Comment
personal informationname = "King Arthur"
quest = To seek the holy grail
favorite color = Blue

more stuffSamuel Clemens = Mark Twain
Caryn Johnson = Whoopi Goldberg

The following commands would dump this file into an array, then print that array:

$file_array = parse_ini_file("holy_grail.ini");
print_r $file_array;

The following output is the result:

Listing 5. Output

    [name] => King Arthur
    [quest] => To seek the Holy Grail
    [favorite color] => Blue
    [Samuel Clemens] => Mark Twain
    [Caryn Johnson] => Whoopi Goldberg

Of course, you might notice that this command merged the sections. This is the default behavior, but you can fix it easily by passing a second argument to parse_ini_file: process_sections, which is a Boolean variable. Set process_sections to True.

$file_array = parse_ini_file("holy_grail.ini", true);
print_r $file_array;

And you’ll get the following output:

Listing 6. Output

    [personal information] => Array
            [name] => King Arthur
            [quest] => To seek the Holy Grail
            [favorite color] => Blue

    [more stuff] => Array
            [Samuel Clemens] => Mark Twain
            [Caryn Johnson] => Whoopi Goldberg


PHP placed the data into an easily parsable multidimensional array.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to PHP file processing. More complex functions like tidy_parse_file and xml_parse can help you handle HTML and XML documents, respectively. Instead of considering every possible file type you might run into in detail in this article, here are a few good general rules for dealing with the functions I’ve described thus far.

Good practice

Never assume that everything in your program will work as planned. For example, what if the file you’re looking for has moved? What if the permissions have been altered and you’re unable to read the contents? You can check for these things in advance by using file_exists and is_readable.

Listing 7. Use file_exists and is_readable

$filename = "myfile";
if (file_exists($filename) && is_readable ($filename)) {
    $fh = fopen($filename, "r");

In practice, however, such code is probably overkill. Processing the return value of fopen is simpler and more accurate.

if ($fh = fopen($filename, "r")) {

Because fopen returns False on failure, this will ensure that file processing happens only if the file opens successfully. Of course, if the file is nonexistent or nonreadable, you can expect a negative return value. This makes this single check a catchall for all the problems you might run into. Alternatively, you might have the program exit or display an error message if the open fails.

As with fopen, file_get_contents, file, and readfile, all return False on failure to open or process the file. The fgets, fgetss, fread, fscanf, and fclose functions also return False on error. Of course, with the exception of fclose, you are likely already processing the return values on these. With fclose, there is little to do if the file handle does not close properly, so checking the return value for fclose is generally unnecessary.

Picking your poison

PHP has no shortage of effective ways for reading and parsing files. Classic functions such as fread might serve you best much of the time or you might find yourself drawn more to the simplicity of readfile when it’s just right for the task. It really depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.

If you’re processing large amounts of data, fscanf will probably prove valuable and more efficient than, say, using file followed by a split and sprintf command. In contrast, if you’re simply echoing a large amount of text with little modification, file, file_get_contents, or readfile might make more sense. This would likely be the case if you’re using PHP for caching or even to create a makeshift proxy server.

PHP gives you a lot of tools for working with files. Become more familiar with each of them and learn which ones best suit the projects you’re working on. You’ve got a lot of options, so make good use of them and have fun processing your files with PHP.