Set Python version with update-alternatives

Python users typically use a non-system Python distribution such as Miniconda. These Python distributions typically allow easy switching between Python version. Where system Python must be used, the default Python version can be switched persistently with update-alternatives.

Update-alternatives without sudo

This is a one-time setup. We configure Bash shell to use ~/.local/bin instead of system-wide /usr as follows:

mkdir ~/.local/bin

Edit ~/.bashrc, adding the line:

export PATH="$HOME/.local/bin:$PATH"

Enable switching Python default between Python 3 and 2.7 (useful for Raspberry Pi on Raspbian 9.1) with these one-time commands:

update-alternatives --install $HOME/.local/bin/python python /usr/bin/python3 20

update-alternatives --install $HOME/.local/bin/python python /usr/bin/python2 10

Then one can at any time select the default system Python version, without sudo, by

update-alternatives --config python


With old Linux distros, apt update may fail after making system Python default to Python 3 Just temporarily switch back to Python 2 as default if this becomes an issue.

Pip update-alternatives is NOT needed

You might expect something like --slave /usr/bin/pip pip /usr/bin/pip2 to be part of the python2 and python3 config. However, pip is a script with the shebang #!/usr/bin/python that is already affected by update-alternatives --config python. Therefore, we do NOT use --slave with Python --install.

Fix Ubuntu 17.04 apt install

Ubuntu 17.04 was giving errors on apt install or apt upgrade any program. The syntax errors were due to Python 3 being the default in Ubuntu 17.04, even though I had already installed Python 2.

I fixed this issue by using update-alternatives with Python 2.7 as above.