I've been using xclip to copy the output of bash commands like so:

pwd | tr -d "\n" | xclip -selection c

So that I can then paste the output into another terminal session.

I was trying to use it on my headless server (ubuntu 13.04), which is started without x. It doesn't work with the error:

Error: Can't open display: (null)

Is there a way around this. I realise that seeing as the program is called xclip it may not be possible.

2 Answers 2


The clipboard is provided by the X server. It doesn't matter whether the server is headless or not, what matters is that your local graphical session is available to programs running on the remote machine. Thanks to X's network-transparent design, this is possible.

I assume that you're connecting to the remote server with SSH from a machine running Linux. Make sure that X11 forwarding is enabled both in the client configuration and in the server configuration. In the client configuration, you need to have the line ForwardX11 yes in ~/.ssh/config to have it on by default, or pass the option -X to the ssh command just for that session. In the server configuration, you need to have the line X11Forwarding yes in /etc/ssh/sshd_config (it is present by default on Ubuntu).

To check whether X11 forwarding is enabled, look at the value of the DISPLAY environment variable: echo $DISPLAY. You should see a value like localhost:10 (applications running on the remote machine are told to connect to a display running on the same machine, but that display connection is in fact forwarded by SSH to your client-side display). Note that if DISPLAY isn't set, it's no use setting it manually: the environment variable is always set correctly if the forwarding is in place. If you need to diagnose SSH connection issues, pass the option -vvv to ssh to get a detailed trace of what's happening.

If you're connecting through some other means, you may or may not be able to achieve X11 forwarding. If your client is running Windows, PuTTY supports X11 forwarding; you'll have to run an X server on the Windows machine such as Xming.

  • +1 brilliant answer, but as I mentioned this server is running without x so Nykakins answer is more relevant.
    – Anake
    Jun 9, 2013 at 8:56
  • 2
    Just wondering ... is this approach valid when connecting from an OSX client to a headless Ubuntu server?
    – ken
    Nov 18, 2013 at 9:20
  • 6
    This doesn't work for me. I'm going from mac -> linux server. X11Forwarding yes is in the sshd_config on the server and I passed -X when I ssh'd to the server. Error: Can't open display: (null) on cat ~/.ssh/id_rsa.pub | xclip -selection clipboard
    – chovy
    Dec 11, 2016 at 20:27
  • 1
    ok i figured it would work since pbcopy already works on my mac locally. How do I start an x server on a mac and what do I set $DISPLAY to?
    – chovy
    Dec 11, 2016 at 23:40
  • 1
    @chovy you have to install XQuartz on macOS to enable X Server. (don't forget to log out and log into your mac after installing it).
    – elquimista
    Oct 18, 2018 at 9:19

Bash itself does not have a clipboard. It's a X feature. xclip is just a command line interface and as you see, it requires $DISPLAY. A way around is to just use a temporary file (for eg created with tempfile):

$ echo 123 > /tmp/fileDy7Dgv
$ tr -d '2' < /tmp/fileDy7Dgv
  • 13
    i don't get it.
    – chovy
    Dec 11, 2016 at 23:42
  • I think you combined two different answers of different post.
    – markroxor
    Sep 4, 2019 at 11:03

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