Confused about Docker -t option to Allocate a pseudo-TTY – Dev

The best answers to the question “Confused about Docker -t option to Allocate a pseudo-TTY” in the category Dev.


What exactly does this option do? I’ve been reading a lot on TTY and I’m still confused. I played around without having the -t and just -i and it seems like programs that expect user input throw an error without the -t. Why is it important for pseudo-TTY to be enabled?


Late answer, but might help someone

docker run/exec -i will connect the STDIN of the command inside the container to the STDIN of the docker run/exec itself.


  • docker run -i alpine cat gives you an empty line waiting for input. Type “hello” you get an echo “hello”. The container will not exit until you send CTRL+D because the main process cat is waiting for input from the infinite stream that is the terminal input of the docker run.
  • On the other hand echo "hello" | docker run -i alpine cat will print “hello” and exit immediately because cat notices that the input stream has ended and terminates itself.

If you try docker ps after you exit either of the above, you will not find any running containers. In both cases, cat itself has terminated, thus docker has terminated the container.

Now for “-t”, this tells the main process inside docker that its input is a terminal device.


  • docker run -t alpine cat will give you an empty line, but if you try to type “hello”, you will not get any echo. This is because while cat is connected to a terminal input, this input is not connected to your input. The “hello” that you typed did not reach the input of cat. cat is waiting for input that never arrives.
  • echo "hello" | docker run -t alpine cat will also give you an empty line and will not exit the container on CTRLD but you will not get an echo “hello” because you didn’t pass -i

If you send CTRL+C, you get your shell back, but if you try docker ps now, you see the cat container still running. This is because cat is still waiting on an input stream that was never closed. I have not found any useful use for the -t alone without being combined with -i.

Now, for -it together. This tells cat that its input is a terminal and in the same time connect this terminal to the input of docker run which is a terminal. docker run/exec will make sure that its own input is in fact a tty before passing it to cat. This is why you will get a input device is not a TTY if you try echo "hello" | docker run -it alpine cat because in this case, the input of docker run itself is the pipe from the previous echo and not the terminal where docker run is executed

Finally, why would you need to pass -t if -i will do the trick of connecting your input to cat‘s input? This is because commands treat the input differently if it’s a terminal. This is also best illustrated by example

  • docker run -e MYSQL_ROOT_PASSWORD=123 -i mariadb mysql -u root -p will give you a password prompt. If you type the password, the characters are printed visibly.
  • docker run -i alpine sh will give you an empty line. If you type a command like ls you get an output, but you will not get a prompt or colored output.

In the last two cases, you get this behavior because mysql as well as shell were not treating the input as a tty and thus did not use tty specific behavior like masking the input or coloring the output.


The -t option goes to how Unix/Linux handles terminal access. In the past, a terminal was a hardline connection, later a modem based connection. These had physical device drivers (they were real pieces of equipment). Once generalized networks came into use, a pseudo-terminal driver was developed. This is because it creates a separation between understanding what terminal capabilities can be used without the need to write it into your program directly (read man pages on stty, curses).

So, with that as background, run a container with no options and by default you have a stdout stream (so docker run | <cmd> works); run with -i, and you get stdin stream added (so <cmd> | docker run -i works); use -t, usually in the combination -it and you have a terminal driver added, which if you are interacting with the process is likely what you want. It basically makes the container start look like a terminal connection session.


What I know about the -t is the following:

docker exec -ti CONTAINER bash – allows me to “login” in the container. It feels like ssh-ing (it’s not).

But the trouble was when I wanted to restore a database.

Usually I dodocker exec -ti mysql.5.7 mysql – Here I execute the mysql command in the container and get an interactive terminal.

I added <dump.sql to the previous command so I can restore a db. But it failed with cannot enable tty mode on non tty input.

Removing the -t helped. Still don’t understand why:

docker exec -i mysql.5.7 mysql < dump.sql

The last one works. Hope this helps people.


The -t argument is NOT documented well, or mentioned by many people often, according to a Google search.

It doesn’t even show up when you display a list of (what should be) all docker client arguments by typing docker at the Bash prompt (with the latest version of 1.8.1).

In fact, if you try to get specific help about this argument by typing docker -t --help if gives this amazingly vague reply:

flag provided but not defined: -t

So, you can’t be blamed for being confused about this argument!

There is a mention in the Docker online documentation which says it is to “Allocate a pseudo-tty” and is often used with -i:

I saw it used in the documentation for the terrific jwilder/nginx-proxy docker container in the following way:

docker run -d -p 80:80 --name nginx -v /tmp/nginx:/etc/nginx/conf.d -t nginx

In this case, what it does is send the output to the ‘virtual’ tty (Bash command prompt/terminal) within this docker container. You can then see this output by running the docker command docker logs CONTAINER where CONTAINER is the first couple of characters of this container’s ID. This CONTAINER ID can be found by typing docker ps -a

I’ve seen this -t argument mentioned briefly in the following link, where it says

The -t and -i flags allocate a pseudo-tty and keep stdin open even
if not attached. This will allow you to use the container like a
traditional VM as long as the bash prompt is running.

I hope this helps! I’m not sure why this isn’t documented or used much. Maybe it’s experimental and will be implemented as a documented feature in upcoming versions.