Vim is a text editor known for its variety of keyboard shortcuts and its different editing modes. Vim is easy to customize, and there are many plugins on the internet that allow you to extend Vim's functionality.

This guide will walk you through the basics of using Vim, but it only scratches the surface — if you like Vim, there are plenty of neat things to learn!

That being said, Vim takes some time getting used to. Chances are, you will be frustrated more than once at the beginning. If you decide to use another text editor for now, that's okay — but give Vim another shot later!


After reading this guide, you should be able to do the following:

  • Use Vim's normal mode, insert mode, and command mode
  • Open and edit a file
  • Save a file
  • Quit Vim (not as straightforward as you might think)
  • Use some basic Vim commands

Getting Vim on your own computer

You can install Vim on your own computer, depending on what type of computer you use:

  1. Mac: Vim comes pre-installed on Macs. All you have to do is open a terminal and type vim! You can also try MacVim, graphical (non-terminal) version of Vim for Macs
  2. Ubuntu: You can install Vim by opening a terminal and typing the following:

    sudo apt-get install vim

    This will install the terminal version of vim. You can also install GVim, a graphical version of Vim, by using this command:

    sudo apt-get install vim-gtk

    To start GVim, type gvim into the terminal.

  3. Windows: You can find the download link for Vim here. This installation includes the graphical version of Vim, as well as terminal versions.

If you have another type of computer, you can check the Vim website.

Note: this guide uses terminal Vim. Instructions for graphical Vim might be slightly different.


Since we are using the terminal version of Vim, we need a terminal! Go ahead and open one up.

Let's first create and navigate to a directory called example, using the UNIX commands you learned in Lab 0:

mkdir ~/example
cd ~/example

Opening files

Opening a file with Vim is as easy as typing the following command:


Here, is the name of the file we want to edit. Since doesn't exist, Vim will create the file for us. If we already had a file called, Vim would open up the existing file.

Note: you can also start Vim without specifying a particular file by simply typing vim

Your terminal should now look like this:

Opening a file

Don't worry about the tildes (~) — those just mean there is no text on those lines. Also, if you are greeted with some text ("VIM - Vi IMproved"), don't worry — once we start typing, that text will go away.

Normal mode and Insert mode

If you tried typing anything right now, the characters you typed would not appear on your screen (in fact, depending on what you pressed, a variety of things could happen). What's going on?

In most text editors (like Microsoft Word), everything you type will be displayed on the screen (e.g. if you type "See spot run", Word will show the words "See spot run").

Vim has different modes, each of which allow you to do different things. Normal mode allows you to use keyboard shortcuts for navigation, file manipulation, etc. Ironically, the one thing it doesn't allow you to do is type normally.

Note: Every time you open Vim, you will start in normal mode.

Vim also has insert mode, which allows you to use Vim like a regular text editor — you press keys, and the corresponding characters will show up on the screen.

To enter insert mode, press the letter i (for insert). At the bottom of the terminal, you should see text that says -- INSERT -- This tells us we are now in insert mode! Try typing a few things to verify that the keys you press are showing up.

To get back to normal mode (why would we want to do that? We'll see later), press the ESC key. The -- INSERT -- label at the bottom should disappear.

Recap: From normal mode, you can enter insert mode by pressing i. From insert mode, you can enter normal mode by pressing ESC.

Editing files

Let's go to insert mode and begin writing our first Python file (remember to look for the -- INSERT -- label at the bottom). At this point, we don't expect you to know any Python yet — that's okay! All you have to do is type in the following:

def greet(name):
    print('Hi', name, ', how are you doing?')
    print(' - Python')

Tip: you'll notice that Vim's cursor is a block, not a single line. This can lead to confusion about where Vim will place the next character you type. Vim will start typing right before the cursor. For example, if your text is

def greet

and the cursor is on the letter g, then Vim will start typing right before the g.

Once you've finished typing, Vim should look like this:

Greet function

Saving files

Now that we're done editing, we should save our file. To save files, we need to introduce a third Vim mode called command mode.

  1. Enter normal mode (if you are in insert mode, press ESC).
  2. Type in a colon (the : key). Make sure it is not a semicolon (;)

You should now see a colon appear at the bottom left of your terminal — that tells us we are in command mode!

To save the file, type the letter w and then press Enter. You should see a w show up next to the colon (make sure it is not a capital W). Once you press Enter, the file will be saved.

This seems like a lot of effort just to save a file, but after practicing a few times, saving a file will take (literally) just a second. Here are the steps, in full

  1. Enter normal mode (press ESC)
  2. Enter command mode (press :)
  3. Press w
  4. Press Enter

Running Python

In this class, you will be switching between your text editor (Vim) and Python a lot — writing code and testing code. It is often useful to have two terminals open: one for Vim, and the other for general use (such as running Python).

Go ahead and open another terminal (don't close Vim yet). Change directories into the example directory, which contains our file:

cd ~/example

Let's play around with our code. In the new terminal, start by typing

python3 -i

This command does the following:

  1. python3 is the command that starts Python
  2. The -i flag tells Python to start in interactive mode, which allows you to type in Python commands from your terminal
  3. is the name of the Python file we want to load

Notice that the Python interpreter says >>>. This means Python is ready to take a command.

Recall that we defined a function called greet. Let's see what it does! Type in the following:


Python will then print out

Hi Albert, how are you doing?
 - Python

You probably want Python to greet you and not me. So if your name is John, you should also type:


and Python will print

Hi John, how are you doing?
 - Python

Our code works! Let's close Python by typing in


There are a couple of ways to exit Python. You can type in exit() or quit(). On MacOS and Linux, you can also type in Ctrl-d (this doesn't work on Windows).

Closing Vim

At this point, you can feel free to play around with Vim a little more. Once you are ready to exit Vim, you can quit from command mode:

  1. Enter command mode (by first entering normal mode, then pressing :)
  2. Type q (for "quit")
  3. Press enter.

If you have unsaved changes, Vim will prevent you from quitting. You can either save the file first with :w, or you can add an exclamation mark to the q


if you don't want to save the changes. In addition, you can save and quit all in one go:


Once Vim exits, you will be taken back to the UNIX command line.


Congratulations, you've edited your first file with Vim! Here is a recap of what we've learned:

  • Opening files: type vim file_name
  • The difference between normal mode and insert mode
  • Editing files: press i to enter insert mode, and start typing
  • Saving files: enter command mode (press : after entering normal mode) and type w
  • Using Python: in another terminal, type python3 -i file_name
  • Closing Vim: enter command mode and type q

Everything you've learned so far is enough to get you through 61A. However, the true power of Vim comes from its keyboard shortcuts — if you're interested, keep on reading!

Vim also has a built-in interactive guide, which you can start from the terminal by typing


This tutor will help you get accustomed to basic Vim commands. It is highly recommended!

Keyboard Shortcuts

One of the primary features of Vim is its extensive range of keyboard shortcuts. We will only describe the most basic commands here (there are too many commands to list them all out here). You can also find a more detailed list of shortcuts here, though it also only scratches the surface.

Different modes

During the walkthrough, it seemed like normal mode was pretty useless — after all, the only thing we did in normal mode was to get out of normal mode (e.g. to get into insert or command mode). However, this couldn't be further from the truth!

Before we begin, here is a diagram that explains how to get between different Vim modes.

Vim modes

Notice that normal mode is connected to all the other modes. This means you'll need to switch back to normal mode — by using ESC — a lot. On most computers, the ESC key is all the way in the top left corner of the keyboard — so far away!

Because of this, many Vim users switch the ESC key with something else. You can swap ESC with Caps Loc on the school computers:

  1. Click on the power button in the top right corner of the screen
  2. Click on "System Settings"
  3. Click on "Keyboard Layout", then click on the "Options" button. A new screen should pop up
  4. Click "Caps Lock key and behavior". At the bottom of the drop-down list, there is an option to "Swap Caps Lock and ESC". Select this option.

Now you can press Caps Lock instead of ESC to enter normal mode. Your left pinky should be resting on the A anyway, so Caps Lock is just one key away!

In normal mode, instead of using the arrow keys to move around, you can use the following keys:

  • h: left
  • j: down
  • k: up
  • l: right

These keys take a little time to get used to, but once you've practiced for a few days, it becomes second nature.

Why would you want to use these instead of the arrow keys? All four of these keys are on the home row of the keyboard — you don't even have to lift your hand! After you get used to using hjkl, you'll wonder how you ever had the patience to use arrow keys.

Here are some other keys used for navigation:

  • word:

    • w: moves forward to the beginning of the next word
    • b: moves backward to the beginning of the previous word
  • lines:

    • 0: moves to the beginning of the line
    • $: moves to the end of the line
  • document:

    • gg: moves to the top of the file
    • G: moves to the bottom of the file

Entering Insert mode

We've already seen how to enter insert mode by pressing i. There are many different ways to reach insert mode from normal mode. Here are just a few:

  • i: start inserting text where the cursor is
  • a: start inserting text right after the cursor
  • I: start inserting text at the beginning of the line
  • A: start inserting text at the end of the line
  • o: insert a new line after the current line and enter insert mode
  • O: insert a new line before the current line and enter insert mode

Undo and redo

We all make mistakes. To undo a change in Vim, enter normal mode and press u. Vim remembers several levels of modifications, so you can keep pressing u to undo further and further back.

To redo a change, enter normal mode and press Ctrl-r. Again, Vim will remember multiple changes, so you can redo multiple times.

Deleting text

The x command deletes a single character:

  • x deletes the character right underneath the cursor
  • X deletes the character right before the cursor.

Using d provides more flexibility and range:

  • dd deletes the entire line
  • dw deletes the rest of the current word, starting from the cursor
  • D deletes from the cursor to the end of the line

Note: Vim's delete functionality acts like cut — Vim remembers what you deleted, and you can immediately paste the deleted text.

Copying text

In Vim, copying is called "yanking." The primary operator to yank text is y:

  • yy: copy the entire line
  • yw: copy the rest of the current word, starting from the cursor

Note: Yanking and deleting use the same buffer to store text, so they will overwrite each other.

Pasting text

The primary key for pasting (or putting) is p:

  • p: pastes copied text right after cursor
  • P (i.e. Shift-p): pastes copied text right before the cursor


There are two useful ways to search. The first is by pattern — this is done by pressing the forward slash: /. For example, if you want to search for the word def, you would type


You can move through all the matches by pressing

  • n: moves forward through all matches
  • N: moves backwards through all matches

The second way is to search by line number. This is done by pressing the colon :, followed by a line number. For example, if you want to jump to line 42, you would type


Note: technically, searching by line number is a command mode option, not a normal mode option.

Visual mode

Another useful Vim mode is called visual mode. In visual mode, you can highlight multiple letters or lines and manipulate them. There are several ways to enter visual mode from normal mode:

  • v: enters regular visual mode
  • V (i.e. Shift-v): highlights entire lines at a time

In each visual mode, you can use normal commands for various things:

  • navigation (hjkl, w, etc.)
  • deleting and yanking: d will delete all highlighted text; y will yank all highlighted text. Both then return to normal mode

Customizing Vim

Another great feature of Vim is that it allows users to easily customize it. All customizations can be saved in a file called .vimrc in your home directory. Since .vimrc is just another file, you can edit it using Vim:

vim ~/.vimrc

Syntax highlighting

All great text editors have syntax highlighting to make it easier to write code. To turn on syntax highlighting for Vim, write the following line:

syntax on

You can specify the colorscheme with this command:

colorscheme desert

This uses the desert colorscheme, but there are many others that you can find online.

Indentation rules for different file types can be turned on with

filetype plugin indent on

Line numbers

To turn on line numbers, include the following line

set nu


Python is very picky about whitespace (indentation, spaces, and newlines). Here are common settings that work well with Python:

set expandtab     " Uses spaces instead of tabs
set tabstop=4     " Each tab is 4 spaces
set autoindent

Key bindings

In addition to settings, Vim allows users to define custom keyboard shortcuts. Here are some useful ones:

nnoremap ; :      " Enter command mode by typing semicolon
nnoremap j gj     " Move along rows,
nnoremap k gk     " not lines

For more help on customizing the .vimrc file, see this link.