How to change default Debian applications

We all have our own preferences for the application we want to use to open and work with a particular file type. For example, whenever I start using a new version of the operating system, I install and switch to the VLC media player to play music and videos. On Debian, you can change the default applications using both the command line and the graphical user interface by following the simple steps outlined in this guide. We have followed the commands and procedure outlined in this guide on the latest Debian 10 Buster system.

Change default Debian applications via command line

When you access any application through the command line by a common name such as “editor”, it looks for the default application installed on the system, specifies the exact default application, and opens it. For example, when I enter the following command:

$ / usr / bin / editor

It opens the Nano editor on my system as it is the default text editor for Debian 10.

You can open Terminal by searching in Application Launcher as follows:

The Application Launcher can be accessed using the Super / Windows key on your keyboard.

If you want to change the default editor or any other program for that matter, you can use the update-alternatives utility for this purpose.


$ sudo update-alternatives –config [applicationname]

Example: changing the default text editor

For this example, I will replace my default Nano editor with another preferred alternative using the following command:

$ sudo update-alternatives --config editor

This command will provide me with a complete list of alternatives for a text editor along with an editor with automatic status:

Default editor

By entering the selection number associated with my selection and then pressing Enter, I can switch to the new default text editor that will be used to open my text files next time by default.

The note:

If you use this command to look for alternatives but they don’t exist, you will receive the following message. You will then need to download an alternative and then switch to it.

Update alternatives

We are looking for alternatives right away:

The following command will display a list of available alternatives for all default apps and allow you to choose from it.

$ sudo update-alternatives --all

For my system, the following output is displayed which shows that alternatives are available for many applications.

Update or change all default apps

By specifying the selection number and pressing Enter, I can change the default application selection for my Debian. To keep the same selection for the application, simply press Enter without typing the selection.

Change default Debian applications via GUI

A more convenient alternative to changing default applications is the Debian GUI. We will present the following two ways to do this:

  • Through the settings utility
  • By specifying the default application to open a specific file

Through the settings utility

Click the down arrow located in the upper right corner of the Debian desktop and then click the settings icon located in the lower left corner:

Settings utility


Enter Options in the search for Debian Application Launcher as follows:


The Settings Utility will open with the default Wi-Fi tab.

Click the Details tab and then the Default Applications tab.

The following view will list all the default applications on your system.

Default apps

To select an app other than the default app, click the down arrow and make a new selection for the category as follows:

Change default app

In this image, I’ve selected Shotwell Viewer to open my photos, instead of the default Image Viewer.

Changing the default application for removable media

On the Devices tab in System Preferences, select the Removable Media tab. A list of removable media and a default program to open the media will be displayed.

To change the default application, click the down arrow next to the Other Application drop-down list and select an application in the Select Application dialog box as follows:

Select Apps

The newly selected application will now be used to open the removable media.

Change the default application to open a specific file type

By setting the default application to open a specific file, you can choose the default application to open all files of the same type. Here’s an example:

Example: Setting to open all .png files in Shotwell Viewer

In the file viewer, right-click the .png file and select Properties as follows:

File properties

The properties window will open.

Click the Open With tab and select Shotwell Viewer (or any other preferred application), then click Reset.

Select the application to open the file type with

Your newly selected application will open not only this .png file in the future, but all other .png files as well.

In this tutorial, you learned several ways to change the default application used to open a file on your Debian system. You can use both the command line and the two methods described in this guide for the GUI to select new applications to use to open your files.

How to change default Debian applications