How do I pass environment variables to Docker containers?

Suppose you are using a MySQL Docker container and you want to pass environment variables to your container while running the container. It’s always a good idea to isolate the services from the configuration and it’s always advised to use environment variables for this purpose.

Predominantly, there are three different ways through which we can pass environment variables to our Docker containers. These are by using the -e, --env-file, and the ENV instruction inside the Dockerfile. Let’s check out all these methods one by one with examples.

Passing environment variables using the --env or -e flag

To demonstrate this example, let’s use the alpine image by pulling it from Dockerhub.

$ docker pull alpine:latest

We can use the --env or it’s shorthand version -e to pass the environment variables as key-value pairs through the Docker run command. The syntax of the Docker run command is -

$ docker run [OPTIONS] IMAGE [COMMAND] [ARG...]

Let’s use this syntax to run a container associated with the alpine image and pass our environment variables using the -e flag.

$ docker run -it --name=myalpine --env ENVVARIABLE1=foobar alpine:latest bash

This command uses the -i and -t options to run the container interactively and open the bash. The --name option is used to give a name to the container. The --env option is used to pass the environment variable called ENVVARIABLE with a value foobar to the container.

Now you have access to the bash of the container. Inside the bash, execute the env command. This will list all the environment variables of the container.

# env

Moreover, if you already have an environment variable in your local machine and you want to pass this environment variable to the container, you can omit the value of the variable.

$ docker run -it --name=myalpine --env VARIABLE2 alpine:latest env

This will directly set the environment variable called VARIABLE2 by taking it’s value from the local machine.

Using the --env-file option

If you want to pass a limited number of environment variables to the container, you can use the previous method. However, if the number of the environment variables to be passed is large, you can store the variables in the text file in key-value format and pass the name of this file using the --env-file option in the Docker run command. It will automatically read and import these variables from the mentioned file.

Create a file called env.txt with the following content.


Now, you can use the following command to create a container called myalpine and pass the environment variables from this file using the --env-file option.

$ docker run -it --name=myalpine --env-file env.txt alpine:latest env

Please note that the file must exist in the same path where you are executing this command in your local machine. If not, mention the full path of the file. This command will list all the environment variables in the container and you will find the ones mentioned in the env.txt file as well.

Using the ENV Dockerfile Instruction

If you are trying to build an image using the Dockerfile, you can pass the environment variables using the ENV instruction. The syntax of this instruction is -

ENV <key> = <value> ...

The values that you pass will be the environment variables for all the subsequent instructions in your Dockerfile. Examples are -

ENV MY_NAME="Jane Anniston"

Similar to command line parsing, you will have to escape quotes and spaces using backslashes. All the environment variables will persist throughout the container lifecycle. If you want to pass only a single environment variable with one ENV instruction, you can also omit the equal operator.

To sum up, in this article, we saw three different ways to pass environment variables to a container. These were the -e or --env and --env-file options as well as using the ENV instruction while creating images using a Dockerfile. Based on your requirements, you can use any of these methods. Also, please make sure that you do not pass any sensitive information such as passwords, passphrases, etc as they might lead to the leak of sensitive information and might affect your entire application or image.