Java: Check if a File or Directory Exists

Introduction

Checking if a file or directory exists is a simple and important operation in many tasks. Before accessing a file, we should check if it exists to avoid a NullPointerException. The same goes for directories.

While some functions may create a new file/directory if the requested one doesn't exist, this may be the opposite of what we want. If we wish to append more information to an existing file and the method goes through without a warning, since it creates the new file it needs - we may have lost some information without realizing it.

Here, we've got a simple structure:

02/13/2020  11:53 AM    <DIR>          directory
02/13/2020  11:55 AM    <SYMLINKD>     directory_link [directory]
02/13/2020  11:53 AM                 0 file.txt
02/13/2020  11:55 AM    <SYMLINK>      symlink.txt [file.txt]

There's a file.txt file and a symlink.txt file. The symlink.txt file is a symbolic link to the file.txt.

Similarly, we've got a directory and a symbolic link to it - directory_link.

Check if a File Exists

To work with the Files class, you need to be acquainted with the Path class. Files only accepts Path, and not File objects.

For the purposes of the tutorial, we'll define a File and Path instance for the file.txt in our directory:

final static String location = "C:\\file.txt";

Path path = Paths.get(location);
File file = new File(location);

Files.exists()

That being said, the first way we can check if a file exists is through the Files class:

// Check if file exists through a Path
System.out.println(Files.exists(path));

// Check if a file exists by converting File object to Path
System.out.println(Files.exists(file.toPath()));

Running this code will yield us:

true
true

Files.notExists()

You might be wondering why the notExists() method exists at all:

If exists() returns true, that means that notExists() should return false. They're logical complements and A = !B, right?

Well, that's where many get it wrong. If Files.exists() returns false, it doesn't have to mean that the file doesn't exist.

It can also mean that the file's existence cannot be verified. In that case, both Files.exists() and Files.notExists() would return false, as Java cannot determine if the file does or doesn't exist.

This typically happens if you have a file that's locked in a way that Java can't access it. Imagine we had a file that's locked in our directory - lockedFile.txt:

file with denied permissions

And if we tried verifying its existence with:

System.out.println(Files.exists(path));
System.out.println(Files.notExists(path));

We'd be greeted with:

false
false

It exists, obviously, but Java doesn't have permission to confirm that on our system - thus giving conflicting results.

Files.isRegularFile()

Additionally, we can check if the file is a regular file (false if it's a directory) through the isRegularFile() method:

System.out.println(Files.isRegularFile(path));

The output is:

true

File.isFile()

Instead of using the Files class, we can also perform methods on the file objects themselves:

System.out.println(file.isFile());

This returns:

true

File.exists()

Similar to the previous option, we can run the exists() method:

System.out.println(file.exists());

And this also returns:

true

The difference between these two is that the first one checks if it's a file, and the other one checks if it exists. In different circumstances, they'd return different results.

Locked Files

A fun thing to note is that if you're using a File to check for existence, Java can determine if the locked file from before exists or not:

System.out.println(file.isFile());
System.out.println(file.exists());

Running this piece of code will yield:

true
true

With this, it's evident that the locked file can be read by using the File class instead of the Files helper class.

Check if a Directory Exists

Directories are essentially files, that can contain other files. This is why checking if a directory is a file will return true. Though, if you're checking if a directory is a directory (a special type of file), you'll get a more accurate result.

This time around, we're switching our location to:

final static String location = "C:\\directory";

Files.exists()

Again, just like in the first example, we can check if it exists via:

System.out.println(Files.exists(path));

The output is:

true

Files.isDirectory()

If we'd like to check if it's specifically a directory, we'd use:

System.out.println(Files.isDirectory(path));

And the output is:

true

Note: If the directory doesn't exist, the isDirectory() method will return false. It's due to the way the method is named. What it does is - it checks if the file exists and if it's a directory, not only the latter. A file can't be a directory if it doesn't exist - hence, false is returned.

You might also want to check if a file is just a symbolic link. In that case, you'd use the Files class.

Let's switch our location to:

final static String location = "C:\\symlink.txt";

As usual, the Files class accepts a Path to the file:

System.out.println(Files.isSymbolicLink(path));

Running this would yield:

true

File.getCanonicalPath() vs File.getAbsolutePath()

Another way to check for a symbolic link is to compare the results of the file's canonical path and absolute path. If they're different, it's most probably a symbolic link:

System.out.println(file.getCanonicalPath());
System.out.println(file.getAbsolutePath());

Since we're checking for a symbolic link, and we know it is, these should return a different result - a symlink.txt and file.txt path:

C:\symlink.txt
C:\symlink.txt

However, this isn't the case here. This is due to the fact that the symlink was created on Windows with NTFS (New Technology File System). The symlink was created using the mklink command in the CMD.

Check if Either Exist

From the previous examples, it's evident that the Files.exists() method will return true for both existing files and directories. Though, it doesn't work best when it comes to locked files.

On the other hand, the exists() method from the File class will also return true for both files and directories and can read the locked file that the Files class can't.

Conclusion

Checking for the existence of files and directories is the first line of defense against missing files and directories. Different approaches have different setbacks and you might assume that a method will return an accurate result, but it won't due to how it works in the background.

Being aware of which methods return which results in which circumstances will allow you to avoid nasty exceptions when handling files.

After checking if your file exists or not, you'll likely want to do some Reading and Writing Files in Java.