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About Python imports

jmau111 profile image Julien Maury Updated on ・6 min read

Python is a powerful language. However, the import system might be hard to understand and not just for beginners.

It is a little bit challenging. Hopefully, this article will give you some hints.

What are imports

Do you want to import something in Python? Use import:

import os
    print("cannot create new dir ")
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Any module can access other modules like that. Seems fair enough, what is so complicated?

Before we answer that, what exactly is a module in Python? The idea is to reuse blocks of code, making the program more robust and maintainable (modularity).

However, it's not any file containing Python code with a .py extension. Sometimes, developers like to group several instructions into a .py file instead of typing them one by one with the interpreter. In this case, it's called a script.

When the code gets longer, it's better for maintenance to split it, e.g., function definitions. Otherwise, the code becomes harder to read. Those definitions are available thanks to a unique and central file we call a module.

We also write modules because definitions are lost when you leave the Python interpreter.


A package is a group of modules (~ folder).

Getting started

There are many different syntaxes for imports. You can import the entire thing:

import os
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You can import only one or several functions:

from os import mkdir
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The apparent difference is that the second syntax allows for using mkdir directly, whereas the first syntax makes you write os.mkdir every time. Another big difference is that the second syntax does not import os but only mkdir from os.

There's another standard syntax that involves aliases:

import super_mega_long_module_name as module
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It is useful to shorten extra-long names and when two packages define different functions with the same name.

Anyways, it's imperative to note that :

  • imports are case-sensitive
  • Python runs imported modules and packages

I encourage using PEP8 styles for your imports, especially if you are a beginner. It's a style guide that gives best practices.

Never use wildcard imports

It would be best if you never wrote something like the following:

from MODULE import *
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You are loading everything contained in said MODULE, which can be a massive amount of code, and it's the "best" way to get naming collisions. You may get errors or weird behaviors that are difficult to debug.

Linters such as Pylint always flag wildcard imports as errors.

Imports behind the scene

When you write any import statement, the Python interpreter looks first in the module's cached list:

a dictionary that maps module names to modules which have already been loaded


If it does not find anything, it looks in the built-in modules (written in C), e.g., sys or math. If it still does not find anything, it uses the sys.path, which is a list of directories that includes several paths, including the PYTHONPATH.

When it finds something, it binds the name you use in your statement in the local scope, which allows you to use it and make aliases.

Relative vs. absolute imports

An absolute import looks like that :

from mypackage import mymodule
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Here is a relative import :

from . import mymodule
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The dot (".") is for the current code file directory. If there are two dots (".."), then it refers to the parent directory.

You have to use dots because you must be explicit when making relative import. Python 3 does not allow implicit relative imports.

According to the the PEP8 guidelines, absolute imports are the best practice as it's better for readability, and you should use explicit relative imports only in particular cases:

when dealing with complex package layouts where using absolute imports would be unnecessarily verbose

It means that the following syntax has very little interest:

from mypackage.mysubpackage.mysubsubpackage.mymodule import myfunction
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Here, an explicit relative import seems legitimate.

It's a trap!

Imports can turn nasty.

The circular effect happens when A imports B and B imports A. You often get an error. You'd rather refactor your code than trying any hacky workaround.

There are other traps on the list, but I prefer debugging instead of listing all cases here. Let's do it!

One of the best options is the "-v" option. It stands for "verbose," and it can save you a lot of time:

python3 -v mymodule.py
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However, there are more vicious bugs, which are tough to debug. In those cases, you don't have a lot of choices. A step by step debug is probably your only chance. To do that, use thepdb debugger:

import pdb; pdb.set_trace()
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Very useful to add breakpoints and start your investigations. It allows for fixing the context where you put the breakpoint so that Python will execute any expression in that specific context.


Here comes the weirdness

We just saw it's better to structure your code with modules and packages when you make Python apps.

There's this file with a strange name, __init__py, you might see it multiple times in blog posts and the documentation. This file can be either empty or full of code to initialize stuff.

What the heck is this?

Before Python 3.3, it was a mandatory file! If you removed it, Python would not load any submodules from the package anymore.

It's essential to note that Python loads this file first in a module. That's why developers use it to initialize stuff.

Python 3.3 introduced implicit namespace packages, so you can remove this file. It still works in Python 2, though.

But wait. It only applies to empty __init__py files. If you need some particular initialization, you may still need that file! One should be extra careful when migrating old code.

Thus, it's pretty wrong to say it's no longer needed. I would advise not to use implicit namespace packages unless you are perfectly aware of what you are doing.

What is if __name__ == '__main__':?

__name__ is a magical variable that holds the name of the current Python module. With the following code :

if __name__ == "__main__":
    # some code here
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You tell Python to execute the code only when you run it from a CLI with python -m. The code does not run if you import it as a module.


Structure your code

So Python imports are tricky, but at the same time, it's good practice to split code into reusable modules?

What do we do next?

First, remember that not all codes need files, modules, packages, and complex folder hierarchy. A significant part of the work consists of small scripts and command lines.

When doing some data science stuff with Python, you do many operations with fancy software such as Jupyter. Python is just the language. The only thing you care about is the data results.

However, for an entire application, you probably need some layout. Let's try some typology.

CLI app

In that case, you are writing a script. Let's keep things at the same level (in the same folder):

├── .gitignore
├── myscript.py
├── README.md
├── requirements.txt
├── setup.py
└── tests.py
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The structure above is simple on purpose:

  • setup.py is for dependencies and installation
  • tests.py is for tests
  • requirements.txt is for other developers that want to use our script. It installs the correct versions of the required Python libraries, the Python package manager (pip) uses it
  • myscript.py is your code

Your package

A package is a collection of modules. This time, we will have subdirectories:

├── .gitignore
├── moduloo/
│   ├── __init__.py
│   ├── moduloo.py
│   └── utils.py
├── tests/
│   ├── moduloo_tests.py
│   └── utils_tests.py
├── README.md
├── requirements.txt
└── setup.py
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N.B.: It's probably a good idea to add a docs directory to that structure, but we won't see that here.

Going further

Indeed those layouts are quite basic. If you need a more complex structure, e.g., for the web, I recommend looking at web frameworks such as Django.

Wrap up

I hope you have a better overview of Python imports. I strongly recommend using PEP8 styles, especially if you are a beginner.

Most of the time, you'd better use absolute imports than relative imports. It makes sense only in a few cases, and even in those cases, relative imports have to be explicit. Do not hesitate to use aliases along with your imports.

Keep your layout as simple as possible. It's better for both readability and maintenance.

Posted on by:

jmau111 profile

Julien Maury


Practise what you preach.


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