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Charles Watkins for Stripe

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5 reasons why your .env environment variables don't work

It's happened to the best of us.

You've just started your dev server after adding in all your required environment variables to your .env file, and for whatever reason, the environment variables just aren't working.πŸ€”

Here are a few reasons why:

1. Your framework doesn’t automatically load .env files.

While some frameworks and packages come built-in support for environment variables using .env, many packages like Express.js don’t. Instead, you’ll need to load them yourself or through a library like dotenv.

The fix πŸ‘‰ Use a lightweight package like dotenv to load your environmental variables for use. This is particularly common on the backend.

2. You added or otherwise updated your .env file after starting your server.

Most dev servers don't watch for changes in .env files. If you add or update them later, they won't be reflected in your application.

The fix πŸ‘‰ Restart the server.

3. Your .env file is in the wrong directory.

Some dev servers allow you to specify where your .env file will live. Others expect them to live in a certain place.

The fix πŸ‘‰ Make sure your .env file is where it's supposed to be.

4. Your environment variables don't follow your framework's naming conventions.

Some dev servers include prefixes for environment variables that should be included in the client bundle.

The fix πŸ‘‰ Check the docs for your dev server to ensure you're using the right prefixes if any. Below are a few for some popular frameworks:

5. Your environment variables are misnamed.

You did all the above but your environment variables are nowhere to be found. Why? It's because you called it VITE_MY_LOVELY_VAR in your .env file but VITE_MY_AWESOME_VAR in your code.

The fix πŸ‘‰ Check your variable names and resolve any discrepancies.

Bonus Tip: Don’t commit your environment variables to GitHub (or any source control).

Wrap up

How do you handle environment variables and .env files? Anything worth adding? Share your tips or questions in the comments below!

Top comments (9)

diegogonzalezcruz profile image
Diego G. Cruz

I always wonder if a space or double quotes are required.


ENV_3 = test
ENV_4 = "test"

What do you think?

charlesw_dev profile image
Charles Watkins

I've always done ENV_1=test. Some tools, like Docker, consider the quotes part of the value and they expect no space between the variable name and the value.

yasminerico profile image
Yasmine Rico

Is there any way that once we change the .env values it will be saved without having to restart the server? We pass the values from our .env file into our frontend and would like to not have to completely shutdown the site just to add in a value to one of our variables.

charlesw_dev profile image
Charles Watkins • Edited

To my knowledge, you can't change the environmental variable values without restarting the server. Or at least you can't do it by updating the .env files.

For production, I'd recommend using a secrets management service like Google Cloud Secret Manager or Hashicorp Vault. These services let you retrieve your keys dynamically, which means you can swap them out easily.

hunghvu profile image
Hung Vu

Life cycle should also be considered. Some frameworks support loading .env, but it may not be available at some initial stages. NestJS for example.

eissorcercode99 profile image
The EisSorcer

One can feel so silly when realizing the solution is #3. Thank you so much

jasmatazzy profile image

I literally created an account here to agree with you @eissorcercode99. I spent hours trying to avoid committing my tokens to github, only to realize from this post that I had created my .env file inside the source folder. Wow.

andrewbaisden profile image
Andrew Baisden

These are all good reasons.

iamatulbansal profile image

Thanks its helps