Understanding How Python Packages Modules And Imports Work

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Learning about Python’s package system is fundamental for a better understanding of how Python works and design better software.


Package support was supported first by a standard Python library module in version 1.3 with the module ni and later, in Pyhon 1.5, was incoporated in the interpreter.

A module is a file containing Python definitions and statements. Its main goals are:

  • organize code
  • preventing naming conflicts

Defining a module also defines its namespace, i.e. “the place where a variable is stored”.

Code from other modules can be used by the process of importing it in the current module. The most popular way of importing other modules functionality is using the [import statement] import and passing the [fully qualified name] of the module.

Fully qualified name A dotted name showing the “path” from a module’s global scope to a class, function or method defined in that module, as defined in PEP 3155.

Package import is a method to structure Python's module namespace by using "dotted module names"

For example, import math makes it possible to use math functions in the module that imported it like math.pi to use the pi function.

Module Search Path

How does the import statement knows where the math module is located?

The interpreter looks sequentially in specific locations until it finds it1:

  1. Was the file passed to the interpreter?
    • Yes - It looks in the directory containing the input script.
    • No - It looks in the current directory.
  2. a list of directory names specified in the [PYTHONPATH] environment variable
    • PYTHONPATH augments the default search path for module files, its format is the same as the shell’s PATH
    • $PYTHONPATH is typically empty and can be found with echo $PYTHONPATH.
  3. The installation-dependent default.
    • The actual list of folders python searches for libraries can be found with
      $ python3.5
      >>>  import sys
      >>>  print(sys.path)
      ['', '/usr/lib/python35.zip', '/usr/lib/python3.5', '/usr/lib/python3.5/plat-x86_64-linux-gnu', '/usr/lib/python3.5/lib-dynload', '/usr/local/lib/python3.5/dist-packages', '/usr/lib/python3/dist-packages']
sys.path is a list of strings that specifies the search path for modules. Initialized from the environment variable PYTHONPATH, plus an installation-dependent default. It can be modified using standard list operations, adding more directories to the discover modules paths sys.path.insert(0, '/path/to/package')


Packages are basically collection of modules.

Packages are a way of structuring Python’s module namespace by using “dotted module names”

Besides one can just add a subdirectory to the sys.path list, packages are an elegant solution to keep related modules together.

For example, the module name my-package.my-module designates a sub module named my-module in a package named my-package.

A simple package with a module and two sub packages may look like this:

my-package/                 Top-level package
      __init__.py           Initialize package
      my-subpackage/        Subpackage 
      my-other-subpackage/  Subpackage

The __init__.py file in each directory has two main functions:

  • Marking packages: It marks a directory as a Python package (or sub package), which makes its files ending in .py considered Python modules.
  • Initialize code: Code inside __init__.py is executed when the package is imported, but it can be empty also.
Python 3.3+ has [Implicit Namespace Packages] allowing to create packages without __init__.py files.


*[ni]: New Imports [import statement]: https://docs.python.org/3/reference/simple_stmts.html#import [PYTHONPATH]: https://docs.python.org/3/using/cmdline.html#envvar-PYTHONPATH [fully qualified name]: https://docs.python.org/3/glossary.html#term-qualified-name

Marcelo Canina
I'm Marcelo Canina, a developer from Uruguay. I build websites and web-based applications from the ground up and share what I learn here.
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An overview of Python's package and module systems. We take a look at how packages, modules and import work and how they are related.

Clutter-free software concepts.
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