The twisting, turning path to PYTHONPATH

Wow. The learning process sure is messy, and at times embarrassing.

Here’s how it all started:

I have a folder called ‘tools’ which contains various modules I wrote that I want to be accessible for import to all my Python projects. One of these modules is called ‘DbSession’ — it contains a class for handling various Sqlite database tasks. Each Python project is in its own folder, with the ‘tools’ folder as a ‘sibling’ under the same parent directory, as in this example:


I use Dropbox to sync my projects between two computers, one running Windows XP and one running Windows 7. The path to the Dropbox folder is different on each PC. No matter which PC I’m using, I want the modules in ‘tools’ to be accessible for importing to all my projects.

As previously posted, my first solution was to do a sys.path.append() in my code, but afterward I learned this was not the best solution because it would involve changing my code every time I switched computers or re-arranged directories. I then decided I’d like to be able to set the PATH in each PC appropriately so the imports will work on both without changing my code. After much Googling and sifting through what seemed to be a multitude of possible answers, I found what I *thought* was the solution, but upon further testing, discovered I was mistaken. I thought making the imports work in my project directories was just a matter of adding my ‘tools’ directory to the PATH variable. Here’s what I did (Windows XP machine):

Added ‘tools’ directory to PATH variable and confirmed it is set correctly by typing “PATH” on a command line:

and Settings\Rob\My Documents\Dropbox\projects\tools

The ‘tools’ directory contains a test ‘Hello World’ program, ‘’, which I can run from the C:\ directory just by typing the file name. This proves the PATH variable is set correctly to ‘tools’:

Hello, world!

..although if I try to run ‘’ from Python, Python can’t find it!

python: can’t open file ‘’: [Errno 2] No such file or directory

Here’s my attempt at importing from the module ‘’, which resides in ‘tools.’ First, I ran Python from the C:\ directory. It can’t find the ‘DbSession’ module in ‘tools’, even though the above test with ‘’ at least showed the ‘tools’ directory was correctly set in PATH. I tried putting a blank ‘’ file in ‘tools’, but it still didn’t work:

Python 3.3.4 (v3.3.4:7ff62415e426, Feb 10 2014, 18:12:08) [MSC v.1600 32 bit (In
tel)] on win32
Type “help”, “copyright”, “credits” or “license” for more information.
>>>from DbSession import DbSession
Traceback (most recent call last):
File ““, line 1, in
ImportError: No module named ‘DbSession’

When I ran Python from the ‘tools’ directory the import worked fine, proving there’s no problem with the module itself:

c:\Documents and Settings\Rob\My Documents\Dropbox\projects\tools\python
Python 3.3.4 (v3.3.4:7ff62415e426, Feb 10 2014, 18:12:08) [MSC v.1600 32 bit (In
tel)] on win32
Type “help”, “copyright”, “credits” or “license” for more information.
>>>from DbSession import DbSession

So what’s up? I KNOW I set the PATH right…how come Python can’t import from the ‘tools’ directory into a project directory, when I can run the ‘’ code, which is also in ‘tools’, from any directory I want? This seemed so insane it tempted me to go back to using sys.path.append().

Until I ran across this one little nugget, in a 5-year-old article, on a site I’d never heard of:

“However, unlike PATH (which tells the operating system which directories to look for executable files in), PYTHONPATH is used by the Python interpreter to find out where to look for modules to import.”


So, I need TWO SEPARATE PATH VARIABLES…the PATH variable to help Python find itself and its various packages:


..and the PYTHONPATH variable to help it find modules for importing!


I don’t know if it’s my misfiring brain, but somehow in all my recent travels, this simple truth eluded me. So, now my jolly good mates at Stereoplex have been blessed with a mention and a backlink. Cheers!