IRC clients primarily for the Unix shell

updated Jan 26, 2003
by RuyDuck, Apatrix, dracus, Jolo, and many other UNIXsaurii


The UNIX operating system was the original home to the Internet Relay Chat, when some code developers wanted a way to chat in an easy-to-use, real-time forum and discuss their developments. Back in the early days of IRC, the IrcII (pronounced irc-two[*]) program was the premiere client. Designed to run in a text-mode environment, IrcII is not pretty -- it has no sounds, graphics, menus, pop-ups, etc. (see a screen capture). It is, however, fast, stable, lightweight, portable, and easily backgrounded using virtual terminals such as Unix "screen".

UNIX has evolved over the years into many variant OS's such as Linux, BSD, Solaris, etc., sometimes collectively known as "*nix", "Unix-like" or simply "Unix". Because of this increasing popularity, more, newer IRC clients have been developed for Unix systems. Perhaps the most common are BitchX and EPIC, both variants of the ircII client with greater functionality built into them at some stage in their development.

Even more recently, with the increased use of Unix on home PCs, IRC users are turning to graphical user interface (GUI) clients to meet their needs. As with mIRC for Windows or the various Macintosh clients, text-based clients can be used in in GUI "terminal emulators" that make them available in the graphical environment. Additionally, pure graphical clients have been developed to offer some of the look, feel, and functionality of Windows and Mac clients, and have proliferated in numbers much like their GUI ancestors. The primary Unix graphical clients are likely Xchat and KVIrc.

In addition, most of the Unix text-based clients have been ported to work under Windows or Mac, but you're better off sticking with clients developed for those OSes (follow the links above). An interesting exception might be Mac OS X, which is BSD-based and now makes Apple ironically the largest distributor of UNIX OS systems in the world.

At one time, the IrcII client set the standard against which all other clients were developed and measured. While this may still hold true to some extent today, the Windows client mIRC has largely taken over that position.

Installing Text-Mode Unix Clients

Many distributions of Linux and BSD come with built-in package management software (such as rpm for RedHat-based systems or deb for Debian-based systems). In these cases, installing your IRC client is usually as simple as downloading the program appropriate for your distribution and then installing the binary package. Some distributions have source packages, which allow you to maintain the package management of the distribution while still benefiting from building your client from source code. Managing distributions this way is for moderately experienced users who have the patience to read the package manager's manual pages to understand how it functions.

Alternatively, you can download a "pristine source", usually in the form of a tarball that ends with the .tar.gz or .tgz extension. This package should be unpacked (using the gzip and/or tar utilities) into its own directory. Once that's done, every tarball package comes with two files, usually called README and INSTALL. Some clients may have additional README.extension files, which you should also read. These files tell you important information about how to compile and install the program!

Installing GUI Unix Clients

Installing the GUI client may be easier than it sounds. Of course, running a graphical client requires that you have a graphical environment installed on your computer, such as the XFree86 system. It also requires a window manager, such as FVWM2, Enlightenment!, Sawfish, WindowMaker, NextStep, BlackBox, or any of about a hundred other options. Some clients, such as XChat and KVIrc, require special "widget sets" to be installed on your system. If you go to the home pages of these IRC clients, they will tell you what you need to download and install.

Luckily, if you have a package-managed distribution as stated above, the process is just as simple as downloading and installing the package you need. Most typical end-users of distributions such as RedHat or Mandrake have the benefit of a default installation that has already supplied you with everything you need. Again, if you plan to compile from a source tarball package, you should follow the instructions in README and INSTALL.

A Brief Note

We'd also like to take a brief moment to make a very important point: if your Unix distribution uses package management, it behooves you to use it. Please do not install source tarball packages into distributions that use package management, such as rpm or deb, unless your are a fairly experienced user (in which case, what are you doing here?). While it's likely these programs will work once compiled, they can still do more harm than good if you don't know what you're doing! Trust me, I've made this mistake myself....

To install an IRC client, you usually need to have a decent level of UNIX knowledge. You may also get some tips from the rather out-dated IRC by Telnet FAQ (question #6-8).

If you are not very savvy with Unix here are your choices:

Downloading Unix IRC Clients


There are now 2 main variants of ircII which we describe below:

ircII 2.8.2 (4/95, 372,733 bytes)

The 'classic' release version of ircII, stable with relatively tame bugs, recommended for most people who don't feel the need to be on the bleeding edge. Some of our very experienced helpers have been satisfied with this version since 1995 and see no reason to ever upgrade. You need to get the help file (~112KB) separately.

ircii-current (3/2002, ~0.6MB) [ext. link]

After 2.8, ircII went through many, many versions from 2.9roof through 4.4Z, all of which were extremely buggy, either simply annoying or seriously compromised. After ircII 4.4 reached the Z release, the ircII team switched to naming their releases according to date. As of this writing, the most recent ircII release in source form is ircii-20020310.tar.bz2 (the .bz2 extension require Bzip2 to unpack). This latest ircii-current release seems to be more stable than it's 4.4 predecessors, and functions almost as stably as the original 2.8 release. Because ircii-current is a rolling release at this point, it's best if you go to the home page by following the link, and download it from there.

Clients based upon ircII

BitchX [ext. link]

The most popular ircII-based client (forked at ircii-2.8 originally, it's now based on the current EPIC release of ircII), currently at version 1.0c18 (2001). This client is packed with all sorts of desirable as well as useless features which make it complicated to the level of being unnecessarily bloated. This doesn't mean it's a bad client. It's stable, functional and its bugs aren't too irritating (although some can earn you K:lines if you're not careful). Documentation on BitchX-specific features is sparse (though much improved over older versions). Even slight configuration errors can become the cause of embarrassing events. We recommend it only as a heavy duty client, strictly for experienced ircII users who are prepared to figure out a lot of things by yourself and risk such mistakes. It is strongly recommended that you have the help files for ircII and EPIC available when using BitchX, as the functions BitchX shares with these clients are poorly documented (if documented at all) in BitchX's own documentation. Note that BitchX's channel protection settings are turned on by default, with inappropriate triggering thresholds which will probably result in your client turning on fellow channel operators in channels you hold ops in. Most of these protection features are generally counterproductive, and may compromise a channel in a crisis situation. It's strongly recommended that you look through the little bit of documentation that BitchX has, and turn these features off. While you are at it, make sure you turn the public away notices off too, they get a bit annoying, and many channels kick for them.

EPIC [ext. link]

A definitely "lighter" client than BitchX, it lacks many of the less useful features and the (not exactly stunning) colour scheme. It remains a lot closer to ircII and is based upon extensions to version 2.8.2. Recommended for users who intend to extend their client through extensive scripting.

Other Console Clients

irssi [ext. link]

Probably the newest of the console IRC clients. irssi has rapidly matured into a capable IRC client. Its default configuration utilizes hidden windows, making it much easier to keep track of multiple channels. It also utilizes an embedded Perl interpreter for its scripting, eliminating the need to learn a new language. irssi appears to be very full featured, and may eventually overtake BitchX in popularity. Irssi also lacks the potentially dangerous defaults BitchX has, making it a good choice for the novice user. Even though irssi's defaults are more reasonable, it would still be advisable to read the documentation before trying to use irssi, as it is quite different from other console clients, and the default use of hidden windows can take some getting used to.


GUI Clients

X-Chat [ext. link]

X-Chat is likely the most popular GUI client for Unix Currently at version 1.8.8 (as of March 2002), it features mIRC-like look and feel and the ability to run powerful PERL-based scripts. X-Chat has also been ported to Windows, but functions best in it's Unix home. Recommended for the novice user to get started for its ease of use, and to the expert for its potential. X-Chat is built on the popular GTK+ toolkit, and is usually included as part of a standard GNOME installation.

KVIrc [ext. link]

KVIrc is an equally popular IRC client, based on the competing QT toolkit, which is part of the K Desktop Environment (KDE). KVIrc is at version 2.1.1 (May, 2001) and is currently developing V3.0, supposedly a major feature upgrade. KVIrc has the ability to load scripts and modules, all downloadable somewhere on the Web. KVIrc has ALSO been ported to Windows.

Help and related files

Help for ircII commands

WWW help files for all 500 commands and settings! All of these should be available in all ircII-based clients (ircII, BitchX, EPIC).

irciiman.txt (formerly called irciiman.wri)

The same help information as above in one text file that you can download and keep as a reference. This way you don't have to keep typing /help in ircII or stumble all over the WWW help links. All ircII-based clients should implement these features. EPIC and BitchX have numerous additional commands, functions and capabilities. EPIC is well-documented at its homepage [ext. link]. BitchX is not well documented, and most users need to know what they're doing, or will eventually stumble upon things as they explore; however, BitchX is based upon the EPIC client, so many of EPIC's extensions would also apply to BitchX.

server numerics header

Techie stuff, useful to people writing clients and scripts, or to those who simply wonder what all the numbers mean when you get information from a server.

pidentd [ext. link]

Identd establishes your identity which is required by servers on most of EFnet and all of DALnet, as well as many other nets. Requires root (superuser) access to install, if you don't have it or know what that means, talk to your system administrator. Also, see the Firewall FAQ for more information about potential ident problems.

Other Download Sites

Get the latest clients at these archives:

Pre-compiled ircII binaries:

Scripts for ircII (and variants)

The best script is still one that you write yourself. Never ever accept a script from anybody (even friends you trust). It could have cleverly-hidden back-doors which allow others to take over your client and maybe even steal your password or compromise the security at your entire site! Many scripts have lame or hostile features which can inadvertently get you banned from channels or even servers! These are not idle threats, it happens all too often in real life.

We recognize that the average user is probably not interested in learning how to script or just wants some examples to get started. In that case, please see our ircII scripts page for some ircII script packages which may increase your IRC enjoyment and convenience.

If you do want to learn how to script, there aren't really "how to" guides, but you don't really need any. If you have some basic programming experience, it's just a matter of getting some good references, such as irciiman.txt (aka irciiman.wri) and server numerics header, then learning by example from existing scripts such as those in our ircII scripts page.

Note on the pronunciation of ircII:
Some of us like to call it "eye-are-see-two". However, the other main variant, "irk-two" is probably historically more accurate. It's also commonly called "urk-ee" which is most definitely wrong. Feel free to disagree with us, we're not going to argue the point to death. What's pretty certain is that it is "two" and not "ee".