Build a Container

The build command is the “Swiss army knife” of container creation. You can use it to download and assemble existing containers from external resources like Docker Hub and other OCI registries. You can use it to convert containers between the formats supported by Apptainer. And you can use it in conjunction with a Apptainer definition file to create a container from scratch and customized it to fit your needs.


The build command accepts a target as input and produces a container as output.

The type of target given determines the method that build will use to create the container. It can be one of the following:

  • URI beginning with docker:// to build from Docker Hub

  • URI beginning with oras:// to build from an OCI registry that supports OCI Artifacts

  • URI beginning with library:// to build from the Container Library

  • URI beginning with shub:// to build from Singularity Hub

  • path to an existing container on your local machine

  • path to a directory to build from a sandbox

  • path to a Apptainer definition file

build can produce containers in two different formats, which can be specified as follows:

  • a compressed read-only Singularity Image File (SIF) format, suitable for production (default)

  • a writable (ch)root directory called a sandbox, for interactive development ( --sandbox option)

Because build can accept an existing container as a target and create a container in either supported format, you can use it to convert existing containers from one format to another.


Apptainer leverages the user namespace kernel feature to give the illusion of elevated privileges while building containers. On some systems, the user namespace may be incompletely configured for individual users. In this case, Apptainer may bind mount the fakeroot program from the host into the container during the build, and this might fail in some containers with mismatching libraries. See the fakeroot documentation for more details.

Downloading an existing container from Docker Hub

You can use build to download layers from Docker Hub and assemble them into Apptainer containers.

$ apptainer build alpine.sif docker://alpine

Downloading an existing container from a Library API Registry

If you have set up a library remote endpoint as described in Managing Remote Endpoints, you can use the build command to download a container from the Container Library.

$ apptainer build lolcow.sif library://lolcow

The first argument (lolcow.sif) specifies the path and name for your container. The second argument (library://lolcow) gives the Container Library URI from which to download. By default, the container will be converted to a compressed, read-only SIF. If you want your container in a writable format, use the --sandbox option.

Creating writable --sandbox directories

If you want to create a container within a writable directory (called a sandbox) you can do so with the --sandbox option.

$ apptainer build --sandbox alpine/ docker://alpine

The resulting directory operates just like a container in a SIF file. To make persistent changes within the sandbox container, use the --writable flag when you invoke your container.

$ apptainer shell --writable alpine/

Converting containers from one format to another

If you already have a container saved locally, you can use it as a target to build a new container. This allows you convert containers from one format to another. For example, if you had a sandbox container called development/ and you wanted to convert it to a SIF container called production.sif, you could do so as follows:

$ apptainer build production.sif development/

Use care when converting a sandbox directory to the default SIF format. If changes were made to the writable container before conversion, there is no record of those changes in the Apptainer definition file, which compromises the reproducibility of your container. It is therefore preferable to build production containers directly from an Apptainer definition file instead.

Building containers from Apptainer definition files

Apptainer definition files are the most powerful type of target when building a container. For detailed information on writing Apptainer definition files, please see the Container Definitions documentation. Suppose you already have the following container definition file called, lolcow.def, and you want to use it to build a SIF container:

Bootstrap: docker
From: ubuntu:20.04

    apt-get -y update
    apt-get -y install cowsay lolcat

    export LC_ALL=C
    export PATH=/usr/games:$PATH

    date | cowsay | lolcat

You can do so with the following command.

$ apptainer build lolcow.sif lolcow.def


Beware that it is possible to build an image on a host and have the image not work on a different host. This could be because of the default compressor supported by the host. For example, when building an image on a host in which the default compressor is xz and then trying to run that image on a node where the only compressor available is gzip.

Building encrypted containers

With Apptainer it is possible to build and run encrypted containers. Encrypted containers are decrypted at runtime entirely in memory, meaning that no intermediate decrypted data is ever written to disk. See encrypted containers for more details.

Build options


Specifies values of defined template variables in the definition file. Values passed via --build-arg follow the form of variable=value. Multiple --build-arg options are acceptable for build command.


Similar to --build-arg but specifiles values of defined template variables via a file, which contains multiple variable=value entries.


By default, when users provide unused variables to the build process, fatal errors will return. This option makes the build process show warnings instead of returning fatal errors.


Specifies that Apptainer should use a secret saved in either the APPTAINER_ENCRYPTION_PASSPHRASE or APPTAINER_ENCRYPTION_PEM_PATH environment variable to build an encrypted container. See encrypted containers for more details.


Gives users a way to build containers without root privileges. This option is implied when an unprivileged user invokes build on a definition file. See the fakeroot feature for details.


The --force option will delete and overwrite an existing Apptainer image without presenting the normal interactive confirmation prompt.


The --json option will force Apptainer to interpret a given definition file as JSON.


This command allows you to set a different image library. Look here for more information.


If you don’t want to run the %test section during the container build, you can skip it using the --notest option. For instance, you might be building a container intended to run in a production environment with GPUs, while your local build resource does not have GPUs. You want to include a %test section that runs a short validation, but you don’t want your build to exit with an error because it cannot find a GPU on your system. In such a scenario, passing the --notest flag would be appropriate.


This flag allows you to pass a plaintext passphrase to encrypt the container filesystem at build time. See encrypted containers for more details.


This flag allows you to pass the location of a public key to encrypt the container file system at build time. See encrypted containers for more details.


Build a sandbox (container in a directory) instead of the default SIF format.


Instead of running the entire definition file, only run a specific section or sections. This option accepts a comma-delimited string of definition file sections. Acceptable arguments include all, none or any combination of the following: setup, post, files, environment, test, labels.

Under normal build conditions, the Apptainer definition file is saved into a container’s metadata so that there is a record of how the container was built. The --section option may render this metadata inaccurate, compromising reproducibility, and should therefore be used with care.


You can build into the same sandbox container multiple times (though the results may be unpredictable, and under most circumstances, it is preferable to delete your container and start from scratch).

By default, if you build into an existing sandbox container, the build command will prompt you to decide whether or not to overwrite existing container data. Instead of this behavior, you can use the --update option to build into an existing container. This will cause Apptainer to skip the definition-file’s header, and build any sections that are in the definition file into the existing container.

The --update option is only valid when used with sandbox containers.


This flag allows you to mount the Nvidia CUDA libraries from your host environment into your build environment. Libraries are mounted during the execution of post and test sections.


This option can’t be set via the environment variable APPTAINER_NV. Apptainer will attempt to bind binaries listed in APPTAINER_CONFDIR/nvliblist.conf, if the mount destination doesn’t exist inside the container, they are ignored.


Experimental option to use Nvidia’s nvidia-container-cli for GPU setup. See more details in the GPU Support section.


This flag allows you to mount the AMD Rocm libraries from your host environment into your build environment. Libraries are mounted during the execution of post and test sections.


This option can’t be set via the environment variable APPTAINER_ROCM. Apptainer will attempt to bind binaries listed in APPTAINER_CONFDIR/rocmliblist.conf, if the mount destination doesn’t exist inside the container, they are ignored.


This flag allows you to mount a directory, file or image during build. It works the same way as --bind for the shell, exec and run subcommands of Apptainer, and can be specified multiple times. See user defined bind paths. Bind mounts occur during the execution of post and test sections.


This option can’t be set via the environment variables APPTAINER_BIND and APPTAINER_BINDPATH

Beware that the mount points must exist in the built image prior to executing post and test. So if you want to bind --bind /example and it doesn’t exist in the bootstrap image, you have to workaround that by adding a setup section:

  mkdir $APPTAINER_ROOTFS/example


Binding your directory to /mnt is another workaround, as this directory is often present in distribution images and is intended for that purpose, you could avoid the directory creation in the definition file.


This flag will run the %test section of the build with a writable tmpfs overlay filesystem in place. This allows the tests to create files, which will be discarded at the end of the build. Other portions of the build do not use this temporary filesystem.

More Build topics

  • If you want to customize the cache location (where Docker layers are downloaded on your system), specify Docker credentials, or apply other custom tweaks to your build environment, see build environment.

  • If you want to make internally modular containers, check out the Getting Started guide here.

  • If you want to build a container with an encrypted file system consult the Apptainer documentation on encryption here.