What Are Signals?

Signals are a form of inter-process communication (IPC) in Posix compliant systems like Linux, UNIX, and UNIX-like operating systems. They are an asynchronous mechanism the kernel uses to communicate with a process or a thread. Signals are always delivered by the kernel but can be initiated by the kernel, the process itself, or even another process. Signals are often referred to by their name, or their numeric integer value. For example, the kill signal is known as SIGKILL, or 9. There are many different signals that can be sent, although the signals in which users are generally most interested are SIGTERM and SIGKILL. The default signal sent is SIGTERM.

How Do Signals Work?

When a process receives a signal, what happens depends on the program. In the simplest case the process will just apply the default signal handlers defined in the C library. In most cases this will cause the program to terminate, suspend, and occasionally it will ignore the signal.

In some cases, programs have custom signal handlers. Programs that have custom signal handlers will behave differently when they receive a signal. For example many service daemons will reload their configurations when they receive the SIGHUP signal; the default action for SIGHUP is for the program to terminate.

In either case, when the kernel sends a signal to a process, the process will execute its signal handler immediately. Processes can enter states in which they are executing atomic instructions(like file locks), and will not process the signal until the instruction is completed.

How To Send a Signal to a Program

There are three ways to send a signal to another process. The simplest way is the execute the “kill” command with a signal specified. For example you can use the kill command from the shell to send the interrupt signal like so:

kill -SIGINT <PID>

You can write a simple program executing the kill system call. A basic example is below:

int signal_pid(int pid) {
  int rvalue;
  rvalue = kill(pid, SIGINT);
  return rvalue;

Lastly you can send signals from the keyboard in an interactive terminal. Ctrl-C will send SIGINT, and Ctrl-Z send SIGTSTP.

List Of Posix 1990 Signals

Signal Value Action Comment
SIGHUP 1 Term Hangup detected on controlling terminal or death of controlling process
SIGINT 2 Term Interrupt from keyboard
SIGQUIT 3 Core Quit from keyboard
SIGILL 4 Core Illegal Instruction
SIGABRT 6 Core Abort signal from abort(3)
SIGFPE 8 Core Floating point exception
SIGKILL 9 Term Kill signal
SIGSEGV 11 Core Invalid memory reference
SIGPIPE 13 Term Broken pipe: write to pipe with no readers
SIGALRM 14 Term Timer signal from alarm(2)
SIGTERM 15 Term Termination signal (signal sent by default by the kill command when not specified)
SIGUSR1 30,10,16 Term User-defined signal 1
SIGUSR2 31,12,17 Term User-defined signal 2
SIGCHLD 20,17,18 Ign Child stopped or terminated
SIGCONT 19,18,25 Cont Continue if stopped
SIGSTOP 17,19,23 Stop Stop process
SIGTSTP 18,20,24 Stop Stop typed at tty
SIGTTIN 21,21,26 Stop tty input for background process
SIGTTOU 22,22,27 Stop tty output for background process