python - variable - How to clone or copy a list?

python copy variable (12)

What are the options to clone or copy a list in Python?

Using new_list = my_list then modifies new_list every time my_list changes.
Why is this?

What are the options to clone or copy a list in Python?

In Python 3, a shallow copy can be made with:

a_copy = a_list.copy()

In Python 2 and 3, you can get a shallow copy with a full slice of the original:

a_copy = a_list[:]


There are two semantic ways to copy a list. A shallow copy creates a new list of the same objects, a deep copy creates a new list containing new equivalent objects.

Shallow list copy

A shallow copy only copies the list itself, which is a container of references to the objects in the list. If the objects contained themselves are mutable and one is changed, the change will be reflected in both lists.

There are different ways to do this in Python 2 and 3. The Python 2 ways will also work in Python 3.

Python 2

In Python 2, the idiomatic way of making a shallow copy of a list is with a complete slice of the original:

a_copy = a_list[:]

You can also accomplish the same thing by passing the list through the list constructor,

a_copy = list(a_list)

but using the constructor is less efficient:

>>> timeit
>>> l = range(20)
>>> min(timeit.repeat(lambda: l[:]))
>>> min(timeit.repeat(lambda: list(l)))

Python 3

In Python 3, lists get the list.copy method:

a_copy = a_list.copy()

In Python 3.5:

>>> import timeit
>>> l = list(range(20))
>>> min(timeit.repeat(lambda: l[:]))
>>> min(timeit.repeat(lambda: list(l)))
>>> min(timeit.repeat(lambda: l.copy()))

Making another pointer does not make a copy

Using new_list = my_list then modifies new_list every time my_list changes. Why is this?

my_list is just a name that points to the actual list in memory. When you say new_list = my_list you're not making a copy, you're just adding another name that points at that original list in memory. We can have similar issues when we make copies of lists.

>>> l = [[], [], []]
>>> l_copy = l[:]
>>> l_copy
[[], [], []]
>>> l_copy[0].append('foo')
>>> l_copy
[['foo'], [], []]
>>> l
[['foo'], [], []]

The list is just an array of pointers to the contents, so a shallow copy just copies the pointers, and so you have two different lists, but they have the same contents. To make copies of the contents, you need a deep copy.

Deep copies

To make a deep copy of a list, in Python 2 or 3, use deepcopy in the copy module:

import copy
a_deep_copy = copy.deepcopy(a_list)

To demonstrate how this allows us to make new sub-lists:

>>> import copy
>>> l
[['foo'], [], []]
>>> l_deep_copy = copy.deepcopy(l)
>>> l_deep_copy[0].pop()
>>> l_deep_copy
[[], [], []]
>>> l
[['foo'], [], []]

And so we see that the deep copied list is an entirely different list from the original. You could roll your own function - but don't. You're likely to create bugs you otherwise wouldn't have by using the standard library's deepcopy function.

Don't use eval

You may see this used as a way to deepcopy, but don't do it:

problematic_deep_copy = eval(repr(a_list))
  1. It's dangerous, particularly if you're evaluating something from a source you don't trust.
  2. It's not reliable, if a subelement you're copying doesn't have a representation that can be eval'd to reproduce an equivalent element.
  3. It's also less performant.

In 64 bit Python 2.7:

>>> import timeit
>>> import copy
>>> l = range(10)
>>> min(timeit.repeat(lambda: copy.deepcopy(l)))
>>> min(timeit.repeat(lambda: eval(repr(l))))

on 64 bit Python 3.5:

>>> import timeit
>>> import copy
>>> l = list(range(10))
>>> min(timeit.repeat(lambda: copy.deepcopy(l)))
>>> min(timeit.repeat(lambda: eval(repr(l))))

Let's start from the beginning and explorer it a little deep :

So Suppose you have two list :


And we have to copy both list , now starting from the first list:

So first let's try by general method of copy:


Now if you are thinking copy copied the list_1 then you can be wrong, let's check it:

The id() function shows us that both variables point to the same list object, i.e. they share this object.



Surprised ? Ok let's explore it:

So as we know python doesn't store anything in a variable, Variables are just referencing to the object and object store the value. Here object is list but we created two references to that same object by two different variable names. So both variables are pointing to the same object :

so when you do copy=list_1 what actually its doing :

Here in the image list_1 and copy are two variable names but the object is same for both variable which is list

So if you try to modify copied list then it will modify the original list too because the list is only one there, you will modify that list no matter you do from the copied list or from the original list:




['modify', '98']
['modify', '98']

So it modified the original list :

What is the solution then?

Solution :

Now let's move to a second pythonic method of copying list:


Now this method fix the thing what we were facing in first issue let's check it :



So as we can see our both list having different id and it means both variables are pointing to different objects so what actually going on here is :

Now let's try to modify the list and let's see if we still face the previous problem :




['01', '98']
['modify', '98']

So as you can see it is not modifying the original list, it only modified the copied list, So we are ok with it.

So now i think we are done? wait we have to copy the second nested list too so let's try pythonic way :


So list_2 should reference to another object which is copy of list_2 let's check:


we get the output:

4330403592 4330403528

Now we can assume both lists are pointing different object so now let's try to modify it and let's see it is giving what we want :

So when we try:



it gives us output:

[['01', 'modify']] [['01', 'modify']]

Now, this is little confusing we used the pythonic way and still, we are facing the same issue.

let's understand it:

So when we do :


we are actually copying the outer list only, not the nested list, so nested list is same object for both list, let's check:




So actually when we do copy_2=list_2[:] this is what happens:

It creates the copy of list but only outer list copy, not the nested list copy, nested list is same for both variable so if you try to modify the nested list then it will modify the original list too because nested list object is same for both nested list.

So what is the solution?

Solution is deep copy

from copy import deepcopy

So now let's check it :



4322146056 4322148040

both id are different , now let's check nested list id:




As you can see both id are different so we can assume that both nested list are pointing different object now.

So when you do deep=deepcopy(list_2) what actually happens :

So both nested list are pointing different object and they have seprate copy of nested list now.

Now let's try to modify the nested list and let's see if it solved the previous issue or not:

so if we do :



[['01', '98']] [['01', 'modify']]

So as you can see it didn't modify the original nested list , it only modified the copied list.

If you like my detailed answer , let me know by upvoting it , if you have any doubt realted this answer , comment down :)

new_list = list(old_list)

A very simple approach independent of python version was missing in already given answers which you can use most of the time (at least I do):

new_list = my_list * 1       #Solution 1 when you are not using nested lists

However, If my_list contains other containers (for eg. nested lists) you must use deepcopy as others suggested in the answers above from the copy library. For example:

import copy
new_list = copy.deepcopy(my_list)   #Solution 2 when you are using nested lists

.Bonus: If you don't want to copy elements use (aka shallow copy):

new_list = my_list[:]

Let's understand difference between Solution#1 and Solution #2

>>> a = range(5)
>>> b = a*1
>>> a,b
([0, 1, 2, 3, 4], [0, 1, 2, 3, 4])
>>> a[2] = 55 
>>> a,b
([0, 1, 55, 3, 4], [0, 1, 2, 3, 4])

As you can see Solution #1 worked perfectly when we were not using the nested lists. Let's check what will happen when we apply solution #1 to nested lists.

>>> from copy import deepcopy
>>> a = [range(i,i+4) for i in range(3)]
>>> a
[[0, 1, 2, 3], [1, 2, 3, 4], [2, 3, 4, 5]]
>>> b = a*1
>>> c = deepcopy(a)
>>> for i in (a, b, c): print i   
[[0, 1, 2, 3], [1, 2, 3, 4], [2, 3, 4, 5]]
[[0, 1, 2, 3], [1, 2, 3, 4], [2, 3, 4, 5]]
[[0, 1, 2, 3], [1, 2, 3, 4], [2, 3, 4, 5]]
>>> a[2].append('99')
>>> for i in (a, b, c): print i   
[[0, 1, 2, 3], [1, 2, 3, 4], [2, 3, 4, 5, 99]]
[[0, 1, 2, 3], [1, 2, 3, 4], [2, 3, 4, 5, 99]]   #Solution#1 didn't work in nested list
[[0, 1, 2, 3], [1, 2, 3, 4], [2, 3, 4, 5]]       #Solution #2 - DeepCopy worked in nested list

Felix already provided an excellent answer, but I thought I'd do a speed comparison of the various methods:

  1. 10.59 sec (105.9us/itn) - copy.deepcopy(old_list)
  2. 10.16 sec (101.6us/itn) - pure python Copy() method copying classes with deepcopy
  3. 1.488 sec (14.88us/itn) - pure python Copy() method not copying classes (only dicts/lists/tuples)
  4. 0.325 sec (3.25us/itn) - for item in old_list: new_list.append(item)
  5. 0.217 sec (2.17us/itn) - [i for i in old_list] (a list comprehension)
  6. 0.186 sec (1.86us/itn) - copy.copy(old_list)
  7. 0.075 sec (0.75us/itn) - list(old_list)
  8. 0.053 sec (0.53us/itn) - new_list = []; new_list.extend(old_list)
  9. 0.039 sec (0.39us/itn) - old_list[:] (list slicing)

So the fastest is list slicing. But be aware that copy.copy(), list[:] and list(list), unlike copy.deepcopy() and the python version don't copy any lists, dictionaries and class instances in the list, so if the originals change, they will change in the copied list too and vice versa.

(Here's the script if anyone's interested or wants to raise any issues:)

from copy import deepcopy

class old_class:
    def __init__(self):
        self.blah = 'blah'

class new_class(object):
    def __init__(self):
        self.blah = 'blah'

dignore = {str: None, unicode: None, int: None, type(None): None}

def Copy(obj, use_deepcopy=True):
    t = type(obj)

    if t in (list, tuple):
        if t == tuple:
            # Convert to a list if a tuple to 
            # allow assigning to when copying
            is_tuple = True
            obj = list(obj)
            # Otherwise just do a quick slice copy
            obj = obj[:]
            is_tuple = False

        # Copy each item recursively
        for x in xrange(len(obj)):
            if type(obj[x]) in dignore:
            obj[x] = Copy(obj[x], use_deepcopy)

        if is_tuple: 
            # Convert back into a tuple again
            obj = tuple(obj)

    elif t == dict: 
        # Use the fast shallow dict copy() method and copy any 
        # values which aren't immutable (like lists, dicts etc)
        obj = obj.copy()
        for k in obj:
            if type(obj[k]) in dignore:
            obj[k] = Copy(obj[k], use_deepcopy)

    elif t in dignore: 
        # Numeric or string/unicode? 
        # It's immutable, so ignore it!

    elif use_deepcopy: 
        obj = deepcopy(obj)
    return obj

if __name__ == '__main__':
    import copy
    from time import time

    num_times = 100000
    L = [None, 'blah', 1, 543.4532, 
         ['foo'], ('bar',), {'blah': 'blah'},
         old_class(), new_class()]

    t = time()
    for i in xrange(num_times):
    print 'Custom Copy:', time()-t

    t = time()
    for i in xrange(num_times):
        Copy(L, use_deepcopy=False)
    print 'Custom Copy Only Copying Lists/Tuples/Dicts (no classes):', time()-t

    t = time()
    for i in xrange(num_times):
    print 'copy.copy:', time()-t

    t = time()
    for i in xrange(num_times):
    print 'copy.deepcopy:', time()-t

    t = time()
    for i in xrange(num_times):
    print 'list slicing [:]:', time()-t

    t = time()
    for i in xrange(num_times):
    print 'list(L):', time()-t

    t = time()
    for i in xrange(num_times):
        [i for i in L]
    print 'list expression(L):', time()-t

    t = time()
    for i in xrange(num_times):
        a = []
    print 'list extend:', time()-t

    t = time()
    for i in xrange(num_times):
        a = []
        for y in L:
    print 'list append:', time()-t

    t = time()
    for i in xrange(num_times):
        a = []
        a.extend(i for i in L)
    print 'generator expression extend:', time()-t

EDIT: Added new-style, old-style classes and dicts to the benchmarks, and made the python version much faster and added some more methods including list expressions and extend().

Not sure if this is still actual, but the same behavior holds for dictionaries as well. Look at this example.

a = {'par' : [1,21,3], 'sar' : [5,6,8]}
b = a
c = a.copy()
a['har'] = [1,2,3]

Out[14]: {'har': [1, 2, 3], 'par': [1, 21, 3], 'sar': [5, 6, 8]}

Out[15]: {'har': [1, 2, 3], 'par': [1, 21, 3], 'sar': [5, 6, 8]}

Out[16]: {'par': [1, 21, 3], 'sar': [5, 6, 8]}

Note that there are some cases where if you have defined your own custom class and you want to keep the attributes then you should use copy.copy() or copy.deepcopy() rather than the alternatives, for example in Python 3:

import copy

class MyList(list):

lst = MyList([1,2,3]) = 'custom list'

d = {
'original': lst,
'slicecopy' : lst[:],
'lstcopy' : lst.copy(),
'copycopy': copy.copy(lst),
'deepcopy': copy.deepcopy(lst)

for k,v in d.items():
    print('lst: {}'.format(k), end=', ')
        name =
    except AttributeError:
        name = 'NA'
    print('name: {}'.format(name))


lst: original, name: custom list
lst: slicecopy, name: NA
lst: lstcopy, name: NA
lst: copycopy, name: custom list
lst: deepcopy, name: custom list

There are many answers already that tell you how to make a proper copy, but none of them say why your original 'copy' failed.

Python doesn't store values in variables; it binds names to objects. Your original assignment took the object referred to by my_list and bound it to new_list as well. No matter which name you use there is still only one list, so changes made when referring to it as my_list will persist when referring to it as new_list. Each of the other answers to this question give you different ways of creating a new object to bind to new_list.

Each element of a list acts like a name, in that each element binds non-exclusively to an object. A shallow copy creates a new list whose elements bind to the same objects as before.

new_list = list(my_list)  # or my_list[:], but I prefer this syntax
# is simply a shorter way of:
new_list = [element for element in my_list]

To take your list copy one step further, copy each object that your list refers to, and bind those element copies to a new list.

import copy  
# each element must have __copy__ defined for this...
new_list = [copy.copy(element) for element in my_list]

This is not yet a deep copy, because each element of a list may refer to other objects, just like the list is bound to its elements. To recursively copy every element in the list, and then each other object referred to by each element, and so on: perform a deep copy.

import copy
# each element must have __deepcopy__ defined for this...
new_list = copy.deepcopy(my_list)

See the documentation for more information about corner cases in copying.

Unlike other languages that have variable and value, Python has name and object.

This statement:

a = [1,2,3]

means to give the list (object) a name a, and, this:

b = a

just gives the same object a a new name b, so whenever you do something with a, the object changes and therefore b changes.

The only way to make a really copy of a is to create a new object like other answers already have said.

You can see more about this here.

With new_list = my_list, you don't actually have two lists. The assignment just copies the reference to the list, not the actual list, so both new_list and my_list refer to the same list after the assignment.

To actually copy the list, you have various possibilities:

  • You can use the builtin list.copy() method (available since python 3.3):

    new_list = old_list.copy()
  • You can slice it:

    new_list = old_list[:]

    Alex Martelli's opinion (at least back in 2007) about this is, that it is a weird syntax and it does not make sense to use it ever. ;) (In his opinion, the next one is more readable).

  • You can use the built in list() function:

    new_list = list(old_list)
  • You can use generic copy.copy():

    import copy
    new_list = copy.copy(old_list)

    This is a little slower than list() because it has to find out the datatype of old_list first.

  • If the list contains objects and you want to copy them as well, use generic copy.deepcopy():

    import copy
    new_list = copy.deepcopy(old_list)

    Obviously the slowest and most memory-needing method, but sometimes unavoidable.


import copy

class Foo(object):
    def __init__(self, val):
         self.val = val

    def __repr__(self):
        return str(self.val)

foo = Foo(1)

a = ['foo', foo]
b = a.copy()
c = a[:]
d = list(a)
e = copy.copy(a)
f = copy.deepcopy(a)

# edit orignal list and instance 
foo.val = 5

print('original: %r\n list.copy(): %r\n slice: %r\n list(): %r\n copy: %r\n deepcopy: %r'
      % (a, b, c, d, e, f))


original: ['foo', 5, 'baz']
list.copy(): ['foo', 5]
slice: ['foo', 5]
list(): ['foo', 5]
copy: ['foo', 5]
deepcopy: ['foo', 1]

you can use bulit in list() function:


i think this code will help you.