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Sep. 22, 2017
Feb. 6, 2017

R Interface to Python

J.J. Allaire — 2017-02-08


The reticulate package provides an R interface to Python modules, classes, and functions. For example, this code imports the Python os module and calls some functions within it:

os <- import("os")

Functions and other data within Python modules and classes can be accessed via the $ operator (analogous to the way you would interact with an R list, environment, or reference class).

When calling into Python, R data types are automatically converted to their equivalent Python types. When values are returned from Python to R they are converted back to R types. Types are converted as follows:

R Python Examples
Single-element vector Scalar 1, 1L, TRUE, "foo"
Multi-element vector List c(1.0, 2.0, 3.0), c(1L, 2L, 3L)
List of multiple types Tuple list(1L, TRUE, "foo")
Named list Dict list(a = 1L, b = 2.0), dict(x = x_data)
Matrix/Array NumPy ndarray matrix(c(1,2,3,4), nrow = 2, ncol = 2)
Function Python function function(x) x + 1

If a Python object of a custom class is returned then an R reference to that object is returned. You can call methods and access properties of the object just as if it was an instance of an R reference class.

The reticulate package is compatible with all versions of Python >= 2.7 and in addition requires NumPy >= 1.11.


You can install from GitHub as follows:


Note that the package includes native C/C++ code so it's installation requires R Tools on Windows and Command Line Tools on OS X. If the package installation fails because of inability to compile then install the appropriate tools for your platform based on the links above and try again.

Locating Python

If the version of Python you want to use is located on the system PATH then it will be automatically discovered (via Sys.which) and used.

Alternatively, you can use one of the following functions to specify alternate versions of Python:

Function Description
use_python Specify the path a specific Python binary.
use_virtualenv Specify the directory containing a Python virtualenv.
use_condaenv Specify the name of a Conda environment.

For example:


Note that reticulate requires NumPy >= 1.11 so versions of Python that don't satisfy this requirement will not be used.

Also note that the use functions are by default considered only hints as to where to find Python (i.e. they don't produce errors if the specified version doesn't exist). You can add the required parameter to ensure that the specified version of Python actually exists:

use_virtualenv("~/myenv", required = TRUE)

The order in which versions of Python will be discovered and used is as follows:

  1. If specified, at the locations referenced by calls to use_python, use_virtualenv, and use_condaenv.

  2. If specified, at the location referenced by the RETICULATE_PYTHON environment variable.

  3. At the location of the Python binary discovered on the system PATH (via the Sys.which function).

  4. At other customary locations for Python including /usr/local/bin/python, /opt/local/bin/python, etc.

The scanning for and binding to a version of Python typically occurs at the time of the first call to import within an R session. As a result, priority will be given to versions of Python that include the module specified within the call to import (i.e. versions that don't include it will be skipped).

You can use the py_config function to query for information about the specific version of Python in use as well as a list of other Python versions discovered on the system:


Importing Modules

The import function can be used to import any Python module. For example:

difflib <- import("difflib")
difflib$ndiff(foo, bar)

filecmp <- import("filecmp")
filecmp$cmp(dir1, dir2)

There are some special module names you should be aware of: "__main__" gives you access to the main module where code is executed by default; and "__builtin__" gives you access to various built in Python functions. For example:

main <- import("__main__")

py <- import("__builtin__")

The "__main__" module is generally useful if you have executed Python code from a file or string and want to get access to it's results (see the section below for more details).

Executing Code

You can execute Python code within the main module using the py_run_file and py_run_string functions. These functions both return a reference to the main Python module so you can access the results of their execution. For example:


main <- py_run_string("x = 10")

Lists, Tuples, and Dictionaries

The automatic conversion of R types to Python types works well in most cases, but occasionally you will need to be more explicit on the R side to provide Python the type it expects.

For example, if a Python API requires a list and you pass a single element R vector it will be converted to a Python scalar. To overcome this simply use the R list function explicitly:

foo$bar(indexes = list(42L))

Similarly, a Python API might require a tuple rather than a list. In that case you can use the tuple function:

tuple("a", "b", "c")

R named lists are converted to Python dictionaries however you can also explicitly create a Python dictionary using the dict function:

dict(foo = "bar", index = 42L)

This might be useful if you need to pass a dictionary that uses a more complex object (as opposed to a string) as it's key.

With Contexts

The R with generic function can be used to interact with Python context manager objects (in Python you use the with keyword to do the same). For example:

py <- import("__builtin__")
with(py$open("output.txt", "w") %as% file, {
  file$write("Hello, there!")

This example opens a file and ensures that it is automatically closed at the end of the with block. Note the use of the %as% operator to alias the object created by the context manager.


If a Python API returns an iterator or generator you can interact with it using the iterate function. The iterate function can be used to apply an R function to each item yielded by the iterator:

iterate(iter, print)

If you don't pass a function to iterate the results will be collected into an R vector:

results <- iterate(iter)

Advanced Functions

There are several more advanced functions available that are useful principally when creating high level R interfaces for Python libraries:

Function Description
py_config Get information on the location and version of Python in use.
py_available Check whether a Python interface is available on this system.
py_has_attr Check if an object has a specified attribute.
py_get_attr Get an attribute of a Python object.
py_call Call a Python callable object with the specified arguments.
py_capture_stdout Capture all standard output for the specified expression and return it as an R character vector.
py_suppress_warnings Execute the specified expression, suppressing the display Python warnings.
py_str Get the string representation of Python object.
py_xptr_str Evaluate an expression that prints a string with a check for a null externalptr.
py_is_null_xptr Check whether a Python object is a null externalptr.

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