If you have added any third party dynamic framework to an iOS app, you might have run into a cryptic error that reads something like:

dyld: Library not loaded: @rpath/TestKit.framework/TestKit
 Referenced from: <long_path_name>/TestApp.app/TestApp
 Reason: image not found

What is this @rpath thing in the error message? @rpath stands for Runpath search path. To understand what it means and why we need it, we need to take a step back and look at how dynamic libraries (called dylibs in macOS and iOS world) link with other dylibs and executables. We also need to understand the meaning of @executable_path and @loader_path before looking into @rpath This is best demonstrated by examples.


NOTE : I am using C for example code, but the concept stays the same for both Objective C and Swift. Reason for choosing C is easier compilation from command line.


What is @executable_path?

Starting in a fresh empty directory - ~/tests/blog/ in my case - let’s create two test files -

Cat.c

#include <stdio.h>

void catSound() {
  printf("MEOW!\n");
}

main.c

void catSound();

int main(int argc, char** argv) {
  catSound();
  return 0;
}

Compile Cat.c into a dylib and main.c into an executable.

❯❯❯❯ clang -dynamiclib Cat.c -o libCat.dylib
❯❯❯❯ clang -L. -lCat main.c -o main

Here, -L stands for library search path. -l specifies the name of dylib to link against, without the lib prefix and .dylib suffix. -o specifies the name of final output file.

Let’s go ahead and run the main executable.

❯❯❯❯ ./main
MEOW!

We get the cat sound, as expected. Let’s inspect how the dylib has been linked to our executable. We can use otool for this task. The -L option prints paths to all dynamic libraries used by an executable. Let’s call these paths install paths.

❯❯❯❯ otool -L main
main:
	libCat.dylib (compatibility version 0.0.0, current version 0.0.0)
	/usr/lib/libSystem.B.dylib (compatibility version 1.0.0, current version 1281.100.1)

The first install path libCat.dylib is a relative path. This means our main executable expects to find libCat.dylib in same directory as it is executed from. If we try to run main from any other directory, we get an error.

❯❯❯❯ cd ~/tests/
❯❯❯❯ ./blog/main
dyld: Library not loaded: libCat.dylib
 Referenced from: /Users/jaydeep/tests/./blog/main
 Reason: image not found
[1]  29123 abort   ./blog/main

We can change the relative install path libCat.dylib in main using a utility called install_name_tool1. But what should we change it to? We could change it to absolute path, and that would work on our system, but if you distribute main and libCat.dylib to someone else, it will likely fail on their system.

Solution here is to use a special variable called @executable_path. When dyld encounters this variable at link time, it gets resolved to path of directory containing the executable. In my case since main is in ~/tests/blog/, @executable_path resolves to ~/test/blog/. Let’s fix the install path using install_name_tool -

❯❯❯❯ install_name_tool -change libCat.dylib @executable_path/libCat.dylib main

Let’s run main from ~/tests/ directory again.

❯❯❯❯ cd ~/tests/
❯❯❯❯ ./blog/main
MEOW!

Great!

What is @loader_path?

To understand @loader_path, we need to add some complexity to our test case. Let’s create another dylib in a different directory, and make this dylib depend on our Cat dylib.

Animal/Animal.c

void catSound();

void animalSound() {
  catSound();
}

Compile Animal/Animal.c into a dylib. We will need to link it to libCat.dylib.

❯❯❯❯ clang -dynamiclib -L. -lCat Animal/Animal.c -o Animal/libAnimal.dylib

Modify main.c to make generic animal sounds rather than cat sounds, and recompile it. We will need to link against libAnimal rather than libCat.

void animalSound();

int main(int argc, char** argv) {
  animalSound();
  return 0;
}
❯❯❯❯ clang -LAnimal -lAnimal main.c -o main

Just like before, we know that we can execute main from ~/tests/blog/, but not from ~/tests or any other directory. We also know the fix for this. So let’s go ahead and do that.

❯❯❯❯ install_name_tool -change Animal/libAnimal.dylib @executable_path/Animal/libAnimal.dylib main

Running main from ~/tests/ fails this time though.

❯❯❯❯ cd ~/tests/
❯❯❯❯ ./blog/main
dyld: Library not loaded: libCat.dylib
 Referenced from: /Users/jaydeep/tests/blog/Animal/libAnimal.dylib
 Reason: image not found
[1]  29869 abort   ./blog/main

The error tells us that libAnimal could not find libCat. Let’s check the install paths for libAnimal.dylib

❯❯❯❯ otool -L Animal/libAnimal.dylib
Animal/libAnimal.dylib:
	Animal/libAnimal.dylib (compatibility version 0.0.0, current version 0.0.0)
	libCat.dylib (compatibility version 0.0.0, current version 0.0.0)
	/usr/lib/libSystem.B.dylib (compatibility version 1.0.0, current version 1281.100.1)

We need to fix the relative install path to libCat.dylib here. But what should we change it to? Using @executable_path would work - but for our main executable only. Dylibs are meant to shared across muliple clients2, all of which can be in different paths. This means @executable_path will resolve to different values depending on the executable being run.

Let’s take a step back and look at the dependency tree we have. main depends on libAnimal and libAnimal depends on libCat. libCat doesn’t depend on anything.3

libCat.dylib <--- Animal/libAnimal.dylib <--- main

@executable_path will always resolve to path of main. No matter if it’s main doing the loading of libAnimal, or libAnimal doing the loading of libCat. dyld provides another variable - @loader_path - that resolves to path of client doing the loading. In the above tree there are two loads happening. Let’s write down the values of the two variables for both loads.

load@executable_path@loader_path
main -> libAnimal~/tests/blog/~/test/blog/
libAnimal -> libCat~/tests/blog/~/test/blog/Animal/

Knowing this, we can now change the install path in Animal dylib from libCat.dylib to @loader_path/../libCat.dylib

❯❯❯❯ install_name_tool -change libCat.dylib @loader_path/../libCat.dylib Animal/libAnimal.dylib

Running main will now succeed from any directory. In fact, if you were to add a new executable foo/main that depends on libAnimal, you would only need to set the install path for libAnimal.dylib in foo/main itself4. No change is needed to either libCat or libAnimal as long as relative path between them remains the same, but that is unavoidable. They are now “shared libraries” in true sense of the word.

NOTE : For executables, @loader_path and @executable_path mean the same thing.

Short note on Install ID

Before moving on to @rpath, let’s understand a small concept called install IDs. Check the otool -L output for any dylib

❯❯❯❯ otool -L Animal/libAnimal.dylib
	Animal/libAnimal.dylib (compatibility version 0.0.0, current version 0.0.0)
	@loader_path/../libCat.dylib (compatibility version 0.0.0, current version 0.0.0)
	/usr/lib/libSystem.B.dylib (compatibility version 1.0.0, current version 1281.100.1)

For dylibs, the first entry is not an install path, but rather an install ID. When another client links to this dylib, it is the dylib’s install ID that gets copied as install path in the client.

What is @rpath?

In a large project with muliple clients in different locations depending on each other, having to keep track of @loader_path can get messy quickly. In such cases, we can use @rpath. Unlike the two variables we have seen till now, @rpath doesn’t have any special meaning to dyld. It is upto us to define a value (or values) for @rpath for each client. @rpath adds a level of indirection that can simplify things.

Let’s modify our test case to make use of @rpath. Add another executable foo/main.c with same source as main.c. We won’t compile it yet. Our directory structure looks like this :

❯❯❯❯ tree blog
blog
├── Animal
│   ├── Animal.c
│   └── libAnimal.dylib
├── Cat.c
├── foo
│   └── main.c
├── libCat.dylib
├── main
└── main.c

First step is to pick a path as an anchor path in our directory structure. Let’s pick ~/tests/blog/ as our anchor.

Next, let’s change the dylib install IDs to @rpath/zzz where zzz is relative path from anchor to the dylib.

For libCat.dylib this works out to @rpath/libCat.dylib

❯❯❯❯ install_name_tool -id @rpath/libCat.dylib libCat.dylib

For Animal/libAnimal.dylib this works out to @rpath/Animal/libAnimal.dylib

❯❯❯❯ install_name_tool -id @rpath/Animal/libAnimal.dylib Animal/libAnimal.dylib

Next, let’s add an @rpath to our executables with value equal to @loader_path/zzz where zzz is relative path from executable to our anchor.

For foo/main.c this works out to @loader_path/../

❯❯❯❯ clang -LAnimal -lAnimal -rpath "@loader_path/../" foo/main.c -o foo/main

For main.c this works out to @loader_path. We can use install_name_tool to add @rpath to the compiled executable, but since the install IDs for libAnimal and libCat have changed after main.c was compiled, it’s best to re-compile and re-link it so that it picks up the updated IDs.

clang -LAnimal -lAnimal -rpath "@loader_path" main.c -o main

After these changes, we can move our ~/test/blog/ directory anywhere, even a different system, and the two executables will continue to run - as long as the directory structure within ~/tests/blog/ itself doesn’t change.

Note that you can define more than one @rpath value for an executable, either at link time or later using install_name_tool. dyld will try all values in order to check for existence of dylibs.

Back to the error message

Knowing all this, we are now in a far better position to understand what the initial error message means, and how to go about fixing it. Let’s analyze the error -

dyld: Library not loaded: @rpath/TestKit.framework/TestKit
 Referenced from: <long_path_name>/TestApp.app/TestApp
 Reason: image not found

The executable is <long_path_name>/TestApp.app/TestApp. Dylib is TestKit. The executable could not find the dylib at @rpath/TestKit.framework/TestKit.

For iOS apps, all third party frameworks reside inside a Frameworks directory inside app directory. So the actual path to dylib is <long_path_name>/TestApp.app/Frameworks/TestKit.framework/TestKit. The anchor directory is <long_path_name>/TestApp.app/Framewoks/. So to figure out the reason for this error, we can check two things -

  • <long_path_name>/TestApp.app/TestApp has @rpath value of @loader_path/Frameworks/. @executable_path/Frameworks/ works too since both mean the same thing for executables. If you have the source code, you can check this in target’s build settings (LD_RUNPATH_SEARCH_PATHS). If not, otool -l is your friend.
  • TestKit dylib has install ID of @rpath/TestKitFramework.framework/TestKit. If you have the source, check this in build settings (LD_DYLIB_INSTALL_NAME). If not, otool -l is your friend again.
  • TestKit.framework is actually present inside Frameworks directory. You need to embed the framework inside the app for this.

When you add a new framework to an app, Xcode takes care of all this settings for you. But it’s good to know what’s happening behind the scenes :)


man dyld offers a lot more insight into the things glossed over in this post.


  1. Check out the manpage for install_name_tool to see what all it can do. It’s a short read. ↩︎

  2. Client can mean either an executable or a dylib. ↩︎

  3. libCat depends on libSystem which is located at /usr/lib/libSystem.dylib. We can ignore this for our purpose. ↩︎

  4. For any client, having correct install paths to all dylibs it depends on is unavoidable, unless the dylib is present at a standard location like /usr/lib/. ↩︎