Building/hacking/using on MS-Windows

Maintainer:Frank Fesevur <>

This part of the documentation is written by Frank Fesevur, co-maintainer of universal-ctags and the maintainer of the Windows port of this project. It is still very much a work in progress. Things still need to be written down, tested or even investigated. When building for Windows you should be aware that there are many compilers and build environments available. This is a summary of available options and things that have been tested so far.


There are many compilers for Windows. Compilers not mentioned here may work but are not tested.

Microsoft Visual Studio

Obviously there is Microsoft Visual Studio 2013. Many professional developers targeting Windows use Visual Studio. Visual Studio comes in a couple of different editions. Their Express and Community editions are free to use, but a Microsoft-account is required to download the .iso and when you want to continue using it after a 30-days trial period. Other editions of Visual Studio must be purchased.

Installing Visual Studio will give you the IDE, the command line compilers and the MS-version of make named nmake.

Note that ctags cannot be built with Visual Studio older than 2013 anymore. There is C99 (or C11) coding used that generates syntax errors with VS2012 and older. This could affect compilers from other vendors as well.


There are three flavors of GCC for Windows:

MinGW started it all, but development stalled for a while and no x64 was available. Then the MinGW-w64 fork emerged. It started as a 64-bit compiler, but soon they included both a 32-bit and a 64-bit compiler. But the name remained, a bit confusing. Another fork of MinGW is TDM-GCC. It also provides both 32-bit and 64-bit compilers. All have at least GCC 4.8. MinGW-w64 appears to be the most used flavor of MinGW at this moment. Many well known programs that originate from GNU/Linux use MinGW-w64 to compile their Windows port.

Building ctags from the command line

Microsoft Visual Studio

Most users of Visual Studio will use the IDE and not the command line to compile a project. But by default a shortcut to the command prompt that sets the proper path is installed in the Start Menu. When this command prompt is used nmake -f mk_mvc.mak will compile ctags. You can also go into the win32 subdirectory and run msbuild ctags_vs2013.sln for the default build. Use msbuild ctags_vs2013.sln /p:Configuration=Release to specifically build a release build. MSBuild is what the IDE uses internally and therefore will produce the same files as the IDE.

If you want to build an iconv enabled version, you must specify WITH_ICONV=yes and ICONV_DIR like below:

nmake -f mk_mvc.mak WITH_ICONV=yes ICONV_DIR=path/to/iconvlib

If you want to build a debug version using mk_mvc.mak, you must specify DEBUG=1 like below:

nmake -f mk_mvc.mak DEBUG=1



All the GCC’s come with installers or with zipped archives. Install or extract them in a directory without spaces.

GNU Make builds for Win32 are available as well, and sometimes are included with the compilers. Make sure it is in your path, for instance by copying the make.exe in the bin directory of your compiler.

Native win32 versions of the GNU/Linux commands cp, rm and mv can be useful. rm is almost always used in by the clean target of a makefile.


Any Windows includes a command prompt. Not the most advanced, but it is enough to do the build tasks. Make sure the path is set properly and make -f mk_mingw.mak should do the trick.

If you want to build an iconv enabled version, you must specify WITH_ICONV=yes like below:

make -f mk_mingw.mak WITH_ICONV=yes

If you want to build a debug version, you must specify DEBUG=1 like below:

make -f mk_mingw.mak DEBUG=1


From their site: MSYS is a collection of GNU utilities such as bash, make, gawk and grep to allow building of applications and programs which depend on traditional UNIX tools to be present. It is intended to supplement MinGW and the deficiencies of the cmd shell.

MSYS comes in two flavors. The original from MinGW and a MSYS2

MSYS is old but still works. You can build ctags with it using make -f mk_mingw.mak. The Autotools are too old on MSYS so you cannot use them.

MSYS2 is a more maintained version of MSYS, but specially geared towards MinGW-w64. You can also use Autotools to build ctags.


Cygwin provides ports of many GNU/Linux tools and a POSIX API layer. This is the most complete way to get the GNU/Linux terminal feel under Windows. Cygwin has a setup that helps you install all the tools you need. One drawback of Cygwin is that it has poor performance.

It is easy to build a Cygwin version of ctags using the normal GNU/Linux build steps. This ctags.exe will depend on cygwin1.dll and should only be used within the Cygwin ecosystem.

Cygwin has packages with a recent version of MinGW-w64 as well. This way it is easy to cross-compile a native Windows application with make -f mk_mingw.mak  CC=i686-w64-mingw32-gcc.

You can also build a native Windows version using Autotools.

./configure --host=i686-w64-mingw32 --disable-external-sort

If you use Autotools you can also do the Units testing with make units. Some tests fail, that needs to be investigated.

Some anti-virus software slows down the build and test process significantly, especially when ./configure is running and during the Units tests. In that case it could help to temporarily disable them. But be aware of the risks when you disable your anti-virus software.

Cross-compile from GNU/Linux

All major distributions have both MinGW and MinGW-w64 packages. Cross-compiling works the same way as with Cygwin. You cannot do the Windows based Units tests on GNU/Linux.

Building ctags with IDEs

I have no idea how things work for most GNU/Linux developers, but most Windows developers are used to IDEs. Not many use a command prompt and running the debugger from the command line is not a thing a Windows developers would normally do. Many IDEs exist for Windows, I use the two below.

Microsoft Visual Studio

As already mentioned Microsoft Visual Studio 2013 has the free Express and Community editions. For ctags the Windows Desktop Express Edition is enough to get the job done. The IDE has a proper debugger. Project files for VS2013 can be found in the win32 directory.

Please know that when files are added to the sources.mak, these files need to be added to the .vcproj and .vcproj.filters files as well. The XML of these files should not be a problem.


Code::Blocks is a decent GPL-licensed IDE that has good gcc and gdb integration. The TDM-GCC that can be installed together with Code::Blocks works fine and I can provide a project file. This is an easy way to have a free - free as in beer as well as in speech - solution and to have the debugger within the GUI as well.

Other differences between Microsoft Windows and GNU/Linux

There other things where building ctags on Microsoft Windows differs from building on GNU/Linux.

  • Filenames on Windows file systems are case-preserving, but not case-sensitive.
  • Windows file systems use backslashes “\” as path separators, but paths with forward slashes “/” are no problem for a Windows program to recognize, even when a full path (include drive letter) is used.
  • The default line-ending on Windows is CRLF. A tags file generated by the Windows build of ctags will contain CRLF.
  • The tools used to build ctags do understand Unix-line endings without problems. There is no need to convert the line-ending of existing files in the repository.
  • Due to the differences between the GNU/Linux and Windows C runtime library there are some things that need to be added to ctags to make the program as powerful as it is on GNU/Linux. At this moment regex and fnmatch are borrowed from glibc.
  • Because there is no default scandir() for Windows, the optlib feature is not yet available for Windows. Various implementations of scandir() for Windows do exist, but still have to be investigated.
  • The xcmd feature is not yet available for Windows. This needs to be investigated.
  • Units testing needs a decent bash shell. It is only tested using Cygwin or MSYS2.