Writing a Vim script for own use is easy. Writing a plugin, compatible with pathogen, Vundle or other, and making it top quality user experience is just a bit more complicated. But is still easy and fun. Here I show just how to do so.

Only prerequisites are: Vim, some Python knowledge and lots of curiosity (more on that later). Some sample commands here are for bash, so, Linux or Mac. You will need to adjust a bit if you use Windows, but the general idea and all the rest is same in any case.

Final source code is available on … TODO: share source code

TODO: links to Vim wiki, documentation, etc. Links to other blogs.

Let’s go!

Vim Python support

There are many ways to create a Vim plugin. Classic one - use VimL. Or you can also use Lua. Or Python. This particular guide uses Python, and Python may be a great language to write a plugin for Vim because:

  • it is “natively” supported by Vim
  • you most likely already know it, in contrast to VimL
  • and it simple; you know, in contract to VimL

Certainly, a plugin written in Python will only run in Vim compiled with Python support. Vim’s default distribution is compiled with Python support, and nowadays finding the opposite is actually harder. There is also a number of widely used Vim plugins written in Python and you shouldn’t worry about Python support - it is not going anywhere.

To make sure that your Vim has Python support, run vim --version, and look for a line marked +python or +python3. Note that all code below is designed for Python 2 (+python) which is how Vim is distributed by default. If your Vim uses Python 3 (+python3) - you will need to update the source code accordingly.

Principles and minimal template

Vim plugins actually have to be written in VimL and not in Python. Good news is that Vim plugin can execute arbitrary Python scripts from withing VimL code. With this knowledge, basic idea of the plugin is to:

  • create a wrapper script in VimL
  • which will declare Vim commands
  • and import and run Python code
  • while latter implements those commands

Before going into Python code, let’s prepare the basic project structure, development environment, and ensure that our plugin is ready for plugin managers.

Plugin structure

If we want our plugin to work with Vim plugin managers, like pathogen, Vundle and many others, it needs to follow some basic structure:

├── doc/
│   └── sampleplugin.doc
└── plugin/
   └── sampleplugin.vim

This is self-explanatory. It is a good idea to provide an integrated documentation for a plugin, and we will addres this later on. If we are to publish the plugin, say, on GitHub, it makes sense to also add two more files:

├── ...

Once our project structure is ready, let’s try and install it.

Development process and our first Vim command

Let’s configure the development environment at once, so that we can test and run the plugin in a Vim instance regularly. How this set-up is made depends largely on the plugin manager you use with Vim.

Some plugin managers require all plugins to be installed under same root directory, which for most users is ~/.vim/bundle. If you are concerned, and don’t want to change your plugins root directory, you can create a symbolic link from your source code:

$ cd ~/.vim/bundle
$ ln -s ~/src/sampleplugin sampleplugin

Check you Vim’s plugin manager documentation on how to declare and load the plugin. For example, I use Vundle, my plugin source code is in ~/src/sampleplugin, and thus I have following in my ~/.vimrc:

Plugin 'file:///home/candidtim/src/sampleplugin'

Now, let’s make sure this actually works. Let’s add following content to sampleplugin.vim:

echo "It worked!"

And start new Vim instance where we will test the plugin. Upon startup you should see “hello vim!” printed out in the terminal. It worked!

If at this point it doesn’t work, try to load the plugin manually. For this, execute following command from Vim: :source ~/.vim/bundle/sampleplugin/plugin/sampleplugin.vim. Now, if this finally works, it means that your plugin manager doesn’t load the plugin automatically on Vim startup - refer to your plugin manager documentation to find out how to configure it correctly. If however this doesn’t work either - Vim should normally print out an error message, which should give you a better idea. Most likely you need to check that file actually exists and symbolic link works as expected, and that file content (syntax) is correct.

All set! Let’s write some Python!

Use Python in Vim plugin

As noted above, the idea now is to execute Python code from VimL. VimL exposes specific syntax for this. Let’s change our plugin source to the following:

python << EOF
print "Hello from Vim's Python!"

(Re-)start test Vim instance and you should see the new message.

Now, I don’t mind writing few simple commands inline like this, but our actual goal is to make Python code to live in Python source files, and VimL code in .vim source files. So, let’s actually make Vim “import” our code from Python source files. Change the code to:

let s:plugin_root_dir = fnamemodify(resolve(expand('<sfile>:p')), ':h')

python << EOF
import sys
from os.path import normpath, join
import vim
plugin_root_dir = vim.eval('s:plugin_root_dir')
python_root_dir = normpath(join(plugin_root_dir, '..', 'python'))
sys.path.insert(0, python_root_dir)
import sample

Vim doesn’t know where your Python plugin code lives, so if we are to import it, we need to add its root directory to sys.path in the interpreter running inside Vim. For this:

  • (1) we first save plugin’s directory path into a local variable in plugin’s Vim script
  • (7) then acces its value from within Python script
  • (8) use it to build the path to the directory where our Python code lives
  • (9) and finally add it to sys.path
  • (10) so that we can now import our Python module

To extract value from Vim’s plugin_root_dir variable we use vim Python module. This is available inside Vim and provides an interface to the Vim environment. We will revist this in details later.

Now, let’s actually add this Python code we talk about. Let’s add a file:

$ touch /sampleplugin/python/sample.py

With following content:

print "Hello from Python source code!"

Restart test Vim instance, see the new message, all done!

Declare commands and implement them in Python

Now, you likely want to add some commands to the Plugin, or it risks to not to be very useful. Let’s implement a simple command which would print out the country you are in, based on your IP. I mean, why not?

Let’s implement it first: TODO: fix for Python 2

import urllib, urllib.request
import json
import vim

def _get(url):
return urllib.request.urlopen(url, None, 5).read().strip().decode()

def _get_country():
ip = _get('http://ipinfo.io/ip')
json_location_data = _get('http://api.ip2country.info/ip?%s' % ip)
location_data = json.loads(json_location_data)
return location_data['countryName']
except Exception as e:
print 'Error in sample plugin (%s)' % e.msg

def print_country():
print 'You seem to be in %s' % _get_country()

Now, the buty of this implementation is in that it is plain Python code. You can test and debug it outside Vim with whatever tools you typically use. You can write Python unit tests and execute code from Python REPL, for example:

$ python
>>> import sample
>>> sample.print_country()

Now, if we want to call it from Vim, some VimL is necessary again. Let’s declare a Vim function which will call our Python function. Add this to the end of sampleplugin.vim file:

function! PrintCountry()
python print_country()

Restart test Vim instance, and type: :call PrintCountry(). I’m in France, and where are you?

It is not very convenient however to use the :call syntax. Typically, Vim plugins provide commands instead, so let’s do just that. Add this line after the function declaration:

command! -nargs=0 PrintCountry call PrintCountry()

Rinse, repeat and type :PrintCountry and it still should print the same country. Well done!

Accessing Vim functionality from Python plugin

Our plugin is quite limited so far: it only spits some text to Vim message area, but doesn’t do a lot otherwise. If we want to do more interesting thins - we need to use vim module. It provides Python interface to various Vim functinality.

For starters, it can simply evalaute expressions writtern in VimL. This is what we previously did to extract a value of a variable declared in VimL:

plugin_root_dir = vim.eval('s:plugin_root_dir')

eval can evalaute any VimL expression and is certinaly not limited to accessing vars. But more often it will be more convenient to use other vim interfaces instead of eval.

For example, you can access and modify text in current buffer like so:

vim.current.buffer.append('I was added by a Python plugin!')

As an example, let’s implement another command, InsertCountry, which would insert the name of the country you are in at current cursor position. Here is the Python code to add:

def insert_country():
row, col = vim.current.window.cursor
current_line = vim.current.buffer[row-1]
new_line = current_line[:col] + _get_country() + current_line[col:]
vim.current.buffer[row-1] = new_line

And, same way as before, let’s add according function and command to VimL wrapper script:

function! InsertCountry()
python3 insert_country()
command! -nargs=0 InsertCountry call InsertCountry()

Try it out in a new Vim instance. Position a cursor somewhere in a buffer and run :InsertCountry. You can now even map a key combination for this. For example, run

:map <Leader>c :InsertCountry<CR>

and press <Leader> c to run the command! Hey, our plugin just got a major upgrade! Our users can add the mapping to ~/.vimrc and their country name is just two key presses away!

Vim plugin can do a lot more interesing things. What is possible and how to use vim module is well documented in Vim itself. Check out help: :help python-vim - this is why I mentioned curiosity as a prerequisite previously.


Now this is simple. We already saw everything we need to provide a configuration for our plugin. Typically, users will configure the plugin in ~/.vimrc file and set some global variables, which we will later access in a plugin and use to adjust its behaviour. Say, we want to configure our plugin to provide either country names, or ISO codes. Add following to your ~/.vimrc:

let g:SamplePluginUseCountryCodes = 1

And then, access it in Python code:


Heads up! eval will only return a string, list or a dict, depending on type of data used in VimL. In this case, it is a string, so normally you would actually use it like so:

use_codes = vim.eval('g:SamplePluginUseCountryCodes').strip() != '0'

You can technically ask users to use ‘true’ and ‘false’ in this case for example, but it is good idea to stick to the behaviour users are already used to with the majority of other plugins, which is using 0 and 1 for this.

Getting a bit more sophisticated

We are almost done. Let’s just finalize our VimL wrapper. It makes sense to add two more features to it:

  • ensure that our plugin is only started when Python is actually available in Vim (this prevents Vim from spitting too many errors to the user when Python is not available)
  • and ensure that plugin is initialized once and only once.

Following does precisely that:

if !has("python3")
echo "vim has to be compiled with +python3 to run this"

if exists('g:sample_plugin_loaded')

; the rest of plugin VimL code goes here

let g:sample_plugin_loaded = 1

Now, for example, if our user does something like :source ~/.vimrc, we are sure our plugin won’t try to run the initialization code again: won’t change sys.path again, won’t import python modules or execute mode-level code. Having said that, you don’t have any code at module level except for declarations, do you?

Provide documentation

TODO: how to document?

Publish a plugin

TODO: publish to GitHub


  • testing with vim and not (split code, unittest without vim module)
  • not relaunching vim? (re-source ~/.vimrc ?)

That’s it!

You can find final source code in this sample repository. TODO: add link. Certainly check out :help python which contanins a lot of important details.

If you know of other important tricks, or have a good advice - please, leave a comment below. I’m very interested in further improvments of my Vim plugin development workflow and implementation.

Hope it was useful. Have fun with Vim!