Automatic login with startx and systemd

Vincent Bernat

If your workstation is using full-disk encryption, you may want to jump directly to your desktop environment after entering the passphrase to decrypt the disk. Many display managers like GDM and LightDM have an autologin feature. However, only GDM can run Xorg with standard user privileges.

Here is an alternative using startx and a systemd service:

Description=X11 session for bernat systemd-user-sessions.service




ExecStartPre=/usr/bin/chvt 8
ExecStart=/usr/bin/startx -- vt8 -keeptty -verbose 3 -logfile /dev/null


Let me explain each block:

  • The unit starts after systemd-user-sessions.service, which enables user logins after boot by removing the /run/nologin file.

  • With User=bernat, the unit is started with the identity of the specified user. This implies that Xorg does not run with elevated privileges.

  • With PAMName=login, the executed process is registered as a PAM session for the login service, which includes pam_systemd. This module registers the session to the systemd login manager. To be effective, we also need to allocate a TTY with TTYPath=/dev/tty8. When the TTY is active, the user is granted additional access to local devices—notably display, sound, keyboard, mouse. These additional rights are needed to get Xorg working rootless.1 The TERM environment variable is unset because it would be set to linux by systemd as a result of attaching the standard input to the TTY. Moreover, we inform pam_systemd we want an X11 session with Environment=XDG_SESSION_TYPE=x11. Otherwise, logind considers the session idle unless it receives input on the TTY. Software relying on the idle hint from logind would be ineffective.2

  • The UtmpIdentifier=tty8 and UtmpMode=user directives are just a nice addition to register the session in /var/run/utmp.

  • The last step is to execute Xorg through startx. For logind to allow Xorg to take control of the local devices, chvt 8 switches to the allocated TTY.3 StandardOutput=journal, combined with the -verbose 3 -logfile /dev/null flags for Xorg, puts the logs from the X server into the journal instead of using a file. While equal to the default value, the Restart=no directive highlights we do not want this unit to be restarted. This ensures the loginless session is only available on boot. By default, startx runs xinitrc. If you want to run Kodi instead, add /usr/bin/kodi-standalone between startx and --.

Drop this unit in /etc/systemd/system/x11-autologin.service and enable it with systemctl enable x11-autologin.service. Xorg is now running rootless and logging into the journal. After using it for a few months, I didn’t notice any regression compared to LightDM with autologin.

  1. For more information on how logind provides access to devices, see this blog post. The method names do not match the current implementation, but the concepts are still correct. Xorg takes control of the session when the TTY is active. ↩︎

  2. Xorg could change the type of the session itself after taking control of it, but it does not↩︎

  3. There is some code in Xorg to do that, but it is executed too late and fails with: xf86OpenConsole: VT_ACTIVATE failed: Operation not permitted↩︎