Upgrading Debian From Stable To Testing

I reckon you’ve been a long time user of Debian stable and now wants to change some few aspects of your computer….oh wait! I mean huge aspects of your computer operating system. Now you want to upgrade to Debian testing because you’d like new features, get access to cool software, and important test that newly updated software too 😉 Well, in that case, lucky you! I am happy to guide you on how to accomplish that on your computer. Moreover, if you are a total newbie to Debian operating system, don’t worry, I’ve made sure to explain about basic stuff first so you can get a clear perspective on what the content of this topic is.  

What is Debian testing?

Debian testing is like a rolling release version of Debian (much like Arch and Gentoo Linux). Users get the advantage of using the latest software instead of the one that is quite outdated on the stable version of Debian. However, please note that “outdated” here does not mean the software is unusable or that the user won’t be productive with the said software.​Then again, geeks like us tend to be curious (and somewhat reckless :P) about new stuff and feature that is being released for the software. We crave to try them out on our beloved computer, face some few bugs and issues on the way, and overall enjoy the experience of testing that new software. So today, this article is for those of you wanting to upgrade to Debian testing from the stable version.  

Are there other Debian versions?

Yes, there are three different Debian versions namely stable, testing, and unstable.

Stable is the default version that is distributed and encouraged for most users. Testing is next to stable version where occasional bugs and issues might be faced and the user has to know their way around how to fix and report those bugs. And then next comes Debian unstable, in this version the latest software or more specifically, the software that’s successfully compiled on Debian, is first made available before migrating it to testing. So overall, the three versions of Debian can be summarized for different users:

  • Debian stable is recommended for most users who just want stability.
  • Debian testing is recommended for users who prefer some stability while at the same time get on with the latest and cool software.
  • Debian unstable is for hardcore users who know their way around Linux and can fix critical issues that demand some deep technical knowledge.

How to upgrade to Debian testing?

Okay, you must be excited to try out Debian testing already!!! Turn on your favorite terminal program and change your directory to /etc/apt/ using the command below:

cd /etc/apt/

We are interested in modifying sources.list file, that’s the file the apt command reads when you install and update software on your computer. It stores what type of software to download (main, contrib or non-free) and where to fetch those software (either from the official Debian servers or through the use of mirrors). What we are going to do is create a new copy of the original file sources.list as sources.list.backup and modify the original file and then upgrade our computer to Debian testing. This requires root privileges but I’m guessing you already know how to use sudo or su 😉

Use the below command to copy the original sources.list file:

sudo cp sources.list sources.list.backup

Now, using one of your favorite text editor, open that sources.list file and delete all the contents within the file. Since each of us has configured our system differently, some of us might have less content to edit on the sources.list file while others might have more. So if I have to cover for both of those users, this would quite make it difficult for me because I would have to break down this article into more sub-subtopics.​After you are done removing all the contents within the file, copy and paste the below line on your clean sources.list file:

deb http://deb.debian.org/debian/ testing main contrib non-free

You can change the domain source to a mirror of your choice and also customize the options (main, contrib, and non-free) to your choice.  

Upgrading software

Before we upgrade our beloved Debian stable to Debian testing, we have to make sure all our software are up to date. Then again, we changed the file sources.list contents remember? So, the first and foremost thing we have to do is update the software repository list before upgrading our software.​Use the below command to update the software repository and upgrade them:

sudo apt update
sudo apt upgrade

Upgrading distribution

Once, you are done upgrading your Debian, you might notice some slight changes with some software. For example, nautilus, Debian GNOME’s file manager program has a new look and some new features. You may notice that the Settings program look ugly with high contrast icon theme enabled for some icons.​The next step is to fully upgrade Debian stable to testing, using the below command:

sudo apt dist-upgrade
upgrading distros

After that, reboot your computer to complete the upgrade process. And you’re done 🙂 You’ve successfully upgraded your Debian to testing version. Now you have a continuous rolling release of Debian development version, you get to enjoy new features early once they are out and more importantly, you are also contributing to the Debian development process just by testing out that new software! So pat yourself on the back and celebrate 😉  

Tracker software issue for GNOME users

A GNOME user might face high CPU usage and huge memory leak issue after successfully upgrading to Debian testing (like I did). The solution is to remove the tracker config directories on your home folder. Open your terminal program and key in the below commands to remove the directories:

rm ~/.cache/tracker ; rm ~/.local/share/tracker

Then reboot your computer to notice the improvement.  


After you’ve successfully upgraded your Debian to testing, you can remove those software that are no longer needed using the apt autoremove command. There’ll be tons of them. And in case you no longer wish to use Debian testing, you can delete that modified sources.list file and rename the sources.list.backup file to sources.list. Then follow through the same procedure for updating the software repository, upgrading the software and finally upgrading your distribution. Have fun testing new software on your computer. And I hope you enjoyed reading this article post. Please don’t hesitate to throw in your opinions in the comment section below.


Mohd Sohail is a web developer and a Linux sysAdmin. He also loves to write how-to articles, applications reviews and loves to use new Linux distributions.

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