Writing CLI tools with TypeScript

There are quite a couple of technology options when it comes to writing a command-line interface (CLI) tool. Most modern languages at the very least provide some kind of out-of-the-box support for command-line argument parsing. In addition, the ecosystems of modern languages also typically contain at least one mature and feature-rich CLI library.

TypeScript is a good choice for writing CLI tools for a couple of reasons including developer-friendliness, static checks, as well as a broad choice of tooling options. As with every TypeScript project, there is however an initial setup hurdle. We’ll have a look at how to set up a TypeScript CLI project with linting, formatting, testing, and packaging to a standalone binary in this post.

To give a few examples, here are some of the libraries and languages I’ve used recently to write CLIs

So, why would we prefer writing a CLI in TypeScript given all these other choices?

Well, TypeScript is an overall good choice for a couple of reasons:

  1. compatibility with JavaScript (TypeScript is a superset of—and by that token compatible with—JavaScript),
  2. popularity (TypeScript was ranked 7th in the 2021 Stack Overflow Developer Survey with JavaScript being 1st),
  3. tooling choice (the Node.js ecosystem provides quite a lot of CLI libraries),
  4. developer friendliness (TypeScript is a scripted language but also has an advanced type system and static type checking which helps writing high-quality code),
  5. performance (since TypeScript code is, in the end, typically run by Node.js, it is in general sufficiently performant thanks to the v8 engine).

Nonetheless, a typically non-trivial part of any TypeScript project is the setup. Writing a CLI with e.g. Python and the Click library requires little more than writing a file with the main function. This higher setup complexity is of course owed to the fact that TypeScript is a superset of JavaScript. To run TypeScript code, you typically transpile it to JavaScript and then execute the JavaScript code with Node.js. (Yes, even ts-node does that.) So, before running a program written in TypeScript, we need to transpile it to JavaScript first. This requires tooling and therefore setup.

Preferably, we also want to have a single, packaged binary as the result of building our project, rather than a script file, to reduce installation overhead on part of the user. To assure a high level of code quality, we also typically want to include code formatting, linting, and tests.

Getting started writing a TypeScript CLI

To hit the ground running, I created a starter project which already contains all required boilerplate and dependencies for running, formatting, linting, testing, and packaging the code to a standalone binary.

ℹ️ The starter project can be found on my GitHub and via npm.

We first clone it and install dependencies.

git clone git@github.com:fkurz/typescript-cliutil-starter.git my-cli
cd my-cli 
npm i

Our starter project uses

  • the commander package for argument parsing and executing commands,
  • code linting and formatting with eslint and prettier,
  • Jest as test runner and assertion library, and
  • pkg to build a stand-alone binary.

Basic development flow

To illustrate the development flow, we now add an example subcommand yell and test it. yell is similar to the say command (that already exists in the project) but a bit less subtle.

To do this, we add a file src/yell.ts and then add the following code.

// src/yell.ts
import { Command } from "commander";

export default (): Command =>
 new Command()
  .description("Say the word passed as the first argument but louder")
  .action((word: string) => console.log(word.toLocaleUpperCase()));

We also have to register our yell command with the main CLI command in src/cmd.ts, i.e. add an import statement for our subcommand and register it using Commander.addCommand

// src/cmd.ts
// … 
import buildYellCmd from "./yell";
// …
export default (): Command => {
  const command = new Command()
    .option("-g, --greet", `Say ${HELLO}`, false)

  // …

  return command;

Having done that, we can do a quick test run using the dev script defined in package.json. The dev script simply executes our TypeScript code with ts-node.

$ npm run dev -- yell 'hey!'

> @fkurz/typescript-cliutil-starter@1.0.0 dev /private/tmp/my-cli
> ts-node src/main.ts "yell" "hey!"


We can also add a test by adding src/yell.test.ts with the following content

import buildCmd from "./cmd";

beforeEach(() => {
  jest.spyOn(process, "exit");
  jest.spyOn(console, "log");

describe("Yell subcommand", () => {
  it("Should say 'HEY!' when passed 'hey!'", () => {
    const cmd = buildCmd();
    cmd.parse(["node", "cmd", "yell", "hey!"]);


Since our Jest configuration expects JavaScript test files, we first have to transpile our code with the build script using the TypeScript compiler tsc. The transpiled JavaScript source code is put into the dist/ folder.

$ npm run build
> @fkurz/typescript-cliutil-starter@1.0.0 build /private/tmp/my-cli
> tsc --build

We can now run our test suite with Jest using the test script. New test files will automatically get recognized by Jest if they have—as in our case—the suffix *.test.js*.

$ npm run test
> @fkurz/typescript-cliutil-starter@1.0.0 test /private/tmp/my-cli
> jest


Test Suites: 3 passed, 3 total
Tests:       8 passed, 8 total
Snapshots:   0 total
Time:        0.41 s, estimated 1 s
Ran all test suites.

As a final step, we can build a native binary by executing npm run package. This script will conveniently bundle all source code and dependencies into a single, stand-alone binary file bin/main using the pkg tool.

$ npm run package

> @fkurz/typescript-cliutil-starter@1.0.0 package /private/tmp/my-cli
> pkg dist/main.js --no-bytecode --public-packages '*' --public --target host --output bin/main

> pkg@5.3.1

The packaged binary is automatically made executable using the postpackage script. Packaging our CLI into a standalone binary has the major advantage that we can now simply run our CLI as a binary from the shell without a Node.js installation and without having to download any dependency whatsoever.

$ ./bin/main yell 'hey!'


TypeScript is a good choice for writing a CLI tool due to various factors.

Not only is TypeScript a developer-friendly language but it also has static checks to assure code quality and its ecosystem offers a wide range of tooling choices for command-line programs.

Additionally, as shown above, developing a CLI utility written in TypeScript does not preclude the option of exporting a stand-alone, native binary if we use a tool like pkg to bundle our program and dependencies into an application binary.

Do you have any questions, suggestions, or comments? Get in touch with the author via mail!

About the Author: Friedrich Kurz

Friedrich has been working for MaibornWolff as a full-time software engineer for 2.5 years. In his current project, he’s helping to build the AWS cloud infrastructure for a client’s web platform. Friedrich considers himself a technology generalist with a broad range of interests rather than a technology specialist. He’s, however, also very interested in functional programming and general methods of writing correct, clean, and maintainable code.