I recently upgraded versions of pylint, a popular Python style-checker.

It has gone ballistic throughout my code, pointing out places where I import modules in the same package, without specifying the full package path.

The new error message is W0403.

W0403: Relative import %r, should be %r

Used when an import relative to the package directory is detected.


For example, if my packages are structured like this:


and in the sponge package I write:

import icing

instead of

import cake.icing

I will get this error.

While I understand that not all Pylint messages are of equal importance, and I am not afraid to dismiss them, I don't understand why such a practice is considered a poor idea.

I was hoping someone could explain the pitfalls, so I could improve my coding style rather than (as I currently plan to do) turning off this apparently spurious warning.

2 Answers 2


The problem of import icing is that you don't know whether it's an absolute import or a relative import. icing could be a module in python's path, or a package in the current module. This is quite annoying when a local package has the same name as a python standard library package.

You can do from __future__ import absolute_import which turns off implicit relative imports altogether. It is described, including with this justification about ambiguity, in PEP 328. I believe Python 3 has implicit relative imports turned off completely.

You still can do relative imports, but you have to do them explicitly, like this:

from . import icing
  • 2
    +1 especially for the compromise solution, which is probably the way I should go. Commented Aug 4, 2012 at 15:46
  • 4
    Note you can also do import .icing instead of from . import icing
    – Jack
    Commented Oct 14, 2015 at 1:43
  • 18
    @Jack actually I don't think you can. From this part of PEP328: Relative imports must always use from <> import ; import <> is always absolute. Of course, absolute imports can use from <> import by omitting the leading dots. The reason import .foo is prohibited is because after import XXX.YYY.ZZZ then XXX.YYY.ZZZ is usable in an expression. But .moduleY is not usable in an expression.
    – A.Wan
    Commented Nov 13, 2015 at 19:50

There are a few good reasons:

  1. Relative imports break easily, when you move a module around.

    Imagine you have a foo.bar, a foo.baz and a baz module in your package. foo.bar imports foo.baz, but using a relative import.

    Now, if you were to move foo.bar to bar, your module suddenly is importing a different baz!

  2. Relative imports are ambiguous. Even without moving around the bar module in the above example, a new developer coming to your project could be forgiven for not realizing that baz is really foo.baz instead of the root-level baz package.

    Absolute imports make it explicit what module is being used. And as import this preaches, explicit is better than implicit.

  3. Python 3 has disabled implicit relative imports altogether; imports are now always interpreted as absolute, meaning that in the above example import baz will always import the top-level module. You will have to use the explicit import syntax instead (from . import baz).

    Porting the example from Python 2 to 3 would thus lead to unexpected problems, using absolute imports now will make your code future-proof.

  • 14
    +1 for #2 and #3. But #1 must be offset against what happens when the whole directory is moved (e.g. pushed down a level). Commented Aug 4, 2012 at 15:46
  • foo, bar and baz are the equivalents of variable names d, b, p and q, confusing and requiring additional mental load to tell them appart. Therefore downvote. Commented Sep 6, 2021 at 16:01
  • 1
    @problemofficer: those variable names are going to cause you problems everywhere in your career, I'm afraid. They are pretty much standard. Commented Sep 6, 2021 at 16:05
  • @MartijnPieters: I agree but "Everyone else does it, therefore it is OK" is not a valid counter-argument. Commented Sep 6, 2021 at 16:11
  • 3
    @problemofficer: every professional software developer also uses terms like queues and frontend and backend. Jargon is part of the job, of the way we communicate. When posting answers on a Software Engineering Q&A, I use standard terminology. I'm sorry that you feel that foo, bar and baz are not part of the normal vocabulary, but all I can tell you is that I'm not going to follow you trying to get rid of them. Commented Sep 6, 2021 at 16:17

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