alias, require and import

In order to facilitate software reuse, Elixir provides three directives (alias, require and import) plus a macro called use summarized below:

# Alias the module so it can be called as Bar instead of Foo.Bar
alias Foo.Bar, as: Bar

# Ensure the module is compiled and available (usually for macros)
require Foo

# Import functions from Foo so they can be called without the `Foo.` prefix
import Foo

# Invokes the custom code defined in Foo as an extension point
use Foo

We are going to explore them in detail now. Keep in mind the first three are called directives because they have lexical scope, while use is a common extension point.


alias allows you to set up aliases for any given module name. Imagine our Math module uses a special list implementation for doing math specific operations:

defmodule Math do
  alias Math.List, as: List

From now on, any reference to List will automatically expand to Math.List. In case one wants to access the original List, it can be done by prefixing the module name with Elixir.:

List.flatten             #=> uses Math.List.flatten
Elixir.List.flatten      #=> uses List.flatten
Elixir.Math.List.flatten #=> uses Math.List.flatten

Note: All modules defined in Elixir are defined inside a main Elixir namespace. However, for convenience, you can omit “Elixir.” when referencing them.

Aliases are frequently used to define shortcuts. In fact, calling alias without an :as option sets the alias automatically to the last part of the module name, for example:

alias Math.List

Is the same as:

alias Math.List, as: List

Note that alias is lexically scoped, which allows you to set aliases inside specific functions:

defmodule Math do
  def plus(a, b) do
    alias Math.List
    # ...

  def minus(a, b) do
    # ...

In the example above, since we are invoking alias inside the function plus/2, the alias will be valid only inside the function plus/2. minus/2 won’t be affected at all.


Elixir provides macros as a mechanism for meta-programming (writing code that generates code).

Macros are chunks of code that are executed and expanded at compilation time. This means, in order to use a macro, we need to guarantee its module and implementation are available during compilation. This is done with the require directive:

iex> Integer.is_odd(3)
** (CompileError) iex:1: you must require Integer before invoking the macro Integer.is_odd/1
iex> require Integer
iex> Integer.is_odd(3)

In Elixir, Integer.is_odd/1 is defined as a macro so that it can be used as a guard. This means that, in order to invoke Integer.is_odd/1, we need to first require the Integer module.

In general a module does not need to be required before usage, except if we want to use the macros available in that module. An attempt to call a macro that was not loaded will raise an error. Note that like the alias directive, require is also lexically scoped. We will talk more about macros in a later chapter.


We use import whenever we want to easily access functions or macros from other modules without using the fully-qualified name. For instance, if we want to use the duplicate/2 function from the List module several times, we can import it:

iex> import List, only: [duplicate: 2]
iex> duplicate :ok, 3
[:ok, :ok, :ok]

In this case, we are importing only the function duplicate (with arity 2) from List. Although :only is optional, its usage is recommended in order to avoid importing all the functions of a given module inside the namespace. :except could also be given as an option in order to import everything in a module except a list of functions.

import also supports :macros and :functions to be given to :only. For example, to import all macros, one could write:

import Integer, only: :macros

Or to import all functions, you could write:

import Integer, only: :functions

Note that import is lexically scoped too. This means that we can import specific macros or functions inside function definitions:

defmodule Math do
  def some_function do
    import List, only: [duplicate: 2]
    duplicate(:ok, 10)

In the example above, the imported List.duplicate/2 is only visible within that specific function. duplicate/2 won’t be available in any other function in that module (or any other module for that matter).

Note that importing a module automatically requires it.


Although not a directive, use is a macro tightly related to require that allows you to use a module in the current context. The use macro is frequently used by developers to bring external functionality into the current lexical scope, often modules.

For example, in order to write tests using the ExUnit framework, a developer should use the ExUnit.Case module:

defmodule AssertionTest do
  use ExUnit.Case, async: true

  test "always pass" do
    assert true

Behind the scenes, use requires the given module and then calls the __using__/1 callback on it allowing the module to inject some code into the current context. Generally speaking, the following module:

defmodule Example do
  use Feature, option: :value

is compiled into

defmodule Example do
  require Feature
  Feature.__using__(option: :value)

With this we have almost finished our tour of Elixir modules. The last topic to cover is module attributes.

Understanding Aliases

At this point, you may be wondering: what exactly is an Elixir alias and how is it represented?

An alias in Elixir is a capitalized identifier (like String, Keyword, etc) which is converted to an atom during compilation. For instance, the String alias translates by default to the atom :"Elixir.String":

iex> is_atom(String)
iex> to_string(String)
iex> :"Elixir.String" == String

By using the alias/2 directive, we are changing the atom the alias expands to.

Aliases expand to atoms because in the Erlang VM (and consequently Elixir) modules are always represented by atoms. For example, that’s the mechanism we use to call Erlang modules:

iex> :lists.flatten([1, [2], 3])
[1, 2, 3]

Module nesting

Now that we have talked about aliases, we can talk about nesting and how it works in Elixir. Consider the following example:

defmodule Foo do
  defmodule Bar do

The example above will define two modules: Foo and Foo.Bar. The second can be accessed as Bar inside Foo as long as they are in the same lexical scope. The code above is exactly the same as:

defmodule Elixir.Foo do
  defmodule Elixir.Foo.Bar do
  alias Elixir.Foo.Bar, as: Bar

If, later, the Bar module is moved outside the Foo module definition, it must be referenced by its full name (Foo.Bar) or an alias must be set using the alias directive discussed above.

Note: in Elixir, you don’t have to define the Foo module before being able to define the Foo.Bar module, as the language translates all module names to atoms. You can define arbitrarily-nested modules without defining any module in the chain (e.g., Foo.Bar.Baz without defining Foo or Foo.Bar first).

As we will see in later chapters, aliases also play a crucial role in macros, to guarantee they are hygienic.

Multi alias/import/require/use

From Elixir v1.2, it is possible to alias, import or require multiple modules at once. This is particularly useful once we start nesting modules, which is very common when building Elixir applications. For example, imagine you have an application where all modules are nested under MyApp, you can alias the modules MyApp.Foo, MyApp.Bar and MyApp.Baz at once as follows:

alias MyApp.{Foo, Bar, Baz}
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