Guide to Resolving Relative File Paths in JavaScript: From Node.js to Browsers

Dive into the methods of resolving relative file paths across different JavaScript environments. This comprehensive guide covers CommonJS, web browsers, ESM in Node.js, Deno, and bundler setups, ensuring your scripts always find their way.

  • Table of contents

In various JavaScript environments, the way we reference or import files relative to the current script can differ. Below, we'll walk through methods to resolve relative file paths in five environments: CommonJS (CJS) in Node.js, Web Browsers, ECMAScript Modules (ESM) in Node.js, Deno, and Browsers using bundlers (like webpack or Parcel).

1. CommonJS (CJS) in Node.js

CommonJS is the traditional module system used in Node.js.

Methods to Resolve Relative Paths:

  • Using __dirname: This global variable provides the directory path of the current module.
const path = require('path');
const filePath = path.join(__dirname, 'relative/path/to/file.txt');
  • Using require.resolve: This method resolves the module's path, similar to how require would load the module.
const modulePath = require.resolve('./relative/path/to/module');
  • Using process.cwd(): Returns the current working directory of the Node.js process. Be cautious when using this, as it gives the directory from where Node.js was invoked, not the script's location.
const path = require('path');
const filePath = path.join(process.cwd(), 'relative/path/to/file.txt');

2. Web Browsers

Traditionally, web browsers don't have built-in module systems like Node.js. Paths are typically resolved relative to the HTML document.

Methods to Resolve Relative Paths:

  • Using <script> tags: The browser will fetch and execute the script relative to the HTML file's location.
<script src="./relative/path/to/script.js"></script>
  • Using the URL object: In modern browser APIs, this can be helpful.
const scriptPath = new URL('./relative/path/to/script.js', import.meta.url).href;

3. ECMAScript Modules (ESM) in Node.js

With the growing adoption of ESM, Node.js introduced native support for ES modules.

Methods to Resolve Relative Paths:

  • Using import.meta.url: In ESM, __dirname isn't available. Instead, you can use import.meta.url.
import { fileURLToPath } from 'url';
import { join } from 'path';

const dirname = fileURLToPath(new URL('.', import.meta.url));
const filePath = join(dirname, 'relative/path/to/file.txt');

4. Deno

Deno is a JavaScript runtime similar to Node.js but with a focus on security and modern features. It uses ES modules by default.

Methods to Resolve Relative Paths:

  • Using import.meta.url: Just like ESM in Node.js, you can use this in Deno.
const url = new URL('./relative/path/to/module.ts', import.meta.url);

5. Browsers with Bundlers (e.g., webpack, Parcel)

When using bundlers, paths are typically abstracted, and the actual resolution is handled by the bundler itself.

Methods to Resolve Relative Paths:

  • Using import or require: Bundlers intercept these calls and replace them with their own resolution logic.
// ESM style
import module from './relative/path/to/module.js';

// CommonJS style (used often in webpack projects)
const module = require('./relative/path/to/module.js');


Depending on the JavaScript environment and module system you're working with, there are various methods to resolve relative file paths. Always ensure you're using the correct method for the environment to avoid resolution errors and ensure portability.