Managing Python environments in Visual Studio

A Python environment is a context in which you run Python code and includes global, virtual, and conda environments. An environment consists of an interpreter, a library (typically the Python Standard Library), and a set of installed packages. These components together determine which language constructs and syntax are valid, what operating-system functionality you can access, and which packages you can use.

In Visual Studio on Windows, the Python Environments window, as described in this article, is where you manage these environments and select one as the default for new projects. For any given project, you can also select a specific environment rather than use the default.

Note: if you're new to Python in Visual Studio, see the following articles for necessary background:

Also note that you cannot manage environments for Python code that is opened only as a folder using the File > Open > Folder command. Instead, Create a Python project from existing code to enjoy the environment features of Visual Studio.

Types of environments

Global environments

Each Python installation (for example, Python 2.7, Python 3.6, Anaconda 4.4.0, etc., see selecting and installing Python interpreters) maintains its own global environment. Each environment is composed of the specific Python interpreter, its standard library, and a set of pre-installed packages. Installing a package into a global environment makes it available to all projects using that environment. If the environment is located in a protect area of the file system (within c:\program files, for example), then installing packages requires administrator privileges.

Global environments are available to all projects on the computer. In Visual Studio, you select one global environment as the default, which is used for all projects unless you specifically choose a different one for a project. For more information, see Selecting an environment for a project.

Virtual environments

Because packages installed into a global environment are available to all projects that use that environment, conflicts may occur when two projects require incompatible packages or different versions of the same package. Virtual environments avoid such conflicts by using the interpreter and standard library from a global environment but maintaining their own package stores in isolated folders.

In Visual Studio, you can create a virtual environment for a specific project, which is stored in a subfolder in the project (see Creating virtual environments. The project file also identifies the virtual environment. Visual Studio also records any packages that you install into that virtual environment in the project's requirements.txt file. If you then share the project and other developers open it on their computers, Visual Studio provides the option to recreate the virtual environment.

Conda environments

A conda environment is one created using the conda tool. Conda environments are typically stored in the envs folder within an Anaconda installation, and therefore act similarly to global environments. For example, installing a new package into a conda environment makes that package available to all projects using that environment.

Visual Studio does not, at present, automatically detect conda environments, but you can point Visual Studio to it manually. See Manually identifying an existing environment.

The Python Environments window

The environments that Visual Studio knows about are displayed in the Python Environments window. To open, the window, use one of the following methods:

  • Select the View > Other Windows > Python Environments menu command.
  • Right-click the Python Environments node for a project in Solution Explorer and select View All Python Environments:

    View All Environments command in Solution Explorer

In either case, the Python Environments window appears as a sibling tab to Solution Explorer:

Python Environments window

The image above shows that Visual Studio detected two installations of Python 3.6 (32-bit) along with Anaconda 5.0.0.

The default environment in boldface is Python 3.6 (in this case part of an Anaconda installation), which Visual Studio uses for any new projects. The commands in the lower part of the window apply to the selected Python 3.6 interpreter, which as you can see is the specific installation in C:\Python36-32. If you don't see an environment you expect, see Manually identifying an existing environment.

To the right of each listed environment is a control that opens an interactive window for that environment. Another control may appear that refreshes the IntelliSense database for that environment (see Environments window reference for details about the database).

Below the list of environments is a drop-down selector for the Overview, Packages, and IntelliSense options described in Python Environments window tab reference. Also, if you expand the Python Environments window wide enough, these options are shown as tabs, which you may find more convenient to work with:

Python Environments window expanded view


Although Visual Studio respects the system-site-packages option, it doesn't provide a way to change it from within Visual Studio.

movie camera icon for video Watch a video (Microsoft Virtual Academy) on Python environments in Visual Studio (2m 35s).

What if no environments appear?

If no environments appear, it means Visual Studio failed to detect any Python installations in standard locations. For example, you may have installed Visual Studio 2017 but cleared all the interpreter options in the installer options for the Python workload. Similarly, you may have installed Visual Studio 2015 or earlier but did not install an interpreter manually (see Selecting and installing Python interpreters).

If you know you have a Python interpreter on your computer but Visual Studio (any version) did not detect it, then use the + Custom... command to specify its location manually. See the next section, Manually identifying an existing environment.


Visual Studio detects updates to an existing interpreter, such as upgrading Python 2.7.11 to 2.7.14 using the installers from During the installation process, the older environment disappears from the Python Environments list before the update appears in its place.

However, if you manually move an interpreter and its environment using the file system, Visual Studio won't know the new location. For more information, see Moving an interpreter.

Manually identifying an existing environment

Use the following steps to identify an environment that's installed in a non-standard location, including conda environments:

  1. Select + Custom... in the Python Environments window, which opens the Configure tab:

    Default view for a new custom environment

  2. Enter a name for the environment in the Description field.

  3. Enter or browse (using ...) to the path of the interpreter in the **Prefix path* field.

  4. If Visual Studio detects an Python interpreter at that location (such as the path shown below for a conda environment), it enables the Auto Detect command. Selecting *Auto Detect completes the remaining fields. You can also complete those fields manually.

    Enabling the Auto Detect command

    Completion of environment fields after using Auto Detect

  5. Once the fields contain the values you want, select Apply to save the configuration. You can now use the environment like any other within Visual Studio.

  6. If you need to remove a manually identified environment, select the Remove command on the Configure tab. Auto-detected environments do not provide this option. For more information, see Configure tab.

See also