Writing tests for Android apps using Python and Linux


If you’ve ever developed a mobile app, or any other piece of software, you have very likely encountered a bug at some point. Sometimes you get a bug in your code which stops the app from compiling. This sounds nasty, but in fact, the nastiest bugs are those which you can’t see straight away. You have to summon them by following a very specific series of steps in the app.

So how do you find these hidden bugs? Of course, you can look for them manually yourself (or ask somebody else to look for you). But it is very time-consuming, and will get more time-consuming as the app grows! So, to save time and effort, couldn’t we perhaps get a program to look for these bugs? Couldn’t we automate this process somehow?

Thanks to Appium, we can. Appium is a library designed specifically for testing apps. For example, let’s imagine you’re developing an app where a user can register for an account. Appium allows you to write a test script which will register a dummy user through the UI and check that all of the buttons and menus are working properly.

Appium works on Android, iOS and Windows apps. What’s more, Appium was designed to run with a variety of programming languages, including Python, Java, and Ruby, so you likely don’t have to learn a new language to use it.

This tutorial will show you how to set up automated mobile testing on Linux. We will be using Python to write a test for a free Android chess app. This tutorial was designed to work with Ubuntu 16.04+, but should also work with any similar Linux distributions such as Debian.

How does Appium work?

NOTE: If you just want to start testing, skip to the “Setting up the environment” section below.

Before diving in to some actual testing, let’s first try and understand what Appium does.

Linking Python to the Android UI

Let’s say we want Python code to control the UI of an Android app. What do we need to achieve this?

  1. We need two machines: one machine to run the Python code, and the other to run the Android app. For our purposes, we will run the Python code on our local machine, and the app will run on the Android Emulator provided by Android Studio.
  2. We need some sort of interface to program the app UI. To do this, Android provides us with the UI Automator API. This is a collection of Java classes designed specifically for interacting with and testing the UI of apps running on Android.
  3. Finally, we need some way to convert Python code into commands understood by the UI Automator API.

The last step is where Appium steps in.

The WebDriver Protocol

Appium is really just an extension of Selenium, which was designed for testing web browsers. Selenium uses something called the W3C WebDriver Protocol to communicate with browsers and “drive” browser actions.

How are browser actions “driven”, exactly? First, a server which is linked to a browser is set up which listens for HTTP requests – this is the WebDriver server. (E.g. Google provide the ChromeDriver server as the WebDriver server for Google Chrome). At a certain point, the server might receive a request to go to a specific URL:

POST /session/{session id}/url     # Request-Line for going to a URL

The body of the request would contain a URL, such as www.google.com. The server would understand this as saying: “Get the browser to go to www.google.com”. The server would then route the request to the browser, and the browser would redirect to www.google.com. Finally, the server would respond with a status message.

Similarly, the request to find a particular element on the page is:

POST /session/{session id}/element

The WebDriver protocol contains a number of such commands. What Appium does is it implements a way of getting these commands to work for mobile. For instance, Appium has a UIAutomator2 Driver which (together with a server running on the device connected via the Android Debug Bridge) can drive the UI Automator API. This means that a request like finding an element on the page will eventually convert to the corresponding UI Automator method in Java.

In addition, Appium adds a whole collection of commands specifically designed for mobile interaction, such as installing an app on the device:

POST /wd/hub/session/{sessionId}/appium/device/install_app

or toggling wi-fi:

POST /wd/hub/session/{sessionId}/appium/device/toggle_wifi

All of these HTTP requests are generated from Python code with Appium’s Python client.

Tracing a test command from Python to Android

We are now in a position to trace a single test command from Python all the way to the app UI (see Fig. 1 for a diagram).

Let’s say we have our app open in our emulator, and we want to use Python to find the “Register” button. This element has an accessibility id ‘Register’ (in Android, the accessibility id is also known as the ‘content-desc’ attribute; more below!).

The Python command for this is:

el = uiautomator2driver.find_element_by_accessibility_id('Register')

The Appium Python client converts this to a HTTP request (the session-id is already generated before the test is run):

POST /wd/hub/session/{session-id}/element
...<rest of headers>...

   "strategy": "accessibility id",
   "selector": "Register",
   "context": "",
   "multiple": false

The Appium server will receive this request and route it to the UIAutomator2 Driver. This in turn converts the request to JSON and routes it to a UIAutomator2 Server running on the device, which will in turn convert the request to the UI Automator method:


The Android OS will internally process this command and, if it can find the element, will respond with the unique ID of the element. The ID then gets stored in el in the Python code, where we can perform further actions such as clicking on it (el.click()), getting its coordinates (el.location), and more.

Fig. 1 High-level architecture of Appium. A Python command is converted to an HTTP request and sent to the Appium server (1). The server routes the request to the desired driver (2). The driver generates a JSON object and sends it to a server on the device (3). The JSON object is eventually converted to a UI Automator API command (4).

Setting up the environment

NOTE: These steps were designed to work with Ubuntu 16.04+, but should also work with any similar Linux distribution.

Optional: Download the Java Development Kit (JDK)

NOTE: Since version 2.2, Android Studio has come bundled with OpenJDK, so installing JDK separately is not necessary. However, Oracle JDK is regarded as more stable than OpenJDK so we’ve included the installation instructions for it as an alternative.

  1. Download the latest Linux distribution of JDK 8 here: https://www.oracle.com/technetwork/java/javase/downloads/jdk8-downloads-2133151.html
  2. Extract the contents of the tar file into a folder of your choosing: tar zxvf jdk-8u221-linux-x64.tar.gz

1. Download and install Android Studio

  1. Download the latest version of Android Studio here: https://developer.android.com/studio#downloads
  2. Extract the contents of the tar file into a folder of your choosing: tar zxvf android-studio-ide-191.5791312-linux.tar.gz
  3. Follow the instructions inside the extracted directory to install Android Studio on your machine.

2. Set the JAVA_HOME and ANDROID_HOME environment variables

In order for packages to know which JDK and Android SDK you are using, we need to specify the JAVA_HOME and ANDROID_HOME environment variables:

  1. In your bash profile .bashrc, add the following line: export JAVA_HOME=/path/to/JDK. If you’re using the JDK supplied with Android, the path will be something like JAVA_HOME=<Android Studio directory>/android-studio/jre. If you’re using the Oracle JDK distribution, it will be something like JAVA_HOME=<JDK directory>/jdk1.8.0_221.
  2. Add the following line as well: export ANDROID_HOME=<Android Studio directory>/Sdk where <Android Studio directory> is the path to your Android Studio directory.
  3. Finally, add the following line: export PATH=$PATH:$JAVA_HOME/bin:$ANDROID_HOME/tools:$ANDROID_HOME/tools/bin:$ANDROID_HOME/platform-tools.
  4. Now open up a terminal and type in java -version. You should see a status message showing the correct Java version.
  5. In the same terminal type in adb. You should see a help page for the Android Debug Bridge.

3. Load an Android emulator

  1. Now open up Android Studio and click on Configure > AVD Manager in the bottom right.
  2. Click on Create Virtual Device, and use the configuration to create a Pixel 2 emulator with Android 9.0.
  3. Load up the emulator by clicking on the “Play” button in the Actions column of your device (if you can’t see a device listed, make sure that, from the home screen, you are under Configure > AVD Manager).
  4. After the device has launched, go to your terminal and type in adb devices. You should see one device listed in the output. NOTE: If you see the device listed as ‘unauthorized’, try configuring an emulator with an Android 9.0 (Google APIs) image instead.

4. Install Appium

  1. Before installing Appium, we strongly recommend that you use a Node version manager such as nvm to avoid permission issues.
  2. In a terminal, run the command: npm install -g appium. NOTE: If you are not using a Node version manager, you will need to run sudo npm install -g appium --unsafe-perm=true.
  3. Install appium-doctor using npm install -g appium-doctor and type appium-doctor to ensure Appium has been properly installed.
  4. Finally, type appium into a terminal. If everything has been properly installed, you should see the Appium server load up.

5. Set up the Python environment

In order to write Python tests for mobile, we require four components:

  1. Python 3
  2. Selenium
  3. python-appium-client
  4. pytest

For this tutorial we will use Conda to manage Python environments, but you can use virtualenv as well.

  1. First, download and install Miniconda (for Python 3) if you haven’t done so already. If you have Miniconda or Anaconda already installed, update to the latest conda version by typing conda update conda into a terminal.
  2. Create a new conda environment.
  3. Inside the environment type into a terminal: conda install selenium pytest && pip install appium-python-client

You are now ready to write your first Appium test!

Your first Appium test

Let’s see Appium in action by writing a short test for an Android app. This test will start up an app on the emulator and perform a few actions near the start of the app.

NOTE: The code described below can be accessed here: https://github.com/lambertlabs/automated-mobile-testing-demo

Writing the test

For our demo we’ll be using version 3.02 of Chess Free. Click on the link to download the APK file and, with the emulator running, drag the APK file onto the emulator to install it. (At this point, feel free to open the app and look around to see what you will be testing!)

Next, create an empty directory where you want to store your test code. Create a new directory inside called android_apps and paste the downloaded APK file into this directory.

Next, in the top-level project directory create a Python file called conftest.py and fill it with the code below:

import os

import pytest
from appium import webdriver

ANDROID_APP_DIR = os.path.join(os.path.dirname(os.path.realpath(__file__)), 'android_apps')

apk_files = [f for f in os.listdir(ANDROID_APP_DIR) if f.endswith('.apk')]
assert len(apk_files) == 1, 'App directory can only contain one app file.'
ANDROID_APP_PATH = os.path.join(ANDROID_APP_DIR, apk_files.pop(0))

def app_driver():
    driver = webdriver.Remote(
            'app': ANDROID_APP_PATH,
            # Chess Free V3.02
            'appPackage': 'uk.co.aifactory.chessfree',
            'appActivity': '.ChessFreeActivity',
            'platformName': 'Android',
            'platformVersion': '9',
            'deviceName': 'Android Emulator',
            'automationName': 'UiAutomator2',

    yield driver

The crucial portion of this code is the pytest fixture. This is a piece of code which will run every time we start a test.

We first define a Remote WebDriver. This is just a WebDriver where we ourselves specify which server to send HTTP requests to. In this case, we are essentially specifying that we want the Appium server to act as our “browser driver”, using the command_executor parameter.

The desired_capabilities dictionary specifies some properties which we want our Appium server to have. For instance, 'automationName': 'UiAutomator2' specifies that we want the server to route our requests to the UiAutomator2 driver as we will be testing on an Android device.

The app key should hold the path to the APK file of the app that we want to test. appPackage refers to the app package name and is used to verify that the app contained in the APK file is the same app that we actually want to test. appActivity is used by Appium to know which “section” of the app should be opened up first. To find the values of appPackage and appActivity, open the app in the emulator at the activity you want to test and, in your terminal, open the ADB shell with adb shell and type in dumpsys window windows | grep -E 'mFocusedApp'.

Now, create a subdirectory called tests and create a file inside called test_enter_app.py with the following contents:

def test_open_app(app_driver):

    # Find/click element by resource id

    # Find/click element by UiSelector
    ui_selector = 'new UiSelector().textContains("OK")'

    # Appium interacts with the Android OS, not just the app
    resource_id = 'com.android.packageinstaller:id/permission_deny_button'

    ui_selector = 'new UiSelector().textContains("I agree")'

    # Press "Back" key.
    # See https://developer.android.com/reference/android/view/KeyEvent.html for keycodes


This is what the definition of a Pytest looks like. The argument app_driver tells Pytest to use the app_driver fixture from conftest.py. The app_driver variable inside the definition points to the driver yielded from the fixture definition at yield driver. Note how the name of the test begins with test_; this prefix is used by pytest to identify what to run.

First, the test script sets an implicit wait time of 10 seconds on the driver. This means that, whenever the test looks to see if a condition is satisfied (e.g. if an element is present on the screen), the test will poll for the condition for a maximum of 10 seconds before raising an error. A more in-depth discussion of implicit vs. explicit wait times can be found here.

The rest of the test script contains a series of commands which perform different actions in the app. For example, app_driver.find_element_by_id('YesButton').click() finds an element with ID YesButton and clicks it. A complete list of such commands can be found here: http://appium.io/docs/en/about-appium/api/

The UiAutomatorViewer

Say we want to click a particular button on the app. How is Appium supposed to know which button to select? In other words, how do we obtain the ID of the button?

The simplest way to obtain the element ID is by using the UiAutomatorViewer program included with Android Studio.

First, open the app in the emulator and make sure that the element you want to inspect is visible on the emulator screen. Next, open a terminal and enter uiautomatorviewer. You should see a new window open: this is the UiAutomatorViewer program.

Along the top, click on the button labelled “Device Screenshot with Compressed Hierarchy”. You will see a screenshot of the emulator screen. Now, click on the button you want to inspect on this screen and look in the ‘Node Detail’ table in the bottom right. Here we have all of the element information that the UiAutomator has access to.

Fig. 2 How to use the UiAutomatorViewer to get the text, resource-id, and content-desc of an element.

The three most useful node details are resource-id, content-desc and text. Fig. 2 shows you where to find these node details. The table below shows which Appium methods to use to look up an element based on each of these node details:

Node detailAppium method
textui_selector = 'new UiSelector().textContains(<text>)'

Running the test

First, make sure that Appium and your emulator are running. Next, open up a terminal in the top-level project directory, enter your virtual environment, and type in pytest. If everything has been set up correctly, you should see the Chess Free app load in the emulator, buttons being selected and, if you’re lucky, the test passing.

Congratulations! You now have all the tools required to write automated tests for Android apps.

Learn more about how we use Python to intensively test our applications before launch on our Python page.