Writing integration tests for a Go CLI application

Fakedata is a small Go program that I wrote to generate test data on the command line.

A few weeks after I released, a user reported an issue that had been introduced just a few hours before. The regression was obvious but, at the time, fakedata had no test covering the feature end-to-end so we didn’t catch it.

This bug report got me thinking about how I could end-to-end test Go CLI applications. After working on it for a bit, I found a simple and effective way of writing integration tests for Go CLI applications.

The recipe looks like this:

  • A make test target builds a test binary and then runs the integration tests.
  • Each integration test uses a runBinary helper function (which relies on a specific TestMain setup) to run the CLI application.
  • Finally, each integration test asserts correct behaviour using golden files.

The point of this approach is that integrations tests are running fakedata like a user would and only assert the output of command run; these tests know nothing about the code under test.

For the sake of the discussion, I created an example CLI application, available on GitHub.

The example app is a tiny CLI program called echo-args. It works like this:

$ echo-args # no arguments, no output
$ echo-args ciao # it prints each argument on its own line
$ ciao
$ echo-args ciao hello
$ echo-args -shout ciao # it shouts at you if you ask it to
$ echo-args -whisper CIAO # it whispers if you ask it to

Now that we know what we’re end-to-end testing, we can move on to the build file. Here’s how the Makefile looks like:

test: build-with-coverage
    @rm -fr .coverdata
    @mkdir -p .coverdata
    @go test ./...
    @go tool covdata percent -i=.coverdata

    @go build -cover -o echo-args-coverage

The test target depends on build-with-coverage so that we always build a test binary before we runs the test. At the end of the article, I go over the coverage stuff so we can ignore it for now.

Now that we have a test binary, we’re ready to write a couple of helper functions to run the tests. First up, a custom TestMain:

var binaryName = "echo-args-coverage"

var binaryPath = ""

func TestMain(m *testing.M) {
	err := os.Chdir("..")
	if err != nil {
		fmt.Printf("could not change dir: %v", err)

	dir, err := os.Getwd()
	if err != nil {
		fmt.Printf("could not get current dir: %v", err)

	binaryPath = filepath.Join(dir, binaryName)


Two things are worth mentioning:

  • TestMain is the recommended way to do setup and teardown of tests.
  • os.Chdir("..") is ugly but practical… a bit like Go 🧌. It allows us to set binaryPath with the absolute path of the test binary.

Now we can write a runBinary helper. It looks like this:

func runBinary(args []string) ([]byte, error) {
	cmd := exec.Command(binaryPath, args...)
	cmd.Env = append(os.Environ(), "GOCOVERDIR=.coverdata")
	return cmd.CombinedOutput()

A trivial function that does two things for us:

  • It runs the binary with the correct binaryPath. Since our TestMain function runs before any test, we can assume this is correctly setup.
  • It adds coverage setup to the environment. More about at the end of the article.

Now everything is in place for the actual tests. Here’s how they look like:

func TestCliArgs(t *testing.T) {
	tests := []struct {
		name    string
		args    []string
		fixture string
		{"no arguments", []string{}, "no-args.golden"},
		{"one argument", []string{"ciao"}, "one-argument.golden"},
		{"multiple arguments", []string{"ciao", "hello"}, "multiple-arguments.golden"},
		{"shout arg", []string{"--shout", "ciao"}, "shout-arg.golden"},

	for _, tt := range tests {
		t.Run(tt.name, func(t *testing.T) {
			output, err := runBinary(tt.args)

			if err != nil {

			if *update {
				writeFixture(t, tt.fixture, output)

			actual := string(output)

			expected := loadFixture(t, tt.fixture)

			if !reflect.DeepEqual(actual, expected) {
				t.Fatalf("actual = %s, expected = %s", actual, expected)

The tests use two of my favourite Go testing practices:

While Table Driven tests are officially documented, I couldn’t find too much about golden files. The basic idea is this:

  • You store on disk (in so-called golden files) the expected (and possibly complex) output of the code under test.
  • Then you use a simple comparison of the actual output and the content of corresponding golden file in the test itself.

It’s good practice to use a command line flag to automatically update the golden file when the specified behaviour changes:

go test integration/cli_test.go -update

and then check the golden file before running the tests again. I wrote a few helpers for golden files and I’ve been copying them around in my Go projects. Feel free to do the name.

We can finally run the tests:

make test
?   github.com/lucapette/go-cli-integration-tests               [no test files]
ok  github.com/lucapette/go-cli-integration-tests/integration   0.498s
    github.com/lucapette/go-cli-integration-tests coverage:     90.9% of statements

While this is a trivial example, it’s still pretty amazing that building the binary, running it four times, loading four files, and asserting its behaviour takes as little time as 0.498s.

The integration tests run nicely on GitHub Actions as well.

Thanks to TableDrivenTests, covering more use cases is simple. Say echo-args now accepts a reverse flag, we can test the new behaviour with one more line:

tests := []struct {
		name    string
		args    []string
		fixture string
        // existing tests not shown
		{"reversed", []string{"--reverse", "ciao", "hello"}, "reversed.golden"},

I really like it takes so little to test a relatively complex behaviour.

The tests make only two assumptions: how to build the binary (running make in a specific directory) and the name of the binary.

If you would completely change the internals of the program, the tests would stay untouched:

The tests need to change only if the behaviour of the program changes.

That is the only kind of testing I’m comfortable with.

Now, as promised, a short note about coverage. Go 1.20 added a -cover flag to its build command. You can now instruments binaries to emit coverage profile information. Before this release, the technique I use in this article wouldn’t provide any coverage information.

To help you play around with coverage information and table driven testing, I purposefully left out the -whisper flag. You can check out how the coverage looks like with make check-coverage. It reports a 90% coverage because the -whisper isn’t tested. If you add one more test case, you’ll see 100% coverage :)

I enjoy using this technique, hopefully you will too. Happy testing with Go!