Minimal Guide to Debugging PHP with XDebug and Vim

For those of us moving to PHP from modern IDEs like Visual Studio, var_dump and die are simply not enough! Luckily, I can report a generally positive experience using Vim and XDebug as an effective debugger. Here’s a short guide to installation and usage.


Install XDebug via your system’s package manager, PECL/PEAR, or by compiling it from source. See XDebug’s installation instructions for up-to-date information on this. Keep in mind though, if you already have something like Cachegrind installed on your server, you may already have and use XDebug.

Configure your PHP installation so that it knows where to find XDebug’s .so and that debugging should be enabled. This might be done in either php.ini or /etc/php5/conf.d/xdebug.ini.

; point this to wherever your is located

Warning: for XDebug to work properly, you may have to disable your Zend debugger if you have one installed (may be found in /etc/php5/conf.d/zend.ini). With Zend enabled, I could connect to an XDebug session, but the next debug command I tried to run (step into, step over, run) would terminate the session.

Install the DBGp remote debugger interface for Vim. This plugin will allow Vim to interact with Xdebug.

This script requires that your Vim be compiled with Python and signs support. Type vim --version and look for +python and +signs in the features list. If you don’t have these features, try installing your distribution’s gVim package, often it comes along with a command executable that includes them.


To initialize a debugging session, XDebug will attempt to make a connection to the remote host and port that you specified above (localhost:9000), so you need to make sure that your Vim is reachable at that address. Unless you’re running Vim on the same server as PHP, this may involve building an SSH tunnel back to your development box.

Start debugging by opening Vim and hitting F5, Vim will say:

waiting for a new connection on port 9000 for 10 seconds...

You have ten seconds to open a web browser and navigate to your running PHP app. It’s important to know however, that the debug session will only start if you include the parameter XDEBUG_SESSION_START=1 with the request (see the optimization section below to remove this requirement). An example URL:

Your Vim should now enter debug mode with the debug shortcuts should be listed in a buffer on the right. For example, use F2 to step into, F3 to step over, and F12 to inspect the property under your cursor.

Typing :Bp in command mode will toggle a breakpoint on the current line, and F5 will run the program to hit it. :Up and :Dn move up and down the stack trace.

,e will allow you to evaluate arbitrary code. To fully inspect a property, I recommend running print_r($var, true) from eval mode. A word of warning here though: evaluating invalid code may kill your debug session, but your client (Vim) won’t realize that it’s defunct.

Command line PHP can also be debugged as long as XDebug is enabled in the PHP CLI php.ini. This is especially useful for debugging unit tests.


The requirement of including XDEBUG_SESSION_START=1 as a request parameter can be waived by adding the following code to your php.ini/xdebug.ini and restarting your server. With this setting enabled, XDebug will attempt to start a debugging session with every request.


Posted on April 29, 2011 from Calgary


My name is Brandur. I'm a polyglot software engineer and part-time designer working at Heroku in San Francisco, California. I'm a Canadian expat. My name is Icelandic. Drop me a line at

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