A shell is a piece of software that provides an interface for users. Typically, the term refers to an operating system shell which provides access to the services of a kernel. However, the term is also applied very loosely to applications and may include any software that is "built around" a particular component, such as web browsers and email clients that are "shells" for HTML rendering engines. The name 'shell' originates from shells being an outer layer of interface between the user and the innards of the operating system (the kernel).

Operating system shells generally fall into one of two categories: command line and graphical. Command line shells provide a command line interface (CLI) to the operating system, while graphical shells provide a graphical user interface (GUI).