Compiling ES2017 with Babel for Node

August 07, 2017

A long time ago I swore off compiling code I intended for NodeJS. I had originally done this with some production CoffeeScript code back in 2013 and it brought on a number of headaches — harder debugging, incompatibility with modules, and extra indirection. I’m not entirely sure I’d call it a mistake; CoffeeScript allowed us to move quickly with some advanced language features that weren’t yet available in Node and that helped us build our app quickly. However, those headaches I mentioned started to slow us down over time and I quickly became jaded on the topic. After noticing at Auth0 we compile some code at runtime with Babel, I figured I should open my mind and be willing to try again.

Node has most modern features implemented; however, once you get used to the ES2015 module spec it can be challenging going back to the standard Node/Common require/module.exports way of doing things. At Auth0 we also may have our extensions running on an LTS version of NodeJS rather than the most recent release so I’d rather ensure that features I expect to be present are, in fact, available.

Since some of our other extensions compile with Babel, I figured I’d fall in line and try to create a new extension using the same pipeline. While some only compile with the es2015 preset, I figured I’d go for es2017 because A: It’s 2017, and B: I wanted to ensure the spread ( ... ) operator was available in whichever version of Node the service used.

Babel Configuration

The important part of the configuration lies with the presets key. We use .babelrc for our Babel setup, so my file initially looked something like this:

  "presets": ["es2017"]

I then, from another extension, borrowed a chunk of code to make Babel transform things on the fly and shoved it into its own module at lib/babel.js.

// Initialize Babel for the rest of the app

module.exports = function loadBabel() {
    sourceMaps: !(process.env.NODE_ENV === 'production')

Since performing this operation has a global side-effect, I wanted to make sure I stuck it behind a function with an explicit name so that it was obvious what I was doing when I imported the module and ran the function with near the top of my index.js file:

const loadBabel = require('./lib/babel');

// Or, more condensed but less obvious:

With that loaded I assumed I was good to go and tried to import another module. We’ll say it was import foo from './bar'. I expected great things, but when I ran the app with node ./index.js I was greeted with an error: Syntax Error: Unexpected token importimport wasn’t recognized and was invalid. This struck me as odd and I spent somewhere around a half hour jumping around in my code assuming I made a typo somewhere or wasn’t using babel-register or babel-core/register correctly. I’ll save you the same steps, but my salvation came in the form of a GitHub issue comment where a very logical, albeit not-obvious solution if you’ve only used es2015, was given: es2017 preset only compiles down to es2016.

Very logical, but not obvious

If you’ve used Babel, this probably seems clear, at least after being stated. Or perhaps, like me, you assumed es2017 to be packaged up to include es2016 and es2015 presets by default. However, it is more logical that es2017 need only be composed of things to compile down to the next lowest target. What if the runtime supports es2016 and we only need a few features from es2017? Running passes over the code for lower targets would start dropping the target to lower levels than what’s needed. No sense in doing more work, or potentially de-optimizing code for lower targets. As such, that makes the choices for es2016 and higher very logical and almost obvious (once you expect it).

So we then have two ways to solve the problem. One way, if your version of Node has all features from the ES2015 and ES2016 specs, is to simply import the Babel plugin to handle ES2015 modules,babel-plugin-transform-es2015-modules-commonjs , and then add it to our .babelrc file like this:

  "presets": ["es2017", "transform-es2015-modules-commonjs"]

Or we can take the more costly, but more inclusive, route of importing both es2016 and es2015 presets from npm and including those in our .babelrc file.

  "presets": [

This will let all included presets perform their necessary duties and output some ES5-friendly code at the end. I opted for the latter until I could verify the version of Node on the servers, but once I reran my code with those presets in place, the existing code and imports executed perfectly fine and I was ready to write the rest of my modules as ES2015 ones.

I hope this helps you debug your issue if you’ve landed here after searching for Syntax Error: Unexpected token import, or if you’re about to start a project in Node or Browser JS, that this will save you some running around.