Fluctuating filaments, from densely-packed biopolymers to defect lines in structured fluids, are prone to become interlaced and form intricate architectures. Understanding the ensuing mechanical and relaxation properties depends critically on being able to capture such entanglement in quantitative terms. So far, this has been an elusive challenge. Here we introduce the first general characterization of non-ephemeral forms of entanglement in linear curves by introducing novel descriptors that extend topological measures of linking from close to open curves. We thus establish the concept of physical links. This general method is applied to diverse contexts: equilibrated ring polymers, mechanically-stretched links and concentrated solutions of linear chains. The abundance, complexity and space distribution of their physical links gives access to a whole new layer of understanding of such systems and open new perspectives for others, such as reconnection events and topological simplification in dissipative fields and defect lines.