What Is File Transfer Protocol (FTP)?

File transfer protocol (FTP) is a set of rules that computers follow for the transferring of files from one system to another over the internet. It may be used by a business to transfer files from one computer system to another, or websites may use FTP to upload or download files from a website's server.

Key Takeaways

  • File transfer protocol (FTP) is a way to download, upload, and transfer files from one location to another on the internet and between computer systems.
  • File transfer protocol (FTP) enables computers on the internet to transfer files back and forth, and is an essential tool for those building and maintaining websites today. 
  • Many file transfer protocol (FTP) clients are available for free to download, although most websites (and web browsers) that offer downloads already have the FTP built-in, so downloading a separate piece of software isn't always required.

Understanding File Transfer Protocol (FTP)

File transfer protocol is one of many different protocols that dictate how computers behave on the internet. Other such protocols include the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), the Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP), and the Network Time Protocol (NTP). FTP enables computers on the internet to transfer files back and forth, and is an essential tool for those building and maintaining websites today. 

In order to use FTP, a user must first download an FTP client (or access an FTP client through a web browser). A client is the software that will allow you to transfer files.

Most web browsers come with FTP clients—possibly via a downloadable extension—that enable users to transfer files from their computer to a server and vice versa. Some users may want to use a third-party FTP client because many of them offer extra features to improve your experience. Examples of FTP clients that are free to download include FileZilla Client, FTP Voyager, WinSCP, CoffeeCup Free FTP, and Core FTP.

Many people have used FTP before without even noticing it. If you have ever downloaded a file from a web page, chances are that you used FTP in the process. The first step for accessing an FTP server to download a file is to log in, which may occur automatically or by manually inputting a username and password. FTP will also require you to access an FTP server through a specific port number. 

Once you have accessed the FTP server through your FTP client, you can now transfer files. Not all public FTP servers require you to sign in because some servers enable you to access them anonymously.

Depending on the FTP client you use, there will be different features available that allow you to modify the manner in which you upload and download files. For instance, if you use the free FTP client FileZilla, the program will enable you to set bandwidth limits for files, enabling you to control the speed at which you download or upload files. This can be helpful if you are managing multiple file transfers at once. Other features you may want to look for in an FTP client include public key authentication, the ability to set file compression levels, or tools that enable you to search a server using file masks.

File Transfer Protocol (FTP) Example

FTP software is relatively straightforward to setup. FileZilla is a free, downloadable FTP client. Type in the address of the server you wish to access, the port, and the password for accessing the server.

File transfer protocol example FTP, FileZilla

Once access has been granted, the user's files on their local system as well as the accessed server will be visible. The user can download files from the server to the local system, or upload files from the local system to the server. They can also, with the proper authorization, make changes to files on the server.