What Is FTP and How Do I Use It?

All about File Transfer Protocol and FTP clients

File Transfer Protocol (FTP) is a network protocol for transferring copies of files from one computer to another. An FTP client is a program that allows you to move files between computers. For example, you can create web pages on your PC and use an FTP client to upload the website to the server where it will be hosted.

What Is FTP?

FTP was developed during the 1970s and 1980s to support file sharing on TCP/IP and older networks. The protocol follows the client-server model of communication. To transfer files with FTP, a user runs an FTP client program and initiates a connection to a remote computer running FTP server software. After the connection is established, the client can choose to send and/or receive copies of files. An FTP server listens on TCP port 21 for incoming connection requests from FTP clients. When a request is received, the server uses this port to control the connection and opens a separate port for transferring file data.

The original FTP clients were command-line programs for Unix operating systems. A variation of FTP called Trivial File Transfer Protocol (TFTP) was also developed to support low-end computer systems. Microsoft later released the Windows FTP client with a graphical interface. There are many FTP clients available for different operating systems. A lot of them are free, but there are also premium FTP clients that have extra features, such as the option to automatically transfer files on a set schedule.

FTP on computer

Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.5 / Mockup Photos

Setting Up FTP Clients

When you open your FTP client, you will see several different boxes that you will need to fill out:

  • Profile Name: This is the name you are going to give your website.
  • Host Name or Address: This is the name of the server that your home page is being hosted on. You can get this from your hosting provider.
  • User ID and Password: These are the same as the username and password you created when you signed up for the hosting service.

To connect to an FTP server, you need a username and password as set by the server administrator; however, some servers follow a special convention that accepts any client using "anonymous" as its username. Clients identify the FTP server either by its IP address (such as 192.168.0.1) or by its hostname (such as ftp.lifewire.com).

You must also select a mode for the FTP transfer. FTP supports two modes of data transfer: plain text (ASCII), and binary. A common error when using FTP is attempting to transfer a binary file (such as an image, program, or music file) while in text mode, causing the transferred file to be unusable.

You may want to go to the startup properties and change the default local folder to the folder on your computer where you are keeping your web page files.

How to Transfer Files Using FTP

Every FTP client is a little different, but the interface typically has two main panels:

  • The left panel displays the files on your computer.
  • The right panel displays the files on the hosting server.

Locate the file you want to transfer on the left side and double-click it to make the file appear on the right side. It's also possible to move files from the hosting server to your computer. You can also view, rename, delete, and move your files around. If you need to create new folders for your files, you can do that too.

Make sure to set up the folders on your hosting service exactly the same as you set them up on your computer so that you will always send files to the correct folders.

CoffeeCup FTP Client

Alternatives to FTP

Peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing systems like BitTorrent offer more advanced and secure forms of file sharing than FTP technology offers. Along with modern cloud storage systems like Box and Dropbox, BitTorrent has largely eliminated the need for FTP with respect to file sharing; however, web developers and server admins still need to use FTP on a regular basis.