How Does FTP Work? Clear Explanation!

How does FTP work? Well, when running any kind of small business website or online project, we often need to connect directly to our live website to access the files that are stored there. The best way to do this is to use something called FTP (File Transfer Protocol). While it may sound technical (and possibly related to quantum physics), it's actually pretty straightforward. So if you have no idea about FTP or how it all works, then you're in the right spot—that's what this tutorial's all about!

So here, we'll talk about what software you'll need in order to connect to your web server using FTP, what info you'll need, and then I'll walk you through the process, step-by-step, to connect to your website using FTP.

By the end of this tutorial, you'll have a firm grasp on how FTP works, what it is, and you'll have an FTP application installed on your computer and connected to your online project or business's website.

Sound good? Then let's roll!

How FTP Works: Here's The Gist

When running a business online, or any kind of online venture or project, we have several ways to access our live website and the files that are stored on our web server. For example, we can access our site's files using our web host's cPanel interface (this is possible if you're using a host like Web Hosting Hub or SiteGround). Or, if we're running a WordPress website, we can access some of our site files using the WordPress admin dashboard. But the most direct way to gain access to our site files, as mentioned above, is to use FTP.

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As a sidenote, if you're signed up with a web host like WP Engine, then you'll need to use the more secure version of FTP, called SFTP. The extra "s" either stands for "sausage rolls" or "secure"...I can't quite remember! Anyway, in an effort to keep things simple in this post, I'll simply refer to FTP and SFTP collectively as FTP.

Think of FTP as opening a two-way street between your computer and your web server. You can either send files from your computer to your web server (uploading), or you can pull files from your web server down to your computer (downloading). There are lots of scenarios where you'd want to either pull files down from your website or upload new ones—and FTP makes this process a breeze.

How FTP works: Think of FTP as opening a two-way street between your computer and your web server.

How FTP works: Think of FTP as opening a two-way street between your computer and your web server.

For instance, you might want to edit a part of your website. One method of doing this is to connect to your website via FTP, find the file on your web server and download it to your computer, make your edits, and then upload the file back to your server, overwriting the old file with the new one. The changes you've made would now appear on your live website. Other times, you might want to manually back up your website's files, which is easy enough with FTP. Here, you'd simply connect to your web server and download all your site files to your computer. Here's a final example of where using FTP comes in very handy: If you're running a WordPress website, it's possible to get locked out of your admin dashboard. Thankfully, this is a rare event. And this problem can thankfully be resolved via FTP.

In order to use FTP, you'll need a few things. First, you'll need an FTP application. An FTP application provides us with a simple, easy to use interface for managing our website files. We can move, copy, rename, and delete files, create folders, and so on. You'll see exactly how this works in a moment.

There are many free and paid FTP applications available. Personally, I use Forklift (Mac-only) as my main FTP application and Cyberduck (free for both Mac and Windows) as my back-up. If you're not sure which FTP application you should use, see my posts The Best FTP Applications For Windows Users and The Best FTP Applications For Mac Users.

Which FTP application you use pretty much boils down to personal preference. Generally speaking, most FTP applications are very similar and perform the same job.

The next thing we'll need is your FTP login information. This is username, password, and web server info that we'll set within our FTP application, which will grant us access to the files on the web server. This information is provided to you by your web hosting company. If you're stuck and can't find this information, you can always contact your web host's support team and they'll be able to assist you.

Alternatively, if you're using Web Hosting Hub, I show you where to find your FTP login info right here. If you're using SiteGround hosting, see here. Or if you're using WP Engine, I show you where this info is right over here.

Armed with an FTP application and your FTP login information, you can now connect to your website. The actual process of connecting is very simple. FTP applications store your login information, so connecting to your web server is usually just a matter of clicking a Connect button. Once you're connected, you'll be able to see the file structure of your live website.

Depending on the FTP application you're using, this could be in a double-pane interface, with your computer in the left-hand pane, and your web server in the right pane, or you might just have a single window, as is the case with Cyberduck. Moving files is simply a matter of dragging and dropping.

So now that you know the basics of FTP and how it works, let's now go and connect to your small business or online project's website. Below, I've inserted a video tutorial I put together recently that shows you how to connect to your Web Hosting Hub hosted website via FTP using Cyberduck. If you're hosting your website with SiteGround, I show you how to do this over in this tutorial. Or, if you're useing WP Engine to host your site, check out this tutorial.

In this video I mention some show notes, which you can find right over here.

As you can see, once you're connected to your website, you can easily manage the files on your web server. You can upload files from your computer, download files from your web server, create folders, and otherwise handle your site's file management.

Some Cyberduck Pro-Tips

As I mentioned above, Cyberduck isn't my first choice for an FTP application, but it's a decent back-up. I use it often when I'm demonstrating FTP, because it's cross-platform, which makes it easy for folks like you to follow along with, whether you're on a Mac or a PC. That said, I thought it would be useful to include a few tips on how you can use Cyberduck more efficiently. So, here's a fast run-through of a few common tasks:

Save your settings to to connect faster: Cyberduck has a feature called bookmarks that saves your FTP settings for you, allowing you to quickly connect to your site. This saves you the hassle of manually inserting your username, password, and host server every time you want to connect. Let me show you how it works...

At the top of the Cyberduck window, open the Action menu. From the menu that appears, choose New Bookmark. In the dialog box that appears, review the information that appears, and be sure to insert a useful Nickname. When you close the window, you'll find yourself in the Bookmarks tab inside Cyberduck, with a new bookmark created for your connection. Now, next time you launch Cyberduck, just double-click on your new bookmark to quickly connect to your site. Nice, huh?

Cyberduck has a handy feature called Bookmarks which allows you to save your site's FTP settings.

Cyberduck has a handy feature called Bookmarks which allows you to save your site's FTP settings.

To download a file: Within the Cyberduck interface, simply navigate to the file that you'd like to download. Next, you can simply drag and drop it from Cyberduck to your desktop to download it. In this way, you can think of Cyberduck as being just like a folder window on your computer. Another approach is to right-click on a file and choose Download, Download As, or Download To. Each of these commands is handy in it's own way, but I usually stick with the good 'ol drag 'n drop.

To upload a file: Navigate to and select a file on your computer. Then, just as we saw when downloading, a good 'ol drag 'n drop will get the job done. This triggers Cyberduck's Transfers window, where you can monitor the upload progress. If a file with the same name already resides on the live server, you'll get a message window that'll ask you what you'd like to do. The Overwrite command is set by default, so clicking Continue will overwrite the file on the live server with the one you're uploading.

Another option for uploading a file is to right-click anywhere inside the Cyberduck window and choosing Upload from the menu that appears. Then, in the dialog box that opens, simply navigate to and select the file you'd like to upload.

Creating folders, files, and deleting content: If you want to do things like create a new folder directory, create new files, and delete content on your live web server, all you need to do is simply right-click inside the Cyberduck window. In the menu that appears, you'll see Create New File and Create New Folder commands. If you right-click on a file, you'll also see a command to delete the file.

There are plenty of other commands, options, and features in Cyberduck, in addition to the handful that we've covered here. But these are all the important ones to help get you started using Cyberduck.

Wrapping Up FTP

I hope you enjoyed this look at using FTP to connect directly to your website. As you can see, it's all a very simple process. Just be careful when you're poking around on your web server. You don't want to accidentally move or delete anything critical. This is another reason for frequent website backups! Other than that, it's all pretty straightforward. I think many people get intimidated by the jargonny, dorky tech language that's used in web design (how many FTPs does it take to MySQL again?!), but if you can get past that stuff, the actual process is easy.

So to summarize, we first talked about a few FTP concepts and key ideas, and I mentioned a few scenarios where using FTP comes in handy. After that, we got into Cyberduck, plugging in our FTP login details and connecting to our web server. I also added in some additional information about performing common tasks in Cyberduck, too. I hope you were able to get all this to work.

And don't forget to check out those two tutorials I mentioned earlier: The Best FTP Applications For Windows Users, and The Best FTP Applications For Mac Users. I hope you'll check those out.

Now you know how to manage files for your small business website, online project, and other online ventures!

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