FTP Port: File Transfer and Port Numbers

Published on 23 Sep 2020

When using file transfer protocol, you may want to be aware of the different elements involved. One element is the FTP port. Successful file transfers can only happen when the correct ports are open.

Neon open sign.

What Are Ports?

In terms of FTP, ports are communication endpoints. Ports allow the connection and transfer of data to happen between your computer and a server. 

To connect to a specific server, you need to know that server’s IP address. While that IP address identifies a particular server, ports are numbers that are used at a lower level to specify what application or service on the server you are trying to communicate with. 

IP addresses are unique on the internet to the one server they are assigned to, but ports are a fixed range of numbers from 0 to 65535 that each server uses.

FTP server.

How Are Ports Used With File Transfer Protocols?

When a service that can accept some remote connection (like an FTP server) starts up, it starts “listening” on a specific port. For common services, there is an expected, set port that the application should be using. The first 1024 ports are reserved for known special services. These services have been assigned a standard port by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). 

When a file transfer client makes a connection to a port that a file transfer service is listening on, they can then exchange information. Initially, this is in the form of commands. Commands establish the connection details and operations your want performed. The next step involves transferring the file data requested over the same or a similarly established connection.

What Ports Are Used for FTP Connections?

The FTP port that you generally need to know about to make a standard, unencrypted, FTP connection is port 21. For this standard case, this is all someone using an FTP client needs to know.

Are Other FTP Ports Used for Connections?

Yes. More ports are used, with differences based on the type of FTP. Other ports are also used in the case of SFTP, which is a totally different protocol.

FTP has been officially assigned ports 20 and 21. If specifically using an “active” connection setting, this means that while a client computer makes the connection request and sends the commands first on port 21, known as the “control port,” a connection to the server on port 20, the “data port,” is also automatically opened to transfer the file data. 

If using a “passive” FTP connection setting, the client computer also connects to the server on FTP port 21. However, the server responds with a random port number, in a free range of ports, to use for the data port for file transfers. 

For example, your FTP client will open a control channel on port 21 and a data channel on a random high port in the 60000 – 65535 port range.

Implicit FTPS uses different ports by default, starting with assigned FTPS port 990 to make the control connection. This initiates an SSL/TLS handshake, then a connection to port 989 is made to transfer the encrypted file data.

Protocol FTP port 21 and SFTP port 22.

SFTP Is Different

SFTP uses a different port. The SFTP port is 22, the same as an SSH connection. In addition, it uses that same port for both control messages and data transfers.

Why Is SFTP Implemented So Differently?

The reason for this is that SFTP is not directly related to FTP. It is a secure transfer protocol over SSH, modeled after the way FTP operates. With SFTP, both connection credentials and transferred data are always encrypted, and you can use SSH keys to authenticate a connection

No matter what protocol you are using, the FTP port or other ports opened ensure that you are making the desired connection and that your data transfers efficiently between endpoints. 

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