SFTP Commands: How to use them to transfer files safely

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SFTP, or Secure File Transfer Protocol, serves as a useful tool for securely transferring files between a local and a remote server. Unlike its predecessor FTP, SFTP leverages SSH, or Secure Shell, to encrypt both commands and data. This ensures that sensitive information remains protected during transit. Whether you are working in Linux, Windows, or macOS, SFTP provides a reliable method to access, transfer, and manage files on remote servers. It supports a wide range of operations, from uploading and downloading files to creating and listing directories. Understanding SFTP commands is essential to securely move data in today’s digital environment. This article will guide you through the most important SFTP commands, showing you how to use them effectively for secure file transfers. By mastering these commands, you can ensure your data’s security and integrity, whether you are managing a server or automating file transfers in a shell script.

What are SFTP Commands?

SFTP commands are instructions used to communicate with a remote server for the secure transfer of files. These commands are part of the Secure File Transfer Protocol, which integrates with the Secure Shell (SSH) protocol to provide an encrypted channel for file transfer activities. This encryption ensures that both the data being transferred, and the commands used to transfer it are protected from unauthorized access or interception. 

SFTP commands allow users to securely upload, download, and manage files on a remote server. This includes creating and navigating directories, listing files, and even modifying file permissions. SFTP commands are essential tools for developers, system administrators, and anyone who needs to ensure the confidentiality and integrity of the data they transfer over the network. 

By using SFTP commands, organizations and individuals can protect sensitive information against external threats, making it a preferred method for secure file transfers across different operating systems and platforms. Understanding and using these commands effectively is therefore important for maintaining the security of data in transit. 

SFTP vs. FTP and SCP

Transferring files securely and efficiently requires choosing the right protocol. Below is a comparative analysis of SFTP, FTP, and SCP, focusing on their differences in security and use cases.

(Secure File Transfer Protocol)
(File Transfer Protocol)
(Secure Copy Protocol)
SecurityHigh – Encrypts both commands and data using SSH.Low – Transfers data in plain text, vulnerable to interception. Can be secured as FTPS with SSL/TLS.High – Uses SSH for secure data transfer, similar to SFTP.
FunctionalityComprehensive – Supports file uploads/downloads, directory navigation, file manipulation, and more.Basic – Primarily for file uploads and downloads. Extended functionality with FTPS.Limited – Mainly focused on file copying.
Use CasesPreferred for secure and versatile file management and transfers.Used in less sensitive scenarios or where legacy systems are in place. Secure with FTPS.Suitable for simple, secure file copying tasks without the need for file management features. 
SFTP vs FTP vs SCP comparison table

SFTP offers a secure and versatile solution for file transfers, making it the preferred choice for environments where security and functionality are paramount. FTP, while widely used, lacks inherent security but can be enhanced with SSL/TLS as FTPS. SCP provides secure file copying with simplicity but lacks the extensive file management capabilities of SFTP. 

For further details and a deeper understanding of these protocols, including FTPS, check out our article, “The Ultimate Guide to FTP, FTPS, and SFTP“.

Understanding the SFTP Security Features

SFTP, built on the Secure Shell (SSH) protocol, provides robust security features for file transfer, including encryption, authentication, and data integrity. 

Understanding SFTP Encryption

SFTP encrypts data in transit, preventing unauthorized access or eavesdropping. When an SFTP session starts, the client and server establish a secure connection using SSH. This connection encrypts both the commands and the data being transferred, ensuring that sensitive information remains confidential. The encryption uses advanced algorithms to secure the data against interception and deciphering. 

How does SFTP Authentication work?

Authentication in SFTP is a two-step process ensuring that only authorized users can access the server. Initially, the server authenticates the client using a key exchange process to verify the client’s identity securely. Following this, the client may need to provide a username and password or use a private key for further authentication. This dual layer of authentication fortifies the security of the connection, safeguarding against unauthorized access. 

Data Integrity with SFTP

SFTP ensures data integrity through cryptographic hash functions. These functions check the data sent and received during the transfer process, verifying that each packet arrives intact and unaltered. If the data is tampered with during transmission, the protocol detects the alteration, and the transfer can be halted to prevent the corruption of data. 

The accompanying scheme image illustrates how SFTP operates, highlighting the secure connection between the client and server, encrypted data transfer, and the authentication process. Through these mechanisms, SFTP provides a secure environment for transferring files, ensuring that data remains private and uncorrupted throughout the process. 

Compatibility and Interoperability

SFTP’s flexible design ensures broad compatibility and interoperability across different operating systems, making it a go-to option for secure file transfers. 

Windows SFTP

Windows supports SFTP with third-party clients like WinSCP and FileZilla, providing intuitive interfaces for file management. PowerShell can also handle SFTP through additional modules, enabling automated transfers. 

Linux SFTP

Linux boasts built-in SFTP support via the terminal, making secure file transfers accessible without extra software. Graphical interface users have options like FileZilla and gFTP for a more visual approach to SFTP. 

SFTP on macOS

macOS users can utilize the built-in Terminal app for SFTP or opt for graphical clients like Cyberduck and FileZilla

SSH/SFTP Clients and Servers

For seamless integration, OpenSSH is the preferred SSH server, supporting SFTP by default across platforms. Windows Server users might find Bitvise SSH Server to be an effective solution, offering easy setup and a wide range of features. 

These tools enhance SFTP’s compatibility across systems and contribute to its effectiveness in secure file transfers, supporting a variety of use cases and environments.

For those interested in a broader range of FTP clients suitable for both Windows and Mac, our article “Top 5 FTP Clients for Windows and Mac” provides comprehensive insights and recommendations to suit different needs and preferences. 

Prerequisites for Using SFTP

Before you start using SFTP for secure file transfers, there are a couple of key prerequisites you need to have in place. 

Default SFTP Port 

SFTP operates over SSH and typically uses port 22 for its connections. This default port is essential for establishing a secure channel between the client and server, facilitating encrypted communications and file transfers. 

Username and Password

Accessing an SFTP server requires authentication. Users must provide a valid username and password to establish a connection. This credential set verifies the user’s identity and ensures that only authorized individuals can access the server’s files and directories. In some configurations, key-based authentication may also be used as an alternative or in addition to traditional login credentials, offering another layer of security. 

These prerequisites are fundamental to setting up and using an SFTP connection, ensuring secure and authorized file transfers. 

Key SFTP Commands and Their Purpose 

SFTP provides a range of commands for secure file management and navigation. Here is a look at some key commands and how to use them effectively. 

CommandDescriptionSample Usage
putUploads a file from the local system to the remote server.put localfile.txt uploads localfile.txt to the current directory on the server.
getDownloads a file from the remote server to the local system.get remotefile.txt downloads remotefile.txt from the server to the current local directory.
pwdDisplays the current directory path on the remote server.pwd shows the current directory you are working in on the server.
lsLists the files and directories in the current directory on the remote server.ls lists all files and directories in the current server directory.
helpProvides a list of available SFTP commands.help displays a list of all commands you can use in the SFTP session.
Basic SFTP Commands Table

Detailed Usage Examples for SFTP

  • put: To upload a file to a specific directory on the server, you can use put localfile.txt /remote/path/. This command securely transfers localfile.txt from your local machine to /remote/path/ on the server. 
  • get: To download a file and save it under a new name locally, use get remotefile.txt newlocalfile.txt. This downloads remotefile.txt from the server and saves it as newlocalfile.txt on your local machine. 
  • pwd and ls: Combining pwd and ls helps you navigate the remote file system effectively. First, pwd confirms your current directory, then ls displays its contents, helping you locate files or directories. 
  • help: If you are unsure about a command or need to know what commands are available, help is your go-to. It can guide you through the functionalities at your disposal, making your SFTP session more productive. 

These commands form the foundation of navigating and managing files over a secure connection. By mastering them, you can efficiently manage your files on a remote server, ensuring your data’s security throughout the transfer process. 

SFTP Common Issues and Troubleshooting

Navigating SFTP can sometimes lead to encountering issues. Here is how to tackle some of the most common problems effectively. 

SFTP Invalid Commands

Receiving an “invalid command” alert often means a typo or a misunderstanding of the command’s correct form. Double-check your input against the help command for the right syntax and command availability. 

SFTP Error Codes

SFTP error codes pinpoint specific issues. Below is a table of common error codes, their meanings, and potential fixes: 

Error CodeMeaningPossible Fix
1General errorReview the command syntax and parameters.
2File not foundVerify the file path and name. Ensure the file exists on the server.
3Permission deniedCheck your user permissions for the file or directory.
(e.g. network error)
Check your internet connection and server status.
6No such pathEnsure the directory exists. Use pwd and ls to find the correct path.
SFTP Common Error Codes Cheatsheet

(And no, it is not an error that “5” is missing, it is just not that common, so we skipped it on purpose and continued with 6 instead!)

SFTP Syntax Errors

Syntax errors typically occur from incorrect command usage or forgetting necessary parameters. Consult the help command or SFTP documentation to correct your command’s syntax. 

Issues with Unzipping Files

Troubles unzipping files usually suggest a download issue or file corruption. Ensure complete file transfer with get -P to maintain file attributes. If the problems persist, check for file corruption on the server or verify you have the correct unzipping software. 

By understanding these common issues and their solutions, you can navigate SFTP more smoothly and efficiently address any problems that arise. 

SFTP vs. Modern Shell Tooling 

SFTP maintains its relevance in the era of modern shell tools through its secure and robust file transfer capabilities. Unlike newer tools that offer a wide range of functions, SFTP specializes in secure file transfer, making it indispensable for tasks requiring high security. Its integration with SSH ensures that file transfers are encrypted and authenticated, a critical feature in today’s security-conscious environment. 

Modern shell tools may offer more versatility or efficiency in certain scenarios, but SFTP’s focus on security, along with widespread support across various systems, ensures its continued importance. It provides a reliable method for transferring files across different platforms, from legacy systems to the latest operating systems, without compromising on security. 

In summary, despite the advent of newer technologies, SFTP’s secure foundation and straightforward approach keeps it relevant and trusted for secure file transfers in diverse IT infrastructures. 


SFTP remains a key tool for securely transferring files, emphasizing the importance of encryption and authentication in today’s digital exchanges. Its compatibility across Windows, Linux, and macOS, along with the use of SSH for secure connections, makes SFTP indispensable for developers and system administrators alike. By mastering SFTP commands, users can efficiently manage files on remote servers, ensuring data remains secure during transit. 

Best practices, including regular updates and the use of strong authentication methods, bolster security. Familiarity with SFTP commands and troubleshooting common issues further empowers users to navigate the protocol’s features effectively. Despite the emergence of newer tools, SFTP’s focus on security and straightforward usability secures its place in secure file management strategies. 

In essence, SFTP bridges the gap between the need for secure data transfer and operational simplicity, providing a trusted solution for handling sensitive information across diverse IT environments. 

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