Start an FTP or SFTP Server on Mac OS

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If you’ve visited the Sharing Preferences pane in newer versions of Mac OS X, you may have noticed that there is no longer the direct option to allow an FTP server to share files and folders. Well, at least there is no obvious option, but the FTP and SFTP server feature still exists, the two just split into different functionalities, with the new versions of OS X preferring SFTP over FTP . Regardless of what you want to use, setting up a server for either one is extremely simple, and we’ll walk through it how to start an FTP or SFTP server in OS X.

Any of these FTP / SFTP servers tricks work in all new versions of OS X, be it OS X Yosemite 10.10.x, Mavericks 10.9, Mountain Lion 10.8 or Lion 10.7.

Start the FTP server in OS X

This will start a generic FTP and FTPS server on the Mac, but not an SFTP server:

If you see the known FTP login:

$ ftp localhost Trying :: 1 … Connected to localhost.220 :: 1 FTP server (tnftpd 20100324 + GSSAPI) ready. Name (localhost: Paul):

You know the server is running. If you don’t see that, either the server has not finished booting or you have not entered the command correctly. You can then use FTP from other Macs using the same ftp command, or by using the “Connect to Server” option in the Finder.

Enable the SFTP server in OS X

As you probably know, FTP is not encrypted and as a result has fallen out of favor for security reasons. Enabling SFTP is actually easier than FTP on the Mac these days:

  • Launch System Preferences and go to “Sharing”
  • Click the check box next to “Remote Login” to enable SSH and SFTP

Updating: Our much more detailed guide on Remote Login and SSH Server is here.

Enable SFTP server in Mac OS X

You can check if SFTP is working by typing this at the command line:

sftp localhost

Note: The FTP and SFTP servers are different, and enabling one does not enable the other. SFTP is recommended for its standard encryption layer and secure transmission.

Disable FTP or SFTP server in OS X.

Here is how to disable the FTP server: sudo -s launchctl unload -w /System/Library/LaunchDaemons/ftp.plist

As the command suggests, this loads the ftp daemon and shuts down the server. Obviously, you can only disable and disable the FTP server if it was enabled to begin with.

Disabling SFTP is simply a matter of unchecking the “Remote Login” box in OS X’s sharing preferences.

If you’re wondering how this differs from previous versions of OS X, you should look to Snow Leopard (10.6) or earlier to find the difference. Previously, an FTP server option was a toggle within the general sharing preference panels:

FTP server is missing in OS X Lion, but you can enable it anyway

While it’s not entirely clear why Apple pulled the easy frontend to FTP sharing, it’s possible that they simply prefer SFTP because it’s a more secure protocol, and enabling one turns on both. Nonetheless, there are still FTP and FTPS servers (just like clients), so it’s just a matter of using the terminal to enable the server side of things. Speaking generally, because SFTP is much more secure, that’s what you should be using for remote file transfers and connections, so keep that in mind if you plan to host a server to the outside world, or even if you only have but want to have secure file transfers to and from remote Macs yourself.

This is an effect on one tip from Land of Daniel via TUAW, who explains further how to let ftpd start automatically on reboot, so if you’re interested in that, don’t miss their post.

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Start an FTP or SFTP Server in Mac OS X: FAQ

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