Copy a file from one machine to another using Netcat


Suppose that you wish to copy the file qux.txt from foo.example.com to bar.example.com. Neither machine is running an SSH server and you would prefer not to install one, but Netcat is already present.



The method described here uses two instances of Netcat to transfer the file:

  • one running as a TCP server to receive the file, and
  • one running as a TCP client to send the file.

Run Netcat as a TCP server on the destination machine

When run as a TCP server Netcat listens for an inbound connection on a given port number. Once a connection has been established, it forwards any data that it receives to stdout. In this example the data should be written to the file qux.txt, so stdout will be redirected to that pathname.

The port number should be one that is not already open, preferably from the range reserved for ephemeral and private use (officially 49152 to 65535, but typically 32768 to 61000 on Linux-based systems). In this example port 60000 will be used.

There are several variants of Netcat in circulation, and the command needed to invoke it as a server depends on which one is installed. Typically the required command will be:

nc -l 60000 > qux.txt

The -l option indicates that Netcat should listen for inbound connections. The only other argument needed is the local port number, which is 60000 in this instance.

When using the variant of Netcat that is traditionally installed on Debian-based systems, the local port number must instead be specified using the -p option:

nc -l -p 60000 > qux.txt

(Unnecessarily adding the -p option will result in an immediate error. Incorrectly omitting it will result in Netcat choosing an arbitrary ephemeral port number instead of the one specified, in which case it will not able able to receive the file.)

Run Netcat as a TCP client on the source machine

When run as a TCP client Netcat establishes an outbound connection to a given IP address and port number. It then reads data fromstdin and forwards it through the connection. In this example the data should be taken from the file qux.txt, so stdin will be redirected to read from that pathname.

As previously, the required command depends on the variant of Netcat that is installed. Typically it will be:

nc bar.example.com 60000 < qux.txt

An exception is the variant traditionally installed on Debian-based systems, which by default does not terminate when the end of the input is reached. The required behaviour can then be obtained by adding the option -q 0:

nc -q 0 bar.example.com 60000 < qux.txt

(Unnecessarily adding the -q option could either have no effect or result in an immediate error, depending on whether or not it is recognised. Incorrectly omitting it will result in Netcat failing to terminate after the file has transferred.)


Copying multiple files

If there are several files to be copied then the tar command can be used to combine them into a single stream of data prior to transmission:

tar zc *.txt | nc -l 60000

and then to reconstruct the individual files on reception:

nc bar.example.com 60000 | tar zx

Connecting in the reverse direction

In the method described above the file is sent from the client to the server, but there is no reason why it cannot be transferred in the opposite direction. This could be useful if (for example) one of the machines is located behind a NAT or a firewall. It can be achieved by reversing the redirection operators for both the server:

nc -l 60000 < qux.txt

and the client:

nc bar.example.com 60000 > qux.txt

If the -q option is needed then it should be applied to the server command in this case, since it is the server that reads the file from stdinand can detect when the end has been reached.