A website is just software running on a computer, such as WordPress software running on a Linux PC. The server is a computer with a disk drive, processor, memory and so on.
The server computer is connected to the internet and it responds to requests from web browsers by delivering web pages. That's what is happening right now.
Can you access the files and folders on the server computer directly? Yes, using FTP.
On your own computer you can open an Explorer window (PC) or a Finder window (Mac) to browse the files and folders on the disk.
Explorer and Finder let you open folders, delete files or move them from one place to another. You can even move files from the disk in the computer to an external disk, such as a USB drive or network storage.
FTP (File Transfer Protocol) is a bit like Explorer or Finder, but it is for the computer running your website. It shows the files and folders on the disk and you can browse them, delete them, move them and so on.
You can even move files from the disk in your own computer to the computer with your website.
Do you have FTP access?
If you use FTP to access the files and folders on a web server, you could rename, move or delete them. This might break the site and it might be very difficult to fix.
For this reason, not all web hosts provide FTP access. People might break their website by changing things that should be left alone.
There is no FTP access with WordPress.com and Blogger free websites for example.
FTP access is often provided with self-hosted WordPress, but it is not guaranteed. Check the web hosting plan to see if FTP is included. If you have cpanel access to your web hosting account, look for any mention of FTP.
What is FTP for?
FTP provides access to the disk containing the files and folders your website is running on. This has several uses:
- Copy files to your computer’s disk for backup purposes.
- Copy files so you can load them on your computer and see how WordPress works.
- Copy files and folders from your computer and put them on the server.
- Repair files changed by hackers or malware. You could edit files and undo the changes. delete files added, or replace files with copies on the computer.
- Disable bad plugins that stop WordPress from working by deleting the folder.
Best FTP programs
To access a web server using FTP an FTP program is required. There are many to choose from and some are free, but others require payment, or offer extra features if you upgrade to the paid version.
Cyberduck: This is one of the most popular FTP programs around and it is free for Windows PC and Apple Mac. It does ask for a voluntary donation, but you can ignore this if you want. It supports a wide range of servers and has more features than you will ever need.
After adding the URL, username and password for your web server, it opens a window and lists the files. You can then use drag and drop to copy files and folders to or from the computer’s disk drive.
There are lots of advanced features, for example syncing a files on the server with files on the computer’s disk. Cyberduck is recommended.
FileZilla: This is free open source software and it is available for Windows PC and Apple Mac. There are client and server versions and the one you want is the client.
The user interface is very different to Cyberduck and it gives it a more complicated look. It isn’t hard to use and once you get used to it, you might prefer it. There are multiple panels, top, bottom, left and right.
There are up to six panels. At the top is connection messages and at the bottom is file transfer messages. In the middle are folders and files, split down the middle so the computer’s disk is on the left and the web server’s disk is on the right.
Files can be dragged from one side to the other to transfer them between computer and server. There are lots of great features for advanced users.
1 How to set up FTP
For this example I will use Cyberduck on Windows, but other FTP programs are similar, and it is the same on the Apple Mac too.
Start Cyberduck and click the plus button in the bottom left corner to create a new FTP site.
2 Configure the FTP connection details
The Nickname at the top can be anything and the name of your site is a good one to choose. Enter the server address and your username. The rest is not important. Just close the window.
You need to know the FTP settings for your website. If you do not know them, you might need to ask your web hosting company. The URL is usually ftp.yoursite.com and the port is usually 21.
Poke around your web hosting account and you might find files you can download that automatically configure popular FTP programs. These are from Bluehost (affiliate link).
3 Connect to your site using FTP
Now that your site is configured, just click the icon to connect. You are prompted to enter a username and password the first time you connect. This may be the same as the ones used to log into your hosting account, but they could be different. Ask your web host.
4 Browse the server
There are files and folders on the web server, just like on the computer’s disk. Using Cyberduck is very similar to using Explorer on the PC or Finder on the Mac. Right click to rename or delete files, or to create folders and so on.
Drag files to the PC’s disk in an Explorer or Finder window and drop them to download them. Drag files from the computer’s disk and drop them on the Cyberduck window to upload them.
The folder the website's files are stored in is usually /public_html.
Warning: Deleting, moving, renaming or overwriting files can break your website! Take care!
5 Disable WordPress plugins using FTP
Suppose you installed a plugin and it is causing serious problems with your website. You should first log in to the admin side of WordPress, go to Plugins and disable it.
What if you cannot get into WordPress admin? What if you cannot disable a bad plugin through WordPress? Just disable it using FTP.
Using Cyberduck or another FTP program, go to wp-content/plugins. Each plugin is stored in a folder and if a plugin folder is deleted, it won’t run.
Drag the bad plugin to the computer’s disk or desktop to make a copy. Then right click the plugin folder and rename it to something like plugin-disabled, or even delete it completely.
You should then be able to log into WordPress admin without any problems.
An extreme form of this fix is to rename the wp-content/plugins folder to wp-content/plugins-disabled. That will prevent all plugins from working. It doesn't fix the problem, but at least you can log into the admin of your site in WordPress.