Pirate on laptop holding his hand under folders that say "Torrents"

What Is Torrenting and How Does it Work? A Comprehensive Guide

Last edited: October 23, 2020
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Read this summary if you want the general gist of it!
What is torrenting: a (really small) crash course

Torrenting refers to downloading and uploading files between individual computers. This is opposed to downloading files from a single server, which is how you usually get your digital content.  Torrenting also has a few components:

  • A tracker, which is a small file that holds information about the file you want to download, information like who else has the file?
  • Torrenting websites, which are basically collections of trackers.
  • Torrenting clients, which are software that opens your tracker and ties your computer to other people who have the file you want.

While it may sound appealing, torrenting is illegal if you download copyrighted products with it, like movies, music and videogames. We highly advise against the torrenting of illegal files. But if you want to find out more about how this system works make sure you read the full article.

Torrenting is a tool for free online data sharing, but a symbol of piracy and copyright law violations nonetheless. The term ‘torrenting’ is mainly used to describe the act of downloading and uploading a file (usually a movie, piece of music or book) using a Peer-to-Peer network.

But how does it work more specifically? Is it safe to torrent? Can you get in legal trouble? Let’s answer all of those questions in our article on what is torrenting.

What is a Torrent?

A torrent, also known as ‘torrent file’ or ‘tracker’ is a small file that keeps track of where the actual file you want to download is on a wide network of different computers. It may sound complicated, but it’s actually simpler than you think.

Basically, a torrent is a small file that is used by something called a torrent client to let others know; “Hey, I’m looking to download and upload this specific piece of content to and from you”.

The torrent file can be used to share media such as movies, music, books, etc. with others using something called a Peer-to-Peer network or ‘P2P’.

What is a Torrent Client?

A torrent client or torrenting client is software that uses a torrent file to see who else has the actual file you want to download. The client gets data from all of those computers, slowly adding small packets of the file you’re downloading to your own computer. The torrenting client also uploads small packets of that file to those other computers. This is what forms the P2P network.

Basically, the torrenting client is the piece of software that connects downloaders and uploaders of a certain file to one another, using the torrent file to determine which file should be shared.

What are the Best Torrent Clients?

It depends a lot on what you need. If you want a simple interface, BitTorrent is a good choice. If you want no ad interruptions and a decent array of features, qBittorrent might be better.

But in general, we recommend using uTorrent. It’s fast, reliable, easy to navigate, and it has enough advanced features packed to keep everyone happy. This is a quick overview of three of the most popular torrent clients:

Torrent client Description
BitTorrent BitTorrent is the original torrenting client, with a lot of history in the market and reliable features for torrenters. There’s nothing flashy about it, just a decent choice for your torrent client.
uTorrent uTorrent is based on BitTorrent’s infrastructure, but it takes things a bit further. For starters, its design is a bit better, making it easy to navigate the tool and download torrents faster.

On top, it’s got a lot of helpful features like a search bar to look for trackers in-app.

If you know a thing or two about networks and the internet, you’ll like uTorrent even more. It features advanced options, such as manually setting the bandwidth allocation for a file you’re downloading, or force starting the download of a torrent if an error occurs.

qBittorrent qBittorrent is not the simplest torrenting client, but it’s not too complex either. It’s compatible with all operating systems, and it doesn’t have a monetization scheme, since it’s developed by a non-profit.

On top, it has interesting features, including a media player, torrent search engine, and a ton more, so it’s a decent choice if you don’t need the advanced features of BitTorrent or uTorrent.

What is Peer-to-Peer?

Peer-to-Peer networking or P2P is a way in which computers or servers can share the workload in completing a certain task, or in this case download. This is different from the regular client-server model where a user simply downloads a file from a server. With regards to torrenting, using P2P, every computer connects to one another to download (leech) and upload (seed) a certain file.

With the ‘normal’ way of downloading, using the client-server model, files are downloaded from the server, like so:

Person downloading file from server

This is how downloading usually works.

With a P2P network, however, pieces of the file are constantly shared between others in the P2P network, until the file has been completely downloaded, like so:

People sharing file through torrenting network

In that sense, people sharing the file are acting as small servers for downloading a file, with the help of the torrenting client.

What are Seeders and Leechers?

Seeders and leechers are words used for the different parts of the P2P network. When downloading, a client is called a leecher, because it leeches the file from others. When uploading, a client is called a seeder, because it provides the seeds for others to download.

Usually, you are both a seeder and a leecher when you’re using a torrenting client, because you’re simultaneously downloading and uploading parts of a certain file. When you’ve completely downloaded a file, you just become a seeder, because you’re no longer downloading the file, you’re just uploading parts of it through the P2P network.

How Does Torrenting Work?

Torrenting works using the P2P system we’ve described above. First, it starts by downloading a torrent file or ‘tracker’.

A torrenting client uses that small tracker to see who else has the actual file you want to download, for example, a movie, and it gets data from all of those computers, slowly adding small packets of the file you’re downloading to your own computer.

While you’re downloading several packets of the file, you’re also uploading packets that you’ve already downloaded to other people like you, making your computer a small server as well. In that sense, people sharing the file (also called “seeders” in the torrenting world) are acting as small servers for downloading a file, with the help of the client.

This process of downloading continues until you’ve either downloaded the file completely or stop the torrenting client from sharing the file. In order to stop uploading a file, you usually have to manually stop the torrent from seeding.

Where do People get Torrents From?

In order to torrent, you have to get a hold of a torrent file first. There are various websites that host these files and they’re called torrent sites. A well-known example of such a site is the Pirate Bay.

Be aware though, that a lot of torrent sites contain copyrighted content. This content usually is illegal to download and share, so always make sure you stay away from these kinds of files. Some torrent sites, including The Pirate Bay and Kickass Torrents, have even been taken down by local law enforcers in order to stop the illegal sharing of copyrighted content. Even if the act of torrenting itself is perfectly legal and not all of the files on these sites are copyrighted.

If you’re looking for a place to get torrents from, check out our other article on the best torrent sites.

Yes, the act of torrenting is legal. That means that being part of a P2P network and downloading and uploading packets of a certain file, is legal. However, the downloading of copyrighted content is illegal in most countries.

The downloading of copyrighted content is considered to be copyright infringement. This is more commonly known as piracy, with the people partaking in copyright infringement sometimes being called pirates.

Whether or not you get punished depends a lot on where you live, though. In most countries, especially in Eastern Europe or Latin America, torrenting is illegal but torrenting laws are hardly ever enforced. It’s therefore a common practice to torrent in these regions without any safety measures.

In the cases that it is tracked and acted against, you might receive a hefty fine. However, only a small amount of people that download copyrighted content actually get a fine or get sued. This doesn’t change the fact that when you get caught torrenting illegal files in countries such as Germany, you are pretty likely to get a hefty fine in the mail.

If you want to read more on the legalities of downloading, take a look at our article on download fines and legislation.

What are the Risks of Torrenting?

There are a couple of risks that you have to take into account when you consider torrenting. The most common problem you can have with a torrent is to download a virus alongside (or instead of) the file you actually need. It was much more common in the early 2010s, but it can still be a problem if you’re not careful. These are the biggest risks you can stumble onto when downloading torrents:

  • You might download a file containing copyrighted content. This is considered to be illegal in most countries, and you might get into serious legal trouble when torrenting copyrighted content.
  • You might download a virus instead of, or alongside, the file you’re trying to download.
  • Hackers might target torrent downloaders in all sorts of ways. Though this isn’t as common anymore as it used to be.

Read on to find out more about these risks.

Risk 1: Accidentally Torrenting Copyrighted Content.

Torrenting is illegal if you’re using torrent clients to download copyrighted content from your peers, like movies, songs, books, or video games. You’re getting copyrighted content without paying for it, so it’s outside the scope of the law. Even if you’re in an area that doesn’t enforce copyright laws on torrenting right now, there’s no saying what will happen in the future.

That being said, the act of torrenting itself is not illegal, and it’s the reason torrenting is still around after so many years. When you boil it down, torrenting is just the sharing of files, so the entire infrastructure (clients, trackers, and even some private sites) isn’t intrinsically illegal.

Risk 2: Downloading a Virus

One of the greatest risks when downloading using torrents is bringing in a virus. Because the downloading and sharing of torrents is considered to be a gray area, the files themselves aren’t regulated by companies themselves. This means that you are quite likely to download malware instead of, or with, a torrent.

Therefore, it’s always important to use proper Antivirus Software when doing anything online. Software like Kaspersky can protect your device from all kinds of unwanted malware such as spyware and ransomware.

Risk 3: Hackers Causing Problems

Torrenting has a bit of a bad rep across the world, so it’s normal that people started associating the act of torrenting with everything bad on the internet, including hackers.

While you do expose yourself to risks when downloading torrents mindlessly, we scoured the forums and news sites to look for hackers leveraging torrents, and we didn’t really find any.

For some perspective: virtually all software, especially software that’s connected to the internet, can have flaws that expose your computer.

Hackers have a lot more success with phishing campaigns – that’s when they pretend to be someone else, either by sending fraudulent emails or by outright copying a site and preying on personal information.

So hackers shouldn’t necessarily be your main worry when you torrent. But viruses, malware, adware, and legal trouble are a possibility, and they might even be used by hackers.

How to Stay Safe When Torrenting

There are a few steps you can undertake to ensure your safety when torrenting. Keep in mind that torrenting copyrighted content is usually illegal, and you, therefore, shouldn’t do it. However, there are also a lot of perfectly legal torrents out there, and we want to make sure you know what people do to stay safe when attempting to download and share these files.

In order to stay safe when torrenting, people usually do the following things:

  • They only use torrent sites that are deemed safe and don’t contain a lot of ads or malware.
  • They use proper antivirus software like Kaspersky to protect them from any unwanted malware they might encounter when downloading a torrent file.
  • They don’t download copyrighted content as to not break the law and prevent themselves from getting sued or fined.
  • They use a VPN to protect their identity when using torrent sites and P2P networks. A popular VPN amongst torrenters is ExpressVPN*:
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*: We don’t condone using a VPN for illegal torrenting, only use it when torrenting legal files. Staying safe while browsing the internet is one of the most important things you can do, hence we advise the use of a VPN no matter what you do online.

In Short

Torrenting is a way to share content over the internet using a torrent client to become part of a P2P network. Torrenting works by using a tracker file to find other people seeding and leeching a certain piece of media. Instead of downloading the file from a certain server, the torrenters share pieces of the file with each other until the file is ‘complete’.

The act of torrenting is perfectly legal in most countries. However, if people torrent content that is copyright protected, then the act of torrenting such files is usually illegal.

What is Torrenting - Frequently Asked Questions

If you have any questions regarding torrenting that hasn’t been answered yet, take a look at this FAQ section to see if we might have the answer for you. Also feel free to ask us a question in the comments.

Seeders are the people who are sending packets of a file to people that want to download that particular torrent.

Leechers are people currently downloading a torrent.

The short answer is to get a better internet connection.

There are tips and tricks you can apply to marginally increase your download speed, but when you boil it down, your internet speed matters the most.

That being said, you can try to download trackers from the best torrent sites list that have a high download speed.

If that still doesn’t suit your needs, and you use uTorrent, you can right-click a torrent that’s currently downloading, go to Bandwidth Allocation, and set it on high. Other than that, there’s not much else you can do.

Yes, in certain countries you can. Torrenting, in general, is not illegal, but downloading copyrighted content is, which can land you in troubled waters with your ISP, or even with the law.

However, a lot of countries around the world don’t go after individual downloaders. They only go after the owners of torrent sites.

Tech writer
Theodor is a content writer passionate about the newest tech developments and content marketing strategies. He likes privacy-friendly software, SEO tools, and when he's not writing, he's trying to convince people they should uninstall TikTok.

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