Upload files to WordPress without ftp and access the file system

No ftp access to your website? Use a WordPress plugin

WordPress on an Apple MacBook laptop computer

FTP (file transfer protocol) utilities are a great way to access the files on your WordPress website or blog, but what if you can’t or don’t want to use one. These plugins are the solution.

Sometimes you need to access the WordPress file system and either upload files and store them on the web server or download files to the computer. For example, you might want to upload Word documents, PowerPoint presentations, videos, PDF files, worksheets and more. Your site visitors or members could then download them.

You might want to make backups of files or to edit files and make changes to them. Generally, it is not a good idea to edit WordPress files on the server, but sometimes it is the only way to do something, like getting a site out of maintenance mode when it is stuck.

You can even fix faults by accessing WordPress files, for example, deleting a bad or incompatible plugin that is causing serious problems with your site. You might simply be curious and want to see what makes a WordPress website work.

An ftp program accesses the web server in a different way to a web browser and uses a different method. It results in a list of files and folders in the WordPress root folder instead of the site’s home page. It is like accessing your site using Finder on a Mac or Explorer on a PC and you can do pretty much anything those apps can do, like dragging files to or from the site, deleting or renaming files and so on.

Not everyone has ftp access to their website or know how to access it this way, so here I look at a couple of alternative methods using simple WordPress plugins. If you are using free wordpress.com then plugins are not available and you need self-hosted WordPress, sometimes called wordpress.org, to install and use plugins.

Use a file manager plugin

A file manager plugin enables you to access WordPress files without ftp and it enables you to upload files to a WordPress website and store them in the file system. Go to Plugins and click the Add New button at the top. Enter ‘file manager’ into the search box and several plugins are listed, like File Manager, Advanced File Manager and File Manager (same name, different author).

I tried all three and the first two did not work, displaying some message about an invalid server response. The plugins have excellent ratings, almost all five stars, so I reckon it is something odd about my web server setup that is causing the problem.

The one plugin that worked for me was File Manager with the blue folder icon. I used the free plugin, but there is a paid Pro version that has more features. They are mostly control and permission features that enable you to define what other users can do and if the plugin is just for you, the freebie will be fine.

File Manager WordPress plugin showing files on the server
File Manager WordPress plugin

There are around 35 icons on the toolbar and each one performs some action, so as you can imagine, it does pretty much everything you would ever want to do with files on your site.

Suppose you want to upload files and create a download resource, like worksheets or PDF files for your visitors. You could create a new folder like myfiles (always lowercase, no spaces), open it, then click and drag files from the computer and drop them on the empty folder to upload them to your site.

File Manager WordPress plugin
Upload files to WordPress with drag and drop

You could then link to them in articles with a URL like www.mysite.com/myfiles/worksheets.zip – it is best to zip files on the server, partly so that clicking the link downloads it to the user’s computer or phone, and partly to keep the files small and downloads lightweight.

File Manager WordPress plugin showing files on the server
Download files, edit them, then upload them

One thing you might want to do is download a file, edit it using some tool on your computer, like a text editor, modify it and then upload it again. Just select the file, click the download button and save it to disk. After changing it, click the Upload toolbar button and drag and drop the file on the target. The file already exists, so you are asked if you want to make a backup of the original before replacing it, which is useful.

File Manager WordPress plugin viewing a file on the web server
View files on the server

I found it to work well and can recommend it. However, editing, renaming and deleting WordPress files willy nilly can break your site. Look, but don’t change anything! Creating your own folder in the root and uploading files to it is safe and won’t affect WordPress.

Upload files to WordPress from the front end

Suppose you want to allow users to upload files to your site from a web page. As the site admin, ftp or the File Manager plugin above is perfect for you, but you cannot let visitors to your site have ftp access.

There is a plugin to upload files to a WordPress website that can be used from the front end of the site, like a regular web post or page, and I used Frontend File Manager Plugin.

You may have contributors to your site that write articles, but the Contributor user role does not allow images to be added to the Media library. However, they could write the article in WordPress and then use the plugin to upload their images. You could then add the images yourself before publishing the article.

Your site could have members, maybe even just subscribers, and you want to provide an upload service so they can store files like images on your site. Fontend File Manager Plugin can do that.

As I write this, WordPress 5.4 is just out and it looks like a plugin update is needed to make it fully compatible. You can insert a Gutenberg block into a post or page to show the visitor a file upload form and it works, but when you try to edit the page or post later, you just get a spinning wheel.

Instead of inserting the Frontend File Manager block, go to File Manager > Settings > How to use and copy the shortcode text. Insert a shortcode block and paste in the shortcode text. It then works fine. Hopefully, a plugin update will fix the block issue, but inserting a shortcode is easy enough.

Frontend File Manager plugin for WordPress
Frontend File Manager lets users upload files

A visitor to your site sees an upload form on the page and if they try to use it, they are asked to log in to your site. You don’t want anyone and everyone on the internet uploading who knows what to your site. They must at the minimum be a subscriber, the lowest level user role with the least privileges, practically none actually, apart from being able to log in.

Each user can upload files that only they can see. They have their own personal uploads and storage space and they cannot see anyone else’s. They can view their own uploads and download them.

Frontend File Manager plugin for WordPress
As the admin, you can see and manage user uploads

Admins, editors and authors can see everyone’s uploads because the files are displayed in the WordPress Media library like regular uploads, but contributors and subscribers can see only their own uploads.

You can set a file size limit and also specify the type of files allowed. This means that you could limit uploads to .png and .jpg images of less than 1 MB for example. As the admin of your site, you can see who uploaded what and when, and you can view, edit and delete uploads.

In the paid Pro version of the plugin, users can share their uploads with others via email. You can set file count and space quotas for users, and create unlimited download areas. These are all useful features. Whether you use the freebie or paid Pro version, you must have users you can trust because they could upload pictures or files you would rather not see, if you know what I mean.


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