Introduction to cURL

2012-11-10 · 4 min read

cURL is a solid and simple tool that allows transferring data from and to any server with command line using various protocols including HTTP. This article is a short introduction on how to use cURL effectively along with some lesser known tricks.

Interacting with protocols

Getting a HTML page from a server is as simple as putting a HTTP URL as first cURL argument.

λ curl

cURL makes a GET request to the specified URL and brings back the results into the command line. This output can be saved to a file using -O parameter (-o if you want to use your own name for the file).

λ curl -O

Getting a file from a FTP server is also easy:

curl ftp://username:password@ftp.server:21/path/to/file.tar.gz

There are two handy parameters, especially useful for debugging:

  • -i or --include which puts headers data returned by the server in the output
  • -v or --verbose which includes in the output both, headers data sent to the server and returned by the server

Sending data to the server

-d or --data parameter allows to specify data to send to the HTTP server. It simulates a form submission. Invoking cURL with this parameter will make a POST request (instead of default GET). cURL will set Content-Type as application/x-www-form-urlencoded automatically. Multiple fields should be separated by & or specified with a separate -d parameter for each field.

λ curl -d 'name=zaiste' -d 'age=17' http://server/
λ curl -d 'user[name]=zaiste' http://server/

It is also possible to send data in JSON format. Content-Type has to be explicitly set to application/json as it is used by the server to decide how to handle the incoming data.

λ curl -d '{"user": {"name": "zaiste"}}' -H "Content-Type: application/json" http://server/

For convenience, the data can be also read from a file or from the standard input:

λ curl -d @sample-data.txt http://server/widgets
λ curl -d @- http://server/widgets
{ "name": "Widget 1" }

We could also specify the Accept header which is used to tell the server what content types we accept as a client. The server will respond with Content-Type that will inform us about the content type of the returned data. As a result, Content-Type header is used to specify the type of data being sent both, from and to the client.

RESTful Interaction

cURL comes in handy when interacting with RESTful APIs. In the examples below, we will use RESTful API built yesterday.

Let's start by creating a simple resource from a JSON. As mentioned earlier, POST request override default GET when using -d parameter.

λ curl -H "Content-Type: application/json" \
  -d '{"name": "Widget 1", "desc":"This is widget 1", "amount":"17"}' \
  "__v": 0,
  "name": "Widget 1",
  "desc": "This is widget 1",
  "amount": 17,
  "_id": "50f2fcc18270670200000001",
  "created_at": "2012-11-10T21:26:07.333Z"

For a resource update we will specify PUT method with -X or --request parameter.

λ curl -X PUT \
  -H "Content-Type: application/json" \
  -d '{"amount": "21"}' \

It is also possible to simulate PUT method with POST by using a special X-HTTP-Method-Override header.

λ curl -H "X-HTTP-Method-Override: PUT" \
  -H "Content-Type: application/json" \
  -d '{"amount": "9999"}'  \

Finally we can delete the resource using DELETE method.

λ curl -X DELETE  \

Similar to PUT, we can ask the server to override a POST request if setting DELETE explicitly is not possible.

λ curl -H "X-HTTP-Method-Override: DELETE" \
  -H "Content-Type: application/json" \
  -d '{"amount": "9999"}'  \

Login with Basic Auth

HTTP Basic authentication is a simple way to secure web pages. If SSL is not used, the credentials are passed in plain text. cURL has -u|--user option that allows to login using that method.

λ curl -u username:password http://server/

cURL can be also used to login using a cookie. In the exampleb below, we simulate a form submission of login credentials, and we store returned cookies in a file with -c parameter. For following requests, we can then use that cookies (-b parameter) to authenticate. The process simulates how a browser handles the session.

λ curl -d "username=admin&password=admin" -c cookies http://server/login
λ curl -L -b cookies http://server/

Things may get a little tricker when CSRF validation is enabled. In such case it would be also necessary to extract CSRF token.

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