I am looking for an explanation where I can find the difference between telnet and netcat. In which cases should I use telnet and netcat? What a telnet can do that netcat can not do and vice versa?

I tried to get the answer from the Internet but it doesn't help me to understand. All I was able to find was the different cmds. I am looking for usecase examples with differences.

Can someone explain the difference with explanation?

1 Answer 1


Note: There are several different Telnet programs, as well as several different Netcat variants. They might have somewhat different features.

In general, telnet specifically speaks the RFC 854 "Telnet" protocol – it recognizes certain bytes as Telnet options negotiation commands coming from the server, will respond to them appropriately, and will send its own at the beginning of each connection. (For example, it reports the $TERM value and window size in lines×columns to the server.) It will also translate Unix LF line breaks to the NVT CR+LF version, and will recognize Ctrl+] as an "escape" key.

This makes telnet unsuitable for raw 8-bit TCP connections as it would mangle the transferred data, and it doesn't work well for batch usage in general. However it can still be used to interactively poke around ASCII-based protocols such as FTP or SMTP – it works because many Telnet clients do not initiate negotiation if connecting to a nonstandard port (but they will still respond to it).

Netcat nc doesn't do anything like that – it is primarily a 8-bit clean TCP client. It can be used with ASCII protocols just like telnet, but also can and often is used as a "pipe" into TCP for batch data transfer, because it will not alter any byte sent through it.

Netcat often also offers non-TCP transports (UDP, sometimes SCTP, local Unix sockets) whereas Telnet clients are TCP-only.

On the other hand, netcat doesn't understand any protocols – if you tried connecting to a real Telnet server using nc, it would not work very well at all; the server wouldn't know what terminal type you're using, the window couldn't be resized, etc.

  • If you are connecting to a Telnet server on port 23, use telnet.
  • If you need something like cat but for TCP, use nc or even socat.
  • If you need to send/receive non-text data, use nc/socat – avoid telnet.
  • If you want to manually type in SMTP or IRC or IMAP or HTTP commands, both tools will work fine. (In fact, telnet might work slightly better, as it converts line endings to CR+LF which some such servers also require.)
  • Sounds like the client side of the telnet protocol is somewhat "passive", only reacting after the telnet server sends "options negotiation commands"? Is this what making the program telnet an appropriate tool for simple TCP manipulation?
    – wlnirvana
    Apr 8, 2020 at 7:27
  • 3
    No, it's actually much more symmetric, either side can send options at any time. In fact, most Telnet clients will send a large burst of options at the beginning when connecting to a normal Telnet server (to report $TERM and width×height). The reason why it's fine for "simple TCP manipulation" is that many telnet programs were written to actively send options only if you're connecting to the standard Telnet port 23, but remain passive when connecting to any other port. However, that's just a "bonus" feature – not mandatory Telnet behavior.
    – user1686
    Apr 8, 2020 at 7:33

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