What is port forwarding, how safe is it to use today?

Abeerah Hashim Last updated: September 14, 2022 Read time: 15 minutes Disclosure

If you want to learn what port forwarding is, how it works, and how to set it up, this straightforward guide is for you. Read to know all that and more.

Sneak peek at Port Forwarding

Port forwarding primarily facilitates networking, allowing unsolicited connections on specific ports otherwise blocked via NAT firewall. Consequently, remote servers and other online devices can access your computer within your private network. Port forwarding is helpful when it comes to torrenting, playing games, hosting a VPN server, or operating a website. However, port forwarding a remote desktop connection via the internet without optimum security measures is always risky. This detailed guide elaborates everything about port forwarding you need to know today.

Most people view networking as a complicated knowledge space. The state of confusion is made even worse by the sheer volume of acronyms. Frankly, it is not a simple topic to understand, and there is so much involved that it will require decades of study and experience. But understanding port forwarding is not that complicated either.

In this article, we present you with a more simple way to understand the basics of the concept. Particularly, we will look at what port forwarding is, how it works, and if it is safe to use.

What is port forwarding, and how does it work?

Port forwarding enables incoming internet connections to get to specific programs and devices on a private network. Keep in mind that the private network can comprise devices connected to a router or users to a VPN.

If a computer tries to connect to your device when the NAT firewall is active, the connection is jammed or discarded. However, port forwarding lets unsolicited connections pass through the NAT firewall on particular ports. As a result, devices on the internet can launch connections and access any service. For instance, other users on a P2P network can download a file from your device. 

To fully understand how the process works, you must first understand a NAT firewall. Both routers and VPNs have it. Also, each device connected to a VPN server or router uses the same public IP address but gets a unique private IP address. 

Network Address Translation (NAT) is what enables multiple devices to share a single IP address. See, incoming connections have to go to the VPN server or router through the public IP address. Then, the connections are forwarded to individual devices via their private IP addresses or port number. 

On the other hand, outgoing requests are attached to a specific port number. Usually, the number is included when they receive a response, indicating the recipient device for the data. However, if you get an unsolicited connection request without a port number, it will be discarded. This is how NAT blocks malicious requests, thereby creating an effective firewall. 

Nonetheless, you may need to allow unsolicited connections in some situations. Port forwarding lets you create a passage through the NAT firewall to permit inbound connections containing the specified port. Then, these connections will be forwarded to the device you have specified in your setup. 

What is port forwarding used for?

As you can see above, the port forwarding concept may seem like a purview reserved for professional developers and programmers. However, although these people heavily use port forwarding, it also comes in handy for the average computer user. 

Below are some of the common uses of port forwarding:

  • Allowing file transfers from your computer to third parties 
  • Hosting game servers for multiplayer games available outside your home network 
  • Operating a publicly-accessible website from your local computer 
  • Running remote desktop protocols to access your computer from anywhere 
  • Hosting your own VPN server so you can access your home network remotely
  • Using torrent applications to download files quickly 

Although you can accomplish most of these tasks without port forwarding, it provides an easy solution. 

Is it safe to forward ports?

Generally, port forwarding allows people outside your network to access your computer. As we mentioned earlier, NAT is the technology that enables several devices to share a single IP address. In addition, it safeguards your devices from external attacks.

Note: Disabling NAT with port forwarding opens up your device to direct internet connections. Also, anyone from anywhere can access your computer if you port forward a remote desktop connection to the internet, which can be risky.

Is it possible to get hacked with port forwarding? Unfortunately, yes, but is it not likely if you take necessary computer security measures

More importantly, using port forwarding responsibly requires diligence and care. Use the following general tips to stay safe when using port forwarding:

  • Update your devices regularly. This will help your operating system to discover and fix bugs promptly. Otherwise, there might be a vulnerability that a hacker might take advantage of and access your computer. 
  • Use a strong password. When running a remote access connection, the password you use will determine your computer’s security level. Unfortunately, hackers are running numerous passwords per second, trying to access every device connected to the internet. The best way to eliminate this weakness is by using a strong password or key-based authentication. 
  • Avoid exposing more than you need. After understanding how port forwarding works, you may want to use it on every device or service. This is highly discouraged as you can expose your connections to all and sundry, which increases the likelihood of cyberattacks.