What is Torrenting? 4 Things You Need to Know

By Fergus O'SullivanEditor-at-Large
— Last Updated:

You’ve probably heard of Internet piracy and copyright infringement and that it’s made possible by something called torrenting. But what is torrenting exactly? How does it work? In this article CommQueR.com is going to explain to you what torrenting is, the risks associated with torrenting and how you can get started up- and downloading files yourself.

Before we start, realize that torrenting is a kind of file sharing and is not inherently illegal. However, most of the stuff you find on torrent sites is copyrighted material and downloading it is very much not allowed; if you torrent a movie, book or game, you’re breaking the law. What you do is up to you, but know you’re doing it on your own lookout.

How Torrenting Works

When you download something off the Internet, you usually click a download button and the files comes onto your computer like manna from heaven. Torrenting works differently from that: rather than taking a file from a single server and downloading it one whole go, a torrent (also called a “tracker”) will break up the big file and chop it up into little pieces, called “packets.”

These packets are on a server in their entirety (called the “seeder”), but are also shared throughout a network of computers also downloading the same file you are. These “peers” (or “leechers” in torrentspeak) all have slightly different parts of the same file. The torrent file you downloaded keeps track of who has which packet and alternates where you’re downloading from.

Each leecher acts as a tiny mini-server. This reduces overall network load significantly and makes it very interesting for people that are running on limited bandwidth; the downside is that while you’re downloading, you’re also uploading, increasing the strain on your Internet connection.

As a result, the download process averages out as slower than with a direct download; generally it is a lot slower in the beginning and then starts to speed up as you go along. This has to do with the fact that your download speed and upload speed are linked up to a certain degree: the more you can contribute to the torrent, the more you can soak up in return.

Another factor that slows down torrents is that the download connection is generally a lot less stable, so expect to see more interruptions than you’re used to with direct downloads. If you’re on a very fast connection the difference is negligible, but people with slower connections may find themselves getting frustrated at the constant slowdowns.

Risks of Torrenting

There are very few risks associated with the actual process of torrenting: since you’re downloading it from a network of peers, the chances of a computer virus hitching a ride are smaller than they are with regular downloads. The torrenting community also helps with this, as most people will leave comments below a torrent telling you whether it’s good or bad.

Still it pays to look out for trolls putting up virus-laden files and remember that when something seems too good to be true, it usually is. It’s best to stay away from uploaders you don’t know and also from torrents that have no comments under them or you may find your computer has fallen victim to cybercriminals or a particularly nasty prank.

As we said before, downloading copyrighted material is illegal and the threat of being sued is probably the biggest risk when torrenting. Anti-piracy activists claim that copyright infringement (most of it done through torrenting) is costing the U.S. economy $250 billion per year and they are not taking it lying down.

Whether that figure is correct is disputed, but the crackdown on copyright infringement is definitely a reality. Several countries have shut down access to file-sharing sites like The Pirate Bay and Kickass Torrents completely, while people across the U.S. have been sued for downloading movies illegally. Generally these suits come to nothing, but you may get unlucky and get a judge that will make it stick.

The best way to dodge that particular bullet is to either stop torrenting or, more likely, use a VPN to mask your digital footprint. We have compiled a list of best VPNs for torrenting, but if you decide to use a different one know that not all VPNs are created equal in this regard.

You need a VPN that hides your down- and upload trail, not just the sites you visit and preferable has a kill switch as well, so you don’t find yourself torrenting across an open connection when the VPN drops. DNS masking is a handy bonus, too, as are any other security measures.

How to Download Torrents

With the tech and the legal stuff out of the way, let’s get to the fun bit: torrenting. Now, torrenting without a VPN is a bad idea. We really do not recommend you get started without some kind of VPN in place, so check out our best VPN article and get back to us after, especially if you live in the U.S., Europe or Canada. Though ISPs have stopped sending copyright notices you’re better off being safe than sorry.

Now before finding torrents, you need to have a special program to be able to hook up to seeders and leechers, called a “client.” There are plenty to choose from, but µTorrent, Transmission and BitTorrent are the most popular, with Transmission being my personal fave for its simple interface.

With any of those installed and your VPN up and running, you can now go onto the Internet and find a torrenting site. Two of the biggest sites are The Pirate Bay and Kickass Torrents, but as they move around a lot you’re best off googling them yourself to find them (law enforcement agencies are chasing them around the globe in a Tom & Jerry style chase). Another option is to check out our best alternative torrent sites article (we also have a guide for how to unblock torrent sites).

The Pirate Bay has the most stuff on it and is pretty easy to search; as a bonus its comment section usually has more people saying things about the torrent you want, so you may want to start there. Just enter what you want to find (don’t forget to click the category it will be in or you’ll find out exactly how true Rule 34 is) and you’ll be brought to the results.

You’ll want to find a “healthy” torrent, one that has plenty of seeders and leechers (there are numbers behind the name of the torrent, no screenshot because, well…), yet isn’t too badly out of proportion, either. As a rule of thumb, three leechers per seeder is very good, while more than five per seeder is pushing it.

Read the comments real quick to make sure you’re not dealing with a hoax, though remember it’s still the Internet so trolls abound. Once you’re satisfied, click “get this torrent” and you’re off. The Pirate Bay uses magnet links, so after you click you’re probably good to go, but if you go for Kickass Torrents you’ll need to find the downloaded tracker torrent file and open it manually. Either way, all that remains is to wait for the download to finish.

Final Thoughts

And that’s really all there is to it. Remember while file sharing is legal, copyright infringement is not. Always use a VPN, our favorite in this case is ExpressVPN (read our ExpressVPN review to find out why) to make sure you don’t get Johnny Law after you. By using our ExpressVPN coupon, you can get an extra 3 months free on the annual plan. Plus, there’s a money-back guarantee, so it’s easy to cancel ExpressVPN if you don’t like it. Read our guide to torrenting with ExpressVPN. Besides that, happy hunting!

What do you think about torrenting? Have any questions after reading this article? Let us know in the comments below, thank you for reading.