What does enctype='multipart/form-data' mean?


What does enctype='multipart/form-data' mean in an HTML form and when should we use it?

2/2/2019 2:21:21 PM

Accepted Answer

When you make a POST request, you have to encode the data that forms the body of the request in some way.

HTML forms provide three methods of encoding.

  • application/x-www-form-urlencoded (the default)
  • multipart/form-data
  • text/plain

Work was being done on adding application/json, but that has been abandoned.

(Other encodings are possible with HTTP requests generated using other means than an HTML form submission. JSON is a common format for use with web services and some still use SOAP.)

The specifics of the formats don't matter to most developers. The important points are:

  • Never use text/plain.

When you are writing client-side code:

  • use multipart/form-data when your form includes any <input type="file"> elements
  • otherwise you can use multipart/form-data or application/x-www-form-urlencoded but application/x-www-form-urlencoded will be more efficient

When you are writing server-side code:

  • Use a prewritten form handling library

Most (such as Perl's CGI->param or the one exposed by PHP's $_POST superglobal) will take care of the differences for you. Don't bother trying to parse the raw input received by the server.

Sometimes you will find a library that can't handle both formats. Node.js's most popular library for handling form data is body-parser which cannot handle multipart requests (but has documentation which recommends some alternatives which can).

If you are writing (or debugging) a library for parsing or generating the raw data, then you need to start worrying about the format. You might also want to know about it for interest's sake.

application/x-www-form-urlencoded is more or less the same as a query string on the end of the URL.

multipart/form-data is significantly more complicated but it allows entire files to be included in the data. An example of the result can be found in the HTML 4 specification.

text/plain is introduced by HTML 5 and is useful only for debugging — from the spec: They are not reliably interpretable by computer — and I'd argue that the others combined with tools (like the Network Panel in the developer tools of most browsers) are better for that).

4/23/2020 11:37:34 AM

when should we use it

Quentin's answer is right: use multipart/form-data if the form contains a file upload, and application/x-www-form-urlencoded otherwise, which is the default if you omit enctype.

I'm going to:

  • add some more HTML5 references
  • explain why he is right with a form submit example

HTML5 references

There are three possibilities for enctype:

How to generate the examples

Once you see an example of each method, it becomes obvious how they work, and when you should use each one.

You can produce examples using:

Save the form to a minimal .html file:

<!DOCTYPE html>
<html lang="en">
  <meta charset="utf-8"/>
<form action="http://localhost:8000" method="post" enctype="multipart/form-data">
  <p><input type="text" name="text1" value="text default">
  <p><input type="text" name="text2" value="a&#x03C9;b">
  <p><input type="file" name="file1">
  <p><input type="file" name="file2">
  <p><input type="file" name="file3">
  <p><button type="submit">Submit</button>

We set the default text value to a&#x03C9;b, which means aωb because ω is U+03C9, which are the bytes 61 CF 89 62 in UTF-8.

Create files to upload:

echo 'Content of a.txt.' > a.txt

echo '<!DOCTYPE html><title>Content of a.html.</title>' > a.html

# Binary file containing 4 bytes: 'a', 1, 2 and 'b'.
printf 'a\xCF\x89b' > binary

Run our little echo server:

while true; do printf '' | nc -l 8000 localhost; done

Open the HTML on your browser, select the files and click on submit and check the terminal.

nc prints the request received.

Tested on: Ubuntu 14.04.3, nc BSD 1.105, Firefox 40.


Firefox sent:

[[ Less interesting headers ... ]]
Content-Type: multipart/form-data; boundary=---------------------------735323031399963166993862150
Content-Length: 834

Content-Disposition: form-data; name="text1"

text default
Content-Disposition: form-data; name="text2"

Content-Disposition: form-data; name="file1"; filename="a.txt"
Content-Type: text/plain

Content of a.txt.

Content-Disposition: form-data; name="file2"; filename="a.html"
Content-Type: text/html

<!DOCTYPE html><title>Content of a.html.</title>

Content-Disposition: form-data; name="file3"; filename="binary"
Content-Type: application/octet-stream


For the binary file and text field, the bytes 61 CF 89 62 (aωb in UTF-8) are sent literally. You could verify that with nc -l localhost 8000 | hd, which says that the bytes:

61 CF 89 62

were sent (61 == 'a' and 62 == 'b').

Therefore it is clear that:

  • Content-Type: multipart/form-data; boundary=---------------------------735323031399963166993862150 sets the content type to multipart/form-data and says that the fields are separated by the given boundary string.

    But note that the:


    has two less dadhes -- than the actual barrier


    This is because the standard requires the boundary to start with two dashes --. The other dashes appear to be just how Firefox chose to implement the arbitrary boundary. RFC 7578 clearly mentions that those two leading dashes -- are required:

    4.1. "Boundary" Parameter of multipart/form-data

    As with other multipart types, the parts are delimited with a boundary delimiter, constructed using CRLF, "--", and the value of the "boundary" parameter.

  • every field gets some sub headers before its data: Content-Disposition: form-data;, the field name, the filename, followed by the data.

    The server reads the data until the next boundary string. The browser must choose a boundary that will not appear in any of the fields, so this is why the boundary may vary between requests.

    Because we have the unique boundary, no encoding of the data is necessary: binary data is sent as is.

    TODO: what is the optimal boundary size (log(N) I bet), and name / running time of the algorithm that finds it? Asked at:

  • Content-Type is automatically determined by the browser.

    How it is determined exactly was asked at: How is mime type of an uploaded file determined by browser?


Now change the enctype to application/x-www-form-urlencoded, reload the browser, and resubmit.

Firefox sent:

[[ Less interesting headers ... ]]
Content-Type: application/x-www-form-urlencoded
Content-Length: 51


Clearly the file data was not sent, only the basenames. So this cannot be used for files.

As for the text field, we see that usual printable characters like a and b were sent in one byte, while non-printable ones like 0xCF and 0x89 took up 3 bytes each: %CF%89!


File uploads often contain lots of non-printable characters (e.g. images), while text forms almost never do.

From the examples we have seen that:

  • multipart/form-data: adds a few bytes of boundary overhead to the message, and must spend some time calculating it, but sends each byte in one byte.

  • application/x-www-form-urlencoded: has a single byte boundary per field (&), but adds a linear overhead factor of 3x for every non-printable character.

Therefore, even if we could send files with application/x-www-form-urlencoded, we wouldn't want to, because it is so inefficient.

But for printable characters found in text fields, it does not matter and generates less overhead, so we just use it.

enctype='multipart/form-data is an encoding type that allows files to be sent through a POST. Quite simply, without this encoding the files cannot be sent through POST.

If you want to allow a user to upload a file via a form, you must use this enctype.


When submitting a form, you tell your browser to send, via the HTTP protocol, a message on the network, properly enveloped in a TCP/IP protocol message structure. An HTML page has a way to send data to the server: by using <form>s.

When a form is submitted, an HTTP Request is created and sent to the server, the message will contain the field names in the form and the values filled in by the user. This transmission can happen with POST or GET HTTP methods.

  • POST tells your browser to build an HTTP message and put all content in the body of the message (a very useful way of doing things, more safe and also flexible).
  • GET will submit the form data in the querystring. It has some constraints about data representation and length.

Stating how to send your form to the server

Attribute enctype has sense only when using POST method. When specified, it instructs the browser to send the form by encoding its content in a specific way. From MDN - Form enctype:

When the value of the method attribute is post, enctype is the MIME type of content that is used to submit the form to the server.

  • application/x-www-form-urlencoded: This is the default. When the form is sent, all names and values are collected and URL Encoding is performed on the final string.
  • multipart/form-data: Characters are NOT encoded. This is important when the form has a file upload control. You want to send the file binary and this ensures that bitstream is not altered.
  • text/plain: Spaces get converted, but no more encoding is performed.


When submitting forms, some security concerns can arise as stated in RFC 7578 Section 7: Multipart form data - Security considerations:

All form-processing software should treat user supplied form-data
with sensitivity, as it often contains confidential or personally
identifying information. There is widespread use of form "auto-fill" features in web browsers; these might be used to trick users to
unknowingly send confidential information when completing otherwise
innocuous tasks. multipart/form-data does not supply any features
for checking integrity, ensuring confidentiality, avoiding user
confusion, or other security features; those concerns must be
addressed by the form-filling and form-data-interpreting applications.

Applications that receive forms and process them must be careful not to supply data back to the requesting form-processing site that was not intended to be sent.

It is important when interpreting the filename of the Content-
Disposition header field to not inadvertently overwrite files in the
recipient's file space.

This concerns you if you are a developer and your server will process forms submitted by users which might end up containing sensitive information.


enctype='multipart/form-data' means that no characters will be encoded. that is why this type is used while uploading files to server.
So multipart/form-data is used when a form requires binary data, like the contents of a file, to be uploaded


Set the method attribute to POST because file content can't be put inside a URL parameter using a form.

Set the value of enctype to multipart/form-data because the data will be split into multiple parts, one for each file plus one for the text of the form body that may be sent with them.


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