What is .htaccess file? and how to leverage it?

17-05-2024 - General, Guides, htaccess

An introduction to what is .htaccess file?

Web security is a multimillion-dollar industry today, and it is more important than ever to know how to secure your website. Many things can go wrong when unauthorized access is gained by apps (bots) or individuals with malicious intent. Users’ personal data, company data, financial data, and records are at the mercy of these attackers. Although knowing how to fend them off is a good solution, it involves a lot of resources, money, time, and effort. Often, the stakes and costs are high when the damage has already been done by these intruders. But what if there’s a way to ensure that these attackers don’t gain access to your website in the first place?

In this guide, we’ll explore the infamous what is .htaccess file, and how you can leverage it to add an extra layer of security to your website by preventing access to malicious attackers using a method known as IP-blocking.

What is .htaccess file

So what is .htaccess file? .htaccess is short for Hypertext Access. It is a configuration file used by Apache-based web servers. Configuration files set the initial settings of a program or, in this case, the server. This means that the .htaccess file can be used to make the server behave in a certain way. Each function is a line of text, or code, instructing the server on what to do. You can add or modify functionality by adding or changing the code in the .htaccess file.

The .htaccess file is often overlooked by most people, partly because they don’t understand its importance and use. Its mere presence lets a web server know that there may be some web assets (e.g., HTML files) present that should be served on a domain and tells your web server how to handle them. This is because the .htaccess file is a configuration file for apache web servers.

Their is no standard .htaccess file, because it greatly varies depending on the web hosting server, and how you want it to be configured – it can be a many hundred lines long, but it can also just be a couple of lines, as seen in to the right.

What is .htaccess file, a simply .htaccess file

Properties of a .htaccess file

A .htaccess file has many parts. It usually begins – just like any code block of file or module – with a comment or description of the code and what it does / aims to achieve. Some of the properties of a htaccess file includes:

1. Configuration Overrides

Provide directory-level configuration overrides, allowing you to customize settings without modifying the global server configuration.

2. Per-Directory Scope

Each .htaccess file applies its directives to the directory it resides in and all its subdirectories, unless overridden by another .htaccess file.

3. Flexibility

The .htaccess files support a wide range of directives for controlling various aspects of website behavior, such as URL rewriting, access control, error handling, and security settings.

4. Immediate Effect

Changes made to a .htaccess file take effect immediately upon saving, making it convenient for quick adjustments to website configuration.

5. Granular Control

.htaccess allows for granular control over access permissions, allowing you to restrict or allow access based on IP addresses, user authentication, or other criteria.d

6. Security Enhancements

.htaccess files can enhance website security by blocking malicious requests, preventing directory listing, enforcing SSL/TLS, and more.

7. Performance Optimization

By configuring caching, compression, and other performance-related directives in .htaccess, you can optimize website performance and speed up page loading times.

8. Error Customization

.htaccess enables you to customize error pages for different HTTP status codes, providing a better user experience in case of errors.

9. Conditional Configuration

You can use conditions and logical operators within .htaccess directives to apply configuration settings based on specific criteria, enhancing flexibility and customization options.

Rules/Syntaxs to follow when using the .htaccess file

Writing a .htaccess file is similar to writing code in any programming language; it has specific rules, such as syntax and keywords, where each word represents a particular functionality.

1. Directives

A .htaccess file consists of directives, each of which specifies a particular action for the server to perform.


Comments in .htaccess files start with a hash symbol (#) and are used to provide explanations or annotations for the directives. Comments are ignored by the server and are purely for human readability.

3. Sections

.htaccess directives can be grouped into sections for organization and clarity. There are two main types of sections:

Container Sections – These sections are enclosed within tags like `<Directory>`, `<Files>`, `<Location>`, etc. They apply directives to specific directories, files, or URL paths.

.htaccess file, container section example

Non-container Sections – These sections are not enclosed within tags and apply directives globally to the entire server or virtual host.

.htaccess file, non-container section example

4. Rules

Directives in .htaccess files often consist of one or more rules. A rule typically consists of a condition and an action.

RewriteCond – Specifies a condition that must be met for the following RewriteRule to be applied.

RewriteRule – Specifies a regex (regular expression) pattern to match in the request URL and an action to perform if the pattern matches.

.htaccess file, rules

5. File Matching

Some directives, like `<FilesMatch>` or `<Files>`, are used to target specific files or file types.

.htaccess file, example of FilesMatch

Here, the `<FilesMatch>` directive applies its enclosed directives to files whose names match the specified regular expression pattern.

6. Order of Directives

The order of directives in a .htaccess file is significant, as directives are processed sequentially from top to bottom. Directives that appear later in the file can override or modify the effects of previous directives.

So what can you use your .htaccess file for?

The .htaccess file is a powerful tool that can help improve the security and performance of your website. Here are two ways you can utilize your .htaccess file:

1. How to Disable Hotlinking on Your Website with .htaccess

Hotlinking occurs when other websites link directly to the images or assets on your server, using your bandwidth to display content elsewhere. This can slow down your site and increase your hosting costs. To prevent this, you can use your .htaccess file to disable hotlinking. By adding specific rules, you can restrict access to your assets such that only requests from your domain are allowed. We have a detailed step-by-step guide on How to Disable Hotlinking on Your Website with .htaccess.

2. How to Block Country-Based IP Addresses with .htaccess

Sometimes, it may be necessary to block traffic from specific countries due to spam, hacking attempts, or other security concerns. You can use the .htaccess file to block IP addresses from particular countries, thereby preventing unwanted visitors from accessing your site. This involves adding a set of directives to your .htaccess file to deny access to certain IP ranges. For a step-by-step guide, check out our blog post on How to Block IP by Country Using .htaccess File.

3. How to Create Wildcard Subdomains with .htaccess and Apache

Creating wildcard subdomains can streamline your web management by allowing dynamic subdomains to be handled flexibly. With Apache and the .htaccess file, you can easily set up this capability. By using specific rewrite rules, you can match any subdomain pattern and redirect or serve the appropriate content. This is especially useful for applications that serve multiple clients or instances from the same codebase. We offer a detailed guide on How to Create Wildcard Subdomains with .htaccess and Apache, ensuring you can implement this setup smoothly and efficiently.

4. How to Force HTTPS using .htaccess file

Securing your website by forcing HTTPS is crucial for protecting user data and enhancing SEO. By forcing HTTPS using the .htaccess file, you ensure all traffic to your site is encrypted and secure. This involves adding specific directives to the .htaccess file located in your site’s root directory. These directives check if the request is via HTTP and, if so, redirect it to HTTPS. This method is straightforward and helps in maintaining a consistent user experience. Learn more about How to Force HTTPS using .htaccess File in our comprehensive guide.

5. How to Redirect an Expired Domain using the .htaccess file

When a domain expires, you may want to redirect traffic from the expired domain to a new one. This can be efficiently handled using the .htaccess file. By configuring 301 redirects, you can seamlessly direct users and search engines from the old domain to the new one, preserving traffic and SEO value. This is particularly important for maintaining visitor trust and continuity. For detailed instructions, refer to our guide on How to Redirect an Expired Domain using the .htaccess File, which provides step-by-step directions for setting up your redirects correctly.

By leveraging these functionalities, you can effectively manage your server’s resources and enhance your site’s security.