1. Introduction

Unquestionably, the curl command-line tool has been a versatile and powerful ally in web development and data retrieval. Fundamentally, it allows developers and system administrators to fetch data from the internet seamlessly.

Nevertheless, when making HTTP requests using curl, it’s prudent to set a timeout. In this tutorial, we’ll explore the importance of setting timeouts in curl requests and how to manage them to ensure that the data retrieval process is efficient and reliable.

2. Understanding the Need for Timeout

Before we delve into setting a timeout in curl requests, let’s first understand why this parameter is crucial. Many a time, when making HTTP requests to external resources, several factors can lead to delays or failures in the connection:

  • Slow Servers: the server we access may be slow or under maintenance or unresponsive due to high traffic or technical issues. Hence, our curl request can hang indefinitely, causing the application to become unresponsive.
  • Network Issues: network problems, such as loss of internet connectivity or packet loss, can result in slow or failed connections. In such a case, our application may wait endlessly for a response that never arrives.
  • DNS Resolution Delays: resolving the domain name (DNS resolution) can also result in delays. If the DNS server is slow or the domain does not exist, our curl request might hang indefinitely.
  • Firewall issues: firewalls and proxy servers can sometimes block requests, leading to delays in our application.

Basically, if the request takes longer than the specified timeout, curl terminates the connection and reports an error.

Therefore, by specifying a timeout, we limit how long curl should wait for a response. This ensures that our application remains responsive when the external resource is slow or unresponsive.

3. Setting a Timeout in Curl Requests

Now, let’s delve into the straightforward method of setting a timeout in a curl request:

$ curl -m [timeout_seconds] [URL]

In this syntax, we use the -m or –max-time option, followed by the number of seconds of timeout duration.

To exemplify further, let’s set a timeout of 10 seconds for a GET request to a hypothetical API endpoint:

$ curl -m 10 https://reqbin.com/echo/get/json

So, if the request to https://reqbin.com/echo/get/json takes longer than 10 seconds to complete, curl terminates the connection and returns an error.

Nevertheless, let’s remember that the timeout value we set should be relevant for the specific use case. If we set it too low, then we risk prematurely terminating requests that might take a bit longer to respond but are still valid.

On the other hand, if we set it too high, then it might lead to a very long response time during network or server issues.

4. Handling Timeout Errors

Now that we’ve learned to specify timeout values, let’s understand how to handle timeout errors in our script. Generally, when a curl request times out, it returns an error message. In such a case, we check the exit status of the curl command to determine if a timeout occurred.

Mostly, in systems like Unix, a successful curl request returns an exit status of `0`. However, when a timeout or error occurs, the exit status displays a non-zero value.

In this script, we use the $? variable, which provides the exit status of the last executed command. If the exit status is `0`, the request was successful.

Now, we learned to decipher the status to check for the occurrence of a timeout. As a step further, let’s try to circumvent the impact of a timeout instead of simply displaying an error message:


while [ $retry_count -lt $max_retries ]; do
  curl -m 10 https://reqbin.com/echo/get/json

  if [ $? -eq 0 ]; then
    echo "Request was successful"
    echo "Request failed with exit code $?. Retrying..."
    retry_count=$((retry_count + 1))
    sleep 2 # Wait for 2 seconds before retrying

if [ $retry_count -eq $max_retries ]; then
  echo "Request failed after $max_retries retries. Exiting."

Here, we set a maximum number of retries (max_retries) and attempt the curl request multiple times with a pause between each retry.

If the request succeeds, we break out of the loop. If it fails, we increment the retry count and wait a few seconds before trying again. After reaching the maximum number of retries, we display a failure message.

So, this approach ensures that our script doesn’t give up on the first timeout but makes multiple attempts to fetch the data before declaring a failure.

5. Handling Timeouts in Different Curl Commands

Next, let’s further our understanding with some examples of how to use timeouts in different scenarios. The -m option for setting a timeout can be used with various curl commands, such as GET, POST, PUT, etc.

First, let’s download a file from a URL using the GET request and set a timeout of 30 seconds. Here, the downloaded output is saved as outputfile.txt:

$ curl -m 30 -o outputfile.txt https://reqbin.com/echo/get/file.txt

The -o option specifies the output file.

Second, let’s make a POST request with data and set a timeout of 15 seconds:

$ curl -m 15 -X POST -d "param1=value1&param2=value2" https://reqbin.com/echo/post/json

Next, let’s set a timeout for FTP requests that includes authentication information:

$ curl -m 20 -u username:password ftp://ftp.example.com/file.txt

Here, in addition to the timeout of 20 seconds, we also provide the inline username and password.

Additionally, we can also send the headers with a timeout and include an authorization header in the request.

In this way, the -m option is exploited in scripts in various curl scenarios to ensure that our requests don’t hang indefinitely.

6. Timeout for Individual Operations

Sometimes, we may want to set timeouts for specific operations within a single curl request. For instance, we may want to set a longer timeout for the actual data transfer and a shorter timeout for DNS resolution.

We can achieve this by using the –connect-timeout, –max-time, and –speed-time options together:

$ curl --connect-timeout 5 --max-time 30 --speed-time 20 --speed-limit 50 https://reqbin.com/echo/get/json

In this command:

  • –connect-timeout sets a 5-second timeout for server connection
  • –max-time sets a 30-second timeout for the entire request
  • –speed-time sets a timeout for the transfer speed (data rate)
  • –speed-limit sets the speed limit if we’ve bandwidth limitations

So, we see that this feature allows us to tweak the timeouts for different aspects of the request.

7. Conclusion

To summarize, we’ve explored the importance of timeouts, how to set them in various curl commands, and how to handle timeout errors in scripts. We’ve also covered advanced timeout techniques, such as controlling connection timeouts and adjusting timeouts for specific operations.

Thus, by incorporating timeout management into curl requests and scripts, we can create more robust and resilient applications that provide a better user experience and respond effectively to the challenges of network communication.