When it comes to network troubleshooting and monitoring, what types of tools you are using make a world of difference. While required tools may vary depending on the types of network problems you are dealing with, there are a set of essential tools that every network administrator must be familiar with, and tcpdump is definitely one of them.

tcpdump is a command-line tool packet sniffing that allows you to capture network packets based on packet filtering rules, interpret captured packet content, and display the result in a human-readable format. The main power of tcpdump comes from its (1) flexible packet filtering rules and (2) versatile protocol dissection capability. Although GUI-based Wireshark provides equally powerful filtering/dissecting capabilities via a more user-friendly interface, its relatively high memory footprint (for buffering packets) and GUI-based operations make Wireshark unsuitable when you are troubleshooting directly from remote headless servers.

Using tcpdump, you can troubleshoot a wide range of network issues including but not limited to:

  • Packet loss diagnosis: Detect packet loss and diagnose the cause for dropped packets.
  • Application performance: Estimate application-level latency from packet timestamps.
  • Rogue DHCP server detection: Discover DHCP responses from unauthorized DHCP servers.
  • Multi-homed routing: Verify traffic routing in multi-homed environment.
  • Firewall debugging: Troubleshoot packet filtering rules in the firewall.
  • VLAN misconfiguration: Monitor VLAN tags carried by traffic from a specific network interface.
  • Penetration analysis: Sniff and analyze malicious traffic on local network.

The rest of the post provides a comprehensive tcpdump cheat sheet, which illustrates different types of packet capture scenarios using actual tcpdump examples.

1. Capture Packets from a Specific Network Interface

When running tcpdump, typically you specify, with -i option, which network interface you want to monitor traffic on. If you do not specify a network interface, tcpdump will listen on a default network interface, which is the lowest-number interface in the network interface list. tcpdump -D will show the network interface list.

To capture packets received on network interface docker0:

$ sudo tcpdump -i docker0

2. Capture Packets from All Available Network Interfaces

Suppose there are multiple network interfaces on your system, and you want to capture traffic from all those interfaces simultaneously. Exactly for this purpose tcpdump provides a special interface name called “any“. Thus, simply run tcpdump with -i any option to capture traffic from all available network interfaces.

$ sudo tcpdump -i any

3. Change the Output Format

To print the layer-2 header information such as MAC addresses:

$ sudo tcpdump -e
13:27:18.002070 9c:b6:d0:fe:4d:95 (oui Unknown) > 48:d6:e5:7b:81:70 (oui Unknown), ethertype IPv4 (0x0800), length 66: xxxx.xxxx.xxxx.33800 > xxxx.xxxx.xxxx.8009: Flags [.], ack 111, win 501, options [nop,nop,TS val 1624743259 ecr 4014866], length 0

To print IP addresses and port numbers without DNS lookup or port name conversion:

$ sudo tcpdump -n
13:30:50.832688 IP > UDP, length 45

To adjust the verbosity of output:

$ sudo tcpdump -v
$ sudo tcpdump -vv
$ sudo tcpdump -vvv

4. Capture Packets with a Specific IP Address or a Subnet

To capture packets from a source IP address

$ sudo tcpdump src

To capture packets originating from a source subnet

$ sudo tcpdump src net

To capture packets with a destination IP address

$ sudo tcpdump dst

To capture packets with a destination address prefix

$ sudo tcpdump dst net

5. Capture Packets between Two Hosts or Two Subnets

To capture packets from to

$ sudo tcpdump src and dst

To capture packets from source network to destination network

$ sudo tcpdump src net and dst net

To capture packets between and in both directions:

$ sudo tcpdump host and host

To capture packets between two subnets and in both directions:

sudo tcpdump net and net

6. Capture Packets with a Specific Network Protocol

tcpdump allows you to capture network traffic with a specific network protocol. For well-known layer-3 or layer-4 protocols, you just need to specify their names. For other types of transport protocols (e.g., DHCP, DNS, SSH), you can filter them based on their port numbers (shown next).

To capture IP packets only:

$ sudo tcpdump ip

To capture ICMP packets only:

$ sudo tcpdump icmp

To capture ARP (request/response) packets only:

$ sudo tcpdump arp

To capture IPv6 packets only:

$ sudo tcpdump ip6

To capture TCP packets only:

$ sudo tcpdump tcp

To capture UDP packets only:

$ sudo tcpdump udp

To capture TCP packets between and in both directions:

$ sudo tcpdump tcp and host and host

7. Capture Packets with Specific TCP/UDP Port(s)

To capture packets with destination port 80:

$ sudo tcpdump dst port 80

To capture UDP packets with source port 4001:

$ sudo tcpdump udp src port 4001

To capture SSH packets (either source or destination port 22):

$ sudo tcpdump port 22

To capture DNS packets (either source or destination port 53):

$ sudo tcpdump port 53

To capture packets with port 80 or 8000:

$ sudo tcpdump port 80 or port 8000

To capture packets with TCP port 80 or UDP port 4001:

$ sudo tcpdump 'tcp port 80 or udp port 4001'

To capture packets with port numbers between 800 and 900:

$ sudo tcpdump portrange 800-900

To capture TCP packets with destination port range of [8000, 8010]:

$ sudo tcpdump tcp dst portrange 8000-8010

8. Capture All Packets Excluding My Own SSH Session

If my SSH session is originating from

$ sudo tcpdump port not 22 and not host

9. Capture the First N Number of Packets

To capture the first 100 TCP packets:

$ sudo tcpdump -c 100 tcp

10. Capture Packets with Specific Packet Length

To capture packets whose length are greater than 200 bytes:

$ sudo tcpdump greater 200

To capture TCP packets with destination port 80, and whose size are smaller than 200 bytes:

$ sudo tcpdump tcp dst port 80 and less 200

Note that the greater and less operators check the length of an entire packet, including all headers (e.g., Ethernet, IP, TCP headers).

To capture packets with packet size between 200 and 500 bytes:

$ sudo tcpdump not less 200 and not greater 500

11. Capture Packets with Specific MAC addresses

You can filter packets by MAC address with the ether qualifier.

To capture layer-2 broadcast traffic (i.e., packets with destination MAC address ff:ff:ff:ff:ff:ff):

$ sudo tcpdump ether dst ff:ff:ff:ff:ff:ff

To capture packets between e8:2b:88:ef:55:11 and 9c:b6:d0:ee:fd:90 in both directions:

$ sudo tcpdump ether host e8:2b:88:ef:55:11 and ether host 9c:b6:d0:ee:fd:90

To capture packets sent to or received by e8:2b:88:ef:55:11:

$ sudo tcpdump ether host e8:2b:88:ef:55:11

12. Print the Payload of Captured Packets

To print the payload of captured TCP packets in ASCII format:

$ sudo tcpdump -A tcp

Printing packet payload in ASCII format can be useful to inspect (unencrypted) HTTP protocol headers. For example:

To print the payload of captured packets in hexadecimal format:

$ sudo tcpdump -X

13. Save Captured Packets to a File, and Read Packets from a File

To save the first 1000 packets to a file trace.pcap:

$ sudo tcpdump -c 1000 -w trace.pcap

To read only TCP packets from a file trace.pcap:

$ tcpdump -r trace.pcap tcp

14. Rotate Packet Capture Files by Time and Size

When you dump captured packets to a file, the capture file can grow quickly depending on the rate of incoming packets. So you want to rotate capture files regularly.

To rotate capture files every hour or every 500 MB, whichever comes first:

$ sudo tcpdump -w /tmp/trace -W 24 -G 3600 -C 500

This will create 24 capture files (/tmp/trace00, /tmp/trace01, …, /tmp/trace23) in 24 hours. After that, it will overwrite the files from the beginning.

To rotate capture files every 30 minutes and name the capture files with collected timestamps:

$ sudo tcpdump -w /tmp/trace-%Y-%m-%d_%H-%M.pcap -G 1800

This will create a new trace file every 30 minutes with the following names.

. . .

15. Capture Packets with High-Resolution Timestamp

By default tcpdump use micro-second resolution for timestamping packets. However, tcpdump version 4.6 or later supports nano-second resolution timestamp.

To capture packets with nano-second resolution:

$ sudo tcpdump --time-stamp-precision nano

16. Capture Packets with Different Timestamp Formats

To print packet timestamp with Unix epoch time (seconds since January 1, 1970):

$ sudo tcpdump -tt
1617031894.463313 IP > UDP, length 1350

To print packet timestamp as the date followed by hours, minutes, seconds, and microseconds:

$ sudo tcpdump -tttt
2021-03-29 11:33:57.181125 IP > NTPv4, Client, length 48

To print relative timestamp (since the first packet captured):

$ sudo tcpdump -ttttt
00:00:00.000000 IP > UDP, length 40
00:00:00.205198 IP > UDP, length 44
00:00:00.211631 IP > UDP, length 33
00:00:02.356055 ARP, Request who-has tell, length 46

To print packet timestamp in a specific time zone:

tcpdump prints packet timestamp in the default timezone of your Linux system. If you want to show timestamp in a different timezone, you can specify the timezone in TZ environment variable before calling tcpdump.

$ sudo TZ=America/New_York tcpdump
$ sudo TZ=Europe/London tcpdump
$ sudo TZ=Asia/Seoul tcpdump

17. Capture TCP Control Packets

tcpdump‘s expressive filter allows you to check for any arbitrary byte ranges in a packet. Using this capability, for example, you can capture TCP packets with particular flags in their TCP headers.

To capture TCP SYN packets:

$ sudo tcpdump "tcp[tcpflags] & (tcp-syn) != 0"