HTTP Headers Guide: Definition, Types and Examples

Jul 08 2024 by Oskay Günaçar

What Are HTTP Headers?

HTTP headers are an essential part of the HTTP protocol, used in the exchange of information between web servers and clients (like browsers). They play a critical role in defining how data is transmitted over the internet, influencing both the request sent by a client and the response received from the server.

Each header consists of a name followed by a colon (:) and a value, with no line breaks within the header itself.

Types of HTTP Headers

HTTP headers are divided into various types based on their functionality and role in the HTTP communication process. Understanding these types helps in effectively managing data transmission over the internet.

Here are the main types of HTTP headers:

General Headers

General headers apply to both requests and responses but are not related to the data in the body of the message. They handle the overall operation of the HTTP protocol. Examples include:

  • Cache-Control: Specifies directives for caching mechanisms in both requests and responses.
  • Connection: Controls whether the network connection stays open after the current transaction finishes.
  • Date: Represents the date and time at which the message was sent.

Request Headers

Request headers contain more information about the resource to be fetched or about the client itself. They are used exclusively in HTTP requests. Key request headers include:

  • Accept: Specifies which media types, expressed as MIME types, the client is willing to accept.
  • User-Agent: Provides information about the client's software, hardware, and operating system to the server.
  • Host: Indicates the server's domain name and port which the request is targeted to.
  • Authorization: Contains credentials for authenticating the client to the server.

Response Headers

Response headers provide additional information about the server's response that is not related to the content of the body. They are used exclusively in HTTP responses. Common response headers are:

  • Location: Used to redirect the client to another URL.
  • Server: Describes the software used by the origin server that handled the request.
  • WWW-Authenticate: Indicates the authentication method that should be used to gain access to a resource.

Entity Headers

Entity headers contain information about the body of the resource, such as the size or the MIME type. These headers can be used in both HTTP requests and responses when the message includes a body. Examples include:

  • Content-Type: Indicates the media type of the entity-body sent to the recipient.
  • Content-Length: The size of the entity-body in bytes.
  • Content-Encoding: Specifies any encodings that were applied to the body of the request or response.

Security Headers

These headers are specifically used to enhance the security of HTTP interactions. They instruct browsers on how to behave when handling the content of the web pages. Security headers include:

  • Strict-Transport-Security: Instructs the browser to only use HTTPS instead of HTTP to increase security.
  • Content-Security-Policy: Helps prevent cross-site scripting (XSS), clickjacking, and other code injection attacks resulting from execution of malicious content in the trusted web page context.

Understanding these header types allows developers and IT professionals to optimize the performance, security, and reliability of web applications.

Purpose Of HTTP Headers In HTTP Requests And Responses

HTTP headers play a critical role in the functioning of the HTTP protocol by conveying metadata associated with the HTTP request or response between a client and a server. Here’s a breakdown of their primary purposes in both HTTP requests and responses:

In HTTP Requests

  1. Client Information Transmission: Headers in requests provide valuable information about the client, such as the User-Agent header, which includes data about the client's browser, operating system, and device. This information can be used by servers to optimize content delivery according to the client's capabilities.

  2. Content Negotiation: Through headers like Accept, Accept-Language, and Accept-Encoding, a client can tell the server what type of content it prefers or can handle. This allows the server to select the appropriate content type, language, or encoding that best matches the client’s needs, ensuring compatibility and optimizing user experience.

  3. Session Management: Certain headers are used to manage sessions through tokens or cookies (Cookie header). These headers maintain state across multiple requests, which is crucial for user authentication and retaining user preferences.

  4. Security Measures: Request headers can also include fields like Authorization for sending credentials, or security tokens. Headers like Referer and Origin are used to provide context about the request, which can help in preventing CSRF (Cross-Site Request Forgery) and other security threats.

  5. Control Directives: Headers such as Cache-Control instruct the behavior of cache mechanisms, while Connection controls whether the network connection should be kept open for further transactions.

In HTTP Responses

  1. Server Information and Status: Response headers can inform the client about the server through headers like Server, and provide status updates about the handling of the request, such as through the Status header.

  2. Content Handling: Headers like Content-Type and Content-Encoding inform the client about the type of data being sent and any encodings applied. This is essential for the client to process the response correctly.

  3. Caching Instructions: The Cache-Control header in responses dictates how the client or intermediate caches should handle caching the current resource, which is vital for efficient content delivery and reducing load on servers.

  4. Redirection and Location Information: The Location header is used when a requested resource has been moved to a new URL. It directs the client to make a new request to the provided URL, facilitating seamless navigation and updates.

  5. Security Enforcement: Security-related headers like Strict-Transport-Security (HSTS) enforce security policies on the client, such as requiring HTTPS connections. The Content-Security-Policy (CSP) header helps prevent various types of attacks by specifying which dynamic resources are allowed to load.

Overall, HTTP headers are indispensable for the efficient, secure, and effective exchange of data over the web. They ensure that both the client and server have all the necessary context to process each part of the HTTP communication correctly.

What Are The Most Common HTTP Headers?


Specifies the media type of the resource or data the server is sending or the client is capable of receiving. It's used in both HTTP requests and responses.


Communicates information about the client's software, including the browser and operating system, to the server. This can influence the server's response, tailoring it to different environments.


Contains credentials for authenticating the client to the server. This header is crucial for controlling access to resources that require user verification.


Indicates the content types, expressed as MIME types, that the client can process. This helps the server return a response compatible with the client's capabilities.


Directs the behavior of cache mechanisms along the request-response chain. It is essential for optimizing performance by managing the storage and updating of resources.


Sent from the server to the client to instruct the client to store the cookie and send it back in subsequent requests to the server. It's fundamental for managing user sessions and tracking.


Used in HTTP responses to redirect the client to another URL. It is particularly useful for guiding the client during a multi-step process or when resources have moved.


Indicates the size of the body of the request or response in bytes, which is critical for handling the data transmission efficiently.


Specifies the domain name of the server (and optionally the TCP port number). It is crucial for distinguishing between different domains hosted on the same IP address.


Manages the control options for the current connection and determines whether the network connection stays open after the current transaction finishes.

Special-Purpose HTTP Headers

Special-purpose HTTP headers are designed to handle specific tasks or enhance functionality in web communications. These headers often focus on security, performance optimization, or cross-origin resource sharing. Here are some of the most notable special-purpose HTTP headers:

CORS (Cross-Origin Resource Sharing) Headers

  • Access-Control-Allow-Origin: Specifies which domains are permitted to participate in cross-origin requests. It's crucial for resources that must be accessed by web applications from different domains than the one that served them.
  • Access-Control-Allow-Methods: Informs the client about which HTTP methods are allowed when accessing the resource.
  • Access-Control-Allow-Headers: Specifies the headers that can be used during the actual request.

Security Headers

  • Strict-Transport-Security (HSTS): Instructs browsers to only use HTTPS, instead of HTTP, which helps protect against man-in-the-middle attacks.
  • Content-Security-Policy (CSP): Reduces the risk of XSS attacks by specifying which dynamic resources are allowed to load. It creates a whitelist of sources from which the client can load scripts, images, and other content.
  • X-Frame-Options: Determines whether a browser should be allowed to render a page in a <frame>, <iframe>, or <object>. Settings include DENY, SAMEORIGIN, or ALLOW-FROM uri.
  • X-XSS-Protection: Enables the browser's built-in facilities for blocking cross-site scripting (XSS) attacks. Although deprecated in favor of CSP, it was once widely used for immediate mitigation.

Performance-Related Headers

  • Expect-CT: Allows a site to opt in to reporting and/or enforcement of Certificate Transparency requirements, which can ensure that certificates issued for a site are publicly logged and compliant.
  • Server-Timing: Communicates the server's timing metrics back to the client, useful for debugging and performance monitoring.
  • Early Data (103): Used to indicate that the server is likely to accept the request's early data based on an associated TLS ticket.

WebSockets Headers

  • Sec-WebSocket-Key: Used in establishing a WebSocket connection. It's a random value that gets sent from the client to the server, which the server uses to help form a response value that confirms the handshake.
  • Sec-WebSocket-Accept: Sent by the server in response to the Sec-WebSocket-Key header, confirming the server's understanding and acceptance of the WebSocket protocol.

Proxies and Caching Headers

  • Via: Indicates the intermediate protocols and recipients between the user agent and the server on requests, and between the origin server and the client on responses.
  • Warning: Carries additional information about the status or transformation of a message which might not be reflected in the status code.

How to View and Modify HTTP Headers

Viewing and modifying HTTP headers are essential skills for web developers and IT professionals. These activities help in debugging, optimizing, and securing web applications. Here’s a guide on how to view and modify HTTP headers:

How to View HTTP Headers

Browser Developer Tools

Most modern web browsers include developer tools, which are excellent for inspecting HTTP headers:

  1. Google Chrome: Right-click on any webpage and select "Inspect" to open the Developer Tools. Go to the "Network" tab and reload the page. Click on any request to view its headers.
  2. Mozilla Firefox: Similar to Chrome, use the "Inspect Element" option, navigate to the "Network" tab, and select any request.
  3. Safari: Enable the Develop menu from Safari’s preferences, then select "Show Web Inspector" and go to the "Network" tab.

Command Line Tools

  • curl: This command-line tool can fetch URLs and display HTTP transaction headers. Use curl -I [URL] to view the response headers for a URL.
  • wget: Another command-line tool that can be used similarly to curl to fetch content from servers. Use wget --server-response --spider [URL] to see headers.

Online Tools

There are numerous online services available where you can enter a URL and see the HTTP headers returned by the server. Examples include tools like HTTP Header Checker, Rex Swain’s HTTP Viewer, and more.

How to Modify HTTP Headers

Browser Extensions

Browser extensions like ModHeader or Modify Headers for Google Chrome and Firefox can be used to add, modify, or delete HTTP headers for requests initiated from the browser.

Web Proxy Tools

  • Fiddler: A web debugging proxy that can intercept and modify traffic passing in and out of your computer. You can create custom rules to modify headers or simulate various scenarios.
  • Charles: Similar to Fiddler, Charles is a web proxy that allows you to view and modify HTTP and HTTPS traffic.

Server-Side Code

Modifying HTTP headers on the server-side depends on the technology stack you are using:

  • Apache: Use the .htaccess file or the main server configuration file to set rules for modifying headers. For example, Header set Content-Language "en" sets the Content-Language header.
  • Nginx: Modify headers using the add_header directive in the server configuration block.
  • PHP: Use the header() function to send raw HTTP headers, like header('Cache-Control: no-cache');.
  • Node.js: In an Express.js server, use res.set('Header-Name', 'value') to modify headers before sending a response.

Client-Side Code

While you can't directly modify incoming headers on the client-side due to security restrictions, you can control headers sent in new HTTP requests using JavaScript for AJAX calls:

fetch(url, {
  method: 'GET',
  headers: new Headers({
    'Custom-Header': 'Value'

Understanding how to view and modify HTTP headers is crucial for developing, testing, and maintaining robust, secure, and efficient web applications. It allows developers to fine-tune interactions between clients and servers, enforce security policies, and handle data appropriately.

What Are Some Best Practices For Using HTTP Headers?

Using HTTP headers effectively is crucial for enhancing the functionality, security, and performance of web applications. Here are some best practices for using HTTP headers:

1. Use Security Headers to Protect Your Site

Implementing security headers is an essential step in securing your web applications. These headers help mitigate risks such as cross-site scripting (XSS), clickjacking, and other code injection attacks:

  • Content-Security-Policy (CSP): Limits the sources from which content can be loaded to prevent XSS attacks.
  • Strict-Transport-Security (HSTS): Ensures the browser only communicates over HTTPS, preventing SSL stripping and man-in-the-middle attacks.
  • X-Frame-Options: Protects your site against clickjacking attacks.
  • X-XSS-Protection: Enables the browser's XSS filters (though this is often deprecated in favor of CSP).

2. Properly Manage Caching with Cache-Control Headers

Effective cache management can significantly improve the performance and scalability of your website by reducing server load and latency:

  • Use Cache-Control headers to control where and how long your content is cached.
  • Specify directives like no-cache, no-store, must-revalidate, and public or private to fine-tune caching behavior.

3. Set Cookies Securely

When setting cookies, it’s important to use the appropriate attributes to ensure they are sent securely:

  • Secure: Ensures cookies are sent over HTTPS only.
  • HttpOnly: Prevents access to cookie data via JavaScript, reducing the risk of cross-site scripting attacks.
  • SameSite: Prevents the browser from sending cookies along with cross-site requests, providing some protection against cross-site request forgery attacks.

4. Utilize Content Negotiation Headers

Content negotiation headers like Accept, Accept-Language, and Accept-Encoding allow your server to serve different versions of a resource based on the client's capabilities and preferences, enhancing usability and efficiency:

  • Properly configure your server to respond to these headers by serving the appropriate content type, language, or encoding.

5. Employ Redirection Headers Wisely

Use HTTP redirection headers such as Location judiciously to manage the navigation flow within your application:

  • Ensure that redirects are not excessively used as they can lead to longer load times and can potentially disorient search engine crawlers.

6. Be Explicit with Character Sets and Content Types

Define the Content-Type and charset directives explicitly to prevent MIME type sniffing, where the browser tries to guess the MIME type, leading to security vulnerabilities and rendering issues:

  • Set Content-Type: text/html; charset=UTF-8 for HTML documents to specify both the MIME type and the character encoding.

7. Monitor and Minimize Server Information Exposure

Minimize information leakage by configuring your server to limit the details provided in headers like Server and X-Powered-By:

  • Customize these headers to reduce the visibility of your server's software and version numbers, which could be used by attackers to exploit known vulnerabilities.

8. Implement Custom Headers for Advanced Functionality

Custom headers can be used to implement features that are unique to your application’s needs, such as API versioning (API-Version: 1.0) or to control specific application behaviors.

9. Regularly Audit Header Usage

Periodically review and audit your header configurations to ensure they still meet the security, performance, and functional needs of your applications:

  • Stay updated with the latest best practices and emerging standards in HTTP header usage.

Following these best practices will help ensure that your use of HTTP headers contributes positively to the security, performance, and functionality of your web applications.


HTTP headers are a fundamental component of web communication, intricately woven into every HTTP request and response. They serve as the backbone for conveying essential metadata between clients and servers. As we've explored, HTTP headers influence everything from content security and data caching to session management and server behavior. They not only enhance the functionality and efficiency of web applications but also play a crucial role in securing them against a variety of common vulnerabilities.

Developers and IT professionals must grasp the significance of properly using HTTP headers to harness their full potential. Whether it's through employing robust security headers to safeguard user data, managing caching effectively to improve performance, or using content negotiation headers to optimize user experience, each header plays a pivotal role. Additionally, the ability to view and modify these headers provides valuable insights and control over the web environment, enabling a more secure and efficient deployment of resources.

By adhering to the best practices outlined, you can ensure that your use of HTTP headers contributes positively to the security, performance, and overall functionality of your applications. Keeping abreast of the latest developments and standards in HTTP header usage will further enhance your capabilities in creating more resilient and high-performing web applications. Ultimately, understanding and implementing HTTP headers thoughtfully is not just about compliance or optimization—it's about crafting superior web experiences that are secure, fast, and reliable.

Oskay Günaçar
Oskay Günaçar is a Technical SEO expert and backend developer. His main areas of interest are back-end programming, Python, Django, Go, semantic SEO, technical SEO. With more than 5 years of SEO experience, he has held SEO specialist positions at İkiler, Webtures, Boosmart, and companies, and has been involved in numerous projects as an outsourced expert. Through the TechSEOHub website, he aims to share the expertise and experience he has gained from managing and developing (SEO) processes for many successful and large websites in the industry, and to produce content for easy access to accurate and high-quality information.