How to Check a File Checksum: A Step-by-Step Guide

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Say no to risky downloads! Learn how to verify the checksum of a downloaded file in 5 easy steps to ensure that the file is malware free and legitimate. Discover how comparing checksums can give you peace of mind and protect your devices from malware, data breaches and installation errors

With more than 5 billion internet users worldwide and millions of people now working remotely, downloading content has become the norm. This practice doesn’t seem like an issue until you consider the risks they pose to your business. For example, an average of 1,211 pieces of new malware variants were identified by SonicWall in 2021 alone. With this in mind, it means that the chances of downloading compromised executables and other files are now higher than ever.

To help you mitigate the chances of malware infection, we’ve previously shown you how to check if a file has a virus before downloading it and how to recognize safe download websites. But there’s more to learn. In this article, which is the second of a series of three articles on checksums, you’ll learn how to check a checksum (i.e., how to verify the checksum of a downloaded file) step by step and further secure your downloads.

What Is a Cryptographic Checksum?

A checksum is like a digital fingerprint of a file or code. It’s a calculated value made of numbers and letters used to verify the integrity of a file. One of the most common uses of checksums is confirming whether a downloaded file is corrupted or has been tampered with since it was originally created. How? This is what you’re going to learn next.

Find out more about the basic of checksum in our first article of this series “What Is a Checksum? An Easy-to-Understand Checksum Definition.

How to Verify the Checksum of a Downloaded File in 5 Easy Steps

Some publishers provide you with their files’ checksums upfront. This means that when you go to a software vendor’s download page of a file or code, especially in the case of software packages, you’ll find a string of alphanumeric characters near the download button that looks like a load of gibberish; that’s the file’s checksum.

Let’s see how you can use it to validate files on Windows and Linux. Before we do that, it’s important to highlight that there are two ways to manually verify checksums:

  • Using the built-in checksum tool available on all major operating systems.
  • Using a third-party checksum calculator like Microsoft’s FCIV (File Checksum Integrity Verifier) or GtkHash.

In this guide, we’re going to use the first and more straightforward option in the Windows operating system.

1. Windows — Download the File

To show you how to verify checksum of a downloaded file, we’ll download the latest UBUNTU Mate ISO. This free, open-source operating system includes a checksum for file integrity checking purposes.

As you can see, in this case, the ISO comes with a SHA256 checksum. This means that once you’ve downloaded the image, in order to verify its integrity, you’ll have to generate the SHA-256 checksum for it.

You can find more detailed information on SHA256 and other similar cryptographic checksum algorithms in our hashing algorithms comparison article.

2. Open a Command Prompt

  • Open the command prompt by clicking the Start button.
  • Type cmd in the run bar and select Run as Administrator to launch the Command Prompt window in Admin mode.

cmd run as administrator

3. Go to The Directory Where the File Is Saved

Use the cd (change directory) command to navigate to the directory where you saved the downloaded ISO:

cmd navigate right directory Image caption: A screenshot in Windows CMD prompt that illustrates how to navigate to the right directory.

4. Type certUtil –hashfile [Filename] SHA256 to Generate the Checksum

  • Type certUtil -hashfile [filename, in this case ubuntu-mate-20.04.3-desktop-amd64.iso] SHA256
  • Press Enter.

This will generate the checksum. Note: An ISO is usually pretty big, so it may take some time to generate the file checksum.

generate checksum Image caption: A screenshot of how to generate the checksum

5. Compare the Two Checksums

Compare the checksum displayed on the vendor’s page with the one you’ve just generated. If it matches, you’re good to go because it means that the ISO is clean and free of errors. If it doesn’t, it means the file might be corrupted or compromised. Easy right?

sha3 512 checksum for cds Image caption: A screenshot of the generated checksum, which you’ll compare to the one provided on the download page.

versus

ubuntu mate original sha 256 checksum Image caption: A screenshot of the UBUNTU Mate original SHA-256 checksum, which displays on the tool’s UBUNTU Mate download page.

Yeah! They match.

Let’s see how it works in Linux.

1. Linux—Download the File

To simplify things and allow you to compare the two processes, we’ll use the same UBUNTU Mate ISO example.

2. Open a Terminal Window

Press Ctrl+Alt+T. A terminal window will immediately pop up on your screen.

ubuntus terminal window Image caption: A screenshot of Ubuntu’s terminal window.

3. Go to the Directory Where the File Is Saved

Much like in the previous Windows CMD Prompt example, use the cd command to navigate to the directory where you stored the downloaded ISO. This process will look like this in Linux:

ubuntu how to change to the right directory Image caption: how to change to the right directory

4. Type sha256sum [Filename] to Generate the Checksum

  • Type sha256sum [filename] — we’re using a specific version of Ubuntu. So, in this case, you could type sha256 sum ubuntu-mate-20.04.3-desktop-amd64.iso.
  • Press Enter.

This will generate the checksum:

ubuntu generating the checksum Image caption: generating the checksum

5. Compare the Two Checksums to See If They Match

It’s comparison time! You’ll now want to check the comparison on the vendor’s website against the one you generated. Does I match? If yes, you’re set because it means the ISO is unaltered and free of errors. If it doesn’t match, the file might be compromised in some way.

Let’s quickly compare your generated checksum value with the one provided on the UBUNTU Mate Download page:

ubuntu generated checksum Image caption: A screenshot of the generated checksum.

versus

ubuntu mate original sha 256 checksum Image caption: A screenshot of the original (provided) checksum from the UBUNTU website.

They match!

Now you’re ready to verify every file you download from those websites displaying checksums!

How Accurate Is a File Checksum?

One of the key characteristics of a checksum is that any change made to the original file, even a small one, will result in a totally different checksum algorithm. As a result, the checksum you generate for the file you download won’t match the one displayed on the publisher’s download page. This guarantees a high level of accuracy and file integrity assurance.

Final Thoughts on How to Check a File Checksum

As you can see, understanding how to check a file checksum isn’t rocket science; it’s something even users with relatively basic computer skills can manage if they know what to do. It just takes a few minutes, and it can save you from the disastrous consequences of malware infections or corrupted files installations such as data breaches.

Add the power of checksums to your download routine when possible and remember: every little thing counts in protecting the security of your device!

If you want to learn even more about how to check checksum, don’t miss our next and last article of the series. This article will serve as the ultimate step-by-step guide on how to generate an MD5 checksum to check the validity of a signed executable’s digital signature.