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How to download YouTube videos for free: Plus two other ways

We offer you two straightforward download options and a more technical Linux command line option.
Image: Getty Images

So you want to download a YouTube video? While basic YouTube only offers downloads for a few selected videos in a few selected locations, there are ways to download any YouTube video you want at any time.

Also: Warning: Your private YouTube videos aren't 100% private

We'll cover ways you can download your favorite videos using three approaches: 

  1. Paying for YouTube Premium
  2. Using a free Mac, Windows, or Linux application
  3. Using an obscure and complex (yet very powerful) Linux command line tool.

Your paid option: YouTube Premium

I'm a big fan of YouTube Premium because it saves my wife and me from enduring most ads, but it is a luxury expense. Individuals can subscribe to YouTube Premium for $11.99 a month. YouTube also offers a family plan for up to six users for $22.99 a month. Finally, students can subscribe to YouTube Premium for $6.99 a month. 

Also: Visit ZDNET on YouTube!

My favorite feature is a complete lack of Google-provided ads. There are no banners, no pre-roll, and no interstitial ads. However, if a YouTube channel wants to embed an ad in a video, YouTube Premium will not filter those YouTuber-embedded ads.

YouTube Premium also provides background play and picture-in-picture, YouTube Music, and access to YouTube Originals. 

YouTube Premium also includes the ability to download videos. Here's how you'd go about it. 

How to download YouTube videos via YouTube Premium

1. Log into your YouTube Premium account

Once you've subscribed to YouTube Premium, you'll have a Download button in your Web browser or your phone app to the right of the Share (arrow) icon at the bottom of a video. 

Arrow pointing to Download button on YouTube Premium.

See the Download button marked by my arrows. 

David Gewirtz/ZDNET

2. Toggle the Download icon

Select the video(s) you want to download and once it comes up in the main screen display, click the Download icon. 

3. Find your downloads

You can find your downloads in the Downloads area of YouTube. Notice that YouTube says that the downloads are retained as long as you have an internet connection at least once every 30 days. That way, YouTube can confirm you are still a YouTube Premium user.

Arrow pointing to downloads on YouTube Premium.
David Gewirtz/ZDNET

Saving once downloaded 

You're not given an easy way to turn that download into a usable video file on a desktop device, so if you want to use that video for anything other than watching offline, you're somewhat out of luck. The same is true of iOS. 

Also: How local politics made me turn to YouTube Premium as a last-ditch sanity defense

However, if you're an Android user with an SD card slot in your phone, you can set the YouTube app settings (tap your profile picture, then Settings, then Downloads) to save videos to your SD card.

Download options in the settings on an Android device.
David Gewirtz/ZDNET

So, that's how to download videos into an only barely usable form for the low-low price of $11.99 per month. But what if you want a better solution, and you want to do it for free? Yeah, we have you covered.

Also: I cut my video streaming bill in half, and so can you

Your free option (and my preferred way) to download YouTube videos: ClipGrab

I have to give ZDNET's managing editor props for introducing me to this program a few years ago. I've been using it ever since. 

ClipGrab is a free program available for Mac, Windows, and Linux users. The developer says it's open source, but the source code is only available for Linux. In any case, ClipGrab rocks. Here's how to download and use it.

1. Go to ClipGrab.org

Point your browser to ClipGrab.org and click the Show All Download Options link. You'll see download links for Mac, Windows, and Linux there. I'll show you the Mac version in this article, but the interface is virtually identical on all three.

2. Copy the YouTube video link

Copy the video link of the YouTube video(s) you wish to download. You can do this up in your browser's URL bar or by clicking the Share button under the video itself. 

3. Launch ClipGrab

Make sure that you're on the Downloads tab and then choose the Launch ClipGrab option. 

4. Copy and Paste 

Copy and paste the URL of the video you want to download into ClickGrab. 

5. Click Grab this clip!

Once you've copied and pasted the desired video link into the ClickGrab browser, select Grab this clip!

Dashboard of ClipGrab.

Put one link of a video at a time into the top Downloads tab browser on ClickGrab. Once you're ready to download, select Grab this clip!

David Gewirtz/ZDNET

6. Choose the video format

On ClickGrab, you can also tweak options.

For example, you can choose the format you want the video to be in when it's stored on your computer. I generally go with Original, but I'll specify something else if that doesn't work. 

You can also choose download resolution. Depending on the video's original resolution, you can choose to download the full resolution video or reduce the resolution to save space.

Options available for formatting video.
David Gewirtz/ZDNET

7. Customize

Finally, tapping the Settings tab lets you customize where ClipGrab deposits your newly downloaded videos.

ClipGrab download and convert videos window.
David Gewirtz/ZDNET

Linux command line options

I would be remiss (or so I've been told in the comments below, on Twitter, and in my email inbox) if I didn't mention that Linux users have a command line option (because, of course they do) to download YouTube videos. As with all things Linux command line, there are some gray areas here, such as whether the tool even works or whether there's a better tool (because of course there is).

AlsoHow to install Linux applications from the command line

The first in this command line hit parade is youtube-dl. You can get access to it via its own site, on GitHub, or your favorite package manager. It should be noted that the GitHub repository was taken down for a while due to an allegation of DMCA violations, but GitHub later reinstated it. There's a very interesting story about GitHub's reasoning and response you can read. 

Some folks claim that youtube-dl is old hat and hasn't been updated in a while. That's not really true. On the day I visited its repo, the header said youtube-dl was updated six days ago. It looks like it's getting ongoing maintenance. That said, there's another open source project on GitHub, called yt-dlp, that claims to be a fork of youtube-dl with more features. I haven't tested it, use it at your own risk.

Also: Linux is not just for developers and command line pros

Both youtube-dl and yt-dlp offer a very, very wide range of features if you need them. Personally, I'm going to stick with ClipGrab, because I don't have time to turn YouTube downloading into a second or third full time job. But, 'tis up to you.

Some moral, ethical, and legal considerations

Now that you know how to download YouTube videos, should you? First, do be aware that different jurisdictions have different laws. It may or may not be legal to download a given video, even if all you want to do is watch it offline.

If you want to download a video to incorporate it into something you're producing, keep in mind that some countries have the concept of Fair Use. In those jurisdictions, small clips of copyrighted media can be incorporated into your productions. But also, remember that YouTube has algorithmic systems looking for people reusing videos, and your channel might get a strike against it for reusing media.

Also: How to record a phone call on an iPhone

When in doubt, it's always best to ask.

There you go. Do you have other techniques for accomplishing the same thing? Let us know in the comments below.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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