BOLT 1: Base Protocol

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Date: 2019-02-27
License: Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

This protocol assumes an underlying authenticated and ordered transport mechanism that takes care of framing individual messages. BOLT 8 specifies the canonical transport layer used in Lightning, though it can be replaced by any transport that fulfills the above guarantees.

The default TCP port is 9735. This corresponds to hexadecimal 0x2607: the Unicode code point for LIGHTNING.

All data fields are unsigned big-endian unless otherwise specified.

Connection Handling and Multiplexing

Implementations MUST use a single connection per peer; channel messages (which include a channel ID) are multiplexed over this single connection.

Lightning Message Format

After decryption, all Lightning messages are of the form:

  1. type: a 2-byte big-endian field indicating the type of message
  2. payload: a variable-length payload that comprises the remainder of the message and that conforms to a format matching the type

The type field indicates how to interpret the payload field. The format for each individual type is defined by a specification in this repository. The type follows the it's ok to be odd rule, so nodes MAY send odd-numbered types without ascertaining that the recipient understands it.

A sending node:

  • MUST NOT send an evenly-typed message not listed here without prior negotiation.

A receiving node:

  • upon receiving a message of odd, unknown type:
    • MUST ignore the received message.
  • upon receiving a message of even, unknown type:
    • MUST fail the channels.

The messages are grouped logically into four groups, ordered by the most significant bit that is set:

  • Setup & Control (types 0-31): messages related to connection setup, control, supported features, and error reporting (described below)
  • Channel (types 32-127): messages used to setup and tear down micropayment channels (described in BOLT 2)
  • Commitment (types 128-255): messages related to updating the current commitment transaction, which includes adding, revoking, and settling HTLCs as well as updating fees and exchanging signatures (described in BOLT 2)
  • Routing (types 256-511): messages containing node and channel announcements, as well as any active route exploration (described in BOLT 7)

The size of the message is required by the transport layer to fit into a 2-byte unsigned int; therefore, the maximum possible size is 65535 bytes.

A node:

  • MUST ignore any additional data within a message beyond the length that it expects for that type.
  • upon receiving a known message with insufficient length for the contents:
    • MUST fail the channels.
  • that negotiates an option in this specification:
    • MUST include all the fields annotated with that option.


By default SHA2 and Bitcoin public keys are both encoded as big endian, thus it would be unusual to use a different endian for other fields.

Length is limited to 65535 bytes by the cryptographic wrapping, and messages in the protocol are never more than that length anyway.

The it's ok to be odd rule allows for future optional extensions without negotiation or special coding in clients. The "ignore additional data" rule similarly allows for future expansion.

Implementations may prefer to have message data aligned on an 8-byte boundary (the largest natural alignment requirement of any type here); however, adding a 6-byte padding after the type field was considered wasteful: alignment may be achieved by decrypting the message into a buffer with 6-bytes of pre-padding.

Setup Messages

The init Message

Once authentication is complete, the first message reveals the features supported or required by this node, even if this is a reconnection.

BOLT 9 specifies lists of global and local features. Each feature is generally represented in globalfeatures or localfeatures by 2 bits. The least-significant bit is numbered 0, which is even, and the next most significant bit is numbered 1, which is odd.

Both fields globalfeatures and localfeatures MUST be padded to bytes with 0s.

  • type: 16 (init)
  • data:
    • [2:gflen]
    • [gflen:globalfeatures]
    • [2:lflen]
    • [lflen:localfeatures]

The 2-byte gflen and lflen fields indicate the number of bytes in the immediately following field.


The sending node:

  • MUST send init as the first Lightning message for any connection.
  • MUST set feature bits as defined in BOLT 9.
  • MUST set any undefined feature bits to 0.
  • SHOULD use the minimum lengths required to represent the feature fields.

The receiving node:

  • MUST wait to receive init before sending any other messages.
  • MUST respond to known feature bits as specified in BOLT 9.
  • upon receiving unknown odd feature bits that are non-zero:
    • MUST ignore the bit.
  • upon receiving unknown even feature bits that are non-zero:
    • MUST fail the connection.


This semantic allows both future incompatible changes and future backward compatible changes. Bits should generally be assigned in pairs, in order that optional features may later become compulsory.

Nodes wait for receipt of the other's features to simplify error diagnosis when features are incompatible.

The feature masks are split into local features (which only affect the protocol between these two nodes) and global features (which can affect HTLCs and are thus also advertised to other nodes).

The error Message

For simplicity of diagnosis, it's often useful to tell a peer that something is incorrect.

  • type: 17 (error)
  • data:
    • [32:channel_id]
    • [2:len]
    • [len:data]

The 2-byte len field indicates the number of bytes in the immediately following field.


The channel is referred to by channel_id, unless channel_id is 0 (i.e. all bytes are 0), in which case it refers to all channels.

The funding node:

  • for all error messages sent before (and including) the funding_created message:
    • MUST use temporary_channel_id in lieu of channel_id.

The fundee node:

  • for all error messages sent before (and not including) the funding_signed message:
    • MUST use temporary_channel_id in lieu of channel_id.

A sending node:

  • when sending error:
    • MUST fail the channel referred to by the error message.
  • SHOULD send error for protocol violations or internal errors that make channels unusable or that make further communication unusable.
  • SHOULD send error with the unknown channel_id in reply to messages of type 32-255 related to unknown channels.
  • MAY send an empty data field.
  • when failure was caused by an invalid signature check:
    • SHOULD include the raw, hex-encoded transaction in reply to a funding_created, funding_signed, closing_signed, or commitment_signed message.
  • when channel_id is 0:
    • MUST fail all channels with the receiving node.
    • MUST close the connection.
  • MUST set len equal to the length of data.

The receiving node:

  • upon receiving error:
    • MUST fail the channel referred to by the error message, if that channel is with the sending node.
  • if no existing channel is referred to by the message:
    • MUST ignore the message.
  • MUST truncate len to the remainder of the packet (if it's larger).
  • if data is not composed solely of printable ASCII characters (For reference: the printable character set includes byte values 32 through 126, inclusive):
    • SHOULD NOT print out data verbatim.


There are unrecoverable errors that require an abort of conversations; if the connection is simply dropped, then the peer may retry the connection. It's also useful to describe protocol violations for diagnosis, as this indicates that one peer has a bug.

It may be wise not to distinguish errors in production settings, lest it leak information — hence, the optional data field.

Control Messages

The ping and pong Messages

In order to allow for the existence of long-lived TCP connections, at times it may be required that both ends keep alive the TCP connection at the application level. Such messages also allow obfuscation of traffic patterns.

  • type: 18 (ping)
  • data:
    • [2:num_pong_bytes]
    • [2:byteslen]
    • [byteslen:ignored]

The pong message is to be sent whenever a ping message is received. It serves as a reply and also serves to keep the connection alive, while explicitly notifying the other end that the receiver is still active. Within the received ping message, the sender will specify the number of bytes to be included within the data payload of the pong message.

  • type: 19 (pong)
  • data:
    • [2:byteslen]
    • [byteslen:ignored]


A node sending a ping message:

  • SHOULD set ignored to 0s.
  • MUST NOT set ignored to sensitive data such as secrets or portions of initialized memory.
  • if it doesn't receive a corresponding pong:
    • MAY terminate the network connection,
      • and MUST NOT fail the channels in this case.
  • SHOULD NOT send ping messages more often than once every 30 seconds.

A node sending a pong message:

  • SHOULD set ignored to 0s.
  • MUST NOT set ignored to sensitive data such as secrets or portions of initialized memory.

A node receiving a ping message:

  • SHOULD fail the channels if it has received significantly in excess of one ping per 30 seconds.
  • if num_pong_bytes is less than 65532:
    • MUST respond by sending a pong message, with byteslen equal to num_pong_bytes.
  • otherwise (num_pong_bytes is not less than 65532):
    • MUST ignore the ping.

A node receiving a pong message:

  • if byteslen does not correspond to any ping's num_pong_bytes value it has sent:
    • MAY fail the channels.


The largest possible message is 65535 bytes; thus, the maximum sensible byteslen is 65531 — in order to account for the type field (pong) and the byteslen itself. This allows a convenient cutoff for num_pong_bytes to indicate that no reply should be sent.

Connections between nodes within the network may be long lived, as payment channels have an indefinite lifetime. However, it's likely that no new data will be exchanged for a significant portion of a connection's lifetime. Also, on several platforms it's possible that Lightning clients will be put to sleep without prior warning. Hence, a distinct ping message is used, in order to probe for the liveness of the connection on the other side, as well as to keep the established connection active.

Additionally, the ability for a sender to request that the receiver send a response with a particular number of bytes enables nodes on the network to create synthetic traffic. Such traffic can be used to partially defend against packet and timing analysis — as nodes can fake the traffic patterns of typical exchanges without applying any true updates to their respective channels.

When combined with the onion routing protocol defined in BOLT 4, careful statistically driven synthetic traffic can serve to further bolster the privacy of participants within the network.

Limited precautions are recommended against ping flooding, however some latitude is given because of network delays. Note that there are other methods of incoming traffic flooding (e.g. sending odd unknown message types, or padding every message maximally).

Finally, the usage of periodic ping messages serves to promote frequent key rotations as specified within BOLT 8.