In a nutshell

  • Uploading a video to YouTube depends on a number of factors, including upload speed, video format, quality and resolution
  • YouTube’s file size and duration limit is 256 GB or 12 hours
  • Depending on your video file size and internet speed, it could take anywhere from 40 seconds to 45 minutes or more

The time it takes to upload a video to YouTube depends on several factors, including upload speed, video format, quality and resolution. This article goes into detail and how to optimize each stage.

YouTube processing

Processing refers to the work that takes place behind the scenes following a user upload and keeps YouTube’s platform from imploding under the sheer volume of uploads and streams by standardizing them.

This is the current state of YouTube encoders and containers and largely reflects the shift away from the VP8 codec and older containers like FLV and 3GP used for lower-resolution videos.

Why has there been no mention of H.264 and H.265 (HEVC) codecs so far? With regards to H.264, YouTube did heavily use the codec and displays as AVC1 in the “stats for nerds” menu if you want to compare usage. The major reasons for the shift away from H.264 come down to efficiency and royalty payments. VP9, by comparison, is a royalty-free codec that Google developed in-house and offered better performance.

The payment of royalties is a big driver as to why YouTube never adopted the more efficient H.265 codec.

The future of processing

AV1 is a next-generation, royalty-free codec that has been around since 2019 and is in line to replace VP9. The improvements AV1 offers include better image quality at lower bitrates, making it more efficient than even H.265.

The current GPU launches, including Intel’s ARC, Nvidia’s 4000 series and AMD’s 7000 cards, all offer AV1 encoding and decoding capabilities. For anyone after strong AV1 encoding performance on a budget, look no further than the Intel ARC A380 graphics card.

The practice of using royalty-free technologies is a large part of YouTube’s operating model, which makes total sense when you consider a footprint of billions of videos and the increasing pressures of hosting and distributing an ever-increasing amount of 4K content.

The platform does generate billions of dollars in revenue, but profitability is more elusive, especially in the context of the recent trials around putting 4K streams behind the premium paywall and adding more ads to the free tier.

How does processing work?

Several events occur when uploading a video to YouTube.

  • Encoding the video to YouTube’s VP9 codec
  • Combining (muxing) the audio and video streams into the WebM container format
  • Creating a version of the video for each resolution

How long does it take?

The main factors that impact video upload and processing times are quality, resolution, bitrate, file size and internet bandwidth.

YouTube’s file size and duration limit is 256 GB or 12 hours. See the recommended export settings in the next section.

ResolutionApproximate File size per minute: 30 fpsProcessing Time per minute
2160p (4K) – 3840 x 2160337 MB at 45 Mbps60-240 seconds
1440p – 2560 x 1440135 MB at 16 Mbps45-180 seconds
1080p – 1920 x 108054 MB at 8 Mbps30-60 seconds
720p – 1280 x 72036 MB at 5 Mbps~30 seconds
480p – 854 x 48018 MB 2.5 Mbps~ 15 seconds
Approximate YouTube processing times per minute of video.

Optimizing your upload

A good upload experience begins by matching the recommended upload specification and providing content at a high source resolution. The recommendations in this article focus on SDR videos.

The state and support of HDR on YouTube is somewhat dubious, although there are some signs this being addressed in the future.

Most video editing software has export presets, among them presets for YouTube at different resolutions.

YouTube’s recommended upload settings for video are available here and are well worth looking at for a complete summary.

Summary of recommended settings

This is a summary of YouTube’s recommended export settings:

  • Container: MP4
  • Audio: AAC
    • Sample rate: 48 KHz or 96 KHz
    • Bitrate: 192 KHz
    • Channels: Stereo or Stereo and 5.1
  • Codec: H.264
    • Progressive scan
    • High profile
  • Video bitrate
    • 4K: 35-45 Mbps
    • 1440: 16 Mbps
    • 1080p: 8 Mbps

Resolution

Part of YouTube’s processing includes creating multiple versions of the video at different resolutions. Therefore the primary goal of an upload should be to provide the highest quality that makes practical sense given your workflow and audience.

High-resolution 4K content is now more widely available than ever, but when you factor in that 40 percent of YouTube content is streamed on mobile devices uploading at 4K might make less sense depending on your audience.

Editing 4K content is the easiest it has ever been, owing to the recent jumps in computing power. Apple’s transition to its own silicon designs has been particularly effective because of the powerful computer and graphics included even in the base models. Intel and AMD have also just released their latest generation of CPUs.

Compute power is only one factor in editing in high resolutions since storing and editing 4K video still consumes a lot of storage space.

It is best to choose our battles by consciously choosing what resolution we want to film and edit in. 

4K or bust?

To that end, 1440p and 1080p both make for more than just an acceptable compromise. Both resolutions are significantly less demanding in terms of computing and storage resources and very much still high resolutions that upscale well on 4K displays. There are still plenty of channels out there with high-quality content at 1080p.

Compression

YouTube’s own upload guidelines recommend using H.264 compression on source videos. Check the export presets on your video software; most have YouTube-specific flavors and how closely they align with the recommended settings above.

Run and upload test exports until there is little to no difference between the H.264 compression quality and bitrate, specifically looking out for artifacts and color banding. This will help save on export and upload times in the long run.

Bring your own device

We highly recommend this approach for more technically savvy users that don’t end up having their Internet Service Provider (ISP) prevent them from using their own devices.

The ARRIS Surfboard modem family, formerly Motorola, is a staple in the DOCSIS 3.1 cable modem world and makes a difference in connection quality. Bringing your own device also stops the extortionate monthly equipment rental fees ISPs like to charge.

The same logic applies to ditching the ISP-provided combo modem/router/access point and opting for a better combo unit or going for the dedicated access point and router.

Internet connection

Internet connectivity has only become a bigger factor in the lives of content creators. Fast download and upload speeds have become less of a novelty and more of a necessity in our workflows.

The ability to quickly upload videos, push offsite backups, and host high-quality livestreams are just some of the immediate benefits.

Start by checking if the ISPs in your area provide fiber or, at the very least, higher bandwidth packages.

Connection types

This is not an exhaustive list and covers the broadband Internet connection types available in the North American and European markets.

Evolving standards have been critical in optimizing and fully utilizing both new and existing infrastructure.

DSL

This is the oldest of the original broadband standards still in use today. DSL stands for “digital subscriber line” and utilizes standard copper telephone lines for data transmission. The standard has undergone several evolutions through DSL, ADSL and VDSL.

ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line) is the most common legacy connection used in the US market and can provide maximum download and upload speeds of 20 Mbps and 1 Mbps, respectively. Whether those speeds are achievable entirely depends on the proximity to an exchange. 

VDSL (very high-speed digital subscriber line) is popular in European markets and uses a blend of higher frequency modulation on the signal and fiber cable to link the exchange to the local cabinets located on most blocks. Towns and municipalities also tend to have their own exchange and, combined with the higher density of junctions, allow for effective deployment. Expected download speeds are in the 70 Mbps range, with upload speeds around 20 Mbps.

Coaxial, aka cable

Cable Internet is, by far, the most common type of connection in North America. The introduction of broadband packages using DOCSIS 3.0 and 3.1 connections over the last 12 years has transformed the cable internet industry and allowed download speeds north of 100 Mbps. Unfortunately, upload speeds have lagged behind anywhere between 5 to 15 Mbps. There are now packages in some markets offering upload speeds of 35 Mbps.

A major downside of cable is its performance during peak hours, akin to how we could see the water pressure drop by poking more holes in a garden hose. While this has gotten better over the years, it can still account for slowdowns at peak hours.

Fiber

All roads eventually lead to fiber internet. The improvements listed above, especially given the historical context, are truly amazing. If we told our past selves that one day you could have a gigabit cable connection, there would surely be some stunned expressions. We still remember the pain of using dial-up internet and watching pages load line by line.

The key benefits of fiber are removing the restrictions of using copper cabling, supporting much higher speeds and supporting truly symmetrical upload and download speeds.

Gigabit internet is no longer a mythical unicorn and is increasingly available — not that most users would need those speeds. More importantly, connections offering speeds of anywhere over 200 Mbps on download and upload links are where we start seeing transformative value.

Bandwidth explained

Bandwidth is the total available capacity of a network connection. For home and business users, this is also the amount that is allocated. Conventional copper connections are not symmetrical and are weighted for higher download speeds.

Bandwidth is measured in megabits per second (Mbps); a common mistake is to see this as Megabytes which is used to measure disk space and file size.

1 Mbps = 0.125 MB/s: a 100 Mbps connection will net you 12.5 MB/s

Download and upload speeds

Download speed is the rate at which data can be downloaded and is again measured in megabits per second (Mbps). Download speeds make up the bulk of allocated bandwidth on most connections.

Unless otherwise stated, upload speeds are usually a fraction compared to a connection’s download speeds. The exceptions are fiber connections, and that still depends on the ISP providing a package that can unlock increased upload speeds.

The chart below shows estimated upload times for a 15-minute video at three different resolutions and three common upload speeds.

Video ResolutionLength and File SizeUpload SpeedEstimated Upload Time
4K15 minutes / 5 GB100 Mbps7:09 minutes
35 Mbps20:27 minutes
15 Mbps47:43 minutes
1080p15 minutes / 810 MB100 Mbps1:07 minutes
35 Mbps3:14 minutes
15 Mbps7:32 minutes
720p15 minutes / 5 GB100 Mbps0:45 minutes
35 Mbps2:09 minutes
15 Mbps5:01 minutes
Comparison of YouTube video upload times for different resolutions at several upload speeds.

Times will vary

There are many factors you have to consider when uploading a video to YouTube. Use this guide to give you a general estimate of what to expect when uploading your next YouTube video.