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401 unauthorized error: what it is and 7 methods to fix it

Trying to access a WordPress site and being met with an error page is at best inconvenient, whether that site is yours or someone else’s. As with many HTTP response codes, part of what makes a 401 error so frustrating is the lack of information it offers for diagnosing and resolving the issue.

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The 401 error can happen with any browser, so it’s a pretty common issue people face. In most cases, this problem is relatively simple and straightforward to fix.

In this post, we’ll explain what 401 error messages are and why they happen. Then, we’ll walk you through five methods you can use to fix them.

Let’s get started!

What is the 401 Error Code?

The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) defines the error 401 Unauthorized as:

The 401 (Unauthorized) status code indicates that the request has not been applied because it lacks valid authentication credentials for the target resource. The server generating a 401 response MUST send a WWW-Authenticate header field containing at least one challenge applicable to the target resource.

An Introduction to the 401 Error Code

HTTP 400 status codes are encountered when there is a problem making a request. A 401 error, in particular, happens when your browser denies you access to the page you’re trying to visit.

As a result, instead of loading the web page, the browser will load an error message. 401 errors can happen within any browser so the message appearing may differ.

For example, in Chrome or Edge, you’ll likely see a paper icon along with a simple message telling you that the page in question isn’t working. It will include the phrase “HTTP Error 401” at the bottom, and instruct you to contact the site’s owner if the problem persists:

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The clear browsing data window in Chrome

This process will look a little different in other browsers. For example, in Mozilla Firefox, you would click on the library icon in the top-right corner of the browser, followed by History > Clear Recent History:

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The ‘clear recent history’ option in Firefox settings

In the panel that opens next, select Everything in the drop-down menu at the top, make sure “Cache” is selected, and then click on the Clear Now button:

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The ‘Clear History’ panel in Firefox

If you’re using a different browser, please refer to this guide for clearing the cache

3. Flush Your DNS

Another method you can try to resolve the 401 error is flushing your Domain Name Server (DNS). While this is a rarer issue, it can be a possible cause, so it’s worth giving it a try if the first two solutions don’t work.

To do this in Windows, click on the Start button and type cmd into the search bar. Hit Enter, and the Command Prompt will open. Copy and paste the command ipconfig/flushdns, and then hit Enter again:

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The Command Prompt interface in Windows

Input the command line sudo killall -HUP mDNSResponder and press Enter. Then, you can try refreshing the page you were trying to visit, to see if the 401 error has been resolved.

4. Deactivate Your WordPress Plugins

The problem causing your 401 error might not be due to your browser. If you’re having trouble accessing your WordPress site, it’s also possible that one or more plugins are to blame.

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Some plugins, especially security-focused plugins, are configured to show a 401 error when they suspect suspicious login activity that might indicate an attack. Others might just be suffering from compatibility issues. Therefore, it’s a good idea to deactivate all of your WordPress plugins and see if that resolves the issue.

You can deactivate your plugins all at the same time in your dashboard, by going to Plugins > Installed Plugins. Check the box at the top to select all of them. Then under the Bulk Actions drop-down menu, select Deactivate and click on the Apply button:

After that, try reloading the page that returned the 401 error to see if this has resolved the issue. If it has, you can manually activate each plugin one at a time, in order to determine which one is causing the problem.

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Then you can remove that plugin, replace it with a new one, or contact its developer for assistance.

5. Check the WWW-Authenticate Header Response

At this point, if the issue hasn’t been fixed, it may be caused by a server-side problem. This means our last fix will be a bit more involved.

As we saw earlier, the 401 response is sent through the WWW-Authenticate header, which appears as “WWW-Authenticate: realm=”. It includes ‘challenges’, or strings of data that indicate what type of authentication is required in order for access to be granted.

In a nutshell, you’ll want to check and see if the header response was sent, and more specifically, what authentication scheme was used. At the very least, this can help narrow down the cause of the problem, and bring you one step closer to a solution.

To do this, go to the web page that’s displaying the 401 error, and access the developer console in Chrome. You can right-click on the page and select Inspect, or use Ctrl+Shift+J.

Next, click on the Network tab and reload the page. This will generate a list of resources. Select the Status header to sort the table and locate the 401 status code:

Select that entry, and then click on the Headers tab. Under Response Headers, locate the WWW-Authenticate header:

The information that is present in the response header, particularly the authentication schemes, can give you more information about what’s happening and point you towards a solution. It can help you understand what type of authentication the server is expecting.

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For example, in the above example, we can see that the authentication scheme is “Basic”. This means the authentication request should only require an ID and password. For more detailed information and instructions on how to use this information, we recommend referring to the HTTP Authentication Scheme Registry.

HTTP 401 errors, begone!
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