For as much time as we tend to spend online, you’d think we would be taught a firmer understanding of the internet’s inner workings. Alas, we are not, and thus error messages like “401 Unauthorized Access” are still something that most do not know how to solve. We’ve become fairly adept at taking apart and explaining many of the various error messages that inhabit your online lifestyle, and this is another that we’re going to lay out in front of you. If this is something that you’ve run into fairly frequently while browsing, you’re going to get some knowledge about why you’re running into it, and how to resolve it.
Let’s face it — we’re all probably subscribed to too many newsletters, way too many websites, and more “special offers” than we could ever remember. And that’s not even beginning to delve into all of the sites and services that we’ve signed into simply by linking them to our social media accounts. Sometimes, Facebook can seem like a master key to the internet, right? But even though we can’t keep track of those, our computers do. And those sites that require a specific username and password in order to get you access don’t really have a workaround. That’s a good thing, after all; we want our internet to remain as safe and secure as possible.
This particular error message can manifest in a number of ways, but it’s usually just a “401 Unauthorized” tag splashed across a blank background in your web browser. It almost always shows up after you’ve tried accessing a site or service that usually requires an username and password. When you get it wrong (or don’t have it in the first place) this error message shows up.
However, there are occasions when you do have the right login information, but for some reason, you’re unable to access the site as per usual. It’s primarily these situations that we’re hoping to address, today. Because the internet is a complex thing, and security can be tantamount to jumping through five flaming hoops at a circus, it’s understandable that people sometimes run into this error message, be it by their own fault with the wrong login info, or something that needs to be resolved by the website’s administrator.
HTTP Status Codes
Though error codes might seem like snippets snatched from the pages of technical wizardry, they’re anything but. For those who would like to take the time to learn how to understand them, it’s not a difficult process. And even the most basic understanding can help you to navigate through problems that might have otherwise left you confused and worried.
We can start to break this down by looking at the two primary parties responsible for getting you to the websites that you want to visit (and no, I’m not about to get political on you.) Though there’s more to it than this, it’s helpful to see things as either client-side or server-side. The “client” is essentially you, your web browser, your computer, and the hardware that you’re using to connect to the internet, such as a modem and router. The “server” is responsible for hosting the content that you’re trying to reach, as well as maintaining the certificates and security standards in place to determine whether or not you have access to it.
“Using the HTTP protocol, computer scientists around the world began making the Internet easier to navigate by inventing point-and-click browsers. One browser in particular, called Mosaic, created in 1993 at the University of Illinois, would help popularize the Web, and therefore the Net, as no software too had yet done.”- Katie Hafner
Knowing this, we can better understand two very common types of online error codes. 4xx error messages (anything in the 400s) are specifically client errors. This means that you, your browser, your computer, or your connected hardware have failed to perform some necessary step required to access particular web content. It might be the wrong username and password, or it might be something in your hardware configuration that needs to be changed. It could even be a connectivity error.
5xx error messages (anything in the 500s) are server errors. This means that the fault is very likely not with you, but with the host server for the website or service not responding properly. In these instances, there’s very little that you can do, apart from contacting the site’s administrators.
All of this doesn’t necessary help to make the “401 Unauthorized” error any easier to swallow, however. It’s still a pain in the butt, and there are still several different reasons that it can show up, in the first place.
- Invalid URL: It’s quite possible that you’ve entered the wrong URL for the website or service that you’re trying to access. Make sure that it’s accurate!
- Not Logged In: If you’re trying to access a part of a site that requires you to be securely logged in with registered login information, you’ll get a 401 error.
- Invalid Login Credentials: If your login credentials are incorrect, you’re probably going to get a 401 error.
- False Login Requirement: This one’s tricky; if a site shouldn’t require login information, but for some reason appears to, it might be the fault of the site’s administrator. While this is an error that clearly takes place on the server side of things, it’s registering as a client-side error. Hence, you’ll see the 401 Unauthorized message.
- DNS Errors: In some rare circumstances, it’s possible that DNS lookup errors can prompt a 401 message.
There are a few other outliers, but these are far and away the most likely culprits for your 401 Unauthorized error message. Below, we’re going to move through each of them, and help you to work around this particularly troublesome obstacle.
Resolving the Error Message
Thankfully, the steps necessary to resolve any of these situations is fairly easy. Using the above information, determine which is the most likely scenario for you, and then take a look at our possible solutions.
This one might seem like a bit of a no-brainer, but if you’re manually entering URLs, it’s quite possible that you might have simply entered it incorrectly. Either that or the link that you’ve bookmarked — usually part of a site that’s behind login requirements — no longer exists. If the URL is entered correctly, then make sure that you’re trying to access part of the site or service that’s available before you’ve logged in.
Not Logged In
Tangentially related to the above problem, it’s possible that you’re seeing the 401 Unauthorized message because you’re not logged into the site or service. Just as above, you’re going to want to navigate to the part of the site, either by way of links or an URL, that allows you to securely log in. Most website landing pages give you a place to do this.
Make sure that you have the correct username and password for the site, enter them, and then try again. Once you’re logged into the site itself, you should be able to navigate to any part of it that you have access to, without any trouble.
Invalid Login Credentials
Most 401 Unauthorized errors come as a result of this particular problem, and there are quite a few reasons for that. First, it’s very easy to misremember login information in the first place. We’re encouraged to use passwords that are entirely random — not recognizable phrases or words. Thus, without a strong password management application (I’ll recommend a couple, below) it’s possible that you’re not going to remember all of your passwords. If you’re unable to log in without getting a 401 Unauthorized error, use the site’s built-in “Password Reset” feature to choose a new password. As long as you’re registered with the site by way of an email address, this should be easy. If a more complicated process is required, contact the site’s administrator.
Try it again, after ensuring that your login information is correct, and you should be able to move right past the error message. Meanwhile, consider using a password data management app like LastPass, LogMeOnce, or Keeper.
False Login Requirement
As mentioned above, here’s a tricky problem to have, when you run into that 401 Unauthorized error message. Even though 4xx errors are client-side, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the origin of the large problem isn’t coming from the website’s host server.
Here’s how it might work out — a network administrator for a particular site accidentally enables login authentication where none should be required. Suddenly, websites that were normally accessible to people who weren’t logged in, are spitting out 401 Unauthorized messages to anyone that attempts it. Technically, it is a client-side error, since the site is programmed to require login information. But since that requirement is a result of user error on the server side, the only way to effectively resolve it is to wait for it to be remedied by the site administrators.
And as before, when it comes down to those running the host server, the best thing to do is contact them directly.
It’s rare that DNS errors actually prompt a 401 Unauthorized error in your browser, but it’s not entirely unheard of. Either way, flushing the DNS is easy to do, and often advised if you want to regularly maintain your internet service.
In Windows open the Command Prompt with Administrator access. Simply type in cmd.exe in the Windows Search bar, and ensure that you select the option of running it as the computer’s administrator. Once the Command Prompt has opened, type in ipconfig /flushdns and press Enter. See? Easy as pie.
In Mac OS X, the process is slightly different. Open up the Command Terminal, and then type in sudo killall -HUP mDNSResponder. This will flush the DNS, and in rare circumstances, allow you to proceed past a 401 Unauthorized error that has no other apparent cause.
Hopefully, our steps above have helped you to fix the errors that are keeping you from your web content. the 401 Unauthorized error can easily leave users stumped, without any clear path on how to solve it. If you have any questions or need further help with our recommended solutions, let us know in the comments below!
Ryan is a computer enthusiast who has a knack for fixing difficult and technical software problems. Whether you’re having issues with Windows, Safari, Chrome or even an HP printer, Ryan helps out by figuring out easy solutions to common error codes.