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“503 Service Unavailable” Error: Causes and How to Fix It

“503 Service Unavailable” is one of many errors you can run into while visiting a website. It’s not a WordPress-specific error, but there are a number of things that can cause it to appear on your site. The error completely blocks access to your website, so it’s essential to fix it as fast as possible.

Some of the potential causes behind a 503 service unavailable are technical issues at the server level and problems with plugins. You can troubleshoot these issues on your own without having to reach out to a developer or your web host if you’re willing to do a bit of digging.

503 Service Unavailable.

📚 In this article, we’ll talk about what causes the 503 service unavailable error 🐞 and how to fix it. Let’s get to work!

What causes the 503 service unavailable error?

503 is an HTTP code that means the browser can’t reach the server. When you visit a website, the browser sends a request and the server answers it before sending data over. If the browser can’t reach the server, you get a 503 service unavailable error.

That’s different than other error codes, such as 404 (which means the page doesn’t exist) or 502 (which typically means the server is overwhelmed). If you see error 503, your first worry should be that the server is offline:

503 service unavailable error.

There are other potential causes for error 503. Since we’re talking about WordPress, some of the most common culprits behind this error include:

Any of those factors can interfere with the server being able to respond to a request. Narrowing down the actual cause of the problem usually involves troubleshooting the website, tackling each potential cause one by one.

How to fix the 503 service unavailable error in WordPress (four ways)

In this section, we’ll show you how to troubleshoot each of the potential causes behind error 503. We’ll tackle the steps in fixing the issue, ranging from the simplest to the more involved.

1. Check your server’s status 🖥️

If you see the 503 service unavailable error, your first move should be to check if the website’s servers are up. There are several ways to do this. The quickest route is to open the terminal or command line and use the ping command alongside the site’s URL, like this:

Code language: CSS (css)

This will “ping” the server’s IP and you should see multiple responses along with how long the process took each time. If the ping isn’t successful, the terminal will return a message saying it wasn’t able to connect to the site. Typically, that means the server is down.

Another option is to check with your web host. You can do this by contacting them through support channels or checking your email to see if you’ve received any notifications about downtime.

It’s important to note that, these days, most reputable web hosts offer near-perfect uptime (as in 99.99%). That means if your site is unreachable, it mostly doesn’t have to do with the server being down.

If you see that your site’s server is reachable, it means there’s something else behind the 503 error. Let’s move on to plugins.

2. Deactivate plugins 🔌

Deactivating your site’s plugins is one of the quickest ways to troubleshoot errors in WordPress. In most cases, it’s usually just one plugin that’s causing problems. This can be due to compatibility errors with other plugins or WordPress itself.

A good rule of thumb is that if an error such as 503 appears after updating plugins, one of them is probably behind it. Since the error prevents you from accessing the dashboard, you’ll need to deactivate plugins manually.

To do that, connect to your site via File Transfer Protocol (FTP) and find the WordPress root folder. Once you’re inside, go to wp-content/plugins. This directory should include individual folders for each plugin installed on the site:

The plugins directory.

You can delete the corresponding folder to get rid of a plugin altogether. A safer alternative is to rename these folders. If you change the name of a plugin’s folder, WordPress won’t be able to recognize it and the plugin will be deactivated.

To rename a folder, right-click on it and look for the Rename option. The name of the option may vary depending on the FTP client you use. In our examples, we’re using FileZilla:

Renaming a plugin folder.

Change the name of the folder to anything, such as “pluginname-deactivated.” You’ll need to return the folder to its original name afterward, so keep that in mind.

To find out which plugin is behind the error, you’ll need to rename the folders in the plugins directory one by one. After deactivating each plugin, try reloading the website.

If a plugin is the cause of the error, it’ll disappear once you deactivate the culprit. After identifying it, you can return the rest of the plugin folders to their original names.

Once you can access the dashboard again, you can decide what to do with the plugin. You can look to replace it with an alternative or keep it disabled until another update comes around (one that hopefully fixes the issue).

3. Deactivate the active theme 🎨

Deactivating your active theme without access to the dashboard is tricky. You can’t use FTP to disable themes as you do with plugins, so you need to access the database to do it.

Depending on your web host, there should be an option to access the database through the hosting control panel. In most cases, you’ll have access to phpMyAdmin, which can connect directly to the WordPress database:

Database access.

Once you’re in, select your site’s database from the menu to the left and look for the wp_options table among the options to the right. Click on the table to open it:

Opening the wp_options table.

After opening the table, click on the Search button in the menu at the top of the page. Type template in the field that corresponds to the option_name value and click on Go:

Looking for your active theme in the database.

This query should pull up a single result. You can double-click on the name under the option_value field to modify it. In this example, you can see our active theme is twentytwentythree:

Editing a database entry.

You can replace that value with another one that corresponds to a different theme. Some safe options are default themes such as twentytwentytwo or twentytwentyone. Once you replace the existing value, click on Go to save it.

4. Pause your Content Delivery Network (CDN) ⏸️

If you use a CDN with WordPress, you might run into error 503 because the CDN’s server can’t be reached. You can verify if that’s the case by temporarily disabling or pausing the CDN.

How that process works will vary depending on what CDN you’re using. In the case of Cloudflare, you can access the dashboard and go to OverviewAdvanced Actions, then click on Pause Cloudflare on Site:

Pausing the Cloudflare CDN.

After pausing the CDN, you’ll want to clear the browser cache before accessing your website. If the 503 service unavailable error is gone, that means the CDN was behind the problem.

In this scenario, we recommend keeping the CDN paused for a few hours or a day. Typically, the problem will get fixed quickly, so you’ll be able to re-activate the CDN after a while.

Conclusion on the 503 Service Unavailable Error 🧐

WordPress errors that prevent you from accessing the dashboard can be tricky to troubleshoot. However, if you’re comfortable using FTP and trying multiple solutions until you land on the right one, you can make short work of error 503 (or most errors, to be fair).

⚠️ If you’re dealing with error 503 service unavailable at the moment, here’s what you need to do:

  1. Check your server’s status 🖥️
  2. Deactivate plugins 🔌
  3. Deactivate the active theme 🎨
  4. Pause your CDN ⏸️

Do you have any questions about how to troubleshoot the 503 service unavailable error? Let’s talk about them in the comments section below.

Don’t forget to join our crash course on speeding up your WordPress site. Learn more below:

John Hughes
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