Getting connected to your VPN is generally so easy that you barely notice it at all, so the first time you notice that your VPN won't connect, it can be a real surprise.
Sometimes you'll see a very obvious error message: 'Can't connect.' Other alerts are more cryptic, like 'Error: 80AE470.' And some apps stop trying to connect, but don't tell you why (thanks, developers.)
However unhelpful your VPN client might be, it's not the end of the story, and this step-by-step guide covers everything you need to figure out the problem and get your VPN connecting again.
1. Check your internet connection
The first step in diagnosing why your VPN won't connect is to make sure your internet connection is working correctly. Sounds obvious, but it's a good idea to rule out basic issues before you start playing around with VPN or device settings. So, reboot your device, maybe your router, then open a browser, visit a couple of sites, collect emails if you've a separate email app, stream Netflix, and just spend a couple of minutes confirming everything looks normal.
2. Try a different location
VPNs often have thousands of servers, so there's a chance that your app's preferred choice is down right now. And even if the server is running, maybe it's so overwhelmed with other users that it's blocked further connections. Browse your VPN's location list and try connecting from somewhere else.
3. Use another protocol
Your VPN's protocol defines how it connects to servers, and some protocols are more reliable than others. Open your app Settings box and look for protocol-related settings. If your app has some (and not all do), you might see options like OpenVPN (maybe with UDP or TCP flavors), WireGuard, IKEv2, L2TP and more. Ideally we'd recommend trying to connect using at least OpenVPN, then IKEv2 or WireGuard, but if you don't have these, just choose a couple of options from your app's list.
4. Check your VPN's status page
VPN connection issues could be down to a wider problem with your provider's network, rather than any issue with your setup. Check your provider's status page, if it has one (check social media if it doesn't) for any updates. IPVanish is a great example, and its status.ipvanish.com page is replete with performance charts showing servers online and details on any current outages.
5. Switch to another device
Try connecting to your VPN from a different device, if available. If you can't connect from that, either, that suggests there's a network issue between you and the VPN, or maybe a VPN outage. But if the second device works as usual, it looks like the problem is somewhere on your original hardware.
6. Update your VPN software
If your VPN won't connect, this could indicate that your app has a bug, or maybe its setup is corrupted. Check this out by removing or uninstalling your VPN, then downloading and reinstalling the latest version.
Don't take any shortcuts, especially on Windows - for instance, trying to install the new app over the current version. Do a proper clean reinstall where you uninstall the app, reboot and then install the new one.
7. Connect from a different network or access point
If you're not connecting from your regular network - maybe you're using a public hotspot you've never used before - then it's possible it's set up differently, or maybe it's trying to block VPNs entirely. Find another hotspot or network, if you can, and try connecting from there instead.
8. Bypass VPN blocking
Some networks are very good at blocking VPNs, and a few countries ban them entirely (explaining the demand for China VPNs, Russia VPNs, UAE VPNs and more), and that can make it very difficult to get online. But while we don't recommend you break any local laws, if you really need to get online, there are a few options you can try.
Open your VPN's Settings box and look for anything to help you bypass VPN blocking. NordVPN has an Obfuscated Servers feature, for instance, which helps disguise your traffic. Surfshark has a NoBorders mode which does much the same thing. IPVanish's 'Scramble OpenVPN traffic' might help, VyprVPN's Chameleon protocol is designed to slip past VPN blocking schemes, and several VPNs have an Obfsproxy option (another way to try and evade the authorities) which just might get you connected.
9. Check your credentials and account
Log onto your VPN provider's website and check your account page for updates.
Has your password changed, maybe? Some free or limited VPNs might change passwords occasionally, without notifying each time.
Make sure your account is still valid and working, too. If you've forgotten to renew a subscription then the provider has probably turned your service off. VPN accounts are a prime target for hackers, too, and if someone has hijacked your account, it's possible the provider has detected this and closed or blocked your account.
10. Check the VPN application's logs
VPNs often do a very bad job of reporting on connection issues, and even if they seem to have given you a clear explanation of why you can't connect, there's no guarantee this bears any relation to the facts.
Sometimes, the real cause of your problems is hidden in the app's logs. Browse its Settings box, look for sections like Connection Log, or Troubleshooting. You won't understand 90% of the content - no offence intended, we don't either - but scroll through the most recent entries anyway for clues. If you see an authentication error, for instance, that indicates a password or account problem, which very clearly tells you where to look next.
11. Create a manual VPN connection
Apps are the easiest way to access a VPN, but they're not your only option. Many services allow you to create a manual VPN connection to a specific server using your device's standard tools (see examples at ExpressVPN and IPVanish.)
If this sounds like a hassle, then you're right, but it's not a permanent solution. We're just trying to get you connected right now, and even if it doesn't work, this will be something else you can tell Support that you've tried, later.
12. Try another app
This is probably the most involved step in our list, but if you're up for it, switching to another app might help.
OpenVPN Connect is an all-purpose VPN application which runs on Windows, Mac, iOS and Android, and can be set up to work with most VPNs.
Check your VPN support site for instructions or advice on other apps you can try (see ExpressVPN's OpenVPN Android instructions for an example.)
13. Contact the VPN support team
If all else fails, contact your VPN's support, explain what's happening and ask for their advice. Make sure you tell them the steps that you've tried, too. The more a support engineer can see you've ruled out, the quicker they can zoom in on the real cause of the problem, and the sooner you'll be up and running again.
If all else fails...
The other thing to remember is that problems with VPNs can often depend on the type of device or computer you’re using. You may find that one solution works on, say, an iPhone or Android mobile device, while the same route doesn’t correct the error on a laptop or desktop PC. That’s why troubleshooting requires a little experimentation and it’s often a process of elimination to successfully diagnose and fix your technical issue.
If you’ve been having connection problems with your VPN hopefully these tips and tricks will help you get back online. More often than not, it can be something fairly simple that prevents your VPN from connecting. Checking your network settings, changing your server and ensuring that the right ports are open are just three examples of things that can rectify a technical issue. There are other tweaks too, such as disabling the firewall and even reinstalling your VPN software if all else fails.
You can also carry out a few basic peripheral tasks too, which is quite often useful in any case when it comes to sprucing up your internet connection. Spend a few minutes disconnecting and reconnecting to your Wi-Fi network if you’re at home and restart your router for good measure, as outlined above. Sometimes, silly physical issues can cause problems, such as having a loose or disconnected ethernet cable for example.
If you’re still getting issues at the source, it could even be that you’ve got problems with your ISP, which may involve getting in touch with them, rather than the support folks at your chosen VPN provider. The other thing is to double-check your credentials. It’s ridiculously easy to input the wrong information into username or password fields. Similarly, take time to ensure you’re using a decent password, making it as complex as possible to fend off any hacking attempts. Hopeless with passwords? You could try investigating the best password managers to help you on your way.
One other thing to remember is that up-to-date software can make all the difference. You might think you’ve got the latest version of your VPN, but it’s always worth checking for any updates. Remember, VPN providers have to continually improve their services in order to combat the latest threats to security. The same goes for everyday computing tools such as web browsers too. In fact, sometimes a lack of connectivity can be traced back to an incompatible or out-of-date browser.
Sometimes, it can be the simplest or silliest reason why your VPN isn’t connecting, with the age-old trick of switching it off and on again even proving effective in some cases. The great thing about signing up for one of the more well-known VPN brands, such as ExpressVPN, NordVPN, IPVanish, Surfshark and so on, is that you also get the benefit of quality customer support. So, if all else fails, it really is worth getting in touch with them to raise a ticket.
Before you do that though, check out each of their FAQs and support documentation because often, the solution will lie in there somewhere.
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Mike is a lead security reviewer at Future, where he stress-tests VPNs, antivirus and more to find out which services are sure to keep you safe, and which are best avoided. Mike began his career as a lead software developer in the engineering world, where his creations were used by big-name companies from Rolls Royce to British Nuclear Fuels and British Aerospace. The early PC viruses caught Mike's attention, and he developed an interest in analyzing malware, and learning the low-level technical details of how Windows and network security work under the hood.