How to Deactivate a Plugin Without Access to WP-Admin

Sometimes, a plugin can cause a fatal or critical error in WordPress that results in loss of access to a site’s web pages or WP Admin area. When a fatal error occurs on a WordPress site, it’s usually due to a bug in a plugin or theme’s code that causes the site’s server to become stuck and unable to respond to requests.

critical error message in WordPress

Usually, WordPress displays a critical error message when a bug is preventing the site from working. An email is also sent to the site administrator with more details about the error. If you cannot find that email, the next best step would be to check the PHP error logs in your web hosting account, if those are available. 

If you’re unsure about how to access those logs, your web host can help you. You can also put WordPress in debug mode and check the error messages displayed when you attempt to visit your site.

The message should include the name of the plugin, theme folder, or file causing the error. Now, you just need to deactivate the plugin to resolve the issue, which can seem tricky without access to your WP Admin area. Thankfully, there is a straightforward solution. 

Here’s how to disable a WordPress plugin without access to WP-Admin:

Step 1: Get your site’s SSH, SFTP, or FTP credentials

Since your site is down, you aren’t able to access your WordPress dashboard, and will need to find another way to deactivate the plugin. SSH (Secure Shell), SFTP (SSH File Transfer Protocol), FTPS (also known as FTP-SSL, and FTP Secure), and FTP (File Transfer Protocol) are different types of server access protocols/schemes.

These credentials allow you, or a service like Jetpack Backup, to directly access your site’s files on the server powering your website. You can get these from your hosting account dashboard or with the help of your hosting provider’s support team. Note that these server access credentials are unique and different from your WP Admin login details and, in most cases, your host’s control panel or dashboard login.

Step 2: Download a file transfer client application

For the next step, you’ll need to use a file transfer client app/software like FileZilla or Transmit. The file manager option in your hosting control panel (like cPanel) could also be a good option, but it’s typically better to use ftp because of its additional functionality and security.

Step 3: Connect to your server using the credentials

Once you have your FTP credentials and a file transfer app installed on your device, proceed to connect to your site using the credentials. FileZilla has some usage instructions that should help guide you along the way. Transmit also has a helpful guide on using their Quick Connect feature to connect to your server.

While the exact process depends on the tool you’re using, you’ll typically need to enter information like the server address, username, password, port, and WordPress installation path. Once you’ve done that, click Connect or the equivalent on the file transfer app of your choice to connect to your server. When you have successfully connected, you should see a list of files and directories in the remote path you provided.

Here’s what that looks like in Transmit:

files listed in Transmit

Step 4: Rename the plugin folder to deactivate it

Now that you’re connected and can see your site’s files and folders, navigate to the /wp-content folder. Inside this folder, you’ll see a folder called plugins where WordPress stores the files for all plugins installed on your website.

Open this folder, select the plugin culprit, and right-click to view more options. Click Rename or the equivalent on your chosen file transfer client. Then, set the new name of the folder to something like plugin-name.deactivate. In other words, add .deactivate to the name of the folder.

Here’s what the rename option looks like in Transmit:

renaming a plugin in Transmit

Once you rename the plugin, it will be deactivated because WordPress won’t be able to find the plugin folder in that location. If that plugin was the cause of the critical error, you should regain access to your WordPress site and the admin area. If you navigate to WP Admin → Plugins, you should see a notification saying that the plugin has been deactivated because the plugin file does not exist.

error that a WordPress file cannot be found

That’s it. You can follow the same steps to deactivate a theme if a theme is responsible for the critical error. Only this time, you should navigate to wp-content/themes when you’ve connected to your site via FTP. 

Now you know how to easily deactivate a plugin that’s causing an issue on your site! 

An easier way to restore access to your WordPress site

No matter your experience level, WordPress sites will occasionally run into issues outside of your control. 

Jetpack Backup stores a real-time copy of your site on secure, independent servers so that you can quickly fix errors without any complicated problem solving. Even if your site is completely down, you can access and restore a backup 24/7. 

It’s part of Jetpack’s entire suite of WordPress security tools that can prevent hacks and issues, alert you of any problems that do occur, and resolve them with as little as a single click. 

See everything that Jetpack has to offer

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Daniel profile

Daniel is a Happiness Engineer at Automattic. When not helping users get the most out of Automattic's products and services, you can find him reading, coding, playing the keyboard, spending time with his family, or engaging in fun outdoor and social activities.

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