Updated on 12/30/2022 with USB-C conflict information and additional multipoint pairing information.
Bluetooth is a popular method of wirelessly transferring data between two devices, such as your phone and your headphones, your media player and a speaker, or your iPad and a keyboard. It’s one of the most widely used wireless technology in the world, according to the Bluetooth Special Interest Group. More than 4.6 billion Bluetooth products are expected to ship this year alone, and that number will likely increase to more than 6 billion per year by 2024.
Bluetooth is all great when it works. But if you’re someone who likes to play around with these kinds of connected gadgets, you know it can be frustrating when there’s a hang-up pairing the two. Here are some common causes of pairing problems, as well as advice on what you can do about them.
Why Bluetooth pairings fail
Bluetooth depends on both hardware and software to work properly. So if your devices can't speak a common Bluetooth language, they won’t be able to connect.
In general, Bluetooth is backward compatible: Bluetooth devices supporting Bluetooth 5 or higher should still be able to pair with devices using, say, the ancient Bluetooth 2.1, launched back in 2007.
Devices also come with specific Bluetooth profiles. If Bluetooth is the common language connecting devices, you can think of a profile as a dialect associated with a certain use. For example, you probably aren't going to be able to connect a mouse and your car because your car doesn’t support the Human Interface Device Profile. But a phone and a wireless headset should both support the Hands-Free Profile, you should be able to pair them.
Usually, Bluetooth devices connect with one device at a time. However, some headphones support multipoint pairing – a feature that lets one pair of headphones connect to two devices simultaneously.
I take you through the steps you can take to get your devices to happily communicate with each other. And if you have a multipoint Bluetooth device, check out my tips on solving problems with Bluetooth multipoint pairing.
What you can do about Bluetooth pairing failures
1. Make sure Bluetooth is turned on
You should see the little Bluetooth symbol at the top right of the screen if you have an Android device. For iOS and iPadOS, you'll need to go into the settings to enable and disable Bluetooth. Windows users will find Bluetooth in Settings > Devices > Bluetooth (or you may have a shortcut on your taskbar). Mac users will find a Bluetooth status icon on the menu bar.
2. Determine which pairing process your device employs
The process for pairing devices can vary. Sometimes, it involves tapping a code into your phone or computer. Other times, you can physically touch your phone to the device you want to pair it with (you'll see this option with phones and devices that have NFC, or Near Field Communications, as a feature. It's commonly found on Android phones).
If you’re not sure how to pair a device, refer to its user guide; you can usually find one by searching online.
3. Turn on discoverable mode
Let’s say you want to pair your phone with your car’s infotainment system to enjoy hands-free calling, texting, and navigation. First, go into your phone’s settings and tap on Bluetooth; doing so makes the phone visible to the car. Then depress the buttons on your car's infotainment system, usually on the steering wheel or center stack, to get it looking for the device.
Once it finds your phone, the car may ask for a numeric code that you'll need to confirm or input on your phone. After you do so, the devices should be paired. Remember that your phone or car may only stay in discoverable mode for a few minutes; if you take too long, you’ll need to start over.
If your device is new, it will often be in pairing mode when you first turn it on. A good indicator that a device is in pair mode is if it blinks.
You'll need to turn on pairing mode if the device has been paired with another device. To find instructions search for: put [product name] into pairing mode. We have guides for Jabra, JBL, JLab Audio, Onn, Mpow, and Sony.
4. Make sure the two devices are in close enough proximity to one another
While you wouldn’t think someone might try to pair an iPad with a keyboard if the two weren’t sitting right next to each other, it’s probably worth noting that you should make sure any devices you're trying to pair are within five feet of one another.
5. Power Bluetooth off and back on
A soft reset of Bluetooth can sometimes resolve an issue. With phones, an easy way to do this is by going into and out of airplane mode. For other devices, turn off the power and restart them.
6. Remove old Bluetooth connections
If you're having trouble pairing your phone with the speaker, it could be because the speaker is trying to connect with another device. While your laptop, tablet, or phone may be the obvious choices, there are other possibilities. For instance, you may have paired your speaker to your TV or streaming media player.
Some older speakers and headphones are very simple; they just try to connect with the last thing they are paired with. If your headphones or speaker were previously paired with another phone, laptop, or tablet, turn off that other device or turn off the device's Bluetooth. And if you are no longer planning on using your headphones or speaker with that device, unpair it to prevent future issues. In iOS settings, you can remove a device by tapping on its name and then Forget this Device. In Android settings, tap on a device’s name, then Unpair. After removing a device, start at step 1 on this list.
Some speakers and headphones can store pairing for multiple devices (this is different from multipoint when they connect simultaneously to devices). However, there is a limit to the number of devices' pairing information that they can store. If you're having trouble pairing headphones or a speaker that have been paired to many devices in the past, you may need to reset your headphones or speakers to clear out all of the pairings so you can start fresh. For instructions from the manufacturer on your specific model, search: reset [device name].
7. Charge up both devices you're trying to pair
Some devices have smart power management that may turn off Bluetooth if the battery level is too low. If your phone or tablet isn't pairing, make sure it and the device you're trying to pair with have enough juice.
8. Delete a device from a phone and rediscover it
If your phone sees a device but isn’t receiving data from it, sometimes it helps to start from scratch. In iOS settings, you can remove a device by tapping on its name and then Forget this Device. In Android settings, tap on a device’s name, then Unpair.
If you're deleting the device from your car, you may need to turn off your car after deleting the device, open and close the car door, and wait a couple of minutes before trying to pair the device again.
After removing a device, start at step 1 on this list.
9. Move away from the WiFi router
Another potential obstacle to successful pairing is interference from devices that use the same spectrum, such as your WiFi router. WiFi has been designed to cope with this, but it might not be a good idea to have your devices next to your router.
10. Move away from your smart home devices
Some smart home devices use a wireless technology called Zigbee. You find Zigbee in smart home hubs, including Amazon's Echo Show and Echo Plus, as well as a wide range of smart door locks, light bulbs, in-wall switches, open/close sensors, plugs, and more. Like WiFi, Zigbee devices use the same spectrum as Bluetooth devices and can interfere with pairing. Move away from your Zigbee devices when attempting to pair.
11. Move away from a USB 3.0 or USB-C port
Interference between Bluetooth and USB 3.0 Type A or USB-C is also possible. Newer laptops often have higher-speed USB-C and USB 3.0 Type A ports, so if the connection isn't happening, try pairing your Bluetooth gadgets away from the computer.
12. Make sure the devices you want to pair are designed to connect with each other
Whether it’s a headset, speaker, mouse, keyboard, or something else, your device has a specific profile that spells out what it can connect with. If you’re not sure, check the user manual.
13. Download a driver
If you’re having problems pairing something with your computer, you might be lacking the correct driver. The simplest way to figure this out is to do an online search for: [product name] driver.
14. Update the hardware’s firmware
Some automotive audio systems have been known to not pair with phones because the Bluetooth drivers in these systems didn’t work with later versions of Bluetooth. If you’re not sure how to get the latest firmware for your hardware, check with the device manufacturer.
15. Limit data shared between devices
Android and Windows devices let you choose the information you share between devices. So, for instance, you can choose to share phone audio, media audio, contacts, and text messages with your car. If you don't need to share all of the data, deselecting one or more of the types of information may enable the devices to pair.
For Android 10 devices, go to Settings > Connected devices and select the device. If there are options to select, they will appear. For Windows, go to Control Panel > Hardware and Sound > Devices and Printers > right-click on the Bluetooth device in question and select Properties. Then select the Services tab to choose which types of information to share.
16. Clear the Bluetooth cache
Sometimes apps will interfere with Bluetooth operation, and clearing the cache can solve the problem. For Android phones, go to Settings > Apps > and tap the sort icon (the triple bars to the right of "Your apps."). Toggle on "Show system apps" and then select "Bluetooth" from the list. Select "Storage" and then "Clear cache." For iOS and iPadOS devices, you'll have to unpair all of your devices (go to Setting > Bluetooth, select the info icon and choose "Forget This Device" for each device), then restart your phone or tablet.
Multipoint is a Bluetooth technology that enables a Bluetooth device to be actively paired with more than one device at a time. That means your headphones could be simultaneously paired with a phone and laptop, or two phones could be paired to a hands-free car kit.
Even though multipoint has been part of the Bluetooth standard for years, there aren’t many products on the market that support multipoint. So if you’re having issues with setting up a multipoint connection, the first thing to do is double-check that your device supports multipoint by searching for “[product name] multipoint Bluetooth” or consulting your product’s manual. Once you’ve confirmed that your device supports multipoint, try these steps.
Trouble adding multipoint devices
If you’re having trouble adding a second device to your multipoint product, follow these steps to ensure you’re adding it correctly.
1. Pair with the first device the way you would with a single-point Bluetooth device. (If you’re having trouble pairing your first device, consult the list of tips above.)
2. Turn off the first paired device and pair the second one.
3. Once you have successfully paired with the second device, turn on the first device. For some products (like the Lenovo Smart Wireless Earbuds and JLab GO Work and PlayPro headphones), that’s all there is to it. Other products (like the Sony WH-1000SM4 headphones, Bose QuietComfort II Earbuds, and Soundcore Liberty 3 Pro earbuds) require installing an app and turning on the ability to connect two devices.
If you can’t connect to a previously paired multipoint device
Multipoint Bluetooth devices can connect to two devices simultaneously but can be paired with many devices. If your multipoint Bluetooth product isn’t automatically connecting to your usual two devices, it may be paired with a third device.
If you use an app to select multipoint devices, go into the app and toggle on the two devices you want to be simultaneously connected.
If you don’t use an app to select your multipoint devices, you will need to re-pair the device that has lost its connection. Follow these two simple steps.
1. Use your multipoint device with the Bluetooth device that is still actively paired with multipoint.
2. Re-pair the device that has lost the connection.
Not all wireless devices use Bluetooth
Keep in mind that not all wireless devices use Bluetooth. Alternatives include the Wireless Gigabit specification, Wireless HD, ANT+, ZigBee, NFC, and Wi-Fi Direct. These other technologies typically won’t work with your phone, tablet, or computer without some kind of additional hardware.
I hope this guide has helped you with your Bluetooth pairing problems. If you know of any tips I've missed, share them in the comments below!
[Image credits: Bluetooth headphones with phone via BigStockPhoto]