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I am running geth on a debian system and on testnet ropsten.

However I notice it's not always fully synchronized. Is this due to the network, the program, or the machine itself?

It's always about 500-1000 blocks away from the highest block.

This is extremely a pain because when I try to check the balance if I am not fully synchronized I get a result of zero.

What is the solution to this problem?

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It's a bit confusing.

--fast sync process downloads headers first and then circles back to download states. This can give the impression that nothing is happening.

The solution is patience.

If you're only concerned with checking a balance or even conducting a transaction, your private key is in ./ethereum/keystore (hidden) and you can use MetaMask or MyEtherWallet to do business (to the extent that you trust their chain versus your own computations).

Network latency, storage latency (SSD), CPU and RAM all play a role in sync time. Even a very modest system should catch up given sufficient time. Restarting the process is a major setback that will significantly increase overall time to get it done.

Hope it helps.

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