By incorporating the nonlinear variation of a soil's compressibility and permeability during the process of consolidation, an analytical solution for the radial consolidation of vertical drains has been developed for a general time-variable loading. The general solution was verified for the cases of instantaneous loading and ramp loading. Detailed solutions were further derived for two special loading schemes: multistage loading and preloading–unloading–reloading. The nonlinear consolidation behavior of a vertical drain subjected to these two types of loading schemes was then investigated by a parametric study. The results show that the loading rate, the ratio of the compressibility index to the permeability index (Cc/Ck), and the initial stress state have a significant influence on the consolidation rate. A smaller value of Cc/Ck, a larger initial stress, or a fast loading rate always leads to a rapid consolidation rate. During the unloading period, a negative excess pore water pressure may occur, and a slower unloading rate may reduce this negative value. Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.