So, you’re interested in setting up an aquarium and need some ideas for which fish to choose?
If this is your first-ever home aquarium, and you have never kept fish before, this article is going to be the best possible starting point.
We have put together a list of 13 tropical freshwater fish species that are perfect for both beginners and advanced fishkeepers alike. Why 13? Your guess is good as ours.
Before that, let’s take a quick look at what actually makes a good pet fish for beginners.
The first thing you will learn about tropical fishkeeping is that every fish is different, and you can’t simply throw a bunch of them into a tank, and leave them be.
There is a LOT more to it than that. When looking for beginner freshwater fish, you need a species that will tick a few boxes;
- They are hardy and can thrive in a broader range of conditions
- They are easy to care for
- They are peaceful and get along with other fish
- They are small enough to feel comfortable in your tank
13 Perfect Freshwater Fish Species for Beginners
While this is by no means an exhaustive list of the best freshwater fish for beginners, it is a great place to start.
These 13 tropical fish are beautiful, easy to find, and perfect for beginner fishkeepers.
Let’s jump straight in with one of the most popular tropical fish in the world…
1. Neon Tetra
Although small in size, these beautifully colored, cool freshwater fish will surely take advantage of every bit of space in your tank and are one of the easiest fish to care for.
They love being in groups, so the bigger the group, the happier they will be. Their diet is simple, and they can be fed basic fish flakes, although they do enjoy the odd blood worm or brine shrimp from time to time.
Check out our very own Neon Tetra Care Guide for more information about this stunning fish (with more beautiful photos).
One of the more hardy freshwater aquarium fish available for beginners is the Danios. Due to their hardiness, they are great fish for people who don’t have much experience with setting up a tank. They can survive in a variety of different water conditions.
Danios are generally very active and fun to watch. In terms of their diet, they will be more than happy with fish flakes.
Our favorite Danios to keep are the Zebra Danio and the Giant Danio.
A perfect fish for the community tank. Platies are very peaceful fish that will live peacefully with any other non-aggressive fish. There are lots of varieties to choose from, and they come in a variety of different colors, as a result of selective breeding.
Platies are not picky when it comes to diet. They will eat any type of flake foods, as well as most frozen live foods.
A colorful freshwater aquarium fish that are perfect for beginners are Guppies. Although the behavior and characteristics tend to be the same from fish to fish, Guppies come in a wide range of colors.
They are hardy fish, and they can eat regular fish flakes. However, like many fish on this list, they can also eat frozen (or live) brine shrimp, blood worms, and Daphnia. The fact that Guppies can go over a week without food, shows how hardy they are.
If you are interested in keeping Guppies, it’s important to know the difference between a male and a female.
Guppies breed like crazy, so if you were to tank the two sexes together, you can expect a lot of Guppy babies.
To stop this from happening, simply keep all males, or all females, unless, of course, you are in this game to breed them.
Check out our comprehensive guppies care guide for more information
5. Kuhli Loach
Originating from the tropical region of Southeast Asia, the Kuhli Loach is an eel-like fish that, because of its size, ability to adapt to water changes, and the fact that it is peaceful, has made its way into our list of best freshwater fish.
Being a bottom feeder, the Kuhli Loach will eat just about any spare food that has dropped to the bottom of the tank, including live foods such as worms and shrimp. The bulk of their diet should be general fish pellets.
They are peaceful freshwater fish species who will live happily with most other non-aggressive fish, but make sure you don’t house them with anything too big which may mistake them for food.
To keep them happy, you should keep at least 3 at a time.
6. Cherry Barb
Although they may take a while to settle into their new tank, Cherry Barbs are the perfect freshwater fish for a home aquarium for all of the reasons listed above.
They can tolerate big changes in water parameters, they are friendly (unlike their long-lost cousins Tiger Barbs), they only grow to around 2 inches long and in general, they are an easy fish to take care of.
As one of the most endangered species of fish in the wild, the Cherry Barb is still a favorite within the fishkeeping community, thanks to its bright, eye-catching colors, and its entertainment value.
They are very active fish, and once they become accustomed to their new surroundings, they will be very active and fun to watch.
In order to make your Cherry Barb feel as settled and as secure as possible, we recommend that you keep some live plants, allowing them to hide whenever they feel the need.
Barbs can take a while to come out of their shells. They are best kept in schools, so anything above 6 is preferred.
In terms of dietary needs, they will eat just about any type of fish food, although they may not take to it at first if it’s a new tank. Give them a couple of weeks and they will be eating comfortably.
7. Fire Mouth Cichilid
Given its name because of the red coloration of its scales during breeding, the Fire Mouth Cichilid is a perfect fish for new fishkeepers.
Although they CAN become pretty territorial during breeding season, they are relatively friendly.
To be on the safe side, we recommend you keep these on their own, but if you want to mix them with other freshwater fish species, then make sure you provide rocks or an upturned plant pot where they can hide away in peace, to lay their eggs.
Adult Cichlids can grow to be around 6 inches long, and their diet can consist of regular flake food.
Thanks to their popularity, you can find these live fish at most pet stores, and they are generally very cheap, which is another advantage when looking to fill your own aquarium.
8. Pearl Gourami
Also known as the Lace Gourami, this cool tropical freshwater fish species is one of the most popular Gourami fish for aquarium lovers, thanks to its beautiful appearance and its hardy build.
They are easy to care for and can be kept in tanks with at least 30 gallons of water, but like many other types of Gourami, they do require space at the top of the tank so they can breathe air.
When it comes to feeding time, the Pearl Gourami can eat a wide variety of different foods, both plant-based, and meat-based.
For the best overall nutrition, we recommend feeding an algae-based flake food, as well as live food such as brine shrimp, blood-worms and tubifex.
Pearl Gouramis do not like to live with aggressive fish, so keep that in mind when filling your aquarium. They also like a place to hide, so a small covering of floating ferns can give them a good place to hide and feel comfortable. We have several articles on setting up a new freshwater habitat with plants, here.
9. Tiger Pleco
A peaceful freshwater fish, originating from South America (The Amazon River in Brazil) is the Tiger Pleco. Because they spend most of their time at the bottom of the tank, they do well with sinking food such as pellets, but they also thrive on brine shrimp and blood worms.
Keeping Plecos nice and satiated will keep them from eating your tank plants, which they can have a tendency to do.
Tiger Plecos are peaceful but very territorial, so if you plan on keeping more than one, it is recommended that you fill the bottom of your tank with rocks and wood ornaments, so they can find a place to call their own.
Growing up to 5 inches in length, they have a lifespan of up to 8 years under optimal tank conditions. The closely related Bristlenose Pleco is a great choice of pleco fish for beginners, too.
10. Cory Catfish
Another peaceful fish that will live harmoniously with most other fish is the Cory Catfish. With over 140 species to choose from, the Cory fish is the perfect addition to a beginner’s fish tank (Not to be mistaken for other catfish such as the Pictus Catfish).
Being aggressive eaters, these freshwater fish will be responsible for keeping your tank clean, thanks to their love for vegetative matter and algae which can build up at the bottom of home aquariums.
With a lifespan of up to 20 years, the Cory Catfish is a communal fish, which strives better when kept in groups of at least 3.
In the wild, they will feed on insects, larvae and any vegetative matter that sinks to the bottom of shallow shoals. You can replicate this by offering them a variety of vegetable flakes, insect larvae, and worms such as blood-worms.
Mollies are versatile fish, which can survive in both freshwater and saltwater aquariums if the changes are made gradually. They are great for beginners because they are extremely hardy, and are not as aggressive as some other tropical fish.
There are many to choose from, and the term ‘mollies’ is quite vague since there are so many variations of size, color, and optimal tank conditions.
Because of the vast difference between each type of molly fish, choosing the right water conditions can be tough. However, all mollies prefer warm water, so a temperature between 25 and 28 degrees would be optimal.
In the wild, mollies prefer to eat a plant-based diet, most specifically, algae. Evolution has slowly turned mollies away from a carnivorous diet, and more towards a plant-based diet, so their digestive systems are designed to digest algae better than most other tropical fish.
The optimal diet for aquarium mollies would be algae, vegetarian flakes, and the occasional bloodworm or brine shrimp as a treat, but limit them to once or twice per week, max.
12. Sword Tails
Often touted as a ‘beginner only’ fish, swordtails (Given the name due to the sword-like shape of their tails) have recently begun to build a huge following of devoted fans, looking to seek out the rarest of the species.
Mostly found in small streams, swordtails typically prefer a plant-based diet, so a tank full of naturally occurring algae will be perfect for them, however, they also do well with live foods from time to time.
A vegetable-based flake would be the perfect food for them on a consistent basis.
Growing up to 12 cm in length, and with low demands for water conditions, swordtails are perfect for new fishkeepers. Keep in mind that they thrive better in communities, so it’s always better to keep more than one, preferably 5 or more.
The optimal water temperature would be between 25 and 28 degrees celcius, but they can also do well in cooler or warmer tanks.
In the wild, swordtails would typically be found in fast-flowing water, so if you can emulate this by keeping a strong flow of water somewhere in your tank, they will be grateful and will feel more at home.
13. Betta Fish
Although not typically recommended as a beginner fish, due to their aggressive nature (they aren’t called Siamese Fighting Fish for nothing), the Betta fish will generally be aggressive toward other Betta fish, so as long as you only keep one, they should be fine.
We have added the Betta to our list of best freshwater fish for beginners because they are one of the most stunning tropical fish you can keep.
The long colorful fins will catch the eyes of anyone having a peek in your tank. Betta fish are also very easy to care for, and they will eat most types of food including fish flakes, blood-worms, and brine shrimp.
For a treat, try offering some live foods to the tank.
When looking for tank mates, make sure you don’t add any fish which have a tendency to nip. Because of their huge fins, the Betta would be a prime target for nipping fish, but nipping an aggressive fish like the Betta will never end well.
If you’re interested in Betta Fish, I have an article that goes into detail about how to care for a betta fish for beginners.
Tips That Every Beginner Tropical Fishkeeper Should Know
Ok, now you know what species of fish are ideal for beginner fishkeepers, we thought it would be wise to leave you with a few tips that every aquarium owner should know.
The first is controversial, but it’s worth knowing…
Don’t Always Trust Your Local Fish Store Staff
Of course, there are thousands of knowledgable and trustworthy fish store staff around the world whose knowledge you can genuinely trust, but for every knowledgable member of staff, you will find 3 who don’t really know what they are talking about (that’s a made-up number, but you get my point)
I know this because I have shopped in local fish stores my entire life. I have also received thousands of emails, messages and comments from people who have received dodgy advice too.
It’s not that the staff don’t have the best intentions in mind, they simply don’t have the knowledge.
If you are interested in a fish from this list, or if a fish at your local fish store catches your attention, note down the name and do your own research online.
Knowing that specific fish’s ideal water parameters, suitable tank mates, required tank size and any other tidbits of useful information can be found in a few minutes at the tip of your fingers.
Save yourself the stress of making silly mistakes and do your research.
Never Forget To Cycle a New Aquarium
The nitrogen cycle refers to the process in which dangerous substances such as ammonia and nitrates are broken down into safer substances such as nitrites in a new aquarium.
For a successful cycle, the presence of good bacteria is required, and unfortunately, the only way for this bacteria to establish is to wait, then wait a bit longer.
This is a huge subject and one that every fishkeeper must be aware of, so we have an in-depth guide to check out here, but just keep in mind that the nitrogen cycle is a crucial part of the hobby and must be done before you add any fish into your new tank.
Smaller Tanks are Not Better for Your Pet Fish
It’s a common myth among beginners and one that I wish would die out. It seems to make sense, that a smaller tank is perfect for a beginner because there is less water to maintain and less fish to care for, but that’s not true whatsoever.
Smaller tanks will require more frequent water changes and are much harder to maintain equilibrium and balance with the water paramaters. Fish create waste, so having less water in your tank will cause the waste to destabilize the quality considerably faster.
The 13 freshwater fish that we just introduced to you are just a drop in the ocean when compared to the amount of fish that can be found in aquariums around the world.
If you are ready to start your first
If you’re still interested in learning more about freshwater fish, why not check out our freshwater fish section before you leave? If you’re feeling brave you can also check out our 5 Best Tropical Fish For Advanced Aquarists article to learn more about the more difficult fish to keep.
Now that you’ve made it this far, we would love to hear from you. Let us know in the comment box below what fish you are interested in keeping in your aquarium. Also, feel free to ask any questions you might have.