44 Best Freshwater Aquarium Fish for Beginners [complete guide to freshwater fishkeeping with pictures]
Freshwater fish are great beginner aquatic pets because they are relatively easy to care for and have a small space requirement. They can also provide you with hours of entertainment and stress relief. A freshwater fish aquarium is relatively inexpensive to buy and maintain.
If you are interested in colorful freshwater fish as pets keep reading as I’ll go over some of the best beginner fish for your home aquarium and teach you what you need to know!
When you first walk into a fish store or see the fish section of your local pet store, you may be overwhelmed by the bright colors and number of options you have.
Sometimes it’s difficult to tell what fish will work for you, and what one won’t. Some fish that are incredibly difficult to care for to a beginner may be mixed in with classic favorites in the hobby.
Although many stores will help guide you on your path, having the knowledge of what may be considered a beginner fish can be helpful when planning out your first home aquarium.
Freshwater Fish Care Basics
There are many general care guides for fish out there, and there is almost definitely a specific care guide for whatever species you may want.
That being said, here’s a quick overview of various aspects of fishkeeping for your knowledge arsenal.
Water pH Requirements
The pH scale is simply the measure of how acidic or alkaline your water is. Most fish thrive between a pH of 6.5 and 7.5, but there are some species that prefer to be outside this range.
It’s a good idea to check the pH of your water before you buy fish, so you know if you have acidic, basic, or neutral water. This will help you narrow down your choices.
Water Hardness Requirements
The hardness of the water can best be described by how much mineral matter is dissolved in it. Water can be soft, hard, or anywhere in between.
Hardness is broken down into KH and GH. KH measures the number of carbonates in the water and GH measures the magnesium and calcium in your water.
These minerals are important for fish and plant growth, so you don’t want tank water with absolutely none of this in it (you don’t want distilled water for example).
KH helps to buffer against swings in pH, which is important because massive pH swings can be detrimental to fish.
Water Temperature Requirements
Although all fish have their preferred range, most beginner fish in the aquarium hobby is best between 72-78 degrees Fahrenheit.
You can check this with a cheap in-tank thermometer, and you shouldn’t assume the water is the same temperature as the air because of evaporative cooling and heat from filters, lights, and heaters.
In general, keeping fish on the higher end of their preferred range will increase their metabolism which increases their reproduction but decreases their life span.
Freshwater Fish Aquarium Maintenance
Every tank is different when it comes to maintenance, but it is important to learn about the nitrogen cycle before you buy fish.
The amount of nitrogen (mainly nitrates) is the main determiner when it comes to how often to do water changes.
Live plants can help with this by using nitrates as food, which shortens the nitrogen cycle. A good recommendation is to do a 25%-40% water change every week or every other week.
Using the API Master Test kit can help you determine when nitrates may be too high. Another important factor is dechlorinating your water before adding it to your aquarium.
You can either leave your water out for a week to dechlorinate it or use a commercial dechlorinator. Finally, make sure the water you’re changing is similar in temperature to your tank water.
What is Cycling?
Before adding fish to your tank, it is important to “cycle” your tank to allow denitrifying bacteria to build up in your system.
This typically takes around four weeks but can be made quickly through the use of bottled bacteria.
The cycle this is referring to is the nitrogen cycle, where fish waste (ammonia) is broken down into nitrite and then nitrate.
Nitrate can be broken down into nitrogen gas (completely harmless) but this is difficult and not often achieved in the home aquarium.
This is why water changes and live plants are important, to keep water parameters in check such as nitrate.
Feeding Your Freshwater Fish
Perhaps the easiest aspect of care to accidentally mess up is feeding. Although underfeeding is difficult and uncommon, many people are perpetually worried their fish aren’t eating enough.
This can lead to overfeeding which can lead to ammonia spikes and high nitrates. A general rule of thumb is you only want to feed as much food as your fish will eat in about 30 seconds to a minute.
The less wasted food, the fewer pollutants foul your water. Live foods can be a good choice if you are worried about overfeeding.
With the exception of brine shrimp, many live foods can live in your freshwater aquarium and will act as a continual food source and eat and break down decaying plant matter.
Best Beginner Freshwater Fish
Now that I’ve talked a little bit about basic care, below you can find the list of some of the best 30 beginner fish.
I’ll break it down further into some main categories (schooling fish, cichlids, catfish, and oddballs), but some may fit into more than one category, so be sure to read the descriptions.
Schooling fish are great if you want lots of life in your home aquarium but you want to keep the footprint down.
Some of these species are true schooling fish (following each other around and grouping up all the time), but many are more “shoaling fish”.
This means they like to be around their kind, but not always in a cohesive group. When buying schooling fish, it is best to buy at least 6 of them so they will feel more comfortable and secure.
This will mean you will see your fish more, they’ll be more brightly colored, and they’ll live happier longer lives.
Schooling fish offer a great opportunity to start a community tank with an oddball or two mixed in.
Black Skirt Tetra
Black Skirt Tetra fish are good for beginner aquarium owners and very non-aggressive so they do well as community fish.
The Black Skirt Tetra has a darker color than other Tetra fish (hence the name) but they are a stunning addition to your tank and will provide hours of entertainment watching them.
Black Skirt Tetra tend to live three to five years if well taken care of.
Possibly the most classic and easily recognizable fish out there, the Neon Tetra is a classic for a reason. These brilliantly colored fish thrive in most water conditions and only need a 10-gallon aquarium.
The history behind these fish is amazing: they were first sold in the aquarium hobby in 1936 for thousands of dollars per fish, but now you can find them for only a dollar or two in many pet stores!
This means you can outfit a reasonably sized tank with a large school of Neon Tetras for a relatively cheap price.
Pair them with live plants, some rocks, and maybe a different species of Oddball Fish, and you are guaranteed to have a fish tank with a unique look.
Rummy Nose Tetra
Although similar in care to Neon Tetras, Rummy Nose Tetras look almost nothing alike. Their longer and more slender bodies end in a bright red nose, something very unique!
These fish would thrive in a 20-gallon-long aquarium with lots of live plants for the school to weave in and out of.
You can have around 15 or some rummy noses in a well-filtered 20-gallon fish tank, and you’ll never be bored watching them.
This popular freshwater fish is also ideal for a large school as they school and group together exceptionally tightly.
Medaka Rice Fish
A newer and less well-known (at least in America) shoaling fish is the Medaka Rice Fish.
These small fish have been cultivated in Japan for decades and there are a few different color varieties available in the US.
There is a variety of colors available in Japan, but unfortunately, not all of them have made their way to America. These fish can live in small tanks, down to 5-gallon aquariums, and do their best without a heater.
A small outdoor pond is also a great idea for these spunky little fish and you’ll be able to enjoy them from the top down, as is traditional.
Another absolute classic fish is the Guppy. You’ve probably seen or heard of these in pet stores. They come in more colors and patterns than you can ever imagine and they breed very easily.
If you have hard and alkaline water coming out of your tap, a guppy population may be your best bet.
Although they can live in a 5-gallon, a 10-20 gallon aquarium is even better so you can have babies and have a tank filled with many colors and patterns.
Celestial Pearl Danios
Have you ever wanted fish that look like they have a starry night painted on their body? Well, look no further!
Celestial Pearl Danios are so uniquely beautiful that when images first appeared on the internet, many people thought the pictures were fake and photoshopped.
This shy fish does best in large groups in a heavily planted aquarium with no fast or aggressive fish. Neocaridina Shrimp is a great companion to these tiny beauties!
Although sometimes called Dwarf Rainbowfish, these are not truly Rainbowfish. P. Gertrudae AKA the spotted blue eye is a flashy fish!
Makes have a stunning blue eye and large fins with spots and streaks of yellow. These fins are displayed when males are trying to get a female’s attention.
These fish prefer slower-moving water and thrive with lice plants. You may want to consider a lid as these are skilled jumpers.
As their name may suggest, these fish really glow! As a close relative to Zebra Danios, these fish are also very easy to keep and full of personality.
These are smaller fish only getting to around one inch in length, which means your school of glowlight danios can be even bigger than your Zebra Danio school in the same sized aquarium.
Be careful not to keep this fish with Dwarf Shrimp as the Danio may snack on the shrimp when they’re hungry!
Zebra Danios are so easy that they are used as “model organisms” by biologists.
These fish may seem to be boring in the fish store, but when you get them settled into your home aquarium they really begin to shine.
When they’re happy and healthy Zebra Danios have blue and purple undertones and zip all across the tank.
They can handle high flow and are ideal for a long tank since they are very fast moving.
A very similar fish to the guppy, but a little smaller and faster, the Endler’s Live-bearer is a funky and cute little fish that comes in many patterns, fin shapes, and colors for you to enjoy.
These fish prefer harder water and will quickly breed and populate whatever tank you set them up in.
If you get a wild-type, make sure not to keep it with guppies otherwise they may create hybrids. These fish are extinct in the wild and so it is important to preserve their gene pool.
A bright red favorite that contrasts against green live plants, the Cherry Barb is a long-time favorite for its vibrant colors and ability to be put in almost any community tank.
They are semi-peaceful but generally won’t bother too many fish. Although not the most peaceful fish, they are much more peaceful compared to their cousin, the Tiger Barb.
Another live-bearing fish, the Black Molly (and other Molly Fish), thrive in hard and very hard water. If your tap water is “liquid rock” (very high KH and GH) then this fish is an excellent choice.
One issue with Mollies is they produce an exceptional amount of fish waste, so upsizing on or filter is a good idea.
These are great beginner fish if you want a larger fish than Guppies but still have hard water.
If you want a tightly schooling fish for a large school, Harlequin Rasboras are a popular freshwater aquarium fish. They have vibrant colors and really stand out against green love plants.
The larger tank you have the better, just so you can fit more harlequin rasboras in it! These fish are great with live plants and a slightly larger fish, such as a Rainbow Kribensis or Krib.
This larger fish will encourage the Harlequin Rasboras to stay in a tight school for a look that imitates their natural habitat.
Dwarf Neon Rainbowfish
One of the main reasons these little guys are popular freshwater aquarium fish is because of their small size and vibrant colors.
These are a great addition to and offer a unique look for a school fish in a larger tank, or as a stand-alone species with many line plants in a smaller tank.
Although Dwarf Neon Rainbowfish are a little pickier with their water parameters, they are still hardy fish and are an excellent choice if you want a schooling fish with a unique appearance.
If you’ve not heard much of Cichlids, you may have some image in your head of big mean fish that you can’t keep anything with, but the reality is that the Cichlid family is full of many diverse species of fish.
Some like to school, and some are perfect centerpiece fish. Here are some of my favorite cichlids that are also easy to keep!
The bright coloration of Kribensis is where they get their common name of “Rainbow Krib” from. These hardy and moderately sized fish do well in a 20 long, but a 40 breeder would be better.
Although they may snack on dwarf shrimp, Kribs will leave your other fish alone for the most part.
They may get a little territorial when they are protecting their babies (fry). If you want to encourage breeding, make sure to have a cave or something similar.
The easiest breeding Cichlid of them all! Convict cichlids are originally from Central America but can be found just about anywhere that fish are sold and they offer a great introduction to fish breeding.
Even when kept with large and aggressive fish, Convict Cichlids will bravely defend their babies (fry) at all costs.
I’ve even seen them go fin to fin with a fish four times their size! Although not the most colorful fish, Convict Cichlids have slightly pink undertones and are beautiful in a modest way.
Did you know the home-aquarium classic, the Angelfish, is a Cichlid? Well, it sure is!
These unique fish can become quite large and even though a 30-gallon aquarium can work, to really see these fish in all their glory a 55-gallon aquarium would be ideal.
Other than tank size, these fish are very easy to keep and even breed. You can even recreate their natural environment by using plants like Amazon Swords and Amazon Frogbit.
Some of, if the smallest Cichlids out there are Shell Dwellers. This genus of fish lives and breeds in shells.
Because of this, they don’t utilize much vertical space which means you could use these fish in a low boy or other short tanks.
Alternatively, you could have she’ll dwellers on the bottom of a tank with a schooling fish at the top. When keeping these fish, make sure to ask what specific species you’re getting.
Although many are easy, some are more expensive and difficult to care for. But as long as you have hard water, shells, and adequate filtration, Shell Dwellers will be a great addition to your home!
Electric Yellow Cichlids
A larger shoaling group of African Cichlids, Electric Yellow Cichlids are sure to jazz up any living space!
It’s best to do a species-only tank of these in harder water because they get aggressive with different types of fish.
Ideally, it’s also best to raise them from juveniles because they will be less territorial.
When setting up a home aquarium for these vibrant colored fish, make sure to use a larger aquarium (at least 55 gallons) and lots of rocks to simulate their natural habitat.
A Dwarf Cichlid from the Amazon in South America, Apistogrammaa Agassizii is a perfect centerpiece fish or stand-alone pair in a 10-20 gallon aquarium.
These fish come in many colors and are somewhat easy to breed as long as they have caves and lots of love food.
They also come out more if they have a “dither fish” such as a slow-moving Tetra or Pencil fish. These let the Apistogramma know it is safe to venture out.
Although many people might just think of catfish as ‘cleaner fish’, they are so much more!
In fact, you should make sure to feed your catfish specifically, because what food you put on the surface of the water doesn’t always come down to the bottom for the bottom dwellers.
Some of these fish will eat dead plant matter and or algae, but it likely won’t be enough unless you have a whole stream’s worth in your fish tank.
The cute masked Panda Cory is a perfect addition to any 10-20 gallon aquarium, and the bigger the better!
You’ll absolutely fall in love with their cute wiggles and adorable mask that makes them look like, you guessed it, a Panda.
Cory catfish do best on a sand substrate so they can sift through without injuring their barbels.
They prefer slightly acidic or neutral water with moderate or soft hardness, which is similar to their natural habitat in South America.
Are Panda Cories too big for you? Do you like the tiniest things? Pygmy Cories are for you then!
Even though it might seem like they’re almost too small to even swim, these adorable little fish will quickly swim right to your heart with teeny little wiggles all across your tank.
Although these are not colorful fish, they shine bright when it comes to sheer cuteness. Pygmy Cories could also be considered a schooling fish, and they are adorable when they swim in large schools.
If you want to simulate their natural habitat, you could get a larger tank like a 30-gallon aquarium and put them in with Apistogrammas and Neon Tetras, all of which come from South America!
A much better option than a common pleco, Bristlenose Plecos only get to be around 4-6 inches long and males have interesting-looking bristles on their noses as they mature.
A 20-gallon aquarium is enough for these fish, but make sure you have adequate filtration because they tend to excrete quite a bit of fish waste.
Larger tanks, more water changes, or more filtration help to combat this, and they also need a robust nitrogen cycle before adding them to a home aquarium.
They also come in albino or green if the standard black isn’t to your taste.
Looking like a Mini Pleco, these little shingle-like fish do best in groups of four or more and love to eat algae.
These are best added to a mature tank where there is plenty of algae and microorganisms to feed on.
They also tolerate high flow particularly well, but definitely do not tolerate bad water quality, so make sure you have lots of filtration and you keep up on water changes.
A smaller and more interestingly Patterned Pleco, the Clown Pleco has unique orange stripes across its body that really make it stand out.
One thing to keep in mind with this four-inch fish is they absolutely need driftwood in their diet.
They feed and graze on this driftwood and so it’s important to have plenty in your 20-gallon fish tank.
When keeping Plecos of any kind, make sure you offer plenty of hiding places as they like to feel secure and safe.
Some people may want a centerpiece or just a unique look for their community tank. If either of these sounds like you, an oddball fish may be the right choice for you.
10 Popular Oddball Fish
- African Butterflyfish
- Amazon Leaf Fish
- Black Ghost Knifefish
- Blind Cave Tetra
- Freshwater Pipefish
- Ghost Catfish
- Rope Fish
- Scarlet Badis
- Silver Arowana
- Upside Down Catfish
As long as everything is compatible, you could have a tank full of different oddballs! Just make sure none of the species are aggressive fish, otherwise, you may end up with some unexpected issues!
Pea Puffers are by far one of the most popular fish for the home aquarium that has a truly unique look. These shy and aggressive fish look like small balloons hovering around your fish tank.
If you have access to live foods such as brine shrimp and blackworms, then these are great beginner fish.
It is important to note that these little guys are difficult or impossible to get onto prepared flake or pellet food, so live food is essential.
An extremely peaceful and shy fish, the Kuhli Loach almost resembles a noodle or a tiny eel.
These fish are a good choice for small tanks, such as a 10-gallon tank, where you won’t lose them but they have enough room to swim and hide.
Many times these fish can hide in plain sight or even wedge themselves into areas you never thought they could fit.
Kuhli Loaches thrive in small groups being that they are social creatures, and it is recommended that you have at least four or five.
African Butterfly Fish
One of the least active fish on this list, the African Butterfly Fish is a great idea if you want a unique look and don’t have a large tank.
African Butterfly Fish work well in community tanks, as long as none of the fish are small enough to fit in its mouth.
When keeping this species make sure the filter flow rate is low and you have a lid: they are strong jumpers but weak swimmers.
Also known as the Siamese Fighting Fish, Betta Fish are prized for their small size, aggressive nature, and being hardy fish. These fish don’t need a filter but do need a heater.
If you do use a filter make sure the flow is turned way down as these fish are not strong swimmers.
Because you can find this fish in a variety of colors, you can find one to suit whatever design idea you may have.
Male Bettas can be aggressive fish, so it is best not to use them in community tanks. The main species sold is called Betta Splendens, and these tend to be the hardiest fish.
Golden Wonder Killifish
The Golden Wonder Killifish is a wonderful substitute for a Betta fish if you want a colorful fish that’s a little different. The care requirements are similar, and they are a good choice for a small tank.
The male fish are much more vibrant than the females, and so males are more commonly sold in stores. Make sure you have a lid for whatever tank these are in, they are talented jumpers.
Again, another good choice similar to a Betta Fish. Dwarf Gouramis also have a labyrinth organ that allows them to breathe air, so they can be very hardy fish.
These are an excellent choice if you like the looks of Betta fish but also want a community tank. Dwarf Gouramis come in a variety of colors and many can be found at pet stores.
Make sure the filter flow rate isn’t too high and you should be good to go! Just know these Dwarf Gouramis can be aggressive fish with long-finned fish, but they will not bother schooling fish.
A Pearl Gourami is a colorful fish that makes a great addition to any freshwater tank. They are easy to take care of and hardy fish.
These fish can breathe air from the top of the water on your tank and are even known to make noises. While they do well in community tanks keep in mind that the male species tend to be more aggressive.
What is the Best Freshwater Fish?
As cheesy or corny as it may sound, the best freshwater fish is whatever one you want and can provide food and water conditions for.
If you are new to the hobby or still learning, then a hardy fish is ideal since they are not as picky as a more sensitive fish to different water parameters.
If you’ve never had a fish before, start out with a Betta fish or guppies if you want a school.
Guppies may need additional hardness from crushed coral, but this is very easy and you should be able to get it at your pet store.
Contrary to popular belief, Betta fish do need a heater and are not suitable for small bowls.
Related Freshwater Fish Questions
Is a Bala Shark a Good Beginner Fish?
Unfortunately, Bala sharks are anything but beginner fish. These fish grow to a very large size of over a foot long, and so they need a large aquarium with over 125 gallons of water!
One of the main reasons this is a popular fish sold in pet stores is people do not realize the care they need when they see the inch-long fish in a pet store.
Is the Jack Dempsey Fish Good For Beginners?
No, the Jack Dempsey Fish is not recommended for beginner fishkeepers because they are known for being aggressive fighters (Jack Dempsey…the boxer).
Can I Keep Koi Fish in a Home Aquarium?
Although you technically can keep Koi in a larger tank (much larger) the beauty and majesty will be lost.
First off, they need the space of at least a 225-gallon aquarium, and they are also best observed from the top. If you have an outdoor pond, however, these fish are a great choice.
Are Freshwater Fish Easier Pets to Take Care of Than Having a Dog or Cat?
This is a great question that many people have. The right pet for you will be one that fits your lifestyle the best. Give yourself some time to figure that out before you bring a pet home.
Having said that, having a freshwater fish aquarium is much easier to deal with on a day-to-day basis than having a dog or cat in my humble opinion.
For example, instead of remembering to fill up your dog’s water bowl every day, you just need to remember to do a water change every week or two with an aquarium.
It is easy to feed your fish when you compare it to preparing meals for your dog or cat. Fish can be much less expensive when you consider veterinary bills.
Of course, you won’t get the same amount of love and attention from your fish as you would a dog.
Having a home aquarium full of colorful freshwater fish can be a great source of pride and enjoyment.
Not only will you amaze your guest when you show them your fish they can also interact with you and provide entertainment. Some people find freshwater fish to be the perfect pet!