Top 10 Best Tropical Fish for Beginners
Tropical Freshwater Aquarium Fish
As a beginner, you want to choose the tropical fish that give you the best chance of success with your home aquarium. There is a lot to learn for the fish keeper who is just starting out, and picking fish that are fun and easy to care for is important.
You’re going to be worried about a whole array of new concerns like maintaining the right water parameters, choosing the best fish food, deciding which decorations are appropriate and whether or not live plants are a good idea. Adding in fish that involve complicated care and stocking requirements just makes things that much tougher.
In this article you’ll read about ten of the best topical fish for beginners. They’re great options when just starting out, but many advanced fish keepers enjoy them as well.
If you are new to aquarium care are going to want to read up on how to care for a fish tank before you get started. Learning the basics is important from the beginning, and it will make you new hobby much more enjoyable.
1. Neon Tetra
Neons are among the most popular of freshwater tropical fish due to their tiny size and vibrant colors. They only grow about an inch or so long, so any aquarium 10 gallons or bigger makes for a suitable home.
These little guys are schooling fish, which means you want to have at least six of them, preferably more. When their school is too small, or when the water is poor, they can get nippy at each other.
Otherwise, they are an extremely docile and easy-to-care-for fish species, well suited to beginning and advanced fish keepers alike. Beware not to stock them with larger fish, because they make a tempting snack. One rule to remember when choosing fish: Big fish eat little fish!
Swords are another pretty species that will grow to about two inches in length. They’re very peaceful, though fairly active. You can tell the males apart from the females by the elongated “swords” on their tails, hence their name.
While these guys aren’t aggressive, you may notice the male relentlessly harassing the female. It’s just his way of showing swordtail love, but it can be fairly stressful for her. One solution is to have at least two female swordtails for every male.
The male will still be pesky and bothersome, but at least the same female won’t be getting the brunt of his attention all the time.
3. Fancy Guppy
Guppies have tiny little bodies, and long, flowing fins. They come in many different vibrant colors, and a tank with several types of guppies in it really pops. They’re super active though, so if a calm, tranquil tank is what you’re going for these fish may not be for you.
But if you like a lot of action and pretty colors in your aquarium you might even consider stocking it only with guppies.
Be aware that they’re very small and, like neons, not a good choice if you have larger fish in your tank. They’re also livebearers, so if you do have a bunch of them be on the lookout for baby guppies in your tank one day!
Cories, or cory catfish, are small, ancient-looking armored catfish. There are a few different popular species, such as pepper cories and albino cories.
The emerald catfish is a closely related species often labeled as a cory, though it's not technically in the same sub-family.
They all do the same job, which is to scavenge the bottom of the tank for leftover food, plant matter and other debris. Many fish keepers choose to feed sinking pellets to make sure their cories get enough to eat.
Most cories grow to only two or three inches in length, but with age some can get a bit larger, particularly the emerald cory. They are schooling fish and need at least six in their shoal, though like all schooling fish more is generally better.
5. Black-skirt Tetra
These little round fish need to be in schools of at least six, and due to their slightly larger size you’ll probably want to have them in a tank greater than 10 gallons. But they’re very pretty fish, with their silver and black striped bodies and black flowing fins, especially when they swim together in a group.
They’re super-easy to care for and do fine with regular flake food and maybe a few treats here and there. They’re docile fish that grow to about three inches across, and need plenty of room for swimming in the top two-thirds of the water column.
These are also a good option for tanks with larger fish such as Angelfish and Gouramis, as they grow too large for all but the biggest of the typical home aquarium inhabitants.
6. Zebra Danio
The zebra danio is a great tropical fish for beginners, and very popular. They’re hardy, active and cute, and you’ll probably want a small group of them in your tank. These little guys have black and white stripes down the length of their bodies, which is how they got their name, but other danio strains may have spots.
The standard zebra is short-finned, and only a couple of inches long, but there are also long-finned and lyre–tail varieties. You should be able to choose from a bunch of different kinds at most live-fish stores.
Note also that the popular (but expensive) GloFish is actually a specialized zebra danio, bred to bring out bright red, yellow and green pigments.
Do you have any ethical issues with GloFish?
7. Cherry Barb
Cherry barbs may be labeled as semi-aggressive in some pet stores, but rest assured they will not terrorize your tank. However, they may harass slow-moving fish with long fins, so if you have such critters in your tank you may want to skip these guys. If you have active species like those listed above you should be okay.
These are schooling fish, so stick with the “six or more” rule, but you’ll notice they don’t school as tightly as some other shoaling fish. But when perceived danger comes around, such as a water change or bigger fish, they’ll group together. The males are brighter red, and the females have duller coloration.
These little guys are among my favorites, especially in large, planted tanks with some natural driftwood and stone. The reds of the males really make them pop.
8. Harlequin Rasbora
These pretty fish make great tankmates for any of those listed above. They are small, up to about two inches, and very docile. Their attractive black and metallic orange coloring gives them a unique appearance.
They need to be in a school, and they need plenty of room for swimming at the top of the water column. They’re hardy little fish who will get by well on flake food, and they’re docile enough that they get along with pretty much anything that doesn’t try to eat them!
Some aquarium owners want a fish that will eat algae, and so they go out and get a plecostomus. The problem is most plecos grow up to two feet in length, and are not a good choice for the home aquarium.
But the Otto catfish will happily much on the algae on tank glass and decorations, and they only grow to about two inches long. They like to school so have six or more, and make sure to supplement their diet with algae wafers.
Unlike with a pleco, you don’t have to worry so much about your live plants with these little fish either. And they tend to blend into the background. Moving a piece of wood or a plant can dislodge half a dozen Ottos you didn't even know were there!
Platies are active, curious fish and something like the puppy dogs of the community fish tank. They come in a variety of colors and markings, including the cool “Mickey Mouse” platy, which actually has markings on its tail that resemble Mickey Mouse.
They are very peaceful fish, but their active and inquisitive nature may get them in trouble with any large, semi-aggressive tankmates. For this reason they’d be best in a tank with other highly active fish they can’t annoy.
Like swordtails and guppies they are live bearers, so if you have a bunch of them be on the lookout for baby platies!
Ghost Shrimp (Honorable Mention)
Ghost shrimp don’t make the 10-best tropical fish for beginners list, but they do get an honorable mention for being an interesting addition to any aquarium. Sometimes called glass shrimp, these little scavengers are super-easy to care for, and you can basically drop them in your tank and forget about them.
They may even reproduce if conditions are right! Be aware that many large and even medium-sized fish will see them as prey, but as long as you have small fish in your tank they should get along just fine.
Betta Splendens (Honorable mention)
Betta fish are very easy to care for, but unfortunately they are also just about the most misunderstood tropical fish out there.
A betta can live in a community tank, but the conditions required might be a little confusing for the beginning fish keeper. Until you know what you are doing, it’s better to avoid that situation altogether.
Keeping a betta as a solitary fish is a great idea for a beginner, but make sure his tank is at least five gallons (not a small vase or bowl) and that his water is kept clear and warm.
Bettas are not disposable pets. If you are going to own one, do it correctly.
You can read more advice on keeping Betta fish HERE.
Enjoy Your New Hobby!
Maintaining a home aquarium can be an enjoyable hobby that lasts for the rest of your life. Getting started on the right foot is very important, and choosing the best fish is smart.
As you progress as a fish owner you may wish to venture out into different types of tanks and setups. There are many semi-aggressive species out there that require more thought and planning, and there are aggressive fish like cichlids and are in a whole different world by themselves.
Good luck with your new aquarium! Hopefully this is just the start of a great new hobby!
Questions & Answers
Are fish bothered if a family cat stares at them?
If the cat is a few feet away from the tank, it is unlikely the fish will even know it is there. If it is coming right up to the glass, pawing the glass or jumping on top of the tank, it could certainly disturb the fish.
You want to be vigilant when you have a cat and a fish tank in the same house. Most house cats are quite capable of reaching into a tank with their front paws and striking your fish. If you have a cat who tries to hunt your fish, you want to take measures to stop it. Make sure your tank is completely covered, so there is no way for the cat to access the water, and try to prevent the cat from having an easy path to the top of the tank.
I’ve had a cat in our house with several fish tanks running. He couldn’t have cared less about the fish and never bothered any of the tanks, so this isn’t always an issue. Just remember that cats are predators, and if it seems to think of your fish as prey, you may need to take action.