Low-Maintenance Freshwater Fish for Beginners

betta fish in a saltwater aquarium

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Looking to get started in the freshwater aquarium hobby? It's important to remember that starting and maintaining an aquarium can take some work, but some fish are are much easier to start out with than others. Here are some of the best beginner fish to consider.

  • 01 of 05

    Standard Goldfish (Carassius auratus)

    Goldfish in tank with plant
    Goldfish.

    Jessie Sanders

    There are many varieties of goldfish, but beginners should start with long-body goldfish, including the comet, sarasa and shubunkin varieties. Fancy goldfish are better for more intermediate fish-keepers. Comet goldfish can be white, orange, gold or black, and although they start very small, can grow up to 14 inches or the size of a large dinner plate. Sarasa and shubunkin tend to stay smaller and can max out around eight to 10 inches.

    No matter which type of goldfish you choose, keep in mind that you will need 20 gallons per fish, just to start! As they get bigger, goldfish will need upgrades to a larger system.

    Goldfish, in general, are not great feed converters, so they may produce more waste than other fish. Graduate them to a pelleted diet as soon as they are big enough to cut down on food waste adding to your ammonia waste.

    Species Overview

    Length: 1 to 2 inches (or 6 centimeters) and up to 6 inches in some cases

    Physical Characteristics: Two sets of paired fins and three single fins, no scales on head, exceptionally large eyes, come in red, orange, blueish-grey, brown, yellow, white, and black colors

  • 02 of 05

    Neon Tetras (Paracheirodon innesi)

    Two neon tetras

    Mirko_Rosenau / Getty Images 

    They may seem small, but a school of these brightly colored fish can be a great starter school. Bright streaks of blue and red make these fish a lively addition to a community freshwater tank. Neon tetras tend to be very easy going and their small size makes them a minimal impact on water quality.

    Starting at only a centimeter or so, Neon Tetras can grow up to one to one and a half inches long. They like to school together, so start with three to five individuals. They are the ideal occupant for a mellow, zen planted tank.

    Neon tetras are easily bred in captivity, so be on the lookout for signs of inbreeding, including missing an operculum (gill cover), asymmetrical mouths or misshapen fins.

    There are pelleted diets available that are small enough for Neon Tetras, but flakes can be substituted for very small fish.

    Species Overview

    Length: 1 and a half inches (or 4 centimeters)

    Physical Characteristics: Red, white, blue, silver and black, usually with a turquoise blue line stretching between its eyes to its adipose fin, and a red stripe that runs from the middle of their body to the caudal fin

  • 03 of 05

    Betta Fish

    Betta

    Jessie Sanders

    Although the have the reputation as one of the easiest fish to keep, your betta will live a long, happy life with a few upgrades from their sad, little bowl.

    Bettas thrive in five-gallon tank minimum with a filter and heater. Being tropical fish, bettas should be kept at 78 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit (26 to 28 degrees Celsius). The bigger the volume of water, the easier it is for your heater to keep a constant temperature. Make sure your tank has a thermometer, and not those unreliable stick on ones!

    With their long, delicate fins, bettas are prone to being knocked about by quick flowing water. Use an appropriate size filter and turn the flow all the way down or divert it so your betta doesn't get pushed around. These fins are easily torn on sharp decor items. If you run your finger along any potential decor, you should not feel any firm or sharp protrusions. Use decor that is betta specific if you are concerned. Keep in mind that betta fish top out length wise around three to four inches, so make sure all their decor will suit them as they grow.

    For beginners, it is recommended you start with one male fish in his own tank. Bettas are easy to keep when kept in a larger tank. Extra water makes it easy for beginners to have a looser maintenance schedule. Your filter and heater will go a long way in making a happy betta home.

    Be sure to not feed your betta too much! Their "stomach" is only about the size of their eyeball. They should never be allowed to eat their fill. Feeding will depend on the size of your fish and pellet size. It is best that bettas eat betta-specific pellets in order to receive proper nutrition.

    Species Overview

    Length: Up to 3 inches (or 7 centimeters)

    Physical Characteristics: Long, elaborate fins and overlapping scales; come in vibrant colors like red, green, and blue

  • 04 of 05

    Mollies & Platys (Live bearers)

    Fancy guppy

    isoft / Getty Images

    Many molly and platy owners start with only one fish. A few days later, they have many fish. Livebearing fish have this reputation since that fish you first adopted has a 50 percent chance of being a pregnant female. Since fertilization takes place internally, you never know from the outward appearance how many fish you may be adopting.

    Mollies and platys are very easy fish to care for and come in many varieties and colors. They can be kept in schools and grow to about one inch in length. We recommend starting with a common variety that is widely available. Some specialty breeds, specific to only one owner or shop, tend to have inbreeding issues and do not make good beginner fish.

    Most mollies and platys are hardy and easy to please fish. They can eat a micro pellet or flake diet. It is recommended to start with a 10-gallon tank at minimum, but know you may have to upgrade as your population increases.

    With livebearing fish, it is always important to always plan for more fish. Even beginner fish keepers can successfully rear several generations, doubling or tripling your initial numbers within a few months. However, you will need to slow production eventually, and unmonitored breeding will cause eventual inbreeding. Thankfully, most species are sexually dimorphic and males and females can be distinguished by external characteristics. This allows you to separate males and females to keep populations from exploding. You can try a tank divider, but it is safer to put males and females in separate systems.

    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • 05 of 05

    Zebrafish (Zebra danio)

    Zebra fish

    isoft / Getty Images

    As their name describes, these cute, tiny fish are distinctive with their horizontal stripes along their bodies. Another fish that likes to school in groups, zebrafish make great beginner fish. Unlike many other pet fish, zebrafish don't like warm, tropical temperatures, so do not use pre-set heaters! Zebrafish like room temperature water (around 70 degrees Fahrenheit, or 21 degrees Celsius), so you may need a small heater to keep your tank from getting too cold in the winter.

    Zebrafish also come in a variety of colors and fin-lengths. Most species will top out at one inch to one and a half inches. They even come in special day-glow varieties, thanks to a little genetic engineering with fluorescent jellyfish protein. These colors can be very pronounced under a blue LED light. When selecting specialized zebrafish varieties, look for individuals with straight spines and a full operculum covering their gills on both sides.

    Zebrafish are great beginner pets without the hassle of keeping an eye on a heater constantly. They can eat standard topical micro pellets or flakes. As with all other aquatic pets, keep up with your regular maintenance schedule to keep their water clean and healthy.

    Species Overview

    Length: 2 inches (or 6 centimeters)

    Physical Characteristics: Silver-gold body with distinctive blue-purple horizontal stripes run from gill to tail, come in albino, golden, veil-tailed and long-finned varieties

Getting into the aquarium hobby is an exciting experience! Once you have decided on what species to keep, do your homework and plan a suitable home. Keep in mind that all new tanks will need to undergo nitrogen cycling before becoming established systems. By starting with a low number of fish in a lot of water, you can set yourself up for success!