Beginners’ guide to choosing the best fish tank

Getting into a new hobby is exciting. If you are a beginner, there is a lot to learn and a lot to see, and there are tons of questions to ask. The most common question aquarium hobby starters have is what kind of fish tank should be their first one.

The short answer is that you should choose one that is easy to set up and maintain. But which one is that? Let’s find out.

Red fantail – an easy-care fish suitable for beginners
Red fantail goldfish are easy to keep – a good choice for beginners. Photo: eutoch.

Size of Aquarium

A common doubt of people taking their first steps in the aquarium world is that, even though they’d like one, a large and beautiful fish tank may be too much to cope with. Fortunately, when it comes to the best size for a starter fish tank, the bigger the better – within limits, of course.

Larger aquariums are easier for one reason: they hold a lot of water, which makes them more stable. If your house suddenly loses heating, a larger fish tank will stay warm for longer. The same holds true for almost any parameter water can have: the pH level, the amount of ammonia, and the amount of dissolved oxygen will fluctuate less in larger tanks.

For most beginners, we suggest getting as large an aquarium as you can afford, in terms of both money and space – with some limitations, as we said before.

If you get one that is too large, first, where are you gonna put it, and second, weekly maintenance will take a long time, as there will be larger surfaces to clean and more water to change. You might get frustrated by doing this job.

Large Aquarium
Extra-large aquariums are beautiful, but do not rush to get one. Photo: piyaz520, cc

And so, as a compromise between a stable aquarium and one that is easy to maintain, our recommendation is one sized between 80 and 150 liters (20 to 40 gallons).

Glass or Acrylic?

The two main materials that fish tanks are made of are glass and acrylic. Acrylic tanks are popular because they are lightweight and can be found in many shapes. However, we recommend beginners go for glass.

Weight should not be an issue, since aquariums are not intended to be carried around a lot. As for shape, unless you have a specific project in mind, it’s best to stick to regular old rectangular shapes. They are easier to clean, and their volume/surface ratio is optimal for environment maintenance.

Another crucial benefit of glass tanks is that they are harder to scratch. Most metallic objects or rocks found in fish tanks are not able to scratch glass, but many can damage acrylic, which is softer, and thus caution is required during scrubbing of its surface. Don’t ruin your tank in the first few months. Take the glass one, and have no worries. Scrub like a bulldozer if you must.

Water parameters

Next, let’s take a look at some choices about your first fish tank’s water parameters.

Freshwater, Saltwater, Reef?

If you are just starting, a freshwater aquarium is an obvious choice. They are so much easier than complex saltwater and reef aquariums. There’s no need to maintain correct salt concentration or go for an expert level of reef maintenance. Besides that, freshwater equipment is more affordable than saltwater equipment.

Water temperature

On the one hand, cold-water fish are easy. Just put them in a tank with a water temperature close to room temp – and that’s all. No heaters, no worries if a power failure occurs.

On the other hand, tropical aquariums are easy too. You add a heater and have no worries if room temperature fluctuates. The aquarium maintains a stable temperature because the heater does its job.

It depends on your tastes which fish you like better.

Artificial or Live Plants?

Live plants are a huge part of the biological processes inside an aquarium. They absorb CO2, nitrates, ammonia and other compounds, and they release oxygen. Many fish do require them as a source of food or as a hiding place.

Live Aquarium Plants
Photo: The Wandering Angel, cc

There are lots of advantages to having live plants, and aquariums are incomplete without them. However, if you are a beginner, it would be better to start with artificial plants, keeping in mind that you should get live ones in the near future, once you’ve grasped the basics.

There will always be time for you to add live plants to your tank later. Don’t rush. Try to concentrate on your fish in the beginning. If you wish, there is no problem with adding one or two live pants just to see what happens. And if it goes well, add some more.


As a beginner, you are looking for fish that are resistant to water parameter changes and that can tolerate a wide range of conditions.

If you choose a cold-water aquarium, then it is definitely goldfish. They are comfortable in a huge range of water temperatures and are one of the most popular fish in aquariums. Their popularity results in loads of literature to read. The Internet is full of articles on everything from feeding and breeding through to medical care for goldfish. Do not choose a rare variety, though, because there won’t be as much available information to help you. And the fact is, rare varieties are often harder to keep.

Neon tetra – beginner-friendly fish.
Neon tetra are beautiful and beginner-friendly aquarium fish. Photo: lapis2380.

If you choose a tropical aquarium, then start with smaller fish like guppies or neon tetra. If you have a larger aquarium, try some labyrinth fish. They are famous for their ability to survive in water with a low level of dissolved oxygen. Great examples of beginner-friendly fish are Betta splendens, or gourami. Again, don’t choose a variety that is too rare.

Of course, there is a lot more to learn about choosing a beginner-friendly fish. However, if you just want to get started, our advice above is all you need to know at this point.

To sum up, we think the best choice for a beginner is a tropical freshwater aquarium with a capacity of 20 to 40 gallons. It’s easy nowadays, since most pet stores have already set-up sets that include lighting, heaters, filters, and even decoration – and manuals on how to best set them up. Best wishes for your new hobby!

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