If you've recently set up your first fish tank, and have waited a week for the filter and heater to get to work, it's time to take the plunge and go to the aquatics shop to buy your first tank inhabitants. Now that you've got all the equipment shopping out of the way, you can enjoy the fish selecting process. But deciding between all the various species can be a difficult task and a little overwhelming to say the least.

Believe it or not, not all fish are suitable when it comes to setting up a new aquarium. Two of the biggest killers of aquarium fish are adding too many fish at once and adding the wrong type of fish. Unless you've conducted a fishless cycle, then you'll need some hardy fish which can kick start the nitrogen cycle without getting ill. Some fish, such as guppies, can make wonderful additions to your aquarium, but will struggle through the initial stages and so need some other fish to break in the tank and hold a house warming party before they arrive.

A great beginner fish needs to have the following qualities

  • The ability to tolerate a variety of water conditions
  • Ideally, they need to not be fussy eaters
  • They need to be peaceful rather than aggressive
  • Unless you want a single species tank, check that they are compatible with the fish you hope to keep in the future.


Harlequins and scissortails in particular are great first fish choices. The mild nature of the rasbora fish make them excellent additions for community aquariums. Rasbora fish do best in planted aquariums with plenty of open areas for swimming. They're best kept in schools of 8-10 individuals and housed with other small, peaceful fish. When it comes to mating, their spawn is often left on the underside of plants. If you want to protect the spawn, it is advised that you remove the parents into a different tank until the eggs have hatched.

Black Widow Tetra

Black widow tetras are easily recognised by the distinctive fins and stripes on their body. They're often referred to as black skirts due to their dark colouring on the lower half of their bodies. These tetras cope well with rising ammonia and nitrate levels. They have big appetites, they're energetic and lively and as they're schooling fish, they thrive in a group of four or more.

Hiding spaces can help to keep these fish happy and to give them a sense of security. They will eat many small foods such as brine shrimp and natural daphnia, tubifex and high quality flake food.

Tiger barbs

These little guys are almost as hardy as black tetra but are even more energetic. They're great for breaking in a new aquarium although they do have a tendency to nip the fins of slower fish and so choose your companions wisely. They are happiest in tanks with plenty of room to swim freely. They're available in a range of different colours ranging from orange with black stripes to albinos and moss green tiger barbs. The green barbs tend to be less aggressive and are more likely to live peacefully with other fish. Other good barbs to start off your aquarium are cherry, gold, rosy and ruby barbs.


Goldfish are great for cold water aquariums. Despite their reputation for having a short life span, goldfish can actually live for years and years. As they're widely considered to be an easy pet, water quality isn't taken into account and their life span is lowered considerably. Nevertheless, goldfish make great starter fish for a new fish tank. They're brightly coloured, durable and don't require a heater. They do however produce a lot of waste and so adequate filtration is needed and regular water changes can also help.


Platies are a fascinating species which are a joy to watch. They can provide hours of entertainment and amusement as they dance around the tank but it's worth noting that they're also prone to eating their own babies! Platies are easy to breed and come in a wide selection of colours, such as red, orange, yellow and blue. Platies are peaceful fish and like to get on with their fellow inhabitants, but problems can arise if they're placed with aggressive fish.

Convict cichlids

Convict cichlids can create hours of fun and if you have limited space and hope to buy just a couple of fish to occupy a small tank, a pair of these stripy criminals can live well in a 10-20 gallon tank. They're regular maters though, and so a male and a female can quickly reproduce. They're also very protective of their eggs and fry, guarding them and moving them to different locations in order to keep them safe. They might even try to hide them from you, if you look too intimidating and interested in their whereabouts. Be wary when cleaning the aquarium that these protective fish might even bite your hand a little in order to defend their young.


Plecostomus fish are great if you're looking to battle algae with an enthusiastic algae eater to clean your windows! However, it is best to add these a few weeks after you've added your very first fish, and algae has begun to occur. Added too soon and they're likely to get into the habit of eating other foods, becoming less inclined to eat algae when it does appear. Often referred collectively as the Common pleco, these catfish can grow quite large though and so if you have a small tank we'd advise against these, you may find yourself having to buy a bigger aquarium or having to return them to the shop.

There are of course a number of other fish that can make an excellent addition to kickstarting your new fish tank. Many fish retailers have a special section for starter fish to make the decision easier for you. Don't be afraid to ask for advice during the decision making process.