This article walks you through the process of installing a new theme for your WordPress site. A new theme will change the design and layout of your site, which can include updating the colors, images, page layout, fonts, menus and other visual elements.
Themes can also add functionality to your site; our article about selecting a theme for an online portfolio dives deep one such specific use case. You can find themes custom designed for eCommerce, restaurants, law firms, web comics, magazines, etc. – there is probably a theme for any use you can imagine.
Themes can add new interactive features, like a Shopping Cart or an Image Slider. They can fundamentally change the focus of your WordPress site from the standard setup where your blog posts appear on your homepage, to instead feature a gallery of your Portfolio images or a listing of the latest discussions in your member site.
Luckily, for most themes and on most setups, this is all automated for you via the WordPress Admin area. It might also be accomplished via your host’s cPanel features (if provided) and can be done “manually” via FTP (File Transfer Protocol) if necessary. For the majority of installs, the WordPress Admin area is all you’ll need. If advanced set up is required, you’ll probably be told this in the “Read Me” file or installation instructions provided by the theme’s developer.
An additional point to remember is that there are many themes available for free, as well as in “premium” (i.e. available for a fee) format. Many free themes can be installed with a click in your Admin area; more on this below. Premium Themes will need to be purchased from the developer first. Most of these will then need to be downloaded to your computer and then uploaded to your WordPress install. We’ll walk you through both cases in this article, along with some common issues and solutions.
A word of caution before installing a WordPress Theme – changing your theme can alter the functionality of your existing site. Themes can not only introduce new features, but also change the way your pages are organized. If your site has a lot of existing configurations, you’ll want to note down all current settings including the original theme, Google Analytics tracking codes, RSS feed options, and other installed plugin settings.
And make a backup of all your data! While installing a theme is usually safe, it’s always a good idea to save your work before making any significant changes to your WordPress site. You can manually download your files via FTP, but your hosting provider may offer backup services; consult their support area first.
Install Free WordPress Themes via Admin Theme Search
If you’re using a free WordPress Theme that’s listed in the directory at WordPress.org then you’re in luck. WordPress’ built-in Theme Search lets you do this easily within your Admin area. It’s about as close to a “one-click” installation as you can get, with no downloading, file handling or uploading needed. Here’s what you need to do.
First, log in to your WordPress Admin and from the menu on the left click on “Appearance” then on “Themes”. This will bring you to the set of installed themes on your site.
You’ll see a button that says “Add New” at the top of this page. Click on this button to access the Theme Search.
Now you’ll be able to search for themes from within the WordPress Theme directory. You’ll be able to sort by Featured, Popular, and Latest. Or you can search for a specific theme you found while browsing WordPress.org by name or features.
Once you find the theme you want via the Theme Search, hover over the listing image and you’ll see a button that says “Install” next to a “Preview” option. Click the “Install” button when you’re ready.
WordPress will now download the theme for you directly from WordPress.org with all the necessary files. It will “unpack” the data and put the files where they’re needed for you, then install the theme and tell you when the process is successful.
At this point, you’ll need to “Activate” the theme to apply the design and features to your website. Click the “Activate” option.
If the theme has any additional features, it may ask you to configure some settings, or you may need to go to a separate “Theme Settings” area to finish the install. Consult the “Read Me” file for the theme. If not, you’re all done at this point!
Manually Installing Themes
If your theme isn’t available via the WordPress.org theme directory, for example, if you’ve purchased a Premium Theme, you’ll need to “manually” install it. If your Hosting provider offers the cPanel admin tool, you may be able to do this there. Otherwise, you’ll need to use an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) client which is basically just a program to copy folders and files from your desktop to the server computer.
Before getting to that, there are a couple of things you really should do. If you’re purchasing a theme from a site like Theme Forest, Theme Foundry or Elegant Themes then you’ll want to first consult the “Read Me” or installation documentation from the theme developer. This is especially important if your theme includes advanced features that add functionality to your WordPress site, for example, if it provides connections to eCommerce tools, offers image sliders or social media components. Even if it doesn’t, it’s always good to review the developer’s “Read Me” file.
Another tip: before buying, you’ll want to check how recently the theme was updated for new features, bug fixes, and to be compatible with new WordPress releases. If a developer isn’t actively working on a theme, say within the last year, you may want to look into other options. Taking a peek at the other themes the developer offers is also a good way to determine the quality of support you can expect.
Once you buy and download a theme, it will likely be “zipped” or “compressed” into an “archive,” which reduces the file size and also makes sure the needed files are kept together and in the correct locations. A compressed theme will usually have .zip, .gz or .tar as the extension at the end of the file name.
If your hosting service offers cPanel or some other “file management” tool you will probably not need to “unzip” or “extract” the files from the compressed state before uploading to your WordPress Theme Directory. These tools will often take the single zipped file and “extract” the contents into the right location for you. Check with your host before you do this step.
Similarly, if you are able to use the WordPress Admin Theme Upload feature, you will not need to unzip or extract the files. Just leave the downloaded zip file as is; WordPress will extract the files and install them in the right location. Many self-hosted WordPress installs allow you to use the Admin area to install themes, and you’ll need to see if this is available on yours.
If you are using FTP you must first extract the files from the zip archive while on your desktop before uploading them. On most modern desktop operating systems, this is a built in feature. Instructions on extracting an archive are provided in the FTP section below.
Installing a downloaded Theme via WordPress Admin
For many installs, the WordPress Admin process described above for free themes also includes the option to upload a theme directly from the zipped archive on your desktop. If it does you’ll see an “Upload Theme” button in the step below. If not, for example, if you use WordPress.com as your host, you’ll need to use cPanel or FTP to add your theme.
First download and save your theme to your desktop, note the folder it’s saved in but leave the files as is: don’t extract the files out of the .zip file by double-clicking or right-clicking on it. Then do the following:
1. Login to your WordPress Admin area and then use the menu on the left to browse to Appearance then Themes.
2. On the Themes Options page, click the “Add New” button at the top, which will take you to the “Add Themes” page. If you see an “Upload Theme” option at the top of this page, then your setup supports this method; click this button now. If not, you’ll need to choose cPanel or FTP as described below.
3. Click “Choose File” to select the .zip file saved on your desktop. Then choose to “Install Now”. WordPress will upload and unpack the zip then move the files to the right location.
4. After successful installation, you’ll be offered to “Activate” the theme. Click this option now.
For some themes there could be additional steps to finish the set up via a new settings panel or a customization area; read the developer documentation for instructions specific to your theme.
Installing a Theme via cPanel
cPanel is a common feature offered by many of the best hosting providers, which enables a number of “control panel” components to manage your WordPress install and other servers and services provided by your host, like email or domain name management. Within the cPanel you’ll usually find a File Manager tool which you’ll use to upload the theme. As always, check with your host’s support site for specific setup differences, as they may have configured things differently than the standard options we describe here.
Once you have downloaded your theme to your local computer, leave the files as is, do not extract the contents of the .zip file by double-clicking or right-clicking on it. Note the location on your desktop. Then do the following:
1. Login to your Host’s cPanel tool. This may be a different login from your WordPress Admin credentials.
2. In cPanel, locate the File Manager tool and the navigate to the WordPress Themes folder. In the default setup for most hosts this will either be in the “root” folder at public_html/wp-content/themes or if your WordPress is configured in a subfolder named “WordPress” it will be at public_html/wordpress/wp-content/themes. If you can’t locate it check with your host; you may not want to use the cPanel method and might be better off using one of the other two options described here.
3. When you’ve browsed to the default “Themes” folder, click the “Upload File” option in the cPanel interface and select the .zip file for your new Theme. Confirm the upload.
4. Once the .zip file is successfully uploaded, click on that filename via the cPanel File Manager, then on the right you’ll see the option to “Extract File Contents”. Select this and cPanel will “unpack” the theme into the right folder locations for you.
5. Finally, you’ll log in to your WordPress Admin area and then go to Appearance > Themes and locate the new theme. Hover your mouse pointer over the Theme Preview Thumbnail and then click “Activate”.
There might be additional steps to finish the set up through a theme customization or settings panel; check the instructions provided by the developer of your theme.
Installing a Theme via FTP
Before using this method, you’ll want to make sure you have an FTP client and that you have unzipped your theme. An FTP client is a piece of software that makes it easy for you to use the File Transfer Protocol. There are a number of such clients available for Mac and Windows both for free and as paid software. In addition to providing the technical mechanism to move files from your desktop to a server (and vice versa) via FTP, these tools have different user interfaces that make some easier to use than others.
In terms of free tools, a good option on Windows is the FileZilla client. It also works on Mac, though we also recommend CyberDuck for MacOS users (it’s also available for Windows!) You’ll want to consult the support documents and read me files for your FTP client for instructions on use, but for the most part, these are “drag-and-drop” in their implementation. Once connected to your server it will show as a location similar to a desktop folder, and you’ll be able to drag your files from your local machine onto the server folder in the FTP client, which will then handle the transfer for you.
With an FTP client in hand, you’ll then want to unzip or “extract” the files from the archive on your desktop. On a Mac, just double-click on the file and it will be unzipped for you. The files will be unzipped in the same location as the compressed file, so you’ll want to move it to a directory that makes sense first. On Windows, just right-click the zipped theme then select “Extract All” and follow the instructions. It’s very important that you maintain the folder structure that is created for you, so do not move files around after this or the theme might not work when uploaded! Make sure you read the instructions from the theme developer as it relates to this.
Once you have extracted the files, the FTP process is as follows:
1. Using the FTP client, connect to your host web server using the credentials provided for FTP use, which may or may not be different from your WordPress Admin logins and even from your host login.
2. In the FTP client, browse to the wp-content/themes directory
3. For the new theme, using the FTP client, create a new directory (or “folder”) inside the main themes directory with the name of the new theme or, if instructed by the Developer’s read me, use the parent directory name created when you extracted the archive. For example, for a theme called “Best,” you should have a directory named “Best” located at wp-content/themes/best.
4. Use the FTP client to upload (copy) the files from your desktop into this new directory on your host server
5. Lastly, go to your WordPress Admin area and browse to Appearance > Themes where you’ll see the new theme. Move your mouse over the Theme and select “Activate”.
You may have a few more steps to finish the set up through a theme settings panel or a customization area; consult the developer documents for your theme.
A good quality WordPress Host should provide the above tools for installing a theme without any problems. This is a basic function of WordPress and if you’re having issues, your Host should provide solid documentation. If you run into issues with your host, please share that in a review.
If you’re not satisfied with your host (or haven’t selected one yet) check out some of the best-rated ones by other users. There are several options you can pick from based on your needs:
– Managed WordPress Hosting: Managed WordPress hosts specialize in hosting WordPress ONLY. These hosts are suitable for both small businesses and large enterprise blogs. They are pricier than shared hosting options but considered more secure as companies providing these services maintain, update and secure your site regularly. For a list of the top managed WordPress hosting plans, see this page.
– Shared WordPress Hosting: This is the cheapest hosting option for a small business or individual. Plans cost a few dollars a month, but speed and uptime can be an issue as server resources are shared with many other clients using the same server. For a list of the top shared server plans that support WordPress, see here.
– VPS WordPress Hosting: Suitable for small and medium sized businesses, a VPS server is a more powerful option for hosting your portfolio site. A portion of the server resources are reserved for you with your plan, so site uptime and speed are less of an issue. To see the list of the best VPS servers that support WordPress, see this top list.
– Dedicated WordPress Hosting: Considered the holy grail of hosting (and the priciest option), and generally reserved for large companies. Dedicated hosting means that the whole server is yours, and only yours. To see a list of the top dedicated hosting plans that support WordPress, see this page.