Starting a freshwater aquarium, especially with popular freshwater fish, is one of the most exciting parts of becoming a fishkeeper. Indeed, the initial excitement of picking your own fish, designing the tank, and putting everything together may be too much to bear for any pet lover. It can also be pretty hard to make a final decision, what with all the options out there at your disposal.
In this article, we’ll take a look at 21 examples of popular freshwater fish and explore the reasons why you should, or shouldn’t, get them for your own home aquarium.
21 Popular Freshwater Fish
- Betta fish
- Neon tetra
- Pearl gourami
- Corydory catfish
- Cherry barb
- Kuhli loach
- Zebra danio
- Green swordtail
- Cardinal Tetras
1. Betta fish
Betta fish, also known as Siamese fighting fish, are a gorgeous breed of territorial fish that hail from the shallow rice paddies of Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand and Cambodia. They’re quite hardy but still difficult to care for since they have very specific needs that have to be met including, but not limited to, consistent temperature and lots of protein. They also prefer being alone, which means that if you’re planning to put them in a community tank, it has to be at least 20 gallons with lots of space for the betta to hide.
Get a Betta fish if:
- You have limited space at home and can only accommodate a small tank. Bettas can actually survive in just 1-gallon tanks, though no pet lover in their right mind would allow their betta to live in such a condition. Besides, they’re better off in 3-10 gallon tanks with space for a heater and a filter.
Guppies are perfect beginner fish for one main reason; they’re so easy to care for, you might even forget that you have fish in the first place. Male guppies also have very vibrant tails that look gorgeous in the light. Guppies are the opposite of bettas–they’re sociable and would actually do best in schools of at least 3 fish or more. Read our article all about why guppies make great pets.
I don’t think there will ever be an article written about the most popular tropical fish that does not include these fish. Guppies will always be on the beginners to buy list.
Get a Guppy if:
- You have limited space at home and can only accommodate a small tank but would still like to house multiple fish. Guppies don’t grow very big so you can actually keep about 15 guppies in a 5-gallon tank or about 3 guppies per gallon.
Mollies are another extremely popular freshwater fish for beginners. Contrary to popular belief, mollies shouldn’t be kept in small tanks. Even though they look pretty small at the pet shop, they can actually grow up to 5 inches in length, which can easily make a small tank crowded. 20 gallons is just about the right size for a small school of mollies.
Get a Molly if:
- You like breeding fish. Mollies are great breeders and it only takes a few days for them to give birth to live young. Unless you want this to happen, it’s better to keep only one sex in a single tank.
Oscars are not as common a choice as the other three so far on this list, but they definitely hold a certain charm as well. Oscars are quite intelligent compared to the average fish, which makes them a very good choice for those who enjoy training pets. It’s not uncommon for oscars to be taught how to do tricks. Unfortunately, they’re also very aggressive towards other species, which means that it’s impossible to keep them in a community tank. Instead, they are best kept with other oscars, preferably in groups of 5 or more. If you’re wondering which fish can live safely with Tiger Oscars then read our Tiger Oscar tank mate guide.
Get an Oscar if:
- You like establishing a healthy relationship with your pets and perhaps even teaching them a couple of tricks too! Do take note that a single oscar requires a minimum tank size of 30 gallons as oscars can grow very large, up to 12 inches or 1 foot.
The ever-hungry Platy fish are vibrant, friendly fish that can be found in a variety of colors. They do very well in community tanks and can be kept with other fish species, such as mollies or guppies for example. Up to 5 platies can be housed in a 10-gallon tank. They are very peaceful and are usually just lounging around the aquarium, looking for scraps of food.
Get a Platy if:
- You want something colorful and vibrant in your community tank.
6. Neon tetra
The Neon tetra is an extremely easy fish to care for, which is one of the main reasons why they’re usually the first fish that any beginner fish keeper is recommended to buy. As their name suggests, they have striking colors that make them stand out in a community tank, even when there’s no light. They do prefer being kept in schools of at least five tetras, though.
A true schooling fish, Neon tetra look amazing in large groups in a well-planted aquarium. Aquascaped aquariums look incredible with a large school of neons. Read our guide on the best aquascaping fish.
Get a Neon tetra if:
- You don’t want big fish. Neon tetras usually grow just up to 2 centimeters long and are fine in a smaller tank of 5-10 gallons. However, they are very sociable so they would do better in a community tank of at least 20 gallons with plenty of other fish species.
7. Pearl gourami
Pearl gourami are usually included in tanks, not for aesthetics, but for the benefit they provide. These fish are the easiest way to combat the spread of hydra, a freshwater polyp that can quickly kill off fish fry and smaller fish species. Pearl gouramis are immune to hydra and in fact, even take great pleasure in eating them. Other than this, Pearl gouramis are rather friendly and can live peacefully with other fish in a community tank of at least 30 gallons and have lots of hiding spaces.
Get a Pearl gourami if:
- You have a hydra problem in your tank.
8. Corydora catfish
Cory catfish, popularly called cory cats, are bottom-dwellers who feed on food particles that have sunk to the bottom of the tank. They are usually kept only in singles or in pairs since they grow quite large. Cory cats also do well in community tanks as they’re fairly non-confrontational and tend to ignore other fish. Corydoras Sterbia is still one of my all-time favorite Cory catfish. Read why in one of our sterbia care guides.
Get a Corydora catfish if:
- You want a change from your typical community fish. Also, you want an easy way to keep the bottom of your tank clean at all times.
With over 700 killifish breeds that come in all sorts of color combinations, many fishkeepers enjoy housing this fish in their home aquarium, alongside other fish species. No wonder they’re one of the popular freshwater fish breeds. They are very peaceful as long as you only keep one male killifish since males of this species can often get aggressive during the mating season.
Get a Killifish if:
- You like their aesthetics and would like to get some pops of color into your community tank.
10. Cherry barb
Cherry barbs get their name from the cherry red color that males get when spawning young. Outside of this timeframe, though, they’re usually silver or black in color with a line at the side. They grow up to 2 inches in length and do well in 25-gallon community tanks with lots of hiding space. Although they’re not particularly scaredy-cats, they do like hiding away randomly and tend to get stressed out if they don’t find a place to hide.
Get a Cherry barb if:
- You’re interested in seeing their bright red color!
Pleco is a species of catfish that is very popular among freshwater aquarium owners. Like the cory cats and other catfish, they’re also bottom-dwellers and eat scrap food at the bottom of the tank. Most of all, they love algae, which means that they can also help you keep your tank clean without much effort. However, not all fishkeepers find it easy to take care of them, so proceed with caution.
Plecostomus grow huge and outgrow most beginners aquariums so think carefully before purchasing one. Read our Plecostomus complete care guide for more information on this amazing fish. These fish will be featured in many lists: Best Cleaning Aquarium Fish list and Most Popular Catfish List etc
Get a Pleco if:
- You don’t want to deal with algae in your tank. Also, you’re entertained by the image of catfish trying to launch themselves out of water.
12. Kuhli loach
Like the betta fish, the kuhli loach also hails from Southeast Asia. It’s a very hardy eel-like fish that can easily withstand minor changes in its aquatic environment. As with the cory cats and plecos, the kuhli loach is a bottom feeder that will be quite happy even with just food scraps, but its favorite snacks are live foods like bloodworms and small shrimp. These fish also enjoy eating sinking pellets. They are best kept in small groups of three.
Get a Kuhli loach if:
- You want to see something different from the typical fish in your tank.
Angelfish are recognizable for their unique triangular shape and long fins. They come in all shapes and sizes but can grow up to 6 inches long and 8 inches tall. They are often considered as a fairly difficult fish to take care of due to their strict needs. For one, angelfish require a tank of at least 20 gallons due to their size. Despite this, they still remain to be one of the most popular freshwater fish around the world.
Get an Angelfish if:
- You like a challenge! Don’t worry though, it’s all worth it with this lovely fish.
14. Zebra danio
More than just a popular freshwater fish breed, zebra danios are actually perfect for complete beginners in fishkeeping, thanks to their hardiness and resilience. These strong swimmers can flourish even in the most unpleasant of conditions. While zebra danios don’t require much maintenance other than the regular water changes, it’s preferable to house them in a long tank of at least 10 gallons since they enjoy darting all around. Do keep in mind that zebra danios have to be kept with at least 4 other danios or else they’ll get stressed out.
Get a Zebra danio if:
- You like watching your pet fish actively swimming around the tank. Zebra danios never seem to run out of energy!
15. Green swordtail
Named for the long, sword-like fin located at its rear, swordtails are another popular breed for both beginner and experienced fishkeepers alike. They’re very peaceful fish and enjoy playing and befriending other fish in a community tank, regardless of their breed. Swordtails are perfect for beginners since they can withstand almost any water condition, as long as they have their school of at least 5 fish with them. In terms of food, they like plant-based sustenance and actually like munching on algae occasionally.
Get a Green swordtail if:
- You like seeing – and perhaps showing off to visitors – their unique sword-like fin.
Discus are extremely gorgeous to look at, but make no mistake: they’re not a suitable pet for beginner fishkeepers. They can get pretty huge, growing up to a length of 20 cm and requiring a tank of at least 25 gallons. They are carnivorous in nature and would eat most smaller organisms, though they would do well in a community tank as long as they’re housed with non-aggressive fish.
Discus are one of the most incredible fish that you will ever keep in a home aquarium. However, they do need some specific water conditions which we explain in our discus care guide.
Get a Discus if:
- You already have a few years of experience under your belt and you want something exotic and premium in your tank.
17. Firemouth Cichlid
The Firemouth Cichlid is a peaceful, friendly fish that can grow up to 6 inches long. Thanks to their unique look and relatively cheap price, they are a very popular choice in pet stores. They can be kept in a community tank, though they do get a little aggressive during breeding season, so most experienced fishkeepers would recommend keeping them on their own instead. They also like having hiding places where they can relax and lay their eggs, so be sure to keep this in mind when you’re setting up a tank for them.
We have a complete care guide for you to read if the firemouth cichlid has peaked your interest.
Get a Firemouth Cichilid if:
- You like bright-colored fish to brighten up your tank, but not too much.
18. Cardinal Tetras
Cardinal tetras look very similar to neon tetras and people often get confused between the two. The easiest way to tell a Cardinal tetra from a Neon Tetra is the colorings. A cardinal tetra has red coloring across the bottom of the fish from head to tail. The neon tetra only has red that goes half way across their body.
Cardinal tetras are usually more expensive and classed as a more desirable fish compared to neons. They are not as hardy as neons and need better water conditions but they’re worth the extra effort as they look much better. This fish will always be featured in the Top 10 Tropical Fish Lists
Get a Cardinal Tetra if:
- You like small and brightly colored fish that are easy to care for and look incredible in planted aquariums.
Harliquin Rasboras are peaceful schooling fish that are native to Southeast Asia, specifically Thailand. They are very gentle and can usually be seen swimming lazily in the tank with their school, which consists preferably of 5 to 10 rasboras. They’re not very picky when it comes to food but they do enjoy snacking on live food occasionally.
Get a Rasbora if:
- You like your tank filled with just a single breed of fish. Rasbora can be kept in medium to large schools and are perfectly fine with both a community and single-species tank.
Rainbowfish may seem like any other regular fish at first glance, but give them a few years and they’ll grow into stunning and vibrantly colored fish. They are not that difficult to take care of though they do need a larger tank of around 30 to 50 gallons since they enjoy swimming around. They can also be kept in a community tank as long as they’re with their school of at least 5 other rainbowfish and the other fish breeds are non-aggressive.
Get a Rainbowfish if:
- You like a unique and colorful tank! They come in all sorts of color combinations which makes them a good way to make your tank one of a kind.
No list of 21 examples of popular freshwater fish is complete without the very popular goldfish. These fish remain to be the most popular and most recognizable freshwater fish of all time, thanks to their unique look and exposure in mainstream media.
While they’re peaceful enough to be kept in a community tank, their ideal water temperature does need to be cooler than what other fish can take which makes it hard to house them with others outside their own breeds. They’re best kept in a 20 to 30-gallon tank that’s decorated with synthetic plants, as goldfish have the nasty habit of digging into roots.
Get a Goldfish if:
- You like the look of this timeless freshwater fish. Also, goldfish have a lifespan of 15-20 years as long as they’re given adequate nutrition.
Conclusion: 21 popular freshwater fish
That’s it for our list of 21 examples of popular freshwater fish breeds. It may not be easy caring for our aquatic friends, but it’s definitely worth all the effort. Regardless of which breed you choose in the end, remember to always treat them with all the love and care that every fish deserves.