two white arrows on the street pointing different ways

Free or Premium WordPress Themes

Whether you’re a new WordPress user building a new website for your budding business or looking to give your current site a much-needed makeover, your theme is your starting point. WordPress themes are like outfits for your website—they influence every aspect of your website’s appearance, from the tiniest font to the overall layout.

When you begin searching for WordPress themes options, you’ll find two categories to choose from: free and premium. And while your initial thought might be that the only difference between the two is cost, there are numerous factors to sway your decision.

Wondering if you should download a free WordPress theme or splurge on a premium one? The answer depends on your budget and your objectives. To help you with your choice, we’ll explore the differences between the two options, as well as some pros and cons of each.

The Difference Between Free and Premium WordPress Themes

From the moment you download WordPress and start creating a website, you’ll be exposed to a free theme. Twenty Twenty-One, the current default WordPress theme, is one of the countless free page builder options available for use.

But the world of WordPress themes is much larger. In fact, there are thousands of premium choices to choose from, and even more free options.

There are three crucial differences between free and premium WordPress themes:

  1. The Cost To use a premium theme, you’ll have to pay for an annual subscription or a one-time fee. Free themes are just that: free.
  1. Where to Find Them – All free WordPress themes exist in the theme directory where you can search for, preview, and download thousands of themes. There’s no such place for premium themes. Instead, you can find paid options on marketplaces like ThemeForest and ThemePalace or the developer’s website.
  1. Who Made Them – In most cases, free themes are designed by small teams or independent programmers, while premium themes have a dedicated staff behind them.

Websites of every size and topic use free and premium themes in equal measure. And despite their notable differences, there are arguments to be made for each type of theme.

The Pros and Cons of Free WordPress Themes

While there is no one best free WordPress theme, there are a number of popular free themes like Astra and Hello Elementor which each boast over one million active installations. With statistics like these, it’s clear that many users prefer to build their WordPress website using free WordPress themes. Let’s look at some of the reasons why.

The Benefits of Free Themes

Proponents of free themes usually point to three major advantages:

  • Budget-Friendly – Of course, the number one reason to install a free WordPress theme is to save money. Free themes really are free—there are no hidden costs whatsoever.
  • Endless Choices – With over 9,000 possibilities listed on the theme directory, you’ll undoubtedly find a theme that suits your website. The catalog is easy to search through, and you can filter by layout, must-have features, and more.
  • Thoroughly Vetted – While it may seem unlikely, free themes are more regulated than premium themes. For a free theme to be added to the official theme directory, it must be reviewed by the team.

The Downsides of Free Themes

Anyone who has experience with “free” products online may be hesitant to install a free WordPress theme. Admittedly, they do sound too good to be true. But cautious users will be delighted to hear that using a free theme developer is easy to use and risk-free. Still, there are a few drawbacks to keep in mind:

  • Missing Features – Although the best free WordPress themes will come with various features baked in, most free options take a bare-bones approach. While you can generally add any essential features later with WordPress plugins, you might spend more money on add-ons than you would have on a premium theme.
  • Limited Support – Free themes rarely (if ever) have a customer support line or extensive documentation. Instead, you’ll have to rely on forums and other users for help.
  • Trouble Standing Out – Because there’s no barrier to entry, free themes are available to all. Using a free theme means your website will look identical to thousands of other sites. When you’re trying to create a unique brand identity, that’s less than ideal.

The Pros and Cons of Premium WordPress Themes

Premium WordPress themes are an investment. And like any investment, there are advantages and disadvantages to paid themes. Let’s look at some of the most notable pros and cons.

The Benefits of Premium Themes

They’re called premium themes for a reason. There are a number of notable features and advantages of a WordPress premium theme which include:

  • Regular Updates – Premium theme providers offer a paid service, so they have an incentive to keep users happy. Updates range from minor bug fixes to adding in another premium feature.
  • Premium Features – The best premium WordPress themes come with features like multiple templates, social media buttons, custom widgets, and more. Combine these benefits with near-endless customization options and improved SEO, and you can see why premium themes are worth using.
  • Exclusivity – When you have a paid WordPress theme, you increase your chances of having a unique website. Not only will fewer users have the same theme template as you, but you’ll also have more opportunities to further customize your site.

The Downsides of Premium Themes

Remember how we said there was no one best WordPress theme? It’s important to remember that the rule of “you get what you pay for” means that premium WordPress themes are mostly favorable, there are a couple of drawbacks to note:

  • The Price – Premium themes inevitably drive up the cost of your online business. Buying a premium theme outright will run you anywhere from $15 to $200. If you opt for a subscription model, you could pay upwards of $100/year. But while they can be expensive, premium WordPress themes are well worth the initial investment, and there are hundreds of budget-friendly options available.
  • A Steeper Learning Curve – With dozens of features comes the need to learn them all. Those who find too many choices overwhelming may want to stick with the “simpler is better” approach of free themes.

Overall, if you can afford to work with a premium theme, you probably won’t regret it.

When Should You Use a Free WordPress Theme vs. a Premium WordPress Theme? 

Ultimately, there is no right or wrong answer to this question. Your theme choice depends on your budget, your business goals​​, what widget areas you want to have, and your familiarity with WordPress and theme marketplaces.

If you’re running a hobby blog, a personal website, or are in the early stages of an online business, a free WordPress theme is probably ideal. By opting for a free theme, you can allocate more of your website budget to a managed WordPress hosting plan—which is often a better use of limited resources. Additionally, many free themes are remarkably powerful, with a surprising amount of features and customization options.

But if you’re planning to scale your business up or you already run a successful website, a premium theme is the recommended choice. With a paid theme, you can build a stunning website, have peace of mind in case of technical problems, and stand out from the crowd. And with high-quality premium themes available for $50 and under, they’re fairly accessible to all.

How to Install WordPress Themes

No matter which type of theme you choose, you’ll have to install it correctly to start building your site. We’ll walk you through the processes of installing free and premium WordPress themes.

Keep in mind that if you already have a WordPress theme, implementing a new one can alter the functionality and appearance of your website. You should always create a backup of your WordPress site before making any changes to your theme.

Installing Free Themes

Free WordPress themes are notoriously simple to install. From your WordPress dashboard, navigate to Appearance then Themes and click Add New. You’ll now have the option to search thousands of free themes.

When you find a theme you like, click the blue Install button. Once you’ve installed it, you can use the Live Preview function to see how your site will look with the new theme. If you’re satisfied, click Activate, and you’re all set.

Installing Premium Themes

Premium themes require a few additional steps, but any extra effort is well worth it.

First, you’ll have to visit a theme marketplace and download your chosen theme as a .zip file. After saving the file, head over to your WordPress dashboard and navigate to Appearance then Themes.

From there, click Add Theme, then press the Upload Theme button at the top of the following page. Next, click Browse and locate the .zip file on your computer. Once it loads, you’ll click the Install Now button that appears. Choose Live Preview to see how the theme looks on your website, then click Activate when you’re ready to go live. You now have a sleek, professional premium theme.

Premium Themes Without the Fees

At WP Engine, we’re not just passionate about high-speed servers and expert customer service—we believe that a website’s appearance is equally important. That’s why we include ten StudioPress premium themes with all of our hosting plans.

Choose from professional themes like Revolution Pro or Genesis Framework and make a lasting impression on page visitors from day one. And even if you decide on a different free or premium theme, our team is here to handle your WordPress hosting needs.

Contact us today to learn more.

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