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How to Install a WordPress Theme: A Beginner’s Guide

Your WordPress theme is an essential component of your website. It controls your site’s look, style, and layout. Yet installing a new theme is not always as simple as choosing a design and clicking a button. 

There are a lot of factors to consider when changing your theme. You’ll want to choose one with the right features and design, so it will fit seamlessly with your brand. You’ll also want to save a backup of your site before installing the new theme, to ensure that you are well prepared for any mishaps that may occur during the process.

In this post, we will discuss where to find WordPress themes and how to choose the ideal solution for your website. We’ll then provide step-by-step instructions for a few different ways you can install your new theme. Finally, we’ll consider common issues associated with changing your WordPress theme. Let’s get started!

Where to Find WordPress Themes

Themes are available for free on the WordPress website, and from various third-party marketplaces for a fee. There are pros and cons to both free and premium themes, and the option you choose will ultimately depend on your specific business’ needs.

Free Themes

You can find free themes in the WordPress Theme Directory – there are over 8,000 options to pick from. Fortunately, you can filter the available themes based on certain characteristics, such as layout and niche.

Aside from the cost, the biggest advantage of WordPress’ themes is that they are officially approved. WordPress has a strict review process for its directory, and all the themes it contains have been approved and meet the requirements for:

  • Licensing and copyright. Themes must be compatible with the GNU General Public License (GPL).
  • Privacy. Tracking and data collection must be disabled and opt-in only. Documentation explaining how data is collected and used must also be clearly stated in the theme’s readme.txt file.
  • Accessibility. Themes must include skip links and keyboard navigation, and all links within content and comments must be underlined for easy access.
  • Code. Code must be secure and free of any PHP and JavaScript errors.
  • Functionality and features. Developers must only include functionality directly related to design and presentation.
  • Plugins. Plugins must be user-install only.
  • Naming, spelling, and trademarks. Theme names must be appropriate, adhere to proper spelling, and cannot violate trademarks.
  • Language and internationalization. Text strings, excluding text in HTML template files, must be translatable using gettext.
  • Files. Files must be complete and submitted via the theme zip file.
  • Selling, credits, links, and spam. Themes may include one front-facing credit link. They also must disclose any affiliates, and be free of spam-like behavior.
  • Theme author and upload restrictions. One theme may be uploaded at a time, and theme names cannot be reserved for future use.

Free themes are often designed with beginners in mind. This means they are easy to use, compatible with most WordPress plugins, and typically have a minimalist design. 

However, free themes are typically lacking in several critical areas, including:

  • Support. Developers are not obligated to provide support for free themes. If something goes wrong, you are usually on your own.
  • Features. Most free themes do not offer many extra features.
  • Uniqueness. Customization is limited, and many websites use free themes. So there’s a good chance that your site will look similar to others using the same theme.

Overall, free themes are great for beginners and for smaller websites that do not require a great deal of extra functionality.

Premium Themes

Premium themes are available from countless third-party shops. They come with a price tag, but the customization, support, and features on offer are often worth the expense. Much like WordPress-optimized hosting, premium themes can be a smart investment if you want to run a successful online business. 

Premium themes are typically better quality than free themes because they come with several upgrades, such as:

  • Support. The developers typically provide tech support to help with any issues.
  • Updates. Reliable developers continuously update their designs, keeping them fresh and secure.
  • Customization and uniqueness. You have more freedom to customize most premium themes. Plus, with so many features and options available, you can make your website unique to your brand.

Premium themes are ideal for creating a custom website for your business. However, not all premium themes are perfect. You may encounter themes with poor coding or plugin issues, since they do not go through the same strict review process as those in the WordPress Theme Directory. Therefore, be sure to buy from a reputable theme developer, and take a close look at user reviews and ratings.

How to Choose the Right WordPress Theme (Key Characteristics to Consider)

Choosing a theme can seem overwhelming. However, it’s much less intimidating if you know what to look for. There are several key factors to consider before you pull the trigger.

For example, style, design, and how your content is delivered all play essential roles in your site’s user experience. We’d suggest taking some time to outline what features you are looking for in a theme, and choose a well-rounded design that will grow with your brand.

No matter what your specific niche and needs might be, quality themes should have the following characteristics:

  • Responsive design. Responsive themes change their layout to look good on screens of any size. Therefore, you’ll want to make sure your theme will display well across multiple devices.
  • Compatibility. Your chosen theme should be compatible with the most popular browsers, so your site will look and perform correctly no matter how a given visitor is accessing it.
  • Compliance. It’s best to choose a theme that is compliant with the latest WordPress standards. You can install the theme review plugin to easily test this.
  • Customization and aesthetics. You’ll probably want the ability to customize your theme with fonts, colors, and images that match your brand. It may also be important for your theme to support popular plugins.
  • Support. It’s smart to select a theme from a developer that offers support, so you can get help if and when you need it. Many plans include 24/7 support and live chat to assist with any issues.
  • Ratings. Be sure to read user reviews and ratings, so you’ll be forewarned about any potential issues from people who have been using it.

How to Install a Free WordPress Theme

If you want to install a free WordPress theme that’s available in the official directory, you’ll be glad to know that the process is quite simple. First, log into WordPress and navigate to Appearance > Themes, and click on Add New:

Search for and choose the theme you want to use. Hover over it and click on Install. Wait for a few moments, and then hit the Activate button. That’s all you have to do to get the theme up and running on your site.

However, if you’re changing your theme, it’s a good idea to start by backing up your site. You may also want to test the new theme out on a staging site first. That way, you’ll know exactly how the theme will look and perform before making irreversible changes to your live site.

How to Install a Premium WordPress Theme

If you’ve purchased a premium WordPress theme, the installation process is also simple. When you bought the theme, you should have been provided with a .zip folder containing all of its files. Start by making sure this is saved somewhere on your device where you can find it easily.

Then open up your WordPress dashboard and go to Appearance > Themes > Add New. Click on the Upload Theme button:

Hit Choose File, and navigate to the .zip file you saved earlier. Select it, and hit Install Now. After a few minutes you’ll be able to activate the theme. Then it will be ready to go.

How to Install a WordPress Theme Using File Transfer Protocol (FTP)

If for some reason you can’t or don’t want to install your theme via your dashboard, you can also install it manually. To do that, you’ll need a File Transfer Protocol (FTP) client such as FileZilla:

You can check out our full guide to using FTP here. To summarize, you’ll need to:

  1. Download your theme and save it as an unzipped folder.
  2. Download and install your chosen FTP client.
  3. Access your FTP credentials (server address, port number, username, and password) in your web hosting control panel.
  4. Connect directly to your site via your FTP client.
  5. Navigate to the “wp-content/themes” folder.
  6. Upload the unzipped theme folder.
  7. Navigate back to your WordPress dashboard and click on “Activate”.

Just be aware that this method can be risky, since you’ll be making changes directly to your website’s files. That means it’s particularly vital to start by making a backup of your site.

Common Issues When Downloading a New WordPress Theme (And How to Mitigate Them)

Installing a new theme is usually painless. However, issues can sometimes occur. Here are a few of the main problems you may run into:

  • Your home page does not look like the demo. If your home page does not look like the demo, you likely need to adjust your site’s settings. Navigate to Settings > Reading, and select “A static page” under Your homepage displays.
  • Missing stylesheet. Sometimes during installation, you will see a “Stylesheet is missing” message. This is most often because the root theme folder has not been uploaded. To fix this, simply unzip the theme file, locate the missing directory, and upload it via FTP as described above.
  • 404 errors. If you see a 404 error page after switching your theme, you likely need to reset your permalink settings. Navigate to Settings > Permalinks and click on the Save button.
  • Recent changes are missing. You probably need to clear your cache if you find that recent changes are missing when you view your site on the front end. If you use a caching plugin, you may need to clear it as well.

Fortunately, the most common issues can be resolved easily. You can also take a few simple measures to mitigate these and any other issues before installing your new theme:


Installing a new theme can seem like a daunting task. It involves careful planning and sometimes a little troubleshooting. Fortunately, anyone can do it with accurate instructions, keen attention to detail, and a little patience.

You can follow the above steps to choose the ideal theme for your site, and then install it either manually or through your dashboard. Remember to create a backup beforehand, and put your site in maintenance mode for a smooth transition.

If you get WordPress optimized hosting with WP Engine, you’ll get access to the Genesis Framework and StudioPress themes for free. Building and hosting your site with us can help you create an exceptional experience for your customers.

Do you have any other questions about how to install a WordPress theme? Let us know in the comment section below!

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