How to Install a WordPress Theme

Plus how to set it up

WordPress is one of the most popular platforms used online today to build all kinds of websites. If you have a WordPress site, there are countless themes available you can download and install to make the design of your site look just the way you want. Here's how to install a WordPress theme.

Before You Start

Before we get started, you should know there are two types of WordPress sites: self-hosted sites using WordPress.org and WordPress-hosted sites using WordPress.com. You can change your theme on both platforms, but you have much more freedom and options with a self-hosted WordPress site compared to a WordPress.com site.

We'll cover how to change WordPress themes for both self-hosted and WordPress.com sites, starting first with self-hosted sites.

You might also be interested in learning how to install WordPress plugins to make the design and functionality of your site even better.

How to Change a WordPress Theme on a Self-Hosted Site

When you first set up your self-hosted WordPress site, it comes with a default theme that's automatically installed and activated. You can change this to any theme you want. There's also no limit to how many times you can change your theme or how many themes you can upload to the backend of your site (with respect to your hosting plan's limitations, of course).

  1. Decide where you want to get a new theme from. You can get themes from:

    • The WordPress.org Theme Directory (online or from within the dashboard of your site).
    • A WordPress developer website (like Theme Forest, Elegant Themes, Template Monster, etc.)
    • A WordPress developer who builds a custom WordPress theme for you.

    Themes included in the WordPress.org Theme Directory are available to use for free. Developer websites might have theme libraries that include a combination of free and premium themes, however most of them are often premium (meaning they must be purchased).

    If you're not ready to pay for a premium theme at this time, you might as well stick to looking in the WordPress.org Theme Directory. This is the best place to browse through thousands of free themes, plus you can use search filters to narrow down your search.

  2. If you want to find a free theme from the WordPress.org Theme Directory, sign into your self-hosted WordPress site dashboard, select Appearance > Themes from the left vertical menu, then select Add New at the top to search through the available themes.

    A screenshot of the WordPress.org dashboard.
  3. Select Details & Preview when you hover your cursor over any theme, or select Preview when you hover over it to see it previewed in full screen.

    A screenshot of the WordPress.org dashboard.
  4. Select Install at the bottom of any theme that you hover your cursor over or at the top left of the Details & Preview page.

    A screenshot of the WordPress.org dashboard.
  5. Once installed, select Activate to instantly switch your site to that particular theme.

    A screenshot of the WordPress.org dashboard.

    You can do this from any theme's Details & Preview page after selecting the Install button, or from the main themes page by hovering over a theme you've already installed.

Using a Premium Theme From a Third-Party Site

  1. If you have a budget for a premium theme and want to look for one from a third-party developer website, you will have to purchase the theme first. Once purchased, you'll be provided with instructions on how to download the theme as a ZIP file.

  2. After downloading the theme as a ZIP file, go to your WordPress site's dashboard, select Appearance > Themes > Add New > Upload Theme.

    A screenshot of the WordPress.org dashboard.
  3. Select Choose file, select the ZIP file you just downloaded from the file window that opens, then select Open.

  4. Select Install Now.

    A screenshot of the WordPress.org dashboard.
  5. WordPress will install the theme, which might take a few seconds up to a minute or so (depending on the size of the theme file and your internet connection). You'll be notified once the installation is complete.

  6. Select Activate to switch your site over to the new theme.

    A screenshot of the WordPress.org dashboard.

    If you found a theme to use from the WordPress.org Theme Directory online at wordpress.org/themes — in other words, not from within your site's dashboard — the installation process is the same as it is for third-party developers by following steps 5 through 9.

  7. To customize the look of your theme even further, select Appearance > Customize in the left vertical menu to open the theme customizer.

    Depending on the theme you've installed, you might also see an extra item appear as the name of your theme in the vertical menu. Look for the name of your theme here and select it or hover your cursor over it for even more theme customization options.

How to Change a WordPress Theme on a WordPress.com Site

Unlike themes you install on a self-hosted WordPress site, you can't just do whatever you want with a WordPress.com theme.

On a self-hosted site, you have access to each and every file included in the theme, plus the freedom to change any of its code. On a WordPress.com site, you're restricted from accessing theme files and therefore are limited to the customization options provided to you only through your dashboard.

Most WordPress.com users are limited to the themes available only through WordPress.com. Only those who have upgraded to the pricier Business or eCommerce plans are able to upload their own themes.

  1. Navigate to WordPress.com and sign into your account.

  2. Select My Site in the top left corner to go to your WordPress.com site.

  3. Select Design > Themes from the left vertical menu.

    A screenshot of the WordPress.com dashboard.
  4. Browse through the available themes, using the search field and filters at the top as needed.

    To see a preview of any theme, select the three dots in the bottom right, then select Live Demo. Alternatively, select the theme to go to its theme page, then select Open Live Demo.

  5. Once you've decided on a theme for your site, you can either select the three dots in the bottom right, then select Activate, or select the theme to view its details then select Activate this design.

    A screenshot of the WordPress.com dashboard.
  6. If you want to start editing your homepage to reflect the new theme, select Edit Homepage. You can then select different elements on the live site previewer to edit them.

    A screenshot of the WordPress.com dashboard.
  7. Back on your dashboard, you can select Design > Customize to customize your site identity elements, menus, CSS, widgets and homepage settings.