This is a common question asked by newcomers to the fishkeeping hobby. This was also my very first question and quite rightly so, if you are just starting out keeping fish and want a general beginner guide to keeping your fish alive and healthy then this should help!
Water quality, tank size and fish species. These are three main things to keep in mind when caring for your first fish. (Please note: There are other important factors such as diet, water parameters and a whole host of species specific needs. This is a general beginner guide covering the basics, I hope it helps.)
When we talk about water quality usually beginners assume this is to do with what is coming out of their tap and whether it is good enough, although this is important with fish who need certain water parameters, what we are really referring to is your beneficial bacteria and your nitrogen cycle. Your fish are constantly creating waste in your aquarium as toxic ammonia which can quickly kill fish, in a new tank this is a problem because there is no way to process it even with the best filters in the world. Yes, you need a filter, but you also need beneficial bacteria, this is bacteria which live in you filter sponges/media and on surfaces within your aquarium which break down fish waste. This beneficial bacterium converts ammonia to nitrite and then nitrite to the much less harmful nitrate. There are a few ways to correctly cycle an aquarium, both of which will require some patience before adding fish. You can do a normal fishless cycle, this is when you leave the tank with no fish for around 4 weeks and initially provide a source of ammonia to the water, this will slowly encourage the growth of your beneficial bacteria, so it is ready for fish.
Another option is setup your aquarium and add mature filter media to you filter. In this case you will need another tank, either your own or a friends and add a good amount of filter sponges/media from the mature aquarium to the new aquarium filter. This immediately adds many beneficial bacteria to your aquarium which can start processing the fish’s ammonia. The idea is to cycle the filter media rather than the water itself, adding old aquarium water to a new tank will rarely do much to help cycle it. Always test your water for ammonia, nitrite and nitrate whilst cycling your aquarium and remember to slowly stock your tank with fish, it will take time for the bacteria to grow in numbers to deal with more waste.
Once your aquarium is cycled with fish in it the main advice, I can give is to not overfeed, don’t add too many fish and do weekly water changes. Over time nitrate will build up in your aquarium and although it is not as toxic as ammonia or nitrite it can still be dangerous at high levels for a long period. Carry out water changes once a week to bring the nitrates down, remember to add dechlorinator. I advise you test your water regularly as this will let you know if you need to do more water changes.
Okay now I have covered the basics of setting up your new aquarium I will move onto the aspect which everybody gets excited about, adding the fish! It is crucial to research the species of fish you are planning to have in your tank, this will let you know their specific requirements and let you know their adult size as not all fish stay small! Some fish such as goldfish will grow large and will quickly outgrow a small aquarium sadly leading to an early death. Pro tip: It is a myth that fish grow to the size of their tank. It is cruel to keep a fish in an aquarium which is too small this will lead to an early death. Some fish will be aggressive towards others so do some research beforehand, most good fish retailers will inform you of any specific needs and check your tank is suitable before making the sale.
These are the main things to keep in mind when getting your first aquarium, fish keeping is no longer as simple as put a goldfish in a bowl, over the last few decades we as a community have realised this is far from ideal. Do lots of research before you buy, there is a wealth of knowledge out there, don’t just listen to one person as opinions can vary. There are great fish species out there for everyone and it is a very enjoyable hobby. I wish you the best of luck with your new aquarium!