The Best Places to Buy Live Aquarium Fish


Which is the best choice of supplier for your livestock? We look at some of the options.

With so many options available to purchase fish online and from local fish shops, it can be difficult to know the best place to buy live aquarium fish, whether they're reputable companies or ethically sourced livestock. As such, we've compiled a list of where we'd recommend buying pet fish, particularly if you don’t have easy access to a fish store. Here's a trusty guide to ensure you're able to find the best option for you.


Where can I buy live aquarium fish? 


Bricks and mortar aquatic shops

Local fish stores (sometimes abbreviated to LFS) are the obvious choice for most fish keepers. In these, you can pick out the exact fish you want, and have the advantage of seeing them in real time to check for the likes of damage, deformities or diseases.


You can see if they’re being aggressive to tankmates, be able to identify potential males or females, ask to see them feeding, and perhaps most importantly of all, you can discuss face-to-face with an expert about how well they’ll fit in your tank. There’s also minimal transport time involved in getting the fish back home and safe. 


On the downside, not all local stores are good, and the calibre of information you receive might only be as good as the most knowledgeable member of staff there. If the staff at a store are inexperienced and can’t look after their own fish, you might be buying poor quality, undernourished, or wholly unsuitable livestock, setting you up for a fall at the first hurdle. 


Legally trading stores will have a Pet Shop License on display which offers some credentials, but be wary of ‘shed sellers’ that aren’t trading through the usual channels.


Most bricks and mortar stores have some sort of policy regarding fish that die shortly after purchase. Notably, this usually includes a water test, where the store can analyse your water parameters to see if there’s a deeper issue that needs addressing before more fish are added—something which brings many aquarists peace of mind, and doubtless saves many thousands of fish from a pointless death. 


Online aquatic stores

The contemporary online marketplace is a mix of established bricks and mortar stores selling fish online, as well as dedicated online-only sellers.

Online purchasing is largely flying blind, though you can request to see a video or photos of the exact fish you intend to buy—images of fish advertised on a website can be a mix of library images jumbled in with pictures of the store’s actual livestock. Without seeing the fish, you can’t check for diseases of deformities, and you can’t verify the likes of sexed pairs, so you’re entirely in the hands of the seller. 

Stick with reputable online stores and you’ll be okay. These stores are forced to trade on their reputations and try their hardest to make sure everything runs smoothly. It is always pertinent to ask to see images or videos of the premises and the livestock it carries—some stores will advertise fish they don’t physically have and only order them in once they have the money.

Benefits of online stores is that they may carry fish that you cannot source locally, or you may simply have no local store (or a decent one) to visit.

Check the water conditions of an online seller’s tanks before purchasing, as they may have a totally different pH and hardness to your own tank, and this needs to be factored in.

Note also that because of set carriage costs, it makes more sense to buy fish online in bulk rather than in ones or twos (or to buy expensive, specialist fish). Just buying five neon tetra will be very cost ineffective—in this instance the carriage could cost more than twice the fish. However, buying in bulk also means you need to have the facilities to house them in. If you suddenly stock up on 60 community fish for a brand-new aquarium that’s not matured, you’re likely to kill most of them. 

An essential consideration is that you will need to be around the receive the fish when they arrive, but modern packing methods mean that at least they’ll arrive warm.

Club auctions

Fish clubs and societies contain some absolute hobby nerds and often have the best fish around. They also tend to have a high turnover of fish, keeping and breeding (or showing) a species before moving it along at a club auction. Traditionally, home breeders were able to sell their livestock to local retailers, but Pet Shop License requirements in some areas have made this increasingly difficult. 

Becoming a club member has the potential to expose you to species that retailers cannot reliably source or are reluctant to stock. Fish club folks love the niche interest species, and for unusual livebearers, cichlids or catfish, clubs are the place to be.

Club membership may or may not be required to participate in auctions, and meets can be infrequent, or might not fit into your timescale. The range of fish will also be restricted (usually to the club’s specialist subject) and the fish may have some niche requirements that you should understand before bidding on them. Bidding wars aren’t unknown, so for the most desired fish you might end up paying close to retail prices, but for the most part there are bargains to be had—and some immaculately, loving reared, show quality fish—in abundance. 

Private sellers/classified ads

Aquarist Classifieds is an online marketplace for selling unwanted fish and the spoils of one’s own breeding efforts. While you’re unlikely to find many bread and butter community fish on there, it’s a great source of large and unusual species, as well as fish that have been long settled into aquarium life. 

Prices are usually reasonable (though occasional chancers do inflate the value of their fish) but on the flipside many sellers offer a collection-only option and are reluctant to post or deliver fish (and, just as with formal online retailers, postage may be expensive). 

Guarantees are the grey area, as while you may get exactly what you ordered, if anything happens (if it arrives dead, or promptly breaks out in a disease) then you might be left out of pocket, pending the payment option you’ve chosen to use. 

eBay sellers

Someone selling fish on eBay could be from any of the above, or none at all. Unlicensed ‘shed sellers’ slip through the cracks to sell livestock alongside licensed sellers, while breeders and enthusiasts also offload their excess fish this way. 

Always research any eBay seller before purchase, and never trust the images—a considerable number of fish pictures on there are library images or pictures stolen from the internet. Ask to see the exact fish before purchase, and expect a range of competence from sellers. There’s a chance that if you’re dealing with an absolute novice trying their luck at selling fish, you won’t even get the species that’s listed.

That said, there are some superb fish to be had from eBay. It just means you need to research the seller hard (check all of those reviews) and be prepared for the unknown.

What to look out for when buying a fish

If you’re in a position to see your fish before buying, there are a few things to look for before parting with your money. 

1. Signs of disease

First and foremost, are there any obvious signs of disease? Whitespot parasites from a low-level infestation can often be visible on the skin or fins as tiny white dots (often looking like tiny specks of paint). Milky or slimy skin (especially with slime sloughing off of the body) can be a sign of a parasitic infection such as flukes. Torn and ragged fins (especially if the fin rays are still intact) can be a sign of bacterial finrot infections. A swollen body with scales and/or eyes protruding can be a sign of dropsy. A fish displaying a narrow ‘knife back’ with muscle wasting away might have fish TB. If it has a furry mouth, it may have a columnaris infection. White, cauliflower-like lumps indicate a Lymphocystis infestation. Moreover, if any of the fish in the tank (not just the ones you’re buying) are showing such symptoms, walk away. 

2. Behaviour and breathing

Next, are the fish behaving as they should be? This does require some knowledge on your part. Upside down catfish, for example, might be swimming the wrong way up, while banjo catfish might be completely still, even when prodded with a fish net. Butterfly fish might be hanging at the surface showing no signs of life. Dorad catfish might be wedged into a piece of wood. All of these behaviours are quite normal.

Instead, look for the likes of breathing, especially if a fish is breathing faster than others, or if it’s gasping at the surface. Fish shouldn’t be flicking themselves from rocks and ornaments.

3. Missing fins or deformities

Does the fish have all its correct parts, and are they in good working order? Mass farming results in the appearance of fish that would have been naturally selected against in the wild. Typically, a fin or fins may be missing or deformed (remember to check both sides) while eyes are especially prone to damage. A ‘kinked’ fish with a curved spine could be a sign of a disease, an environmental factor (it may have been exposed to excessively cold water) or may have a congenital deformity. 

It can be tempting for the more empathic fishkeepers to take sympathy on such ‘runt’ fish, but you may be setting yourself up for a fall. Deformed fish can have a poor quality of life if they cannot eat or swim properly. Because they are weaker than other tankmates, they can also become ‘case zero’ for a disease outbreak, in turn affecting other aquarium residents. Purchasing healthy fish from the off will spare you potential heartache. 

Is the fish well fed? This is a big one, as an underfed fish will have a weakened immune system, making it more likely to become infected with diseases down the line. In some species of fish, undernourishment may be irreversible. If a fish isn’t feeding, that’s a considerable problem—it might simply be unable to.

Ask to see potential purchases feeding before you purchase them. This will also give you an opportunity to see shy outcasts from shoals that refuse to get involved with a feeding frenzy. If a thin-looking fish refuses to takes anything while you’re watching, walk away, as it’s unlikely to feed in your set-up either. 

The dangers of mixing aquatic suppliers

If you’re particularly blessed with multiple suppliers in your area, it might be tempting to flit between all picking up a fish here, a fish there. But there are potential risks with this. 

Different retailers typically use a range of different suppliers—some favour Czech fish, some plump for Singaporean farmed fish imports, others have a penchant for directly imported wild caught species—and this means that each retailer may be sat on a plethora of different disease pathogens. 

A big problem with disease outbreaks is whether fish are ‘naïve’ to a pathogen or not. In the same manner as humans develop resistance to colds, some fish will develop resistance to pathogens they’ve met before (like white spot). If fish that have never encountered these pathogens meet them for the first time, they have no innate immunity and can be blighted by disease. 

By mixing fish from a range of different origins, you need to remember you’re also mixing any pathogens of different origins, and this can cause savage disease outbreaks. 

Sometimes it’s safest to stick with a tried and tested retailer. That’s not to say that their fish are any better or worse than those from other retailers. You might purchase your fish from shop X your whole life and never have a disease issue, but a trip to shop Y might introduce whitespot to your tank. Conversely though, a customer who has purchased reliably from shop Y their whole life might purchase something from your ‘safe’ shop X, only to experience the exact same. Neither retailer is particularly at fault, it’s just that each is carrying fish with entirely different disease histories and immunity. 

Do I need to quarantine my fish?

There’s no harm at all in setting up a simple quarantine facility for new fish. For typically small, shoaling fish, a 45x30x30cm will suffice. 

Furnish the tank with a simple filter (a Boyu sponge filter is ideal), heater and lid—a light isn’t essential and may be counterproductive to settling fish down. Add some hiding spaces but avoid using a substrate (if you do need to treat that tank, being able to clear the base thoroughly may be a part of managing the outbreak).

Ensure the tank is mature before adding any livestock to it, and keep a spread of different medications on hand. At minimum you want a whitespot, anti-bacterial, wormer, and anti-fungal medication on standby). Essentially, make sure you have an excellent reference on fish diseases, such as Gerald Bassleer’s The new illustrated guide to fish diseases. 

House the fish in the quarantine tank for a period of at least two weeks. While there are diseases that can remain dormant on a fish for the entirety of its life (and some fish can act as vectors for disease without developing symptoms themselves), two weeks will usually reveal the most pernicious illnesses, such as flukes, whitespot, or bacterial infections. 

Fish shopping tip — Keep the receipts

When buying livestock from a store, always ensure you have some sort of proof of purchase. If you need to raise a claim or dispute later down the line, this will be essential to start proceedings. 

Broadly speaking, if you do experience a death soon after adding fish, your retailer will require three different things: proof of purchase, the body of the deceased fish, and a water sample. Not all will insist on all three, but most will insist on the water sample. Don’t be shy with the amount—half a jam jar of your aquarium water will give them plenty to work with. And don’t put the body of the fish in the same sample of water you’re taking to be analysed, as it will pollute the sample and suggest a problem that doesn’t exist!