How To Move A Fish Tank

Going new places can come with special challenges. One of the biggest is moving a fish tank. Travel is highly stressful on fish. Even with the best precautions, you may lose several. Some experts even suggest you sell your fish and buy new ones after you arrive. However, if you must move your fish, follow the procedures below to minimize your losses.


Moving fish consists of two parts. First you move the tank. Then you move the fish. Never move the fish in the tank.

How to move the tank

The biggest challenge in moving an aquarium is the filtration system. Without a flow of oxygen in the water, aerobic bacteria start to die in a matter of hours. It will take you a few hours to tear down, pack, unpack, and set up the fish tank. If you move a short distance, no more than one or two hours away, you might preserve the bacteria colony. Otherwise, you'll need to restart it. Follow this procedure:

  1. Put your fish in a holding container. (see below)
  2. Drain the tank. If the move is going to be short, save some of the water to help preserve the bacteria colony.
  3. Disassemble the fish tank. Plants will likely survive if you keep their roots wet. Bag them with some water and set them aside for hand-moving.
  4. For a short move, put your filter medium (do not clean it) in a sealed container, such as a new pail or other chemical-free, hard-sided container. For long moves, either clean or discard your filter media.
  5. Pack pumps, heaters, and other accessories like any fragile appliance.

For a short move, you should have enough dechlorinated and treated water to fill your tank and get water moving through the filter. If you make a long move, set your tank up as if it were a new tank. This includes waiting a week before putting fish in. Put in a few hardy fish in first to get the nitrate cycle established. After the tank is stable, put the rest of your fish in.

How to Move your fish

You have three main concerns when moving fish.

  • Where do you put your fish while you move the tank, which may take a week or more?
    Locate a pet store that will board your fish during your move. Get a signed contract that details the store's responsibilities and what it will cost. Bear in mind you will leave the fish in the store's care for a couple of weeks or more. The store may also pack and air-ship your fish to you. This can be costly.
  • How do you pack your fish? 
    For short periods, two hours at most, you can keep fish in sealed bags half-filled with air. You may stretch the time a little by using oxygen instead of air. Put the bags in a padded, compartmentalized container, and ship by air. For larger fish, or for longer trips, you can use a sealed bucket rather than a bag for each fish.
  • How do you support your fish while they're being moved?
    Fish won't eat during a move; they're too stressed. Besides, it's best not to degrade the water quality with food. If previously well fed, fish can survive a week or more without food. Try to maintain an even temperature, perhaps by placing the fish in a sealed or compartmentalized cooler. For long trips, particularly by car, a battery-powered air pump and air stone is essential.

After the move, slowly condition your fish to the tank again, just as you would when adding new fish. With smart, careful planning, plus a little luck, your aquarium can thrive in your new home, and provide all the beauty and enjoyment you expect.