One of the aspects of WordPress that can confuse people is whether WordPress is free.
The answer can be complicated, which is probably why people get confused. A WordPress site can be free or can have some cost attached to it (like WordPress plugins and WordPress themes). But the WordPress software itself — referred to as WordPress core — is free and always will be. And this isn’t just about the financial cost of WordPress: it’s also free in the sense that you are free to amend and extend it and to use it as you wish.
Is WordPress Free? Key Points to Know:
WordPress is released under the GNU General Public License (or GPL), which means anyone can download, edit, customize, use, and even sell the code as long as they release it under the GPL license.
The software itself is free but you might end up paying for:
- Premium support
- Updates of premium plugins/themes
- Premium themes
- Premium plugins
In this post, I’ll demystify these questions:
- Is WordPress really free?
- Why is WordPress free?
- Which aspects of WordPress aren’t free?
I’ll explain the two senses of free that apply and I’ll identify the main situations in which you can get a WordPress site for free, along with the specific aspects of WordPress that you can choose to get for free and those you might pay for.
So, let’s get started!
The Two Meanings of Free Applied to WordPress
Before we can look at whether WordPress is free, it helps to understand the two senses of the word free.
These are sometimes referred to as “free as in beer” and “free as in speech”.
The first sense most people are thinking of when they ask if WordPress is free is the monetary sense: free as in beer. A beer can be free in monetary terms, meaning it won’t cost you a dime. It will never be free as in speech, though.
The second meaning of free is the freedom of speech. In other words, if you have a copy of the WordPress software, are you free to use it as you wish to, without restrictions? The answer to this is a definite “Yes!” as you’ll see in a minute.
So let’s look in more depth at the ways in which WordPress is free.
Free as in Speech
The WordPress software is free in both senses of the word. You can download a copy of WordPress for free, and once you have it, it’s yours to use or amend as you wish.
The software is published under the GNU General Public License (or GPL), which means it is free not only to download but to edit, customize, and use. It’s a software model known as open source.
The main features of this license can be summed up as follows:
- You can use WordPress in whatever way you like with no restrictions.
- You can customize, add, or remove anything in WordPress with no restrictions.
- You can repackage, rebrand, sell, and distribute WordPress with no restrictions except that it is also released under the GPL license.
That third point is important. It means that you can take WordPress, alter it, repackage it, and sell it to other people at a profit, as long as you also apply the GPL license. In other words, your clients can pay for the code but you have to give them access to it so they can modify it themselves.
For people used to dealing with software companies that aren’t open source, this can be mind-blowing, I know. But it’s true!
So you could download WordPress and amend the code to make it work differently. In fact, WordPress started much like this, when in 2003 Matt Mullenweg and Mike Little took another open source blogging system called b2/cafelog and adapted it. What they built became WordPress: initially another blogging platform, but over the years it’s developed into a Content Management System used for all kinds of websites.
Even if you can edit the core code of WordPress, it’s not a good idea. If you want to customize WordPress, best practices tell you to “pack” your customizations in a new plugin or use one already available. This means that when you update your version of WordPress, your customizations won’t be lost because they’re stored in the files in your plugin.
As we’ll see, some plugins are free as in beer, and others aren’t: but they’re all free as in speech.
Free As in Beer
WordPress is and continues to be free because it’s not owned by a company. Instead, it’s owned by the non-profit WordPress Foundation, which was established “to ensure free access, in perpetuity, to the software projects we support”. Its mission is to provide a stable codebase for generations to come and to educate people about WordPress and related open source software. The WordPress foundation doesn’t make any profit from developing or distributing WordPress: it’s all voluntary work.
WordPress has thousands of plugins, some of which are free and some you have to pay for, but they’re all free as in speech. If you download or buy a plugin, you’re free to modify, adapt, and sell the code just as you are with WordPress core as long as you release them under the GPL license. The best way to do this is by writing another plugin that extends the original plugin, but there are plenty of examples of people taking a plugin and writing a new plugin that’s based on it. Since this is open source software, that’s allowed.
So here’s the idea: WordPress, the plugins, and themes are all open source and published under the GPL license. You’re free to work with and adapt them. But when it comes to the financial aspects of your WordPress site, things are a bit more complicated.
The software itself is free but if you want to run a website, you’ll need server space on which to host it. Unless you have your own servers (and the skills to use them to host a website), that means paying for hosting. A hosting provider like Kinsta will rent you space on their servers that you use to host your WordPress site. They don’t own your site: it’s still yours and you can edit it, customize it, or move it at any time.
Managing servers and providing hosting costs money: there are physical infrastructure and support requirements involved. But it won’t cost you much, though, certainly not when compared to website builders which provide a lot less flexibility.
So How Is WordPress Funded?
Having learned that WordPress is run by a nonprofit foundation and that hundreds of developers contribute to its codebase for free, you may be wondering how it’s possible for this to happen.
After all, it costs money to host the WordPress.org site itself. It costs money to run the infrastructure that enables large teams to collaborate on WordPress. And it costs time for people to get involved.
The reality is that thousands, if not millions of companies, developers, and enthusiasts benefit from WordPress. They recognize that without the support of people like themselves, WordPress wouldn’t exist and they wouldn’t have this awesome software with which they earn a living. That’s why they choose to give something back to the WordPress community: by contributing to the codebase, providing support via the WordPress support forums, or running events like WordCamps and local WordPress meetups.
How to Get a WordPress Site for Free
There is one way to get WordPress for free, and that’s if you sign up for a free WordPress.com plan. WordPress.com is owned by a private company, Automattic: they host millions of sites on their own servers, and if you sign up for a free plan, you can get one for free.
There are limitations, though. Your free WordPress.com site is free as in beer, but it isn’t free as in speech. You have no access to the code, you’re limited with the themes you can use and you have no access to plugins. You won’t be able to use your own domain name and there will be ads on your site over which you have no control (which is one of the ways it’s funded).
For some users, this isn’t a problem, and they happily use WordPress.com to support a blogging hobby or even a portfolio site. But if you want a professional website, you’ll need something more.
Suggested reading: 12 Best WordPress Portfolio Plugin Options to Showcase Your Work.
Alternatively, you can sign up for a premium WordPress.com plan: this gives you the ability to use your own domain name and extra features. You still won’t have access to the code, though. If you sign up for a WordPress.com plan, you’re getting a site that is free in neither respect. You’re paying for it and you don’t have much freedom to modify it. You may find that your monthly fees are more than you’d pay for hosting a self-hosted site.
That’s why I often recommend getting a self-hosted WordPress site and paying for hosting separately.
Why It’s Worth Paying for WordPress Hosting
If you decide to get yourself a self-hosted WordPress site, or migrate from your free WordPress.com plan to it, then there is one key difference.
Instead of the site being hosted on WordPress.com, you install WordPress on server space that you rent from a WordPress hosting company. The main difference here is that the site belongs to you (or one of your clients). You get to decide what themes and plugins to run, you own the site and the content, and you can move it or change it whenever you want. You are free to choose how your site will run, what you will add to it, and how it will operate (within the limits of the law).
This gives you freedom in the “free speech” sense.
There is a financial cost to self-hosted WordPress websites but for anyone wanting a quality website, the benefits will easily outweigh any financial outlay. Hosting isn’t expensive when you consider the potential business benefits of a professional website. A free WordPress.com site won’t reflect well on your brand or allow you to add the features you need to run a professional website. It won’t give you the control you need.
You think that a free WordPress.com site will be enough for you right now. But as your site grows and evolves over time, chances are it won’t meet your long-term needs. The good news is that migrating from a WordPress.com site to a self-hosted site isn’t difficult.
What Aspects of WordPress are Free?
Even if you don’t have a free WordPress site, there are other aspects of your WordPress installation that can be free. Some are always free, while with others such as plugins or themes, you can choose between free and premium options.
Getting something for free may sound too good to be true. And sometimes it can be. But the people who develop free themes and plugins for WordPress do it for valid reasons: they either want to give something back to the community or they have a free version of a plugin that you can upgrade with a premium option. In this case, the free version acts as a lead-in for the paid one.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t sources of free WordPress code that are legitimate. Here I’ll look at the different aspects of WordPress that you might be able to get for free and help you do so without compromising the security or quality of your site.
Aspects of self-hosted WordPress that are (or can be) free are:
- Core software
Let’s take a look at each of these in turn.
WordPress itself is free. If you’re downloading WordPress, always do so from the official WordPress download page.
At Kinsta, we provide a tool that you can use to install WordPress without having to download the code. An auto-installer like this is safe and reliable and will save you time and effort.
A quality hosting provider will give you support as part of its hosting plan to help you with your hosting, domain management, and WordPress installation.
If you need help with other aspects of WordPress, such as learning how to manage your site, writing your own plugins, and fixing problems with your themes or plugins, you’ll need to find other sources of WordPress support.
Something worth repeating: free support is provided by volunteers, WordPress experts who are giving something back to the community or people whose employers give them time to work in the support forums. As you aren’t paying for this support, you should temper your expectations accordingly and not expect an immediate answer.
There are thousands of free themes available via the WordPress theme directory.
These are created by a variety of developers, including commercial theme developers, volunteers, and the WordPress.com team. They all go through rigorous testing before they’re made available so you can be confident they’re well-coded, reliable, and secure.
The WordPress theme directory is the only place where you can safely download free themes. You can either download them directly from there or install them via the Themes page in your site admin.
Don’t download free themes from other sources! If the theme is robust and secure, the developer should be distributing it via the official directory. If not, then you may be at risk of installing a theme in your site that includes spammy or even malicious code.
As with themes, there are thousands of free WordPress plugins available via the plugins directory. These range from small plugins that add a couple of lines of code to your site or dashboard, to vast, complex plugins such as WooCommerce which adds a full-featured store to your site.
You may be wondering why people would spend time developing a plugin and then make it available for free. And that’s a good question. Developers of free plugins normally come under one of three headings:
- They’re WordPress enthusiasts who want to share their code and give something back to the community.
- They’re agencies which have built a plugin for use with their clients and want other people to benefit from the code (as well as maybe getting a bit of publicity).
- They’re professional plugin vendors who have built a free version of a plugin in the expectation that a proportion of people using it will upgrade to the premium version or buy add-ons.
This means that people create free plugins because it can be profitable or it can be done for more altruistic reasons. But as with themes, if a plugin is provided for free, then its inclusion in the WordPress plugin directory will mean it’s been tested and will most likely be safe and reliable. You can’t guarantee this for all plugins all of the time as they may be affected by updates, but a good plugin developer will update their plugin to ensure it’s compatible with the latest WordPress version. When you install a plugin, you’re told when it was last updated and whether it’s compatible with your version of WordPress.
Updating WordPress core is free. Your admin screens include an update screen that you can use to update the software whenever a new release comes out.
It’s a good idea to run updates on a staging version of your site first. Kinsta hosting plans include a staging copy of your site that isn’t visible to the outside world. If the update should cause a problem (maybe through incompatibility with one of your plugins), you can choose not to update your live site until the plugin has been updated or deactivate that plugin.
Free updates will apply to WordPress core and to free themes and plugins. Whether you can update a premium theme or plugin for free will depend on the charging model. Some themes/plugins require you to pay an annual subscription and you can only update if that is up-to-date. Others charge you once for lifetime access so you can keep the theme/plugin updated forever without paying any more.
Aspects of WordPress That Aren’t Free
There are plenty of aspects of WordPress that are free, which is one of the wonderful things about the platform. Newcomers to WordPress are often puzzled by the fact that such a high-quality, useful piece of software can be free. And if you’re used to buying software from companies like Microsoft or Adobe, which can charge you a lot for updates or subscriptions, it may seem odd. But as open source software, WordPress core will always be free.
However, that doesn’t mean that running a professional WordPress site is free. How much it costs will depend on the needs of your site and whether you’re happy paying for the convenience of a premium plugin, for example, when a free one might do the same or a similar job with a little more work.
Aspects of WordPress that you may need to spend money on are:
- Premium support
- Updates of premium plugins/themes
- Premium themes
- Premium plugins
Once again, let’s take a look at each of these in turn.
Paying for Hosting
If you’re opting for a self-hosted WordPress site, which will give you more flexibility and freedom than a WordPress.com one, you’ll need to pay for a hosting provider.
As well as making it possible for you to actually have a self-hosted site, a good hosting package will give you other benefits:
- The ability to install WordPress easily via your hosting dashboard.
- Access to DNS settings so you can configure your domain name to point at your site.
- 24/7 support.
- Regular backups.
- A guarantee against hacking and downtime.
- Commitment to speed, ensuring your site is as fast as possible.
Before choosing your hosting provider, check that they provide all of these things. It can be tempting to opt for cheap hosting, only to find that your site runs slowly or that the support isn’t as helpful as you expected. If you want a professional site, it’s worth paying extra for quality.
Even if you’re on WordPress.com, if you upgrade from the free plan, you’ll end up paying for your hosting at the end of the day.
If you ask me, paying for hosting and having the freedom of running your own site is a better investment.
Paying for Support
Your hosting provider should provide support to help you with the aspects of your site that relate to hosting.
And if you need extra support and the free channels aren’t enough for you, then you can buy premium support. There is a range of providers which will give you support in return for a subscription.
Paying for Themes
If you can’t find a free theme that meets your needs or you want a theme with a drag-and-drop interface (often referred to as a page builder), then you can buy a premium WordPress theme.
There are three main types of premium themes:
- Themes designed for ease of use, such as the Astra theme.
- Themes designed for extendability, such as the Divi page builder theme.
- Standalone themes sold via marketplaces such as ThemeForest.
Before you pay for a theme, take care to check that it meets your needs and that it’s safe to install on your site. Specifically:
- Check its license: is it distributed under the GPL?
- Ask other WordPress users and developers.
- Read reviews and articles that mention/review it
- Get personal recommendations.
- Check if there’s a free trial, money back guarantee, or any cooling-off period.
If the theme doesn’t meet your needs, you don’t want to waste your money.
For more on finding quality premium themes, see our guide to free vs premium WordPress themes.
Paying for Plugins
In addition to the free plugins you can install from the plugin repository, you may find yourself needing to buy premium plugins.
This is very common: there are some things that premium plugins simply do better than their free counterparts.
Situations when you might need to pay for a premium plugin include:
- When you’ve been using the free version of a plugin and realize you need the extra features provided by the premium version.
- When the free plugins don’t give you the functionality or ease of use you need.
- When you need to install a number of plugins all designed by the same developer who provides a subscription option for full access..
- When you want to add extra features to a free plugin by buying premium add-ons, such as the add-ons you can buy for WooCommerce.
If you invest in the right premium plugins, they can save a lot of time and give your site a significant boost. When you decide to install a premium plugin, you should be as cautious as you would be with a premium theme. Therefore you should check:
- Whether the provider also has plugins in the plugin directory (disreputable companies won’t stay there for long).
- Reviews for the provider and the plugin.
- That the plugin is distributed under the GPL.
- What type of support will be provided to help you use the plugin and solve any problems.
- If there is a money-back guarantee. It’s very frustrating to install a plugin, realize it doesn’t do what you need and have wasted your money.
The best source of information about premium plugins is always going to be personal recommendations. Talk to other WordPress users and developers, look on WordPress forums or Facebook groups, and check that other people are happy with the plugin before you buy.
Paying for Updates
If you’ve installed a premium theme or plugin, you’ll normally get at least a year of free updates and support. As most premium plugins and themes work under a subscription model, you’ll probably have to pay again to get the updated version of the software and still receive active support.
There are exceptions to this, though: some plugin providers only require you to pay once for lifetime access.
I know, it’s tempting to not renew your subscription: after all, the plugin or theme works and you won’t lose the code if you don’t buy the latest release. But what if the plugin or theme develops a security problem and a new update is released to fix that? What if a new version of WordPress is released and your theme or plugin no longer works? Your site — or some functionality of it — will break. And that’s something you don’t want to happen. Ever!
Paying for Development
If you can’t find any of the free or premium themes/plugins able to meet your needs, and you don’t have the time or the skills to code your own, then an option is to hire a developer.
This can range from anything to designing and creating your site, to writing a plugin, to customizing your WordPress theme. Everything depends on your specific needs, time, and budget.
WordPress is designed so that you don’t need to hire an expert and pay extra to get yourself a great website. But if you’re creating a highly bespoke site or you’re running a business and don’t have the time or skills to do it in-house, then it can be a good investment.
Again, this is optional. But for some WordPress users, it is something they choose to pay for.
The WordPress core software will always be free: free as in speech and free as in beer.
The software is free to download and free to use in any way you want to. You can customize it, extend it, redistribute it, and even sell it as long as you use the GPL license.
But if you want a kickass website, there are things you will need to pay for.
A self-hosted site means you have to pay for hosting (note: we offer free migrations if you’d like to change your hosting provider), a few premium plugins and/or themes at least, and support.
How much you get for free and how much you’ll end up paying for is up to you. But given that the software itself is free, a WordPress website still represents extraordinary value for money. And it’s well worth paying a little extra for a high-performing, professional website.
Suggested reading: How to Install WordPress Locally.
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Very interesting article. I’m more inclined to learn about the GPL aspect of WordPress. If it is free, then why do premium themes and plugin developers charge for their work? It would seem that they are charging a fee for a derivative work. If the main work is GPL licensed, then isn’t that the derivative work should also be free because the main source is under GPL? If they charge a fee, would that not violate the GPL license? I read somewhere that what you are actually paying for premium themes or plugins is the subscription fee for the service or maintenance of the software?
But isn’t the whole point of GPL that software should be free and open-source? Then why charge a fee for premium themes and plugins?
no matter what I do I can’t get WordPress to show me a free version. Perhaps because I already have paid sites? I need a temporary one for my daughter’s portfolio and it brings up the starter site at $7pm. Any suggestions?
Probably you are looking at the WordPress.com version and not the self-hosted version of WordPress.org.