How To Transport Fish Safely: Long and Short Distances

Dr. Mollie Newton
Published by Dr. Mollie Newton PHD| Senior Editor
Last updated: April 7, 2024
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Just acquired a new fish and are unsure about the proper way to transport it home safely? Don’t worry, you’re certainly not alone. It’s crucial to discern the appropriate methods to transport fish so they can thrive. A few significant elements to consider include choosing the right container for transport, securing the fish’s safety, and guaranteeing ample oxygen supply during the journey. If you’re eager to learn the most effective methods to smoothly transport your new pet to your home, continue reading!

Article Summary

  • Key considerations for safely transporting fish include the choice of an appropriate transport container, fish safety, and ensuring sufficient oxygen for the journey.
  • The simplest method for transporting fish is to use a closed container like a sturdy plastic bag with clean water and oxygen for shorter journeys.
  • The recommended method for shorter distances is to bag the fish, and for longer journeys, consider using a larger container with more oxygen, such as an aquarium.

How To Transport Live Fish

Fish Getting Transferred To a Smaller Tank
Fish Getting Transferred To a Smaller Tank

The simplest and easiest method in helping your fish reach their final destination is to use a closed container like a sturdy plastic bag, with clean water that should have enough pure oxygen already in it for the journey home.

There is also the potential for using the aquarium itself or a new bucket, but these methods can be more complicated and require additional equipment and difficulty.

Keep in mind that no matter how you do it, transporting your fish will stress them out! As soon as they get to your home, they’ll need a quiet, relaxed environment to recuperate and relax.

Plastic Bags

When looking at either plastic bags or the aquarium itself as your container of choice, consider the length of the journey and whether the container is appropriate for travel.

Tanks for Transport

Using a tank that has additional air movement can keep your fish alive for longer, but will obviously come with extra air and power needs while transporting fish.

Should You Feed Your Fish Before Traveling?

Regardless of whether you’re using a bag, bucket, or the tank itself, avoid feeding your fish before transport!

You want to keep conditions in the bag safe for the fish, and having excess waste accumulate on the move can lead to ammonia poisoning during transport.

Set Up Your Fish Tank Beforehand

Since the main thing is to transport your fish quickly and efficiently, you want to make sure that you have your fish containers set up days prior to getting your fish to its new home.

Add any live plants, substrate, decorations, air pumps, and filters with plenty of time for the nitrogen cycle to begin and roll over a few times in the tank so that the fish isn’t encountering anything that presents a health risk.


If you’re unsure about conditions in your tank, consider using an aquarium test kit available at most commercial pet stores. These will let you know the ammonia and oxygen levels in the tank, as well as the pH and salinity.

If you’re looking to add multiple fish or more than one fish at the same time, make sure that conditions are right before adding anything.

While one fish can handle a bit of leeway in terms of water parameters, the more large fish you add the more quickly waste, ammonia, and nitrates can accumulate leading to ammonia problems for everyone in the tank.

How To Transport Fish By Car

Transporting Fish By Car
Transporting Fish By Car

The most likely way that most people will be bringing their new fish home, a personal vehicle can be a great choice for fish transport. You don’t need to have any sort of professional moving vehicle to do things right, just time and consideration.

The main challenge with using a car for pet fish transport is in determining the length of the journey and planning appropriately

Remember to treat your passenger with care when it comes time to transport your fish. Keeping the fish in a secure carrier (aka bags) in the passenger seat can be a great way to keep an eye on things when transporting.

Travel Time

For short jaunts, small fish survive just fine without any additional considerations aside from a sturdy fish bag and some tank water.

Longer trips of over a day can create difficulties with regards to running out of oxygen in your fish’s water and may need some extra thought to pull off properly. Put them in a bag filled with enough oxygen so they can survive until you get to your destination.

Also, note that your air conditioner can add additional stress to your fish by chilling it out below its normal temperature! Try to keep things around where the temperature of the water in the plastic bags are, if at all possible when transporting your fish.

The Plastic Bag Method

As simple as it sounds, the plastic bag method involves placing your fish in a bag (or bags), filling it up half-way with aquarium water, and putting them in a safe location for transport. This is the most common method for transporting or mailing fish.

For large fish, make sure to use bags that are designed to fit their size and go with the same half-way full mark for whatever size bag you wind up using.

And upon arrival, make sure to acclimate the new fish properly. This ensures that the bag’s water matches the tank’s water parameters, avoids shock to your new fish, and prevents illness and diseases.

Buying Bags

The pet store or breeder that you purchase from should have plastic bags or closed containers that they use, and we recommend sticking to the same bag.

This will contain water that the fish is already used to, which will help decrease stress for your fish in the long run.

Here’s an informational video on testing bags to use for transport…

Breathing Bags Test 

Type of Fish To Transport

Considering that many species of fish such as Red Cichlids and Jaguar Cichlids have sharp fins or bony ridges, special consideration needs to be taken so that the bag doesn’t leak water.

You may want to try using a second bag, as well as an insulated container, just in case your normal small containers are punctured and the bag leaks.


Make sure to fill the bag with pure oxygen before transport, as this will give them the best chance if things take longer than an hour for whatever reason.

How Long Can You Keep Fish in a Bag?

The pure oxygen initially added into most plastic bags by pet stores will last your fish around an hour total.

After that, a long distance means you’ll be quickly moving into dangerous territory for the fish inside of the bag which can lead to lasting damage.

Can Fish Suffocate in a Plastic Bag?

Fish can absolutely drown or suffocate in a plastic bag! The plastic container is not open to the outside environment and has no additional water movement to provide oxygenation.

Therefore, it will only have as much dissolved oxygen as it did when originally packaged, which is around one hour in duration from when the rubber band is tied around the top of the bag.

Transporting Fish In An Aquarium

Betta Mini Tank
Betta Mini Tank

While not ideal, there may come a time where you need to transport your fish in their own tank. If this is something that you need to do, there are a few key components to making the trip as safe and secure as possible to ensure your fish can survive the trip.


A few benefits of using the fish tank are that they are typically a sturdy container and will already have the aquarium water and any beneficial bacteria that your fish are used to.

Some drawbacks are that glass tanks can shatter, unlike acrylic ones.

Water Parameters

Having parameters and oxygen in a good place prior to moving your fish is a great start to a successful journey for your fish.


  1. Prep Your Tank – Remove any decorations, live plants, and other equipment that may come loose during travel to ensure the fish’s safety. During the process is a great time to consider cleaning the tank fully, as you’ll already be pulling everything out!
  2. Lower The Water Level – Keep enough in the tank (~⅓-⅔ of normal, depending on how large your fish is and how much water they need) so that your fish is adequately comfortable.
  3. Insulate the Tank – Using bubble wrap, a picnic cooler, or whatever other insulating material you’ve got on hand, surround the tank with something so that the glass doesn’t break. This will provide the added benefit of keeping the water from the tank temperature close to where it was before the trip.
  4. Put A Lid On It – Use a water tight lid to keep anything from spilling during transport. If you have a fish that leaps out of the aquarium water such as betta, this will have the added bonus of keeping your fish in the tank if it decides to make a break for it!
  5. Replace Everything – After your long distance trip, try to move everything smoothly but quickly into its new position so that the fish tank can begin returning to normal conditions. Re-install any filters, plants, air pumps, and get the oxygen levels back to normal as soon as possible and keep a close eye on your fish for altered behaviors or appearance which may be a sign of excessive stress suffered during the trip.

What About Using a Bucket To Transport Fish?

As an absolute last resort, a bucket can work in a pinch to transport fish.

Buckets are dangerous for most fish because they have more potential to spill, and have harder sides that your fish may impact against during the journey.

Why Is It Not Recommended to Use A Bucket?

Imagine hitting the brakes during a typical day of traffic. Fish in bags are unlikely to suffer physical harm from this.

In a bucket, there is increased danger over other types of containers of not only spilling, but of having the fish impact against the side of the bucket itself!

Using Buckets For Moving Fish

Metal Bucket
Metal Bucket

If using a bucket for transporting fish, the process is somewhat similar to that of fish bags, but with a more durable container.

However, it is worth remembering that buckets can be potentially unstable.
To transport fish with a bucket, we recommend a minimum of 5-gallons for anything but large fish which will likely need more space to feel comfortable. But a five-gallon bucket can also be an easy way to transport multiple fish (small fish species only) in the same container.

  1. Fill Your Bucket – Add around half of the bucket’s worth of aquarium water prior to transporting fish.
  2. Add Your Fish – To ensure maximum oxygen while you transport fish, add the fish right after the water has been added so that none is wasted. You must stop feeding them to keep conditions in the bag safe for the fish during transport.
  3. Put A Lid On It – Adding a lid can help protect your fish from falling out or having more water spill out of the bucket (and therefore losing the dissolved oxygen) during the trip.
  4. Get Your Fish In A Tank – As soon as the short distance trip is over, move your fish into its proper container so that it can begin to destress and get back to normal and go from survive to thrive.


Throughout today’s article, we’ve looked at a few different methods for how to transport fish both short and long distances.

Our recommendation is first bag your fish for shorter distances, and then look at potentially using a larger container with more oxygen such as an aquarium if your trip will be up to a few days in length.

Feel Free To Share!

Feel free to share this information with any other fish fanatics you may know, and we wish you the best of luck on your aquatic adventures!

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