Can’t Upload a WordPress Theme? Let’s Troubleshoot That

WordPress themes are known to make your site pretty without the need for complex coding. They’re basically starting points so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel everytime you build a new website. Yet, for a seemingly simple task, the process of uploading a WordPress theme can render some confusing error messages. If you can’t upload a WordPress theme, you have the option to go ask questions on a forum or search Google for similar situations. Since developers hear these questions quite a bit, I figured it’d be nice to compile the most common theme uploading problems along with the troubleshooting guides to resolve them.

Remember, the process of uploading a WordPress theme is done using one of two methods: through the WordPress dashboard (Appearance > Themes > Add New) or by manually uploading the theme files with an FTP program. Theme uploading problems are often solved by switching from the dashboard to FTP, but before we touch on that, keep reading to learn about the most common errors and how to fix them.

A Free or Premium Site on WordPress.com

A common misconception is that WordPress.com sites allow you to upload custom WordPress themes. When you sign up for a free WordPress.com website it’s hosted on WordPress, so you’re limited to only a few plugins and the themes they give you. The same goes for when you pay for a premium WordPress.com website. When you’re on your dashboard you must pick a theme from the Themes tab, which is a collection of themes that work for WordPress.com.

WordPress.org, on the other hand, is a self-hosted version of WordPress, where you have complete freedom over which plugins and themes are installed. So, if you’re wondering why there’s no area to upload a custom theme, it might be because your website is running on WordPress.com.

A 404 Error After Some Waiting

Now that we’ve talked about how you need WordPress.org in order to upload a custom theme, it’s time to move onto the error messages and troubleshooting plans for those custom themes.

One of the common errors you might encounter after trying to upload a theme is a 404 error screen.

In this situation, you’ve most likely uploaded the entire source file instead of only the theme file. Sometimes WordPress theme developers package items like documentation, readme files, and Photoshop files into a zip folder with the theme. It’s confusing since not all theme sellers do this.

So, what you have to do is download the source zip file to your computer. After that, unzip the file to reveal all of its contents. As mentioned before, you should see multiple files like documentation and Photoshop files.

Your job is to locate the theme file.

Most of the time the theme file is named after the theme itself. So, if you purchased a theme called The Village, the file is most likely called TheVillage or Village. Another trick is to open the file. If the file has a style.css file inside of it, this is the theme folder.

Another common mistake involves uploading the entire source file after unzipping it. The problem is that you’re still uploading too many folders and not just the theme file. Therefore, you must open the unzipped file to locate only the theme file.

One last point: An alternative error you might see because of this mistake is a “fatal error” message. To resolve this, walk through the same steps we outlined above.

One way to avoid all of this is by going with the most reputable theme developers. Elegant Themes, for instance, makes it super easy by giving you the exact zip file that needs to be uploaded to your WordPress dashboard.

Are You Sure You Want to Do This?

This error typically shows up when WordPress is trying to authenticate the request against the user completing the request. The message sometimes appears when you try to save a blog post, but it also happens during the occasional theme upload.

Here’s how to troubleshoot:

Unfortunately, there’s no direct fix when you see an error like this. However, the trial and error technique should get you to where you need to be.

To start, disable all of the plugins on your website. Since all plugins hook into the core, they have the ability to reveal error messages if something isn’t right. In this case, there might be something in the theme files conflicting with one of your plugins. Most of the time this means that one of your plugins (or the theme) is poorly coded.

Once all of your plugins are disabled, log out of your WordPress account. Log back in, then attempt to upload the WordPress theme file. If the upload succeeds, begin activating the plugins one by one. Refresh your WordPress site after each activation to see if an error returns. Once the same issue comes around, you know that the problem was with the most recent plugin you activated. In that case, I would recommend getting rid of that plugin and finding a more reputable replacement.

If the above process doesn’t work out, your best bet is to download a fresh version of WordPress.

Make sure you backup all of your site files. Then, overwrite the files you have on your current build with the fresh WordPress zip.

You’ll have to restore your site with the backup files, but before that, install the theme manually using an FTP.

Low Maximum Upload Limits from Hosting

Since low-cost hosting companies are quite popular, many of them have low limits on your maximum uploads or your disk space. Because of this, you might have difficulties when trying to upload a theme file that exceeds these limits.

The error messages vary for this, but the only way to resolve the issue is to contact your hosting company and ask to increase your disk space or file upload limits. Sometimes this means you’ll have to upgrade to a more expensive hosting plan, but quite often the host will flip a switch and make it better.

I’ve also heard that the Upload Larger Plugins has worked for some users, since it increases the upload limits for all files, including themes.

The Upload Theme Button is Disabled

I haven’t personally seen this happen, but some WordPress users report that the Upload Theme button becomes disabled when uploading a custom theme. This might occur when a plugin is interfering with scripts, or it’s possible you ran out of disk space.

So, the first plan of action I would take is disabling and re-activating all plugins to find the culprit. If that doesn’t work you should contact your host to check on the disk space.

Theme Install Failed Error

If you see this message it typically means that a stylesheet is missing. There’s a chance that the developer didn’t include one (and in that case, you should get a refund,) but it’s more likely you didn’t upload the actual theme file.

You can refer to the “404 Error” header above, since the troubleshooting is exactly the same. In short, you need to unzip the entire file you received from the theme seller. Then, you must find the actual theme file and forget about everything else in there.

Multiple Errors When Uploading the Demo Data

Some theme developers are nice enough to include a demo data file, which fills your theme with media, some written content, and whatever else is needed to make your site look like the demo.

This is one of the more intimidating errors to see, but we have a few tricks to fix it.

  1. The demo file might be trying to import posts and taxonomies for custom post types that aren’t created on your site yet. For this, make sure your theme actually includes these custom post types and taxonomies. A good rule of thumb is to ask the developer what needs to be configured.
  2. If you see this error during the demo data upload: “Failed to import media,” you most likely forgot to check the box to import attachments. Try checking this box and seeing if it works. If not, contact the developer and let them know the images aren’t loading. There’s a chance it has something to do with the files not being accessible through the server.

Still Can’t Upload a WordPress Theme?

If you’ve walked through all of the troubleshooting tips and still can’t get that darn theme to upload, leave a message in the comments below. Every situation is different, so I can give you some direct help if anything out of the ordinary comes up.

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Joe Warnimont

Joe Warnimont is a freelance tech writer who enjoys playing around with WordPress and his personal blog. When not testing new apps and gadgets, he’s brushing up on his German or riding his bike in Chicago.

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