How to Update a WordPress Theme without Losing Customization

Are you worried about losing your customizations when updating the theme of your WordPress website?

One of the best things about WordPress is how easy it is to customize. But unfortunately, there’s a high chance you’ll lose some of your changes when you update your theme.

In this article, we will show you how to easily update a WordPress theme without losing customization.

How to Update a WordPress Theme without Losing Customization

How Theme Updates Work in WordPress

WordPress comes with a powerful system to install updates for not just WordPress itself but for plugins and themes as well.

Your WordPress website regularly checks for updates and display them under Dashboard » Updates page.

WordPress Updates

When a theme update becomes available, you’ll also see a notification on the Appearance » Themes page.

Theme Updates

Updates are really important for the security and performance of your WordPress website. Aside from security and bug fixes, theme developers can also introduce new features with these updates.

You can simply click on the update button to install the new version.

WordPress will then download the theme package, unzip it, and replace the old files with the newer version.

This will overwrite all old theme files on your website. If you manually added custom code to your WordPress theme files, then you’ll lose those changes.

That being said, let’s take a look at which theme changes are safe and which customizations will be erased.

Which Customizations Can You Lose During Theme Update?

There are multiple ways you can customize a WordPress theme. Some of these theme customizations are safe because your changes are stored in the WordPress database itself.

Customizations You Won’t Lose During a Theme Update

You won’t lose any changes made through the built-in WordPress theme customizer which you can access by visiting Appearance » Customize page.

WordPress Theme Customizer

The theme customizer allows you to modify your WordPress theme and store all changes in the WordPress database. You can change the header image, colors, layout, custom CSS, and more.

Your WordPress widgets and navigation menus are also not affected by the theme updates.

Popular WordPress themes like Astra and Ocean WP now come with companion plugins. These plugins are used to add extra features to your theme. Any theme changes made using these companion plugins are also not affected by a theme update.

If you customize your WordPress layout using a WordPress page builder like SeedProd, Divi, or Beaver Builder, then those changes will not be impacted.

Any other features that you have added to your website using a plugin are also safe. For example, your WordPress contact forms, Google Analytics, email newsletter popups, and more.

Customizations You Will Lose During a Theme Update

What you will lose is any changes made directly to your theme’s files.

For example, you may have added code to your theme’s functions.php file or added CSS styling to your theme’s stylesheet file (style.css). These changes will be lost because the files will be overwritten when your theme is updated.

The same thing will happen if you have made changes to any of your theme’s templates, such as index.php, header.php, and footer.php. These files will also be overwritten and you will lose your changes.

Now that we know which changes will be erased, let’s talk about how to preserve them during a theme update.

Creating a Child Theme

A child theme is a WordPress theme that inherits the functionality, features, and style of another WordPress theme, the parent theme. You can then customize the child theme without making any changes to the parent theme.

Because your changes are stored in the child theme, you can safely update the parent theme without losing your customizations. In this tutorial, we’ll create a child theme and then move all of your customizations over to it.

You can create the child theme using a plugin or using code. Head over to our beginner’s guide on how to create a WordPress child theme and create one now. The theme you need to update should be the parent theme.

Don’t activate the child theme yet. We’ll do that at the end of this tutorial.

If you use the code method of creating a child theme, then you should create it in a folder on your computer. If you use the plugin method, then you will have to download the child theme folder to your computer in the next section.

Downloading Theme Folders to Your Computer

The first thing you need to do is connect to your WordPress hosting account using an FTP client.

Once connected, go to the /wp-content/themes/ folder and download your theme folder to your computer.

Download Your WordPress Theme

This folder will be the backup of your theme and customizations. Later we’ll copy your customizations from this folder into the child theme folder.

If you created a child theme using the plugin method in the previous section, then you should download its folder to your computer in the same way.

Now we need to download the update to your theme. You should visit your theme’s website and download the latest version to your computer. After that, you’ll need to locate the theme’s zip file and extract it.

You should now have three theme folders on your computer: the new updated version of your theme, the old customized version of your theme, and the child theme you just created.

Copying Customizations to the Child Theme

Next, we need to identify all of the changes you made to your theme so we can copy them over to the child theme. The easiest way to do this is by comparing your old and new theme files.

You’ll need to use file comparison software to see the difference between the new and old version of each file. We recommend Windows users use WinMerge, Mac users use Kaleidoscope, and Linux users use Meld.

Open your file comparison software and then drag the updated version of your theme in the left panel, and the old customized version in the left. The software will highlight any files that have been changed or added.

Changed Files Will Be Highlighted

With the exception of functions.php and style.css, you should copy the highlighted files in the right pane into your child theme folder.

Your child theme already has its own functions.php and style.css files so we need to deal with them differently. You’ll need to copy any changes you have made to those files, and paste them at the bottom of your child theme’s files.

First, open the updated and old versions of your functions.php file in your comparison software. You need to copy the highlighted text from the customized version and copy it to the clipboard.

Changes to the functions.php File

Next, you should paste the text at the bottom of your child theme’s functions.php file. Make sure you save the file after you have done this.

If your theme’s style.css file has been changed, then you will need to repeat the process with that file.

Uploading the Updated Theme and Child Theme Folders

After copying your changes to the child theme, you are now ready to upload the updated theme and child theme to your website.

Simply connect to your website using the FTP client and go to the /wp-content/themes/ folder. After that, you should select the updated theme folder and child theme folder and upload them to your website.

Upload Updated Theme

Your FTP client will warn you that the files with the same name already exist. You need to choose Overwrite to make sure that your old theme files are replaced by the updated versions.


Importing Your Theme Customizer Settings

We mentioned at the beginning of this article that any customizations made with the WordPress theme customizer are not stored in your theme, and so they have not yet been added to the child theme.

We’ll have to add them now. We’ll use a plugin to export the theme customizer settings from the parent theme and then import them into the child theme.

The first thing you need to do is install and activate the Customizer Export/Import plugin on both sites where you want to export/import. For more details, see our step by step guide on how to install a WordPress plugin.

Next, we need to export the parent theme’s customizer settings. With the parent theme still active, you need to visit the Themes » Customize page.

Export/Import Option in Customizer

You then need to click on the Export/Import panel to view its settings and then click on the Export button.

Export Customizer Settings

The plugin will now export your customizer settings and send them to your computer in a .dat file.

Next, you should activate your child theme. Simply navigate to Appearance » Themes and then click the Activate button underneath the child theme.

Click the Activate Button

After that, you need to return to Appearance » Customize page and click on the Export/Import panel.

You should click on the ‘Choose file’ button to select the file you exported earlier. You also need to check the box next to ‘Download and import image files?’ option to import header and other image files.

Import Customizer Settings

Next, you should click on the ‘Import’ button to start uploading. The plugin will now import the customizer settings from your export file.

Once it is finished, you can preview your changes in the customizer and then click on the ‘Save & Publish’ button to make those changes live.

You have now moved all of your customizations to the child theme. In the future, you will be able to update the parent theme without needing to go through these steps again.

We hope this article helped you update your WordPress theme without losing customization. If you come across any issues, then check out our guide on most common WordPress errors and how to fix them.

You may also want to check out our list of must have WordPress plugins to grow your website.

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