Migrating WordPress Websites

Website migrations can be stressful, but it doesn’t have to be. I’ll walk you through four different ways to migrate your site based on your unique situation.

  1. Automated migration to a new server
  2. Manual migration to a new server
  3. Automated migration to live server
  4. Manual migration to live server

Moving to a new server

It’s much easier to launch your site on a new server than to launch it on the one hosting your live site. With a new server launch there’s no downtime for your website.

You can take your time to make sure everything is working, and only then update your domain’s DNS settings. Users will begin to see the new site as the DNS change propagates, with most seeing it within a few hours.

With a new server, you can take your time to make sure everything is working, and then update your domain’s DNS settings to seamlessly transition with no downtime.

Automated migration to a new server

Many webhosts have automated tools to help you migrate your site.

If you’d like to use WPEngine as your new host (I recommend it), you can use their automated migration plugin.

I use WPEngine as my development server and migrate all my client sites using this plugin before starting work on their redesign. It works great, even for very large sites.

  1. Purchase your new hosting plan
  2. Log into My WPEngine, and click SFTP in the left sidebar
  3. Add an SFTP User and write down the Username, Password, Server Name, and Port Address.
  4. On your live site, install the WPEngine Automated Migration plugin.
  5. Click “WPEngine Migration” at the bottom of the admin bar menu and you’ll see this screen.
  6. Type in your email address, WPEngine URL (yoursite.wpengine.com), and your SFTP details
  7. If your WPEngine install is password protected, click “My site is password protected” and type in the username/password. All transferrable installs are password protected, and this can be found in My WPEngine on the Overview page (screenshot).
  8. Click “Migrate” and wait for the migration to complete! You can close this window if you’d like. They will email you when the migration is finished.

For hosts that don’t have an automated tool, you can use Migrate Guru. The steps are similar to the WPEngine ones listed above. You can also try the Duplicator plugin – see this tutorial by WP Beginner.

Once the site is on your new hosting environment, it should be accessible from an internal URL like yoursite.wpengine.com. You should confirm that the site looks and works correctly.

You’ll need to update the URLs in the site to match your live site. Either ask your host’s support to help you, or use one of these tools:

  1. Better Search Replace plugin
  2. wp cli on the server. Type wp search-replace clientsite.wpengine.com clientsite.comwith the first one being the temporary URL and the second one being your final URL. If you’re using WPEngine, you can click the “Advanced” tab to access wp cli (screenshot).

Finally, you should update your domain’s DNS settings with your domain registrar (ex: Godaddy) to point to your new host (more information).

Manual migration to a new server

A manual migration is pretty straightforward. Assuming WordPress is already installed on the server, you simply need to move all the site’s files (the wp-content directory) and the site’s database.

It’s easier to move one large file than lots of little ones. I like to package the wp-content directory into a tarball, then upload that to the server.

In my local copy of the site, I run tar pvczf wp-content.tar.gz wp-content. That compresses the entire wp-content directory into a single wp-content.tar.gz file. I then upload that directly to the server.

If I have SSH access, I’ll delete the existing wp-content directory, then run this to unpack the file: tar zxf wp-content.tar.gz. If I don’t have SSH access, I’ll ask the host’s support to unpack it for me. You might also need to ask them to update file permissions.

There’s a few ways you can migrate the database. You can log into phpMyAdmin on the server and manually upload it, but if it’s a large database it will time out before it’s fully uploaded.

If you have SSH access, you can upload the sql file to the server, then run mysql -p u username database_name < file.sql to import it. Tip: do the same tar compression shown above. SQL files compress super small.

Once uploaded, use Better Search Replace or wp cli to update the URL (see above).

I personally prefer using Migrate DB Pro to move databases. It works in all situations – I don’t need SSH access, and I don’t have to worry about the database size.

Install the plugin on your local copy and the new server’s WordPress install. Log into the new server, go to Tools > Migrate DB Pro > Settings and copy the Connection Info. On your local site, go to Tools > Migrate DB Pro, click “Push” and paste the connection. You can even tell it to update all the URLs before pushing to the server.

Once all the files and database are in place, test to make sure everything works, then update your domain’s DNS settings to point to the new server.

Migrating to your live server

This is more complicated. You need to have a solid plan in place – make a checklist so you don’t forget anything – and work fast. If you do it right, you can minimize the downtime.

Automated migration to live server

You could use the exact same tools shown above for the automated migration to a new server. But I’m personally afraid to let an automated tool start overwriting the database and files on my live server. If something goes wrong, there’s no “off” switch to stop those tools.

Any time I’m migrating a large site back to it’s original host, I speak with the host directly about setting up a staging environment. We then migrate to the staging environment, exactly like the new server approach above.

Once the site is setup (staging.clientsite.com), we ask the host to flip the switch. It usually takes about 30 seconds and they’ve swapped the files and databases for the two sites.

This depends upon having a high quality host who can provide this level of support. When working with lower tier hosts, I typically do a manual migration.

Manual migration to a live server

The goal here is to minimize downtime by getting all the pieces in place before making changes visible to users.

First, upload the wp-content directory to the server (same as the manual approach described above), but use a different name for the directory. I typically call it wp-content.new.

Determine how you’re going to migrate database: via phpMyAdmin (make sure the database is much smaller than the max upload size), SSH, or Migrate DB Pro. If SSH, upload it to the server so it’s ready for you.

Rename the current wp-content directory to wp.content.old, and wp-content.new to wp-content. There should be minimal disruption at this stage since all the themes, plugins, and uploads from the old wp-content directory should already be in the new one.

If possible, create a second database on the server and upload the new tables there. Toggling between old and new versions of the site is as simple as changing the database name in wp-config.php. If you can’t create a new database, make a backup of the live database so you can restore it if something goes wrong.

Change out the database and make sure everything looks good. If something looks broken, rename the wp-content directories again and quickly swap out the database so you’ve restored the “old” version, then figure out what went wrong.

Bill Erickson

Bill Erickson is the co-founder and lead developer at CultivateWP, a WordPress agency focusing on high performance sites for web publishers.

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  1. Thomas Zickell says

    Hi Bill,
    What was your opinion on WP Engine and Pantheon use of blog valt in order to migrate websites?

    Specifically what is your opinion of container-based web hosting? there is a little bit more to go through but it seems like it is a wiser choice.

    I would love to hear anything you have to say on the topic.

  2. BWCloud says

    I wonder if you have ANY advice for me at all. I changed the domain on my site three days ago and now it is completely broken — nothing works. As you can see, there’s no formatting whatsoever, I can’t get images to load, and plugins don’t even work properly. I have done everything I can think of from running the search/replace tool on the database to tweaking permissions of the directories and image files. I’ve even deleted and reinstalled my theme files (Genesis framework News Pro child theme). Nothing is fixing this. The host says it’s not their problem because they don’t handle data migration issues. :-/

    • Bill Erickson says

      It looks like your site is referencing all files in a /wordpress directory but the files aren’t there. For instance, your stylesheet is: http://www.theaterbyte.com/wordpress/wp-content/themes/news-pro/style.css but that link 404’s.

      Two possible issues:
      1) The URLs are wrong. You should update them to the actual location (although since I can’t find the actual URL I think it’s #2)
      2) The file permissions are incorrect on your server, preventing the files from being accessed. Directories should be 755 and files should be 644. Also make sure the owner is correct. Your host should be able to help with this.

      If your host isn’t helpful, I recommend you move to a higher quality host like WPEngine. You could even use Godaddy’s Pro WP Managed Hosting which is low-cost and provides better service than your host has so far.