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I'm a web developer experienced with building html, css, js sites in jekyll, as well as a bit of php. I'm looking to get into custom wordpress theme development, because as I understand it, the appeal with this:

You can get a client who is not very comfortable with technology and develop a high quality custom theme for them (I work for a non profit, where we try to provide affordable services to grassroots activists using tools like Wix, but we're trying to upgrade because we have the capability to be developing these custom themes). Then, they have a nice theme custom made for their brand (and not hacked out of an existing one) and they can use wordpress's cms features to manage their content easily, and you don't have to be on retainer to help them change tiny bits of their website all the time.

But I'm a bit confused and could use some guidance. It seems like most hosting services (especially wordpress) refuse to allow installing of these custom themes at a low cost (especially wordpress.com, at $33 a month). It defeats the purpose of what we are trying to do if the small non profits we work for have to shell out hundreds of dollars a year just to keep their website up.

Is there something I'm missing? Are there any hosting services that allow free installation of custom wordpress themes? It seems most hosting services I look at don't even mention it as a feature, for example Bluehost. Between the 6 plans on Bluehost, none of them mention custom themes as a feature. Googling also seems quite useless because every variant of this I try to look up just gives me ads and articles about hiring freelancers who can develop these themes for me, which is of course not what I'm after.

Thanks so much for any help.

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    "Between the 6 plans on Bluehost, none of them mention custom themes as a feature." Because there's no need to. It's standard. WordPress.com is unique in not allowing custom themes on lower plans because it's a different type of service, that's more like Wix or Squarespace, rather than an all-purpose web host. The vast majority of hosts will support custom themes. Sep 22 '20 at 15:01
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This is because WordPress.com is unique in this regard.

If you purchase hosting and install WordPress on that host, you can then put a theme or plugins in the relevant folders, hundreds of themes, or even put a completely different application in WordPress' place if you chose to. This is what's called a self hosted install in the community.

So you aren't paying for WordPress, you're paying for the server that hosts it, and you can put what you like on that server. You could put several WordPress installs on it, or WordPress + Joomla in a subfolder, the decision is yours and dependent on your technical skills time and desires.

WordPress.com however is different. WordPress.com is a commercial service from Automattic, and when you register a site, you've created a site on a gigantic multisite install of WordPress. It's similar to creating a self hosted site then letting people sign up to it and create their own sub-sites. It's also why you can't create a multisite on WP.com ( because it's already a multisite ).

When you pay to install a theme, they migrate your site off of that install and on to its own hosted infrastructure. At which point you can then install themes and plugins just like other hosts. The difference being that you only get access to part of the WP folders and files. This is because they manage WordPress itself.

Think of it as the difference between installing Microsoft Word, vs using Office 365 Word. WordPress.com is "WordPress as a service", just like Office 365 is Microsoft office as a service. That's what allows them to let you create websites for free.

Disclaimer: I am a former employee of Automattic, details may have changed. For specifics on how WordPress.com sites using the premium and business plans work please contact WordPress.com support

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