So you’ve already learned to install WordPress plugins  and to automatically update the plugins for your WordPress website . Now you may be wondering, “How do I update WordPress itself?”
That’s a good question and, as luck would have it, the aim of this post is to answer it. But before we dive into the actual steps, let’s take a step back so you can understand those steps better when it’s time for you to update your WordPress website.
Do You Need to Read the Rest of This Post?
WordPress comes in two flavors: hosted and self-hosted.
When you create your WordPress site over at wordpress.com, you’re using the hosted option. While not as customizable as the self-hosted option, it’s the perfect platform if you want to get up and running quickly. Luckily for you, all WordPress.com sites are updated automatically, so you don’t have to worry about how to update your site on your own. May we suggest one of our other super-useful posts instead? 
If you create your WordPress website over at one of the many available hosting companies, you’re using the self-hosted option. Self-hosted WordPress sites are infinitely customizable, and that’s a good thing. What’s not so handy is that you need to update your WordPress site manually or set it up to update automatically. So if your site is self-hosted, the rest of this post is definitely for you.
Types of WordPress Updates
There are two different types of WordPress updates:
- Major Releases: Major releases add new user features and goodies for developers and fix both critical and non-critical bugs. These typically occur every 4 to 5 months.
- Minor Releases: Minor releases fix security vulnerabilities and critical bugs only. These occur as needed.
You can tell the type of update by its version number. WordPress version numbers follow this format: #.#.#. Here’s how it works:
- Major releases are indicated by a change to the first two numbers. For example: versions 3.7, 3.8, 3.9, 4.0 and 4.1 were all major releases.
- Minor releases are indicated by a change to the third number. For example: versions 3.9.1, 3.9.2, 3.9.3, 4.0.1 and 4.1.1 were all minor releases.
One fun point of interest: as the WordPress core developers share a love of jazz music, all major releases have been named in honor of jazz musicians they admire .
Updating Automatically vs. Manually?
There are two ways to update WordPress: manually and automatically.
You may be wondering why you’d want to update WordPress manually instead of conveniently setting and forgetting automatic updates.
As we’ll discuss below, you can set up automatic updates for: all releases, major releases only, minor releases only or no automatic updates at all.
Many folks just let their site update automatically and that’s just fine. However, major releases do have the potential to break backwards compatibility meaning that things like plugins, themes and custom code that worked before a major release update might not work after.
Installing major updates automatically may break your website until the broken plugin, theme or custom code is updated.
Minor releases don’t pose this threat as the core WordPress development team works hard to ensure that backward compatibility stays in place during minor release updates.
How do you decide which approach to use?
- If your site does not use a lot of plugins, uses a theme provided by WordPress and does not use much custom code, automating both types of updates will most likely be safe.
- If your site does use a lot of plugins, a premium theme or a good amount of custom code, you may want to automate minor release updates and manually update major release updates during one of your website’s slow traffic times (over the weekend or at night). That way, if something breaks, it will affect fewer of your site visitors.
That said, it’s time to get updating. Ready? Let’s get to it …
How Do I Update WordPress Automatically?
By default, every website built on WordPress version 3.7 and later has automatic updates enabled for minor releases.
If you’d like to automate major release updates, plugin updates and theme updates or if you’d want to turn off all automatic updates, you can do so using a plugin like the ones below:
WP Updates Settings
The WP Updates Settings  plugin is our top choice for automating your WordPress updates. As you can see below, it offers a clean interface and lots of options for managing your site’s updates.
The Update Control  plugin adds some options to your site’s General Settings page, letting you specify how auto-updates should work.
Advanced Automatic Updates
Although the Advanced Automatic Updates  plugin hasn’t been updated in 2 years, it still gets rave reviews. Created by the same folks as the Update Control plugin, this one goes to 11 with lots of bells and whistles.
How Do I Update WordPress Manually?
When a release is ready to go, you’ll see a message like the one below. Click on the “Please update now” link to begin your website’s update process.
Once you click the link, you’ll be taken to the update screen shown below. There are some points of interest on this screen:
- The message in the white box recommends that you backup your website before updating. That’s good advice because if, as we discussed above, the new release does break your site, you can simply restore the backup to get your site up and running again.
- Not sure how to backup your WordPress website? We’ll be releasing a post that walks you through that process in a couple of weeks so make sure to check back.
- If you want to know what a particular release adds or fixes, click on the link to the new version (as shown below, the link reads, “WordPress 4.1.1”).
- Some businesses prefer to download the update and try it on a test system. Most folks however to click the “Update Now” button and that’s what we’ll do during our walk through here.
- At the bottom is a notice that your site will be in maintenance mode during the update. That should be fine as updates are quick however, if you have a lot of activity on your site, try to chose a time when that activity is low.
- In the short period that the update happens, your visitors will see WordPress’ default “Down for Maintenance” message.
Once you click the “Update Now” button, you’ll be taken to the update status screen you see below:
After the update has applied the latest release, you’ll be taken to a page similar to the one below. There you can learn more about the release and how it’s changed your website.
To sum up, if your WordPress site is hosted over at wordpress.com, you don’t have to worry about any of this stuff. WordPress will handle the automatic updates for you. Of course, you’re missing out on all the customization possible with a self-hosted WordPress site.
If you host your site yourself with one of the many providers out there, you’ve gained a lot more control over what your website can be. But with great power comes great responsibility. You’ll need to deal with WordPress updates yourself, either manually or automatically.
WordPress.com Photo via Shutterstock