WordPress User Roles: The Ultimate Guide

As your website grows, the idea of sharing a single administrator account becomes harder to sustain. Large sites usually have a team of collaborators, which may include content writers, product pricing and inventory managers, event schedulers, and yes, super admins who can do everything. 

With so many cooks in the kitchen, it’s important to set up user roles. Each person should have an account that’s tailored to their duties on the site, and only allows them to access the parts required to do their job. User roles protect both your site’s security and its integrity.

WordPress comes with several default user roles for teams to use, which makes it easy to get started with accounts. But you can take things even further and create custom user roles as needed. Let’s dig in to all the options.

Default WordPress user roles

Anyone with an account on your WordPress site is assigned a user role. A role is a group of permissions that allow access to some features, while hiding other, more advanced functionality. 

WordPress has six default user roles that are available when setting up your site:

  1. Subscriber. If you allow visitors to create their own account, they’ll be assigned this role by default. Subscribers can only make changes to their own profile. You’ll typically use this role if you require visitors to have an account to leave a comment or access special content.
  2. Contributor. A contributor can create new posts, but are unable to actually publish them. Their posts must be reviewed and published by someone with greater permissions. They also have no access to the Media Library and can’t add pictures or files to their posts. This role is most useful for working with first-time contributors to your site, or authors who add content infrequently.
  3. Author. An author can create, edit, and publish their own posts, as well as edit them or even delete them after publication. They can add media to their posts, and edit comments on their own content. However, they cannot approve or work with content submitted by other users. It’s a great way to give your team of regular contributors access to publish their own content, and not have to wait for an admin to do it for them.
  4. Editor. Editors have even more control over the site’s content. They can create their own posts, but also publish, edit, or delete posts created by other users. They can moderate, edit, or delete all comments, and they can create new categories and tags as needed. This role is ideal for a senior member of your team who supervises your messaging and public-facing information.
  5. Admin. On a standalone website, this is the most powerful role. An admin can control all content, but also has access to theme installations, plugin customizations, and all settings. The admin can create or change user roles, add new functionality to the site, and make any number of code changes. This is a technical role meant for the website’s owner and developer.
  6. Super admin. In a multi-site configuration, the super admin has additional powers, including changing settings that apply to all sites in the network. 

WordPress requires every site to have at least one admin (or super admin) configured at all times. All other roles are optional, and can be assigned to members of your team if they apply.

Creating extended user roles

Your team’s needs may not perfectly fit one of the standard roles. Additional user roles can be added with custom sets of permissions based on your unique workflow. There are a few different ways to make this happen:

Option 1: Use plugins that include specific user roles

Some well-established plugins come with additional user roles included, to support the features they offer.

For example, WooCommerce, the go-to eCommerce platform for WordPress, adds two new user roles to your site. A Customer has similar access to the default subscriber role, but can view their past purchases, check the status of current orders, and make changes to their saved information. A Shop Manager has similar permissions to the default editor role, but can also create and edit products, update inventory, and view reports.

Membership plugins often include new user roles as well. For example, bbPress, a user forum plugin, adds roles like Moderator, Participant, and Spectator, and even allows you to assign users a Blocked role to effectively remove them from the forum.

To make use of these roles, you don’t have to do anything other than install the plugin. 

Option 2: Use plugins to create your own roles

If you’re working on a custom feature for your site, you may need to set up your own fully custom user roles. A plugin is the easiest way to do this.

The User Role Editor plugin is a powerful, versatile option. With it, an administrator can:

  • Change the permissions for any of the default WordPress user roles. For example, you could allow contributors to add media to their posts, or allow authors to create pages as well as posts.
  • Add a new user role and assign permissions to it. A new role can begin as a copy of any existing role, or you can start from scratch. 
  • Delete user roles you’ve created.
  • Restore the WordPress default user roles to their factory install state. You can restore one particular user role, or all of them at once.
list of permissions you can assign to a user with the User Role Editor plugin

The plugin gives you control over a wide range of permissions with a simple set of checkboxes. All you need to do is select the specific tasks you want the new role to access, and you’re good to go.

If you want to get more advanced, you can allow default or new user roles to only view certain widgets or menu items, access forms, or work with custom post types. 

Option 3: Add custom PHP code

If you’re a developer, you can create new custom user roles by modifying your theme’s functions.php file. It’s fairly simple to add a new role using the WordPress add_role function, or add new capabilities to an existing user role with the add_cap parameter. Find a sample code snippet to get you started over on the SpeckyBoy blog.

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Adding a new user with a specific role

Do you have your roles set up and ready to go? Now it’s time to add new users and assign them roles so they can log in with the right permissions.

Plugins that add new user roles, like WooCommerce, usually allow visitors to create their own accounts at the most basic access level. But if you need to assign different roles, you can do this by going to Users → Add New in the WordPress dashboard. Note that only an admin or super admin can assign roles.

You’ll be required to set:

  • A username
  • An email address
  • A strong password
  • A user role from a dropdown of options

Check the box to send the user a notification about their new account and click Add New User.

creating a new user in WordPress

To change the role of an existing user, go to Users in the WordPress dashboard and select the one you want to edit. Choose a new role from the dropdown of options under Role. Then, click Save.

assigning a new role to a user in WordPress

When the new or existing user logs in to your website, they’ll now be able to see the new options assigned to their role, and nothing else.

Safely removing a user or user role 

If you no longer wish to support a custom user role that you’ve created, you can remove it from your site by:

  • Deactivating a plugin with its own user roles. WooCommerce, for example, will keep the accounts of customers, but remove the “customer” role. These accounts will be reassigned to the lowest level of permissions (e.g. the subscriber role.)
  • Manually deleting roles created with the User Role Editor plugin. Note, however, that you can’t remove a role if any users are assigned to it. Manually reassign all existing users to new roles, first.
  • Removing PHP code that has been added to create a new role. Existing users assigned to that role will be reassigned to the lowest access level (e.g. the subscriber role.)

You can delete individual users that no longer require any kind of access, too. But it’s important to understand that when an individual user is deleted, their content — posts, pages, and other custom post types — is also deleted, unless you reassign their content to a new user first.

To safely delete a user:

  1. Find the user by going to Users in the WordPress dashboard.
  2. Hover over the username and click the Delete option that appears.
  3. Select a new user underneath Attribute All Content To. This will keep existing content on your site.
safely deleting a user in WordPress

You can now use the Confirm Deletion button to safely remove the user without removing their content.

Maintaining security with user roles

Securing your WordPress site starts with assigning the correct user roles to the correct people. Follow these best practices:

  • Only give each user the permissions required to do their job. Every new account introduces a potential weak point in your security. It’s always better to provide too few permissions than too many.
  • Only give admin access to one or two people who really need it. Full admin access is rarely required by anyone other than a site’s developer and owner. 
  • Remove outdated users and user roles. Review the site’s roles from time to time to make sure they’re all still relevant, accurate, and in use. If contractors or other team members have moved on, be sure to delete their accounts — but don’t forget to preserve their past content by reassigning it to another user first.
  • Track actions on your site. Consider using a WordPress activity log to record who logged in, when, and what actions they took. 
  • Always take regular backups of your site. If you have a security breach or something goes wrong, you can quickly undo the damage. Real-time backups that save your site after every single change — like Jetpack Backup — mean you’ll never lose any kind of data. No matter who makes a mistake, the impact to your site will be minimal.

Whether your site is brand new or has been running for a while, make sure it’s working well for your whole team by creating the right user roles and assigning them to the right people. With the correct permissions in place, you can rest easy that your site is both secure and ready to serve your audience.

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Simon Keating profile
Simon Keating

Simon has worked in marketing and product development for over 10 years, previously at HubSpot, Workday, and now Automattic (Jetpack). He has a varied education, with a degree in chemical engineering and a masters in computer science to his name. His passion is helping people and their businesses grow.

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