Since it’s a frequently asked question, I’ve thrown together a quick guide for how to pick a server.
Server Datacentre Location – New York, Chicago, Phoenix, Los Angeles
First and foremost: Limit your search to servers that are as close to you (physically) as possible. Closer servers will have better latency, and thus deliver a better play experience. WoWWiki has a great list by datacentre:
Realm Type – PvP, PvE, RP, RP-PvP
Now that you know which servers to look at, the next most important question is if you want to play on a PvE, PvP, RP, or RP-PvP server.
RP vs. non-RP servers should be a simple choice: when interacting with other players, do you want to act “in character” replying to other players like they’re living inside the world of Azeroth, or would you rather just play WoW like any other video game treating everyone else like a player at a keyboard? If you want to play on an RP server with active RPers: “Wyrmrest Accord and Moon Guard are very popular, but Moon Guard is very over populated.” -Nok
PvE vs. PvP is a bit of a tougher decision. On a PvP server, once you get to about lvl 20, in just about every questing zone you go to you can be attacked at any time by any player of the opposite faction (Horde vs. Alliance). If you like the idea of jumping other players while they’re running around killing mobs/questing, this may be for you. If you don’t like the idea of a max lvl player killing you in 1 shot when they ride by, then you may want to stick to PvE servers.
Some people feel that PvP servers have a slightly more mature community since most children and/or immature players can’t stand being killed randomly. Other people feel that PvP servers have a less mature community since it’s full of teenagers who like to grief other players while they’re just trying to quest. YMMV.
Realm population – New, Low, Medium, High, Full
The next major consideration for choosing a realm is the realms’ population, both the total number of players and the Alliance / Horde ratio. This is a bit more complicated, and there are different ways of looking at the data.
First, WarcraftRealms.com has a tool for taking a “census” of various realms, but it relies on data uploads from players on the server. Its data is only as accurate as the data it receives from player uploads, but it gives a pretty good baseline idea:
Another useful way to look at population data is in terms of server age. Older servers tend to have higher populations. WoWWiki has a list of all US realms’ creation dates:
So that’s great, but what does it mean? How does population affect the game? Here are a few points to consider:
Empty servers: By far the easiest way of ruining the MMO experience is to have nobody to play with. Avoid servers with very low population.
Queues: Very high population realms often have queue times. This could mean waiting for half an hour every time you want to play during prime time. During prime time (weekday evenings and weekends), check the realm status page to see if the server is listed as full:
Economy: Higher population realms have more robust economies. This means the auction house will have many more items listed and will be much more competitive.
10/25 Man Raid PuGs: Higher population => more things happening => more groups going all the time. Pick up Groups will form more frequently and will fill faster, meaning you can play more and sit in town waiting for groups less. This also, however, means (on some servers) that PuGs can be more picky in who they take along since anyone can be replaced quickly.
A/H ratio: Depending on how you like to play, you may want an even ratio so that everything that involves opposite faction interaction (like world PvP) are more fair, or you may want to be on the advantage side of an imbalanced ratio so that your side is usually winning.
The only disadvantage with being on the plus side of a wildly imbalanced population is that soon, world PvP zones (i.e. Wintergrasp) will only allow the same number of players (beyond a minimum level of 20 players) from each faction in at the same time, so if nobody from the other side shows up, only 20 from your side can get in.
PvE Progression – Raiding
For current rankings, check WoWProgress:
Higher ranked realms are important if you’re interested in 10/25 man raids at max level. Higher ranked realms attract more and/or better players, so there are more guilds in general. More guilds means there’s a better chance of finding a raiding guild to suit your play times / gear level / ability level.
Another important consideration is top raiders often have geared alts that would otherwise be in a raiding guild, but aren’t, since the player can only commit to one raiding schedule. This means that PuGs often have top-quality raiders (skilled players on geared alts), so PuGs are generally more successful.
One caveat: Make sure, of course, that you’re on the right faction! Lots of servers have great guilds, but only on one faction, so make sure you’re on the right side!
Time Zone – EST, CST, PST, Oceanic
You don’t need to play on a server in your time zone! A lot of players play on servers from different time zones depending on when during the day they want to play, not where they are. If you typically play right after school/work, then EST servers may be best since people will be on during earlier time periods. If you like to play in the late evening, you may want a PST server since more people will be on later. If you want to play early morning, you may want to play on an Oceanic server since that’s when the Aussies are active. (Unless, of course, you’re an Aussie, in which case this is reversed.)
Battlegroup – Arenas, Battlegrounds
Some players say that different battlegroups have different calibre of arena / BG play and/or different alliance/horde win/loss ratios. I do not PvP, so can not speak to it directly, but if this matters to you, you may find more details on the Battleground and/or Arena forums:
I hope this helps! Please post if you have any other questions and I or someone else on these boards will do our best to answer you.
Links – Other links to get you started on your new server
Windows latency fix:
(reduced my ping by about 150ms – fixes Windows not to wait to send TCP acknowledge packets)
“Guide to in-game RP” and “What RP is NOT”:
RAF – where you should go to find an RAF partner on your new server:
Giving back – a list of players willing to help out new players: