There really are only a few things you need to get started swimming. A pool (or lake or ocean), a swimming suit, and a pair of googles. That being said, there are lots of other things you can have to accompany your swim practice and I'm going to share what I use during and after my workouts.
Where To Swim
Let's assume you're going to start swimming in a pool. Where do you find a local pool? Most communities have either a community pool, a YMCA pool, a school pool, or a fitness center pool. Community pools and school pools are usually cheaper than YMCA or fitness center pools, but they have limited hours - usually before school, or late night after school events are over. YMCA and fitness center pools usually have more hours available so it just depends on your schedule and what you are looking for.
If you've never swam before, take a class. You can watch videos and read blogs about swimming techniques, but if you're just getting started the best thing you can do is learn from a certified instructor. I grew up taking swimming lessons and even while I was swimming competitively, practices were still lessons and I cannot emphasize enough how important they were and how much I learned from them.
Where To Buy
Now let's assume you're ready to hit the water regularly and are looking for some good gear to go with your practices. A great place to gear up is at SwimOutlet.com. They have EVERYTHING for awesome prices.
Along with a swim suit, I highly recommend a good pair of googles that don't leak or fog up too much. I recently found a new pair that I LOVE! Speedo makes an Air Seal Tri Mirror Goggle that is amazing. They don't fog, they are easy to fit, no leakage, and they cut out UV rays letting you still see the lightness of the day without the harsh brightness in your eyes.
30 minutes after a swim almost all of the marks on my eyes from wearing them were gone. (Very helpful to go to a meeting after a swim without looking like there's something wrong with my face!)
My other favorite goggles are the simple Swedish Goggles. They're cheap, they come in a variety of colors, and stay in place. Sometimes they can be a little tricky to put together, but you get used to that in time. Some come with string that you can tie the two eye gaskets together, and some come with a rubber piece like the strap that goes around your head. I like them both, but the rubber piece is much easier to put together. I also like the variety of colors they come in. I swim in an outdoor pool and like to change out my googles with what the weather is like. If its a bright sunny day I use the dark lens goggles, and I recently got a pair of metallized ones I like the best for bright days. I use the yellow tinted lens on gray days, and it makes it feel like the sun is out. I also use the light blue ones if its early in the morning and the sun isn't fully up yet. Its all a matter of personal preference.
Here's a great video on how to assemble these googles. My only note, is that when you put the head strap put your goggles on before tying the last two pieces together. That way you'll get a better fit.
There's not much to say about swim caps except I like them because they keep my hair out of my face while swimming. Competitively they're good for streamlining / going faster, and you do have to wear them in all competitive events so its just good to get use to wearing them in practice. I personally like the latex ones over the silicone ones (the silicone versions tend to pull at my hair more), but again, its a personal preference. I also don't think you have to spend a lot of money on a swim cap - you're going to go through a lot of them. After a few months the chlorine will just wear them down and they'll rip so its always good to have a few on hand at a time.
Fins are a great accessory to your workout to help aid you in building a strong kick, increasing your leg strength, and foot flexibility. They're also good to wear when doing new drills that you're not super strong at. They let you swim and concentrate on the drill without exhausting you from the drill. I tend to use them when I do long kick sets (1000yds total, alternating 100yds dolphin kick, 100yds flutter kick). There are tons of fins to choose from that range from $10-$50. I use a basic pair made by TYR.
Pull Buoys are used when you're concentrating on your stroke technique and want to work on your arm, shoulder, and back strength. Essentially the pull buoy is held between your legs and acts as a float as you drag your legs behind (no kicking). I have used a pull buoy before, but if you are comfortable with just dragging your legs you really don't need one. They are useful if you do have trouble keeping your legs afloat. Not expensive, Speedo makes one that runs about $14.95 when not on sale.
Lastly, let's talk about hair. When I swam six days a week my hair turned green. The chlorine and other chemicals in the water were pretty hard on my hair and as much as I wanted to look like a mermaid, I wasn't thrilled about the green hair. Thankfully, my time in the pool is more balanced with dry land activities AND I've found a great product that is kind to my hair after long workouts in the water. Reflect H2O Sports has made a line of shampoo, conditioner, and protecting gel that I've been using for a over a year and has been great for restoring my hair after long workouts in the pool or out in the sun. The best part - no animal testing! A great product that I highly recommend. (You can also get them at SwimOutlet.com and combine to an order for free shipping.)
That's about it for swim gear. We'll talk about the oh so important wetsuit in a later post. Now just get in the water and go!