Ideally the menorah should be lit after sunset (whether to light shortly after sunset or to wait until nightfall is subject to different community customs). However, under extenuating circumstances, the menorah can be kindled up to 1¼ "seasonal hours"1 before sunset, known as "plag haminchah." Click here for plag haminchah times in your location.

This option should only be exercised as a last resort, and according to many halachic opinions the blessings are not recited if lighting the menorah before sunset. Also, the mitzvah has only been fulfilled if the lights remain lit until one half hour after dark. So use large candles, or a lot of oil, if lighting before sunset.

All the above applies only to Chanukah weeknights, and only to personal menorahs. On Friday, the menorah must be lit before sunset, and synagogue menorahs are also lit – on every night of Chanukah – before sunset (just as the Temple Menorah was kindled before dark).