This is part of an introductory guide to buying and owning domain names, written by Mary Gardiner for LinuxChix in 2004. It is no longer being updated but is available for modification and republication under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike licence.

Buying and owning a domain name

Registering a domain name

This lesson will discuss the process of choosing a registrar for your domain name. This lesson covers:

  1. Registering a domain name
  2. Providing contact details
  3. Renewing a domain name
  4. Finding a registrar
  5. Choosing a registrar
  6. Changing registrars

Registering a domain name

Registering a domain name is at heart a regulated way of getting someone to point queries for a domain at nameservers of your choice, which in turn lets you point clients at servers of your choice for web, mail and so on.

This is almost always the process these days:

  1. Find a company which sells this service for the parent domain of your choice
  2. Go to their website and enter the domain name you wish to use
  3. Pay for a certain number of years use in advance by credit card

Once you have paid, you will normally be granted access to a web-based administration panel — each registrar seems to have their own. This panel will let you update your contact details, renew your domain, and enter nameservers for your domain.

It is likely to take a few days for whois information, nameserver information and so on to be in place before your new domain begins working (assuming that you have a host for it). This seems a long wait :)

Providing contact details

You'll generally be asked to provide a number of personal details about yourself to our registrar, which may or may not be verified against your credit card information.

Be warned that this information, including your address and telephone number, may be made available in the whois database, see the ICANN FAQ for reasons why. Some registrars will put their contact details in instead, but this will make them effectively the controller of your domain if disputes arise so avoid these registrars.

You'll actually be asked for four different sets of contact details:

the person or organisation who the domain is for/controlled by
the person who will keep the records of domain control up to date
the person to send invoices and requests for renewal to
the person who will keep the domain's nameserver delegation up to date

In the case of a vanity domain, you will want to set all four to yourself (many registrars will have a tool that helps you avoid putting the same details in four times). In the case of a business domain, set the registrant to the business itself and the other contacts to be appropriate employees of the business. Make sure these people will know what to do with "please renew" notices.

The registrant, administrative and technical contacts will all in practise have the ability to modify records for your domain, so don't set any of these to anyone who you don't think should be allowed to "take over" your domain. For example, don't set them to your hosting provider.

Keeping contact details up to date

One important thing to note is that the email addresses you give them must be kept up-to-date. They will use this email address to mail you your password, and they will use it to notify you when you need to renew your domain.

I'm warning you about this because it's very common that you'll start using as your new email address and stop checking whatever address you gave them originally. If you forget your password as well you will be unable to log in and may be unable to prove you are the domain owner and hence may be unable to stop the domain expiring. (They normally have a process in place to handle this involving things like faxing them identification so all is not usually lost, but it's a pain.)

Additionally, if you're registering a name for a business, you should make sure that someone receives the renewal notices even if you leave.

One solution to this is, as soon as starts working, change your contact email address to that. If you're registering a domain for a business, make the contact address something like and direct that address to yourself for now. If you leave, you or your replacement can redirect the email address to someone else's mailbox.

This has its own problem: if the nameserver information is broken and you need to fix it you won't get email at until it's fixed and you won't be able to fix them without logging in.

So to be absolutely sure that you can always change information for your domain you need to make sure of two things:

  1. Point the admin address for the domain at an email address you check and will still be checking in two or three years time. If you don't have one yet make sure you change the information when your address changes.

    If you're registering a business domain, make the admin address one that an employee of that business will be checking in a few years time.

    This will often but not necessarily always be an address. You need to decide this yourself.

  2. Record the admin password somewhere where you can find it again.

Renewing a domain name

The renewal process for a domain name is usually simply a process of following notices that the registrar sends you. They will generally start sending these with lots of time to spare: my registrar starts sending them 60 days before the domain expires and sends one every 15 days after that.

If you allow your domain to expire, the parent nameservers will stop redirecting requests to your nameservers fairly quickly and your domain will stop working. However there is usually a grace period of a few weeks in which your domain will be held for you and you may renew it and regain control.

After that grace period, your domain will be opened up for registration by other people. Some registrars offer a paid "waiting service" where people can submit requests to register a domain as soon as it is available, and many opportunists buy up expired domains in the hope that the original owner or someone wishing to capitalise on links to that domain will pay a premium for it. If you allow your domain to expire and don't renew during the waiting period, expect to have some trouble recovering the domain, or to not be able to recover it at all.

Note that because your contact information is public, it is possible for people to send you fraudulent notices. There is at least one well known scam involving a registrar who sent notices to domain holders masquerading as renewal notices or requests for payment but the forms provided were actually transfer requests, so people filling them out transferred their domain to the other registrar. Make the same checks you would for your online banking: check the URL where you are providing your credit card details, check the website, and remember the name of your registrar.

Finding a registrar

Most, but possibly not all, top level domains now have a process where there are a number of approved registrars for subdomains. In addition, some registrars will work with resellers who will generally provide their own web interfaces but pass all requests onto their parent.

ICANN has a list of accredited registrars for the international top level domains, and you can also find the list sorted by country.

If you want to register a domain in a country's TLD, you will find need to look at the information linked from the list of country TLDs. Some countries have also opened their subdomains up to multiple registrars, but I don't know of any single place where this information is collated. You will need to investigate on a per-country basis.

Choosing a registrar

The choice of registrar is crucial, but generally less difficult than choice of host. There are a limited number of registrars and the service they offer is not particularly varied. Here are the variables you might consider:

If you're dealing with a reseller make sure you also check that the registrar they work with has a good reputation.

I don't know the reputation of many registrars, but here are the ones I've dealt with:
US based, no problems with dotster, good web interface, easy transfer process, offers mailbox hosting and DNS for a fee.
US based, no problems with register, good web interface, expensive, didn't seem to notice I'd transferred and kept sending me renewal notices, offers mailbox hosting, limited web hosting and DNS. (a .au registrar)
Australia based, slightly flaky in the early days of .au registration, web interface works but is not the best UI (or at least, their popups are easy to miss using Mozilla), didn't send me renewal notices until the day before the domain expired
Anchor Systems (a .au registrar)
Australia based, good web interface

Transferring registrars

This process is less technical that switching hosts. Once you've registered a domain if you want to use a different registrar for some reason (often price, sometimes service) it is possible to change. There may be a waiting period after initial registration though. Most registrars will have a prominently placed "transfer your domain!" link and often a special introductory price for people transferring to them.

However, there are still preparatory steps:

When you request a transfer, an approval email will go to the existing contact address (the new registrar may also send a test email there before even beginning the process). At least for the international TLDs, you need to respond to that email fairly quickly or the transfer will not go ahead.

You will find it extremely difficult to transfer without an up-to-date email address in the contact details so you must update it before beginning a transfer.

The full transfer process takes about as long as the initial registration process — a couple of days — but your domain will continue working throughout.

Again, in the case of the country TLDs, the transfer process may not exist or may be more difficult. In Australia it is fairly similar to the above, but Australia has modelled its policies on the international ones. Choose your initial registrar carefully.