The first step to creating a web presence of any size is to choose and register your domain name. Some may wonder why it's necessary to pay to reserve a name when the internet is free. Aside from the fact that registrars are businesses, there are several reasons you have to pay for this necessary service.
In the early days of the internet, some far-sighted individuals were quick to register the names of large corporations, common professions, and well-known people, leaving those companies and people without the ability to use their own names without paying a huge amount of money to gain the rights to them. Coca Cola has been embroiled in several, very costly domain name disputes.
But, branding isn't the only reason to choose a good domain name and registrar. Without a unique name that's reserved for your use only, the internet would be a more confusing and frustrating place. Besides, consider how many times you've had to choose firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, or invented an alternative spelling for common words or names to sign up for a free email account that has 10 million other subscribers.
The Three “Rs” of Domain Registration: What do They Mean?
The three "Rs" of domain name selection and purchase are registry, registrar, and registrant. But, don't be confused by the terminology.
A registry is the entity that owns and manages top-level domains (TLDs), the extension following the domain name. They handle the purchase of domain names from registrars, who in turn lease them to registrants; that's you, the customer. The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) and Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) manage the registries.
For example, the registry in charge of all .coms is VeriSign. When a registrar sells a .com domain, they notify VeriSign and pay them a fee to reserve the domain. Then, they pass that fee on to you, the registrant, giving you exclusive rights to that domain for the term of your contract with the registrar.
Of course, you don't actually own your domain name. You're simply paying for exclusive rights to use that specific configuration and top-level domain extension (the .net, .org. or .com at the end of your URL). Once your registration expires, that domain name is up for grabs again.
Pro Tip: If you're registering a domain name for a business or monetized website, it's a good practice to also register domains under any possible variation of that name, including various TDLs, to fend off lookalikes who could steal your traffic or ruin your reputation later. Some unscrupulous people purchase and park potentially lucrative names, holding them for sale to the highest bidder later. You may have had the experience of following a link that seems legit only to find that it redirects you to a nearly blank landing page that reads "This domain is for sale," followed by information to purchase it from that registrar.
Don't do business with any company that baits and switches with false links or misleading information. In the internet's infancy, there was a money-making scheme called "domain flipping" that caught a lot of established brands off guard when they went to register a corporate domain and found their own names unavailable. This is still done, but it's more difficult unless you have deep pockets or get extremely lucky. Even generic names can mean a big payout for someone. You want "Carinsurance.com"? It will cost you $49.7 million. That's currently the world's most expensive available domain name. Here are the most valuable domains of those that are currently unavailable.
You can avoid problems like this by choosing a reputable domain registrar and acting fast once you've chosen your domain name.
Our Top Picks for Best Domain Registrars
We used several criteria to determine the best domain name registrar from among the hundreds out there. We considered price, but that wasn't the only factor that went into our selections. Our reviewers also took into consideration the search, purchase, and configuration process; transparency; support; value-added services or features; and reputation.
Reputation is more important than you think. Fly-by-night service providers are a reality in the cyber world, and a disreputable registrar that disappears suddenly can cause a host of problems. This just happened recently, when one of the largest registrars suddenly went out of business. This left customers without the ability to renew expired domains, locked them out of their accounts, and kept people from registering new names.
In these cases, ICANN will usually de-credit the registrar and bulk migrate all of the client domains to a new registrar that's accredited. However, one has to wonder what happens to all of their client databases and domain information when registrars go out of business and leave customers unprotected? If you're ever in this position, you can find an announcement on the ICANN Bulk Transfer page.
But, our goal is to keep you out of that position. To that end, here is our list of the top five registrars based on the criteria outlined above.
Year founded: 2000
Owned by: Richard Kirkendall
Location: Phoenix, AZ
Number of active domains: More than 7 million
This is our number one pick for several reasons, and you'll find it high on almost any other list of recommended registrars. For one thing, they put security first by offering free SSL authentication and other features that promote safety and privacy. Their free privacy protection rivals the best VPNs, and it will save you about $10 - $20 a year.
Namecheap has great customer support, with 24/7 availability and a two-hour response time, max. They also offer a really simple checkout process and almost no upsells. What you want is what they give you, no hassle and no pressure. Best of all, you can perform a domain search and register your name in about two minutes or less.
Premium add-ons you can probably skip are:
- Shared hosting ($2.88/month)
- Professional Gmail ($5/user/month)
- Private Email (two months free, then $9.88–$49.99/year)
- EasyWP (WordPress hosting; $1/month)
- Up-front pricing
- SSL certificates
- Free domain transfers
- App integration
- Free domain privacy protection
- Powerful domain search tool, handles up to 50 names at a time
Cost: Namecheap's fee is $0.18, which is the mandatory amount charged by ICANN, and $8.88 per year for your .com domain registration. Renewals are $12.98, which is also the price for a .org extension. They also offer Agent 88 extensions (specialty TDLs like .io, .tech, .press, etc. These are always $0.48 cents for the first year.
- Free privacy protection
- Very budget-friendly
- Live chat support assistance
- The only downside we could find is that the service isn't completely free, but "free" is never really free on the internet anyway.
Year founded: 2000
Owned by: Endurance International Group
Location: Vancouver, WA
Number of active domains: Unavailable
This registrar is on most "Top #" lists, and they also provide affordable hosting options, with an emphasis on WordPress websites. That makes a great option for those using the popular blogging platform, which is free, but has no autonomous hosting option. It doesn't do much for others who are only looking for a reputable, reliable registrar.
As one of the oldest domain name registrars around, with more than two decades of industry experience, you can feel confident that they will handle your domain searches and registrations efficiently and with professionalism. Domain.com also offers a lot of perks for their clients. They have a powerful search interface that includes premium domains, and they also broker premium domain name auctions. Domain.com benefits include DNS management, unlimited disk space, and marketing tools.
- SSL certificates
- Bulk domain registration
- Private registration
- 24/7 customer support via email and live chat
- Premium domain availability and brokering
- Unlimited disk space
- eCommerce solutions
Cost: This company will charge $9.99 per year for a .com or $12.99 for your .net domain registration, and an additional fee of $8.99 for Whois privacy protection. They occasionally offer incentives and discounts for bundled services, like their 25 percent discount for WordPress beginners program.
- They'll give you a free website builder with each domain registration
- They give you a lot of free tools with your registration
- Dozens of country code TDLs (ccTDLs) available
- Lower prices only available for longer contracts or bundles
- Higher price than other registrars
- Some upselling involved
Year founded: 2003
Owned by: Endurance International Group
Location: Provo, Utah
Number of active domains: Unknown, but hosts more than 2 million websites
This is an older, established hosting company that has gotten into the domain game. We cautioned about choosing a company that doesn't focus mostly on one service. But, we'll make an exception about Bluehost due to their commitment to customer education and service. You can get round-the-clock assistance via live chat, email support ticket, phone, and even social media. They even have a knowledgebase for those who want to troubleshoot problems themselves.
They're an excellent choice for small to medium businesses (SMBs), and anyone new to WordPress will find a lot of guidance and support. In fact, they're an official WP partner. Under their WPBeginners program, you'll get a hosting discount, free domain, and free SSL certificate.
- Email ticketing
- 24/7 live chat support
- SSL certificates and free domains with hosting
- Privacy and security features
Cost: They'll give you one free domain with any hosting package. If you want only registrar services, it will cost you $11.99 per year, per domain. You can add privacy protection for an extra $0.99 per month. That brings your total annual cost with privacy protection to $23.87.
- Official WordPress partner
- 24/7 customer support via live chat, email, social media, and phone
- Established, well-known company
- Lack of transparency about their numbers
- Main focus is on hosting
- Large corporation with millions of customers leads to large corporation problems like privacy and leaks
Year founded: 2015
Owned by: Google, of course
Location: Mountainview, CA
Number of active domains: Unavailable
One of the latest offerings from the company that's quickly bringing you everything internet, Google Domains is still in the beta stage. However, don't let any preconceived notions or feelings about corporate encroachment color your opinion of their domain registrar services. With this domain registrar, you'll get name recognition from a tech giant with a fairly good rep. You'll also enjoy integration with all of your other Google platforms and an SEO boost. However, this also means that you're sharing even more information than Google and its many platforms already gathers.
On the plus side, they offer free privacy protection, absolutely no upselling, and the familiar, easy-to-navigate Google interface.
- Free private registration
- Free Whois privacy protection
- Easy domain management tools
- Free custom email with G Suite
- Email forwarding
- Sub-domain customization
- Integrates with many web builders
- 24/7 support via email, live chat, and phone
Cost: Pricing starts at $12 per year, with free automatic renewals at the end of the registration period. You'll get an email alert when your term is a bout to expire. They also offer a special rate for developers with a .dev registration; prices for that range from $12 - $15 annually.
- Name recognition
- Integration with other Google platforms and services
- Still in beta testing phase
- Some Agent 88 and geo-specific TDLs aren't supported with private registration
- Higher cost than other registrars
Year founded: 1994
Owned by: Web.com Group, Inc.
Location: New York, NY
Number of active domains: 2.5 million
This company has been around since the dawn of the internet. That offers a level of authority and stability that's hard to pass up. You can feel pretty secure that they'll be around for a while. In addition to their easy availability and transparency, the company offers a range of free and premium tools design to improve your experience and web presence. Although the total annual fee is less than most other companies charge, you still have to pay extra for privacy protection.
- SEO tools
- Domain transfers
- Email services
- eCommerce and website builders
- Online marketing tools, including social media support
- SSL and other security options
Cost: The base cost for domain registration is only $5 per year. If you add $11 a year for Whois privacy protection, your total will come to $16.
- Lots of helpful tools
- Priced better than many services
- Old, established brand
- No live chat option
- Customer service only available during "banker's hours"
- Whois privacy protection is an extra cost
What to Look for in a Domain Registrar
One of the first things I would recommend is to keep domain registration and hosting separate. Nearly all hosting companies, and quite a few other types of internet-related service providers, offers free domains and registrations as a bonus or sign up incentive. This is fine if you're just putting up a static website with little expected traffic or just looking for a host and cheap domain for your online portfolio.
This can be a benefit if you're looking for a simple setup through one provider that you can manage from a single dashboard.
However, if you're going to be juggling multiple domains or engaged in eCommerce, it's best to go with separate companies who specialize in each type of service.
You should also consider:
Price and Terms
This means not just the up-front pricing, but also price increases and hidden fees for renewals, transfers, and other charges that sneak up on you. This goes hand-in-hand with the term of your registration, because some companies offer a good price for the first year of registration, but jack up their fees upon renewal. A typical term is a minimum of one year, but you can register a domain name for up to 10 years or more. For example, LasVegas.com is registered through to 2050.
Domain Transfer Policies
Legal disclosure first: ICANN has set terms stating that no new domains can transfer to another registrar until after to first 60 days of a new registration. This is partially to keep unscrupulous actors from jumping from service to service, and to protect the registrars' interests to some extent.
That should be enough time for you to determine if your registrar was everything you hoped it would be. After the initial 60-day period, most services will let you transfer your domain to another registrar without penalty; some will try to charge you a fee. Find out the provider's terms before making a commitment to any one registrar.
This is probably where the widest disparity is. Some services will allow you to renew your domain before the term expires, and some will hold your domain for 30 - 60 days after expiration before releasing it to someone else. If your service offers an automatic renewal feature, make sure to activate it. You should also check just before the expiration date just to be on the safe side. Find out other renewal terms up front, like how much they charge for a renewal, and whether your services and rates will change after you renew.
Add-On Incentives and Services
Even if you don't need additional services like hosting or email service right now, it's still good to know about their prices and availability for future reference.
Red Flags and Things to Avoid
It's easy to tell you why to look for, but it's just as important for you know how to spot red flags and evaluate offers that seem to good to be true. Some companies sneak hidden fees in as premium services that are added to your account by default. That means that you have to opt out before agreeing to their TOS. The top price for a .com domain name registration should never be more than $15 per month.
Never do business with a company that forces you to accept third-party affiliations as part of your user agreement or charges hidden fees to pad their bottom line at your expense.
Research any potential registrars to find out if they've had any negative associations in the media or a lot of customer complaints. You should also beware of lack of transparency, availability of customer service, and providers who give you a hard time about elements of service that should be easy, like domain transfers or settling disputes.
Choosing the right domain name registrar only seems complicated on the surface, Once you have the right information regarding what a registrar is and what you should look for when you're shopping around, your decision should be simplified. No matter what domain(s) you choose, make sure that you select a reputable hosting platform for your website. These two elements together have a larger effect on the success of your web launch than almost any other factors.
Frequently Asked Questions About Domain Registrars
If you just want a few general facts about domain names registrars, our FAQ section should give you the information you need.
What is the best domain name registrar?
The cheapest is not necessarily the best, nor is the most expensive. In the end, it should come down to which works best for your needs and offers a high degree of security. Some guidelines to follow when looking for a registrar are:
- Quick domain searches
- Easy to purchase and configure
- Intuitive dashboard for managing multiple domains
- Knowledgeable customer support with 24/7 availability through multiple channels
- Limited amount of upsells, no pressure
- Availability of add-on services and features
- Transparency and good reputation
Can I register a domain if I don't have a hosting service?
Yes. In fact, it's recommended that you keep your name registrar and hosting platform separate, especially if you're going to purchase several domains.
Do I have to register my domain?
Yes. If you ever plan on launching a website, you must first have your domain name registered with an organization called International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Platforms that offer hosting without requiring domain registration will have their own name in your URL, and they will own your website and its content.
Will I need to renew my domain registration?
Eventually. Terms generally last from one to 10 years. The renewal date depends on the terms of your registrar; some will hold your name for up to 60 days if it expires, but other will resell it immediately. Check on their renewal policies before deciding on a registrar.