What Is a Domain Registrar? Definition & How to Register a Domain

What Is A Domain Registrar

A domain registrar is an organization that manages and leases a fraction of the 664 million domain names worldwide.

A domain registrar usually receives accreditation from ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) or whichever regulatory body manages the top-level domains being leased — but accreditation is not technically required.

When someone wants to reserve a domain name for a website, they find a domain registrar. In this guide, we’ll walk you through the steps to register a domain and discuss everything there is to know about domain registrars.

How to Register a Domain

Reputable domain registrars offer streamlined registration processes with user-friendly websites, domain search tools, and accurate databases for domain availability.

Although many companies serve only as domain registrars, it’s common to see hosting providers and website builders offer domain name registration alongside other services.

Domain registrar intermediary flowchart
Domain registrars help you register and transfer your domain names.

After a user purchases or leases a domain name, the domain registrar may also offer services for managing WHOIS data, setting up DNS settings, and handling domain renewals.

Domain registrars act as intermediaries between the customer and domain name registries like VeriSign and Nominet, allowing customers easier access to domain names and creating a more organized internet.

The process of registering for a domain only takes a few steps. You must first search for a domain, then select a domain name from what’s available. After that, you can walk through the process of purchasing and registering the domain.

1. Search for Available Domain Names

To begin your search, go to a domain registrar’s website. Examples include GoDaddy, Bluehost, and Namecheap. Locate the search bar and type in whatever domain name you’d like to buy.

Click the Search button to proceed.

GoDaddy domain registration interface
Domain registration starts with a name search.

The registrar tells you if the domain name is available. If not, it provides similar domain names with alternative top-level domains or variations of the domain name itself.

2. Select and Purchase a Domain Name

Once you find the ideal domain name, add it to your cart.

Here are some tips for choosing a good domain name:

  • Consider adding relevant keywords to explain what the website provides.
  • Keep it as short and simple as possible for people to remember, spell, and pronounce.
  • Ensure the domain is a true reflection of your brand.
  • Avoid hyphens and numbers that may confuse users.
  • Pick a different domain name if your current choice is too similar to another brand; this helps avoid legal issues.
  • Consider a top-level domain (domain extension) that’s relevant to your industry or brand. For instance, it may make sense to go with a country-specific (.ca or .uk) or industry-specific (.realtor or .law) top-level domain.
  • Check the availability of the domain in other countries and on other websites like social media.

Also, keep in mind that domain registrars often sell add-ons during registration. Options include privacy (WHOIS) protection (which hides your identity from the public WHOIS database), web hosting, SSL certificates, DNS management, and email hosting.

3. Register the Domain

To register the domain name completely, you must make a payment, create an account with the registrar, and proceed to other tasks like configuring DNS settings. The steps are similar with all domain registrars.

  1. Type in your contact information.
  2. Create an account with the domain registrar — choose a username and strong password.
  3. Choose a plan for the domain name; most registrars require a yearlong commitment, but you have the option to extend that.
  4. Pick any add-ons you want.
  5. Pay for the domain name. Type in your credit card information and submit the payment.

Once you’re done with registration, you can log into the domain registrar’s dashboard. That offers an interface to manage your domain renewals, configure DNS settings, and even lease more domain names.

With that, you’ve purchased and registered a domain name!

Types of Domain Registrars

Domain registrars vary in the customers they serve and the type of accreditations they carry. Learn about the types of domain registrars below.

Retail vs. Wholesale Registrars

Retail domain registrars offer domain names for the public to purchase. Anyone can go to a retail registrar’s website to search for and lease a domain name.

retail vs wholesale illustration

The most popular retail registrars include GoDaddy, Namecheap, and Bluehost. Along with domain name registration, many sell additional products and services like WHOIS privacy protection, web hosting, and SSL certificates.

Wholesale domain registrars sell domain names in bulk discounts to resellers. That means the public doesn’t have access. The resellers function as retail registrars themselves, seeing as how they turn around and sell directly to the customer.

Resellers often add domain registration to their other services. For instance, Tucows, a wholesale registrar, sells in bulk to clients like Shopify, which then resells domains to its eCommerce platform users.

ICANN-Accredited Registrars

ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, sets strict criteria — for policies, financial stability, and technical capabilities — for all accredited registrars.

ICANN-Accredited illustration

Although it’s possible to find registrars not accredited by ICANN, accreditation has become the industry norm.

With ICANN accreditation, a domain registrar can manage and sell domain names under several top-level domains.

Not only does ICANN have its initial criteria, but it also checks on registrars to ensure they provide a consistently high level of customer support, data accuracy, and dispute resolution.

You should always opt for an accredited registrar. ICANN doesn’t accredit every TLD, but it handles most of them. If you find an accreditation from a different organization, make sure to research its reputation.

Popular Domain Registrars

Popular domain registrars include both wholesale and retail vendors. Some wholesale options act as third-party registrars for popular website builders like Wix and Shopify.

You can also choose from retail companies focused exclusively on domain registration, but most offer additional services, too.

  • GoDaddy: Initially, GoDaddy sold only domain names. Over the years, it became the largest domain name registrar and eventually added more services like web hosting, site building, and email hosting.
  • Namecheap: Perhaps one of the most affordable domain registrars, Namecheap mainly focuses on domain names but also sells services and products like hosting and SSL certificates.
  • Squarespace Domains (Formerly Google Domains): At one point, Google had domain registrar services, but it sold that operation to Squarespace. Therefore, Squarespace now offers a complete web design solution with a domain registrar service and drag-and-drop website builder.
  • Bluehost: Primarily a web hosting company, Bluehost also serves as a notable retail registrar for small businesses and WordPress users. You can pair your domain with other services like shared and WordPress hosting.
  • Tucows: This is a wholesale domain registrar operated through the OpenSRS platform. Companies like Shopify buy domains in bulk from Tucows then sell to their users alongside other products and services.
  • Network Solutions: Here’s another wholesale domain registrar. Its most popular reseller is Wix.
  • Domain.com: A domain registrar with additional products like web hosting and website builders. It’s a popular registrar for small businesses.
  • IONOS: Known for its robust infrastructure, IONOS offers domain registration alongside its many hosting services like email, cloud, and VPS hosting. IONOS is a one-stop shop for building a website.

Web design businesses and software providers may consider buying from wholesale registrars to package domain registration with other services.

For the average consumer, however, you’ll stick to popular registrars like GoDaddy, Bluehost, or IONOS. To guide your search, read below about the features to look for in a domain registrar.

Features to Look for in a Domain Registrar

Along with accreditation from ICANN (or another reputable organization), ensure that your domain registrar has features like a clean user interface and security tools.

Seek these features for the best results:

  • Pricing: Check for hidden or initial registration costs or fees for additional services. Make sure the renewal price doesn’t go too far up after any promotional pricing.
  • Customer Support: Seek registrars with reliable customer support teams through mediums like live chat, phone, and email. You’ll want a ticketing system, knowledge base, and other online resources. It’s also wise to check user reviews and test support channels yourself to evaluate the availability and knowledge of representatives.
  • User Interface: Find a domain registrar with a user-friendly dashboard for managing DNS settings, payment settings, and other services like hosting. Many registrars have outdated interfaces, so it’s important to check user reviews (especially ones with images or videos) or see if there’s a free dashboard trial or demo.
  • Security: The most important security features of a domain name registrar include domain locking, SSL certificates, and two-factor authentication.
  • Additional Services: It’s wise to choose a domain registrar with the potential for more features. This way, if your needs change or your business grows, you can adjust. And this setup merges all business tools onto one dashboard. Extras may include email hosting, web hosting, site builders, privacy (WHOIS) protection, and bulk registration.

Some additional services may require you to pay an extra monthly or yearly fee. Others, like auto-renewals, simply come as an option from the domain registrar. As always, the most important feature of every domain registrar is ICANN accreditation.

Common Issues and How to Avoid Them

Domain registrars are regular businesses, so you might encounter frustrating billing policies or hidden fees. You must also be aware of issues in the domain space, like domain squatting and expired domains.

Hidden Fees

The domain registrar industry is no different from the internet service provider or web hosting space; you may encounter hidden fees. Luckily, you can avoid these by opting for a domain registrar without hidden fees or by monitoring your bill.

hidden fees illustration

First off, read the pricing specifics and terms of services before purchasing from any registrar. It’s easiest to put a domain name in your cart and view what other fees come up in the checkout area.

For instance, some registrars may try to sneak in WHOIS privacy protection or SSL protection.

It’s also wise to consider future pricing. Many registrars have promotional periods that increase after one year.

The terms of service should disclose these, but the sales website should also have information listed under an asterisk. Ideally, you find a domain registrar with simple, transparent pricing instead of hidden fees.

Domain Squatting

Most domains have expiration dates. Domain squatting (or cybersquatting) is a predatory tactic in which a bad actor buys domain names right after they expire. The squatter then hurts the brand’s image while holding the domain hostage until receiving a hefty ransom.

domain squatting illustration

To avoid domain squatting, put your domains on auto-renewal mode. If you forgo auto-renewals, schedule a reminder to renew on time. The domain registrar is required to contact you several times before the expiration. They must also offer a grace period after the expiration.

Another form of domain squatting involves someone buying a similar domain name to a well-known brand with the intention of damaging its brand image (unless the criminal receives payment).

To prevent that from happening, use domain monitoring tools to track potential infringements. If cybersquatting happens to you, go to the ICANN website to submit a UDRP (Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy).

Expired Domains

Domains expire. That’s part of owning a domain name. Although sometimes frustrating, prepare yourself to prevent issues like cybersquatting or even someone legitimately purchasing your expired domain.

expired domains illustration

Expired domains can also damage your brand’s reputation and confuse customers.

Although no major registrar offers a “for-life” subscription, you can sign up for a lengthy contract, like one, five, or 10 years. This way, you don’t have to worry about renewals for a long time.

It’s also wise to turn on auto-renewals. In addition, keep your payment information updated on the registrar’s dashboard and ensure all emails from the registrar go to the right inbox.

How to Transfer Domains Between Registrars

Transferring a domain between registrars only requires a few steps. First, we’ll cover why you may want to make a domain name transfer; then, you’ll learn how to complete the transfer.

Why You Might Need to Transfer

Domain owners transfer to new registrars for a myriad of reasons. They may find cost savings elsewhere or find the dashboard or customer service from another registrar more appealing.

It’s also common for those with several domain names to consolidate their collections into one registrar’s dashboard, allowing for easier domain management.

Transferring Your Domain

Before transferring a domain between registrars, you must log into your current registrar. Also, create an account with the new registrar to prepare a destination for the domain.

Although each registrar has its own process, here’s how to move from Namecheap to GoDaddy:

1. Unlock the Domain

Find the area that allows you to unlock the domain from your current registrar. There’s usually a transfer section on the dashboard.

Namecheap, for instance, has this under “Domain List” > “Sharing & Transfer.”

domain subsection of hosting dashboard
Unlock your domain name from your current registrar.

Click the Unlock button.

domain transfer out process
Click the unlock button to begin the transfer process.

Wait until the dashboard states the domain is unlocked.

2. Obtain an Authorization Code

With the domain name unlocked, you’ll need an authorization code to move the domain to another registrar.

Most registrars provide a way to get an authorization code in the same area. Namecheap, for instance, has an Auth Code button right next to the Unlock button.

domain transfer navigation
Obtain an authorization code to transfer your domain.

Click that button and fill out the resulting form to receive an authorization code in your email inbox.

3. Initiate the Transfer With the New Registrar

Go to the new registrar’s website. It should have a menu item or button that says “Transfer Domain Name.” Type in the domain name you’d like to transfer. Click the Search button to proceed.

domain transfer process
Navigate to your new domain registrar to complete domain transfer.

The next page lets you paste the authorization code you received from the other registrar.

complete domain transfer
Input your authorization code to complete the transfer process.

Submit the authorization code, then walk through any remaining steps to transfer the domain name. It should work fine as long as you unlocked the domain in the previous step.

Potential Challenges

You should make yourself aware of potential challenges when transferring a domain name to a new registrar.

You may encounter downtime for your domain name and website. This could lead to customer confusion and a loss of sales. These waiting periods are normal when switching registrars, but you can speak to a customer support representative to speed up the process.

You may also encounter extra fees for transferring domain names. Look for registrars that offer free transfers.

They should also help you prevent any downtime. After all, the registrars are getting your business well into the future, so it’s wise for them to make sure transfers are free and smooth.

Navigating the Domain Registration Process

When registering a domain name, start by researching several registrars. Look for the ones with no hidden fees, ICANN accreditation, and extra features like WHOIS privacy protection and web hosting.

It’s also smart to turn on auto-renewals and use domain monitoring tools to avoid the most common threat to domain names: cybersquatting.

Retail registrars offer the easiest way for regular people to buy domains, but you also might purchase from a reseller (like Wix), which buys from a wholesale registrar (like Tucows).

As you go through your journey of domain name registration, remember that many tools are in place to protect your brand image and help you purchase and transfer domains seamlessly.