How to Pick the Best Domain Name Registrar

By Milo Cruz | Last Updated: November 17, 2017

No website is complete without a domain name, and to get one, you’ll have to go through a domain registrar. While your web host might give you a free domain name alongside your hosting plan, registering with a dedicated registrar service can afford you more options and flexibility in the long run.

But how do you pick the right one? Many registrars out there will offer similar packages and services, so at first glance, your choice of company might not seem important. However, there are some key factors that elevate the best from the pack, and these can spell a huge difference when it comes to your convenience, too. We’ve run down those factors below, but first, let’s do a quick refresher on what domain registrars actually do.

What’s a Domain Registrar?

To visit a website, two addresses are necessary: the domain name, which makes it easy for you and other users to find the site; and the IP address, which does the same for your internet-browsing device. Whenever you type in a domain name, it gets matched with the website’s corresponding IP, allowing your browser to take you to the correct corner of the internet. (You can learn more about that in our beginner’s guide to websites.)

Domain registrars are services that help keep that whole process straight. They serve as frontline hubs where you can buy and register a new domain name, manage ones you already own, and so on. These registrars’ records, in turn, form part of the massive overall domain registration system overseen by the nonprofit organization ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers).

Together, these registrars and the system they’re part of ensure that there are no overlapping or duplicate domain names, domain and IP correspondences are up-to-date, and the internet’s domain infrastructure as a whole works smoothly and efficiently.

1. ICANN Certification

While the ICANN nonprofit oversees the domain name registration system, it doesn’t handle end-user domain registrations directly. Instead, it grants particular companies or entities the seller rights to top-level domains, or TLDs (these are the extensions at the end of your domain name, like .com, .org, and .net). Like ICANN, though, these TLD holders don’t deal with end-users directly–so in turn, they delegate retail-user contracting duties to various registrars like GoDaddy or Namecheap.

Each registrar conducts business differently, as they’re free to set their own prices, create their own domain registration packages, and so on. So what’s to keep you from being lured into contracting with a shady company?

That’s what the ICANN accreditation is for. In order to be officially recognized as a domain registrar by ICANN, a company has to comply with the regulatory body’s rules and guidelines for domain registrars. These regulations protect end-users (e.g., you) and ensure fair, organized, and legitimate practices from the accredited service. ICANN can rescind a company’s certification if it violates those rules and regulations, too, so you can be sure that a currently accredited registrar is putting in due effort to maintain service quality.

The full list of accredited domain registrars is available here, so you can easily check any company claiming to be listed.

2. Contract Terms and Transfers

As with web hosting, domain registration tends to come with a range of contract durations to choose from. The minimum is usually set at 1 year, though you can register a domain for 3, 5, or even as long as 10 years if you’d like. For your first domain with a certain registrar, it’s a good idea to start with a 1-year contract to give yourself more flexibility to switch services if things don’t turn out for the best.

That brings us to issues like contract renewals and transferring to other services. Like many web hosting services, domain registrars tend to offer discounted initial prices for their domain registration packages. This makes for more attractive ads, but it can lead to jarring renewals for users who don’t bother to check the fine print.

Similarly, some domain registrars might charge extra fees if you want to move to a different registrar, or they might block you from transferring altogether. This isn’t the usual case, but it’s still worth being on the lookout for. Most registrars will also require at least 60 days of use before giving you the option to transfer.

Make sure to check your chosen registrar’s renewal rates and domain transfer policies before you sign up, just to be sure that you won’t run into any problems down the line.

3. Straightforward Pricing

On a related note, make sure to inspect your chosen registrar’s pricing, registration, and checkout processes as well. Some domain registrars will offer reasonably priced packages but bombard you with page upon page of upsells, added charges for key services, and so on while you try to sign up.

4. Privacy and Domain Theft Protection

When you register a domain, the ownership details will be lodged in what’s called the Whois record. This is a public database that includes information on a domain’s owner, their contact address, and the registration period for the domain — meaning, yes, your details will be available to anyone who cares to look.

Some domain registrars will offer privacy protection and Whois registration masking, often for an added fee. These measures typically involve replacing the personal information in your Whois record with proxies (e.g., a proxy email and/or phone number that can forward non-spam communication to your chosen recipient).

Domain theft, meanwhile, can be pretty devastating. Through a number of methods, like exploiting registrar vulnerabilities or using stolen personal information to masquerade as you, malicious parties can hijack your domain name registration and use it for their own ends.

Registrars can put measures in place to minimize the risk of domain theft. This can range from offering two-factor authentication and other verification measures for your account and for transfer requests in particular (“domain locking”), to notifications of unusual account activity and more. Considering the damage that comes with losing ownership of your domain name, this is generally a service worth paying extra for.

5. Additional Services

Beyond basic domain name registration, many registrars tend to offer supplementary services that might be of interest to you and other website owners. Email forwarding services, for example, let you set up email addresses using your custom domain without having to actually get new email accounts; instead, your custom emails will be configured to relay incoming messages to your existing mail account. Similarly, URL forwarding can come in handy if you’d like to set up a variety of URLs to lead to the same website. Other services like SSL certificate purchases and DNS management also make it easier to secure your site and manage it more efficiently.

Having a number of these services at your fingertips presents certain benefits. For one thing, you won’t have to seek out and vet providers for each additional service you’d like to get. You can also manage all the services associated with your domain from one place. It’s likely that your domain registrar has already configured its offered add-ons to work well with its domain registration and management system, so might have an easier time deploying these extra features.

On the other hand, many of these services will probably require extra charges apart from your domain registration plan. If you’re not careful about the add-ons you purchase, you might find yourself with a bloated bill at checkout.

6. Customer Support

Considering how crucial your domain name is, and how big a role your registrar plays, it’s imperative that you sign up with a company that has a proven record of providing responsive, helpful customer support around the clock. Issues will crop up from time to time, and you don’t want to be stuck with a downed website for twelve hours just because your registrar’s support staff don’t start duty until much later.

Make sure your chosen registrar has multiple communication channels available, too. Support ticket system can clog up, for example, and sometimes your problem needs the immediacy of a real-time assist through phone or live chat.

The Bottom Line

Domain names can be a “set it and forget it” affair, but only if you pick a domain registrar that suits your website’s needs. In terms of basic functions like checking for domain availability and registering a new domain, there’s not much difference between the thousands of registrars out there. However, it still pays to be a discerning customer, since the quality of each service can vary by a considerable margin.

The factors we’ve listed here can help you separate the wheat from the chaff. Take the time to find a domain registrar that ticks all your boxes and falls within your budget, and you’ll be one step closer to building a successful website.