The Big, Big World of Country Code Domains
Have you ever seen a domain name with just two letters to the right of the dot? Perhaps .US, .CA or .UK?
These domain names are called country code top level domain names (ccTLD) and are each assigned to a country. Anytime you see a two-letter top level domain, you are looking at a country code domain.
Technically, they operate much like other top level domain names like .com, .net and .org. But even though their history dates back to the early days of the Internet, they are operated differently.
So what is this difference? What are the restrictions? And what might the implications be for ccTLDs like .EU after Brexit? To answer these questions, let’s start by going back in time…
The Birth of ccTLDs
Top level domain names such as .com were first introduced in the 1980s when the Domain Name System (DNS) as we know it today was created. The very first ccTLDs were also created at this time. The first ccTLDs were .us (United States), .uk (United Kingdom) and .il (Israel).
Dr. Jon Postel was one of the original architects of the Internet. He worked on the DNS and its standards and was in charge of managing top level domains in the early days. Back then, the Internet at the time was nothing like it is today, and few people could have anticipated the Internet’s role in the global economy. So the standards back then were not like standards of today.
Because he had no reason to worry about their management, Postel delegated control of ccTLDs to anyone he believed would be a good steward for them. This often meant an Internet pioneer in academia or research would manage the country code domain name.
Thirty years later, the idea of handing over management of one of these ccTLDs to an individual seems crazy. At the time, however, it seemed like a reasonable way to give stewardship of these domains and help countries get on the Internet.
Postel didn’t want to get involved with choosing which territories were considered countries when it came to assigning TLDs. He also didn’t want to be involved with selecting which two-letter domain each country could use.
He smartly avoided politics by relying on the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). ISO maintains a list called ISO-3166. He delegated country codes based on the two-letter code included in this list.
This policy was relaxed a bit in later years, with the European Union getting .EU even though it isn’t on the ISO-3166 list. Internationalized domain names that include non-Roman characters also came out, and these are not necessarily two characters.
Unlike .com and other popular top level domains, ccTLDs aren’t always open to everyone. While many countries let anyone register domains, others have restrictions. For example, Canada’s .CA domain name requires some sort of Canadian presence in order to register. Meanwhile, other countries, such as Colombia and its .CO domain name, are open to everyone.
Consider the European Union’s .EU domain name. Right now, any natural person, company or organization residing in or established in the European Union, Iceland, Liechtenstein or Norway can register a .EU domain name. That means it’s off limits to people in the United States.
But restrictions can change, too. Usually, this means liberalizing rules to register domain names. EURid, the group that manages the .EU ccTLD, plans to allow EU citizens residing anywhere in the world (not just inside the EU) to register .EU domains starting in 2023.
Eligibility can change even if the ccTLD manager doesn’t change policy.
Right now there’s an open question about whether people in the United Kingdom will be able to retain their .EU domain names following Brexit. While UK residents and businesses currently qualify for .EU domain names, they will not once the UK leaves the EU if there is no transition agreement between the UK and EU.
A so-called “No Deal” Brexit would mean people lose their domains within a matter of months. There’s hope that the Brexit negotiations will allow these people and companies to retain their domains, but the UK government is warning them to take precautions.
Because of all of these rules, it’s important to understand the requirements before registering a ccTLD so that you only register ones you can qualify for. To help you out, Namecheap offers a list of these requirements.
Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
Another interesting thing about ccTLDs is that, since they are based on countries, they can be removed from the Internet when a country ceases to exist. If you study history, you know that from time to time new countries are spawned while others may disappear. Once this happens, the ccTLD assigned to the defunct country technically goes away.
Consider Yugoslavia, which split into Serbia and Montenegro. Serbia and Montenegro got their own ccTLDs (.RS and .ME, respectively) and the Yugoslavia .YU domain name was terminated.
In practice, deleting an entire top level domain name takes time and caution. The Internet community doesn’t want websites to be inaccessible, so there is a transition period.
If the tiny island nation of Tuvalu disappears due to climate change, .TV domain names technically go with it. But given the popularity of this domain name for video sites, it probably will remain a top level domain for a long time.
Even if an entire ccTLD doesn’t go away, political unrest or weather can cause consternation for ccTLD users. A country can decide to take down a website using its top level domain if it doesn’t like the content. One company was unable to renew its expired .LY domain name because of war in Libya.
Even the popular .AI domain name experienced problems during Hurrican Irma in 2017. New registrations and transfer stopped working even though domains still resolved to websites. (.AI subsequently upgraded its infrastructure, so hopefully this won’t be a problem in the future.)
Some people might be surprised to learn that the domain name they use is a country code domain name. You’ve probably recognized some ccTLDs in this post that you thought stood for something else. That’s because some countries have commercialized their ccTLDs to stand for something other than the country.
Montenegro’s .ME is popular for personal websites. As mentioned previously, .TV is used for video sites. Other ccTLDs with broad commercial appeal include .AI (Anguilla), .IO (British Indian Ocean Territory), .CO (Columbia) and .IN (India).
These domains either have an acronym meaning such as Artificial Intelligence (.AI) or make good “domain hacks”, such as lnkd.IN for LinkedIn.
The only constant is change, so you can expect rules about domain names to change over time. Even wise people have trouble seeing into the future.
In 1994, Dr. Postel wrote that, other than the existing top level domains and ccTLDs, “It is extremely unlikely that any other TLDs will be created.”
That changed this decade. TLDs like .info and .biz came in the early 2000s. Hundreds more domains like .money and .guru landed this decade. So, the world of domain names is constantly changing, and the amount of choice available to people in almost every country is still very much growing.