Registries, Registrars and Registrants: what’s the difference?

Untangling the Domain Trinity

The domain name registration process is very straightforward when you use a modern service such as Namecheap to buy your next .com, .org, or .info. But the simple facade hides a fair bit of technical intricacy that thoughtful users might want to understand in order to make the decisions that are right for them.

We will look at the three main actors in the process: 

  • the registrant, closest to your heart, the person applying to be the owner (for a time) of a domain;
  • the registrar, ostensibly the other party from whom you, the registrant, buy the domain; 
  • and the registry, the place that officializes your ownership of your domain.

Let's start with ICANN...

ICANN and Registries

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is the authority in charge of overseeing the infrastructure that allows any browser anywhere in the world to connect to any domain on the internet. Taken as a whole, this service is called the Domain Name System (DNS).

ICANN controls which domain endings, or top-level domains (TLDs), can be resolved through DNS. For each one of the allowed endings, ICANN has appointed an organization as the official domain registry. Each registry is the official lookup table for finding domains under that TLD.

How does DNS work?

When a browser needs to find the numerical Internet Protocol address (IP) needed to connect to your website superstuff.xyz, it asks the root ICANN infrastructure where to find the registry for the .xyz TLD, then it asks the .xyz registry to give it the address of the DNS servers that know the IP address for superstuff.xyz. These are the DNS servers you specified when you registered superstuff.xyz.

Commercial organizations now operate many of the "generic" TLDs (gTLDs) such as .com, .biz, .guru, etc. A non-profit consortium runs the .edu registry. In many countries, national telecommunications authorities have created public-private ventures as registries for their country-code TLD (ccTLD).

Registries and Dispute Resolution

Why is it important to understand what registries do and don't do?

The simple answer is because ICANN has tasked them with being the first line in resolving disputes regarding conflicts over names. This mission requires them to take record-keeping seriously. And you have to take their rules just as seriously. It will help you stay on top when it's time to review the evidence in case of a stolen domain.

Beyond the minimum ICANN registry rules, the different registries can set their own conditions for buying one of their domains. You have to be an accredited school to get a .edu domain, for example. ccTLD registries might require you to have a business registered in the country. The registries also set the pricing for their TLD.

What is a registrar?

If the registry is like the domain warehouse, then the registrar is the domain store. This is a flawed analogy in many ways, but it reflects one reality pretty well: the warehouse is not open to end-users, while the store is set up for the public to browse, compare, and pay for domains.

In the early days of the web, registries also used to be the sole registrars for their TLDs. In order to stop them from abusing their monopoly power, the shared registration system we have now was established. This introduced competition on prices, better user interfaces, and valuable additional services. There are almost 700 ICANN-certified entries in its registrar database in 2021.

The registrar has to follow protocols set by ICANN to make sure domains are available and to prevent the same domain from being registered by two people at the same time through two different registrars. It has to set up the recurring payments from its customers in the case of multi-year registrations and pass on the requisite fees to the registries and to ICANN.

A registrar can sell domains from many different registries. So if superstuff.com is not available, it can suggest other endings that might be available, like superstuff.biz or superstuff.net. Even if the domain you searched for is available, it is useful to have the registrar list alternate TLDs that you might want to secure as well to protect your brand.

Finally, a registrar has to manage what happens when your domain expires. The registries specify the redemption conditions and grace periods kicking in around that time. A registrar has to make sure that the domain owner's rights are preserved while making sure that other potential buyers can be satisfied, even if they are buying through another registrar.

What is a registrant?

The registrant is you! You have come up with domain name ideas that fit your business or your hobby. You have checked prices and services at different domain registrars. You found a suitable domain that was available and unencumbered, at a price that seemed reasonable. You buy this domain, and maybe a few others that could be helpful.

Your original domain registrar will help you point the Domain Name System to the DNS servers that hold the authoritative answer to the question of where your site lives. You have the choice of using the registrar's free or premium DNS servers, or those of your internet host if this is a different company (more on that below), or any other DNS service.

Private registration

When you purchase a domain, ICANN requires registrars to publish ways to contact you in the registration database: email addresses, physical addresses. Since the database is completely open for anyone to query, some registrars offer the option of maintaining anonymous contact points to protect your privacy. At Namecheap, this service is free

To make sure that you can change registrars if you feel the need, you will get a domain registry key, a password that will allow you to transfer your domain when the time comes. 

Requirements for ICANN accredited domain name registrars

ICANN accreditation is a stringent process designed to weed out operators who are not serious about guaranteeing the authenticity and security of their clients’ registration data as well as their rights to move their domains elsewhere. 

Domain registrar accreditation begins with an assessment of financial stability and technical ability. The applicant has to demonstrate a capability to provide scalable and secure connections to the registry database as well as comprehensive logging of all their operations.

A prospective registrar has to show that they will be able to hire a number of qualified employees sufficient to support the volume of business they expect. They have to agree to the ICANN's code of conduct and submit to its dispute-resolution process.

The initial application fee is $2,500 as of this writing. The annual accreditation fee is $5,000 plus a small fee for each domain registered. There will be additional expenses to third parties for data-safekeeping services. ICANN also requires a commercial insurance policy covering at least $500,000 in liability.

Domain registrars vs. domain resellers

Sometimes, in the course of setting up an online presence, a business might be in a position where they just want to pay a consultant to create their website for them, complete with domain name and hosting. In this case, the consultant sets up hosting for their client and takes care of locking in the appropriate domains.

The consultant is acting as a domain reseller. They will charge a fee for this service, even though they might fold it into the overall fee for their work. At the end of the process, their client will be the owner of the name as far as the website domain registry is concerned.

Not being an ICANN-accredited registrar, the reseller will have purchased the domain for their client from an actual registrar. The end buyer of the domain will not have to interact with the registrar if the reseller is doing their job right. If the end buyer needs to contact the registrar for any reason, they can find out who this is from ICANN

If you are a web developer, you might want to add domain reselling to your services. With Namecheap, you can integrate the process into a web interface using our Application Programming Interface. As a reseller, you become eligible for Namecheap's tiered discounts for bulk users as soon as you have 50 domains or more in your account. 

The difference between a domain host and a registrar

The different aspects of setting up a presence on the internet are so intertwined that it can be helpful to disentangle them for the non-technical public. In particular, there can be confusion as to the difference between the registrar and the hosting provider.

A hosting provider or web host is a company that runs data centers. These are buildings full of reliable servers and beefy networking gear connecting the servers to the wider internet. In a typical hosting arrangement, the provider will rent out space on a server to an end client and provide them with the IP address at which that server is reachable from the outside world. This is the IP address that the end client has to specify in the DNS record for the domain name they purchase for the website. 

In practice, the big hosting companies are also registrars, and the established registrars also provide hosting. These host-registrars often market plans combining the two at a discount. So many people will be tempted to buy a package deal that includes both the domain name and the appropriate level of hosting from one and the same company. The host-registrar will suggest its DNS servers as a default configuration. Updating the DNS records with the correct IP addresses will just take one click. Billing and payments will be simplified too.

But you are never locked into hosting and registration from the same company. Sometimes you already have a long-term hosting plan from one provider that includes more than enough space to accommodate a new website. The plan comes with extra features that you have come to rely on. You have spent a lot of time configuring that server just the way you like, and you want to be able to reuse the setup for your new site.

Then, however, when you start shopping around for new domains, you notice other registrars offering really good deals on names you are interested in. In that case, you have to ask yourself if saving a few clicks or a few minutes of extra configuration work is worth the extra monetary cost.

Do I have to use a registrar to get a domain name?

For some people, the thought of having to pay about 15 dollars annually for a domain year after year is just too much to bear. For whatever reason, they would like to be able to bypass giving business to a registrar. The topic of how to get a domain name without a registrar comes up again and again.

There are a few alternatives:

  • Getting a subdomain, like mycoolsite.example.com;
  • Using one of the non-ICANN registries;
  • Dealing directly with a ccTLD registry that allows it.

All of these are problematic.

A subdomain just doesn’t carry the same credibility as a proper domain name. Your fans or clients won’t remember your internet address as well as if you had your own .com name. Search engines will rank you lower. Your email won’t match your site address.

Domains recorded with non-ICANN registries are not accessible through the regular DNS. Your potential visitors will need to configure their browsers to look addresses up in a parallel DNS. This means you will be invisible to all but a tiny population of advanced, motivated users.

Some small-country registries function as their own registrars. The .tk TLD administered by the South Pacific micronation of Tokelau is a prominent example. Their domains are free for everyone. This has attracted so many questionable sites that .tk domains are badly downgraded in search engine rankings.

Who actually owns a domain?

All this talk of purchasing domains and selling domains kind of hides a fundamental truth about this whole business: if you have bought a domain, why do you have to keep paying for it year after year? Isn't that called… renting?

And there is another way that owning a domain is more like renting: ICANN expressly limits how long you can buy a domain for to ten years. What?! Yes, you cannot keep a domain for more than ten years without facing the expiration of your ownership.

You can renew your lease before it expires, of course, but don't forget to do so before it's too late. Otherwise, you will face a salty redemption fee, potential discontinuity of service, and even the danger of somebody else snatching it away from you if you miss the grace period.

Luckily, most registrars will give you ample warning when your domains are about to expire. So make sure you don't mute communications from them to remain the happy owner of all your snappy domain names.

In Conclusion

Most people who get a domain will be fine if they don't remember most of this stuff. What nobody can rule out, though, is that in the real world, things don't always go as planned. That's when a little bit of background can give you an edge. Grab every advantage you can. That's why when you check the price or register your domains quickly and easily at Namecheap, we give you advanced domain privacy and high-security DNS for free in all our packages.


Andrey Ivaschenko

Andrey Ivaschenko

More articles written by Andrey.

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