What is a domain name registrar?
A domain name registrar is a business that handles the reservation of domain names as well as the assignment of IP addresses for those domain names. Domain names are alphanumeric aliases used to access websites; for example Google’s domain name is ‘google.com’ and their IP address is 192.168.1.1. Domain names make it easier to access websites without having to memorize and enter numeric IP addresses. (For more on how this works, see What Is DNS?)
It should be noted that registrars don’t actually manage and maintain domain names; that part is done by a domain name registry.
What’s the difference between a registrar and a registry?
Registries are organizations that manage top-level domains (TLDs) such as domains ending in ‘.com’ and ‘.net’. These registries are managed by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), a department of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).
Registries delegate the commercial sales of domain name registrations to registrars. For example, VeriSign is the registry for ‘.com’ domains. When a registrar sells a ‘.com’ domain registration to a user, the registrar must notify VeriSign in order to properly reserve the domain. The registrar must also pay VeriSign a fee, which is factored into the price that the registrar charges the end user.
It's much like a car dealership. A customer who is interested in buying a car steps into the showroom and is shown the available cars by a knowledgeable sales associate. If the customer chooses to buy a car (not one already in stock, for this example), the dealership must then order the car from a manufacturer. The customer ultimately picks up the car and receives customer service from the dealership.
A registrar is like a dealership for domain names, and the registry is like the manufacturer. The registrar facilitates the transactions and provides support services, while the registry is in charge of producing and delivering the goods. It should be noted that a key difference between registering a domain and buying a car is that cars can be owned by consumers, domain names cannot.
What does it mean to ‘own’ a domain name?
Although people will often speak of buying and owning domain names, the truth is that registries own all of their domain names and registrars simply offer customers the opportunity to reserve those domain names for a limited amount of time.
The maximum reservation period for a domain name is ten years. Users can hold onto domain names for longer than ten years, as registrars let them keep renewing reservations indefinitely, but users never truly own the domains; they are just leasing them.
Are registrars the only ones who can sell domain name registrations?
In addition to registrars, there are also resellers who sell domain name registrations. These resellers sell domain names on behalf of a registrar in return for a finder’s fee. While these resellers are legitimate, they are usually something of a side business, and they can lack dedicated customer support.
Resellers’ websites rarely explicitly state that they are resellers, and it can be tricky to tell them apart from registrars. Fortunately there’s an easy way to know if a company is a legitimate registrar: ICANN has a published list of every accredited and active domain name registrar on their website.
How do domain name registrars protect user privacy?
Everyone who reserves a top-level domain name must fill out WHOIS information for that domain. This is information about the person who registered the domain (the registrant), including their name, email address, physical address, and phone number. Many registrars provide the option of a private registration; in this arrangement, the registrar’s information is provided in the WHOIS listing for that domain, and the registrar acts as a proxy for the registrant. This private registration is only as secure as the registrar, since the actual registrant’s information is held in the registrar’s database.