Over the course of my career starting, running, and selling businesses, I’ve bought hundreds of domain names. For me, the process of heading over to my registrar of choice and buying a name is as simple as reordering toothpaste from Amazon. If this is your first time, it’s likely not so simple for you. I’ll walk you through what makes the best domain registrars stand out from the rest, how to skip the upsells you don’t need, and get your features up correctly.
I’m used to the process now — this guide encapsulates my knowledge and experience to help both the first-time and the experienced buyer pick which of the thousands of accredited domain registrars to use to buy a domain name.
Want my quick take? I prefer Namecheap over other top registrars NameSilo, Gandi, Google Domains, and Hover. Namecheap has great prices and is really easy to use. It’s the registrar I use, and the one I recommend to my family and friends when they are building websites.
The top 5 domain registrars ranked
- Namecheap — Simple checkout, free privacy protection, and clear dashboard.
- NameSilo — Cheaper than Namecheap and super-easy bulk purchase process.
- Gandi — Beautiful interface, but not worth the price jump
- Google Domains — Classic Google interface, but you’ll be giving more information to Google
- Hover — Straight-forward purchasing process
Registrars to avoid
- Bundling your domain name with your web hosting plan
I do not recommend 1&1 or GoDaddy. Although you may be tempted to bundle domain registry with your web host, if you’re planning on buying more than one domain over time, you should keep them separate.
It’s not a big deal to go ahead and buy them together if you’re doing something simple, like starting a portfolio site or a small personal blog. But, domain names and web hosting are two different competencies, and it’s best to use expert providers for each, especially if you are building a business or many sites.
A free domain name for a year is not worth the trade off of less convenience and ability to make decisions about each service independently. You’ll also save a few dollars on renewal if you go with a domain registrar instead of a freebie.
My methodology for ranking the top domain registrars
I am not swayed by freebies or pricing, but I do keep them in mind in my reviews. More important freebies, for things like security are on the top of my list. I appreciate that it makes it easier to do the one thing I visit a registrar for: to buy my domain and get on with my business.
When I research and rank the best domain registrars I look for those that meet these criteria:
- Quick to search
- Easy purchase process
- Simple configuration process
- Intuitive dashboard for managing domains over time
- Quality customer service, both live support and in a robust knowledge center
- Limited upsells
- Strong reputation
Why the reputation of your domain registrar matters
In mid-March 2019, the 9th largest domain registrar by volume went dark — out of nowhere. Customers could not renew expiring domains, couldn’t log into their accounts, couldn’t buy new domains. Their domain registrar was out of business, and their domains were in limbo.
When this happens the first concern is if the defunct registrar has protected the vast amount of information they have in their domain database, and if that information is properly escrowed.
In cases like this, ICANN steps in to de-accredit the registrar and bulk transfer the domains to an accredited registrar. The new location of the domains will be announced on ICANN’s bulk transfer page.
How the best domain registrars compare
- Simple checkout process
- Limited upsells
- Free privacy protection
- 24/7 live chat support and 2 hour ticket response
- Find and buy a domain name in 2 minutes
Namecheap’s checkout process is simple, with very limited upsells. There’s nothing confusing about the process and nothing to slow you down either. It’s everything I want in a domain purchasing experience and nothing I don’t want. I’m able to search for a domain name and purchase it in under two minutes, and I think you’ll be able to do the same even if it’s your first time buying a domain.
How to navigate the Namecheap upsells
During the purchase process, Namecheap will hit you with a few questions — do you want to add this? You can blast through that section pretty quickly using this cheat sheet of which to add and which to skip:
- Stellar Shared Hosting ($2.88/month) – Skip it
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: You should not get your hosting from your domain registrar, or vice versa. They’re two very different competencies and I don’t know of any one company that nails them both. (If you’re after hosting, check out the review of the best web hosts. TLDR: My top pick for beginners is InMotion Hosting; for everyone else it’s SiteGround.)
- Private Email (two months free, then $9.88–$49.99/year) – Skip it
If you want a business email, it’s always free to forward emails from Namecheap. If you’d like cloud storage for that email, or to send emails from your domain name, we recommend not buying it from your registrar. My universal recommendation is a no-brainer: G Suite ($5/user/month), which includes Gmail, Drive, Docs, Sheets, Calendar, and Hangouts.
- Professional Gmail ($5/user/month) – Probably skip it
This is the going price for G Suite, so you can buy it here now, or add it later, but I think it’s simpler to keep your billing for G Suite directly with Google. That way, if you ever leave Namecheap, you won’t have to get them to transfer you G Suite account back to Google. It’s the same principle as above: don’t bundle different competencies. You don’t save much time (once you get your Gmail on autobill it’s the same amount of work — none. And you risk entangling things that you’ll have to detangle later. Build for the long term for the start by setting up best-in-class accounts across the board, and separately.
- PositiveSSL ($1.99/year) – Skip it
You’ll need an SSL certificate if you plan to accept payments or collect other sensitive information on your website, but not this one. The PositiveSSL Namecheap is upselling here is just a Domain Verification. I recommend getting your SSL from your web host instead.
- EasyWP ($1/month) – Skip it
You’re here to buy your domain name and only your domain name. If you want managed WordPress hosting, I recommend using a top web host, focused on hosting and only hosting. (It’s impossible to overstate this.) SiteGround and Dreamhost both have some good managed WordPress built into their shared hosting plans.
Namecheap’s $0.18 Fee
That $0.18 ICANN fee is a mandatory charge from the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, for each domain registration, renewal, or transfer. It’s negligible, although noticeable, especially considering other registrars, including NameSilo, absorb it.
Free Domain Privacy
Namecheap provides a WhoisGuard subscription for free forever. You definitely want WhoisGuard. It’s a privacy protection that prevents your personal contact information from being displayed in the publicly accessible Whois database. (If you don’t have protection, you get spam. So much spam. I skipped WhoisGuard once years ago and am still getting spam phone calls…) As long as your domain is with Namecheap, you’ll never pay for WhoisGuard. GoDaddy, on the other hand, charges $10/year and most web hosts that offer domain registration charge $12/year.
Note: Privacy is also free with NameSilo, Gandi, Google Domains, and Hover.
Once you’ve purchased your domain, the dashboard is clearly laid out.
I’ve found Namecheap’s knowledge base to be thorough and helpful. Great documentation is key: buying and setting up a domain isn’t part of most people’s expertise. It’s just not something you do every day. If you need more support, Namecheap has 24/7 live chat help and a 2-hour ticket response time.
- Outdated site and aesthetic
- Really cheap — cheaper than Namecheap
- Free privacy protection
- Bulk domain discount program
At first glance NameSilo is laughable, especially compared to its competition. Its aesthetic seems to be late 90s Power Point — although a new site is thankfully in beta testing. (I suspect this is in large part due to NameSilo being acquired in early 2018 by software company Brision Innovations.)
It’s almost impossible to believe that it’s the second fastest growing domain registrar in the world (based on November 2018 sales. Even more impressive, NameSilo’s CEO says this growth isn’t fueled by marketing dollars:
The fact that NameSilo is growing faster than nine of the top ten domain registrars in the world, most of which are public companies with at least a billion-dollar market capitalization and very large marketing budgets, is a testament to the team and the service we are providing our customers. This growth by NameSilo has been accomplished with a near zero marketing spend.NameSilo CEO Paul Andreola
NameSilo’s comically outdated site isn’t stalling growth.
What I appreciate about NameSilo
It’s a domain registrar and that’s it.
It’s really cheap (even cheaper than Namecheap), throws in domain privacy for free (though you’ll need to opt-in by selecting it in your cart), and offers a full-blown discount program for bulk domain purchases.
There are virtually no upsells and you can start configuring your domain in checkout — linking it to a third-party service (like a website builder) and entering custom NameServers.
Customer support is also comparable, with a rich knowledge base and 24/7 live chat.
So, if you don’t mind some (hopefully temporarily) outdated interfaces, NameSilo is a great option.
- A few dollars more expensive than Namecheap ($15 vs. $10–$12)
- Beautiful interface
- Free domain privacy, free SLL for one year, email hosting
- Good deals on multiple domain bundles
For over $15/year for the same domain we can get for $10–12/year from Namecheap, I want to see more from Gandi. It has a beautiful interface, and is well-regarded amongst developers, but there’s not much it offers that Namecheap or even Google Domains doesn’t: free domain privacy, free SSL for one year, email hosting. One standout is its domain bundles. You can score a deal if you want to buy multiple TLDs at once.
- Familiar and simple Google-style interface
- Literally zero upsells
- But, you’ll be sharing even more information with Google
I like the familiar and simple Google-style interface.
It’s clean and there are literally no upsells and absolutely zero flourish.
But: most web developers prefer not to share more information with Google than is absolutely necessary.
I feel the exact same way.
One huge downside with Google Domains: If you need help, you won’t be able to dig into a rich knowledge base.
However, there is chat, email, and phone support in English, 24 hours a day, and in French, Spanish, and Japanese with more limited hours.
In February 2019, Google hosted an early access program for user to pay extra to register a .dev domain through Google Domains through its early access program. As of February 28, 2019, these .dev domains are available without any additional fees — just the annual registration charge of about $12 to $15. Google has a filterable list of domain registrar partners.
- Fun automated name engine
- Limited upsells
- Privacy protection included
- Some stability issues
I appreciate Hover’s recommendation engine in principle, but I think that buying a domain name is an important enough decision that you shouldn’t be playing around with automated suggestions at the last minute.
If you’re still tinkering with your URL, you’re probably not ready to buy.
Step away from the registrars for a minute and work through the brainstorming steps in my post.
You’ll thank yourself for it.
That being said, I do like that there are limited upsells in Hover’s purchase flow, and privacy protection is included (like with Namecheap). Email forward isn’t free though; it’s $5/month.
My biggest worry with Hover ultimately is its backend. Browse through Hover’s outage history and you’ll find hours-long outages are frequent.
Domain registrars I don’t recommend
Avoid any registrar with a bad reputation or history of poor customer support and billing practices. That includes Spamhaus’ entire list of worst domain registrars, as well as GoDaddy and 1&1, based off of tips from users on Reddit. (GoDaddy is even suspected of throttling outbound transfers. Not great.)
Pro tips for buying a domain name
Keep your domain separate from your web hosting provider
A domain registrar should be just that: a domain registrar. While many web hosts and website builders offer domain registration as part of their services, typically as a step during the signup process, I strongly recommend keeping those services separate. (And I’m not the only one.)
Hosting your domain with a registrar and your website on a web host gives you a lot more flexibility and control should you ever decide to switch web hosting providers. It also makes managing multiple domains a lot less of a headache, and provides an additional layer of security should one service be compromised — if someone hacks your web host, they won’t be able to touch your domain, and vice versa.
It’s not a terrible thing to bundle your domain and hosting, especially if you’re only working on one website. It’s convenient, and web hosts and websites builders often promote a free domain as part of their hosting package, which can be tempting. Just know those offers usually only last for the first year, and web hosts will almost always have a higher domain renewal fee than a good domain registrar. So, you’ll save in the first year to spend more in the second, third, fourth, and so on for the life of your business. And, if you ever want to move to a different web host, there’s a chance it’s going to be a major hassle. Make sure you read the fine print of your web host’s domain policy to make sure they’ll allow you to transfer it, should the need arise.
Always opt in to domain privacy
Most domain registrars include it for free; those who don’t charge about $12/year. Buy it. It’s what keeps your personal information (including your name, phone number, email address, and mailing address) from being listed in the Whois public database — and therefore out of the hands of spammers. This may not be the case forever. Since the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) went into effect in May 2018, some registrars are not publishing their customer’s information to avoid liability, and many people suspect the entire Whois protocol will be overhauled in the near future. But, for now, buying privacy protection is still my recommendation.
Beware of price jumps
Domain registrars like to play around with promotional pricing — maybe you get the first year for a lower price, then it renews for its “regular” or “renewal” price. Anyone who has bought cable is familiar with this pricing structure. Buying a domain up front for long period of time (ICANN caps it at 10 years) will lock you into that renewal price, which comes in handy if you know you want that domain and can afford it. Domain registries can alter prices at their whim, like when Uniregistry jacked up the price on a handful of TLDs in early 2017. In one day, .hosting domains went from $20 to $300 and .blackfriday increased from about $10 to $100.
What is ICANN?
ICANN is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. It’s a non-profit that’s responsible for coordinating the unique, specific names and numbers that identify your online presence — also known as domains and IP addresses. ICANN doesn’t own or operate domains and IP addresses; rather, it coordinates with domain registries and domain registrars, and acts as a central repository for IP addresses, to implement universal operating procedures that keep the internet running. It’s not unlike how cities manage naming streets and assigning home addresses: the city doesn’t own your house, but someone has to keep track of what it’s called. ICANN also requires domain registrars to provide accurate contact information for the owner of each domain, and to make that information publicly available through Whois.
Remember to turn on automatic renewal
In a lot of businesses, auto-renewal is sneaky — a way to charge you for something you never use and forgot you bought in the first place. But when it comes to domain names, I absolutely recommend it. If there’s anything you know your business will always need is its website. Forgetting to re-up means your site will go down, which happened to automated marketing powerhouse Marketo in 2017. Even worse, if you have a covetable domain name, it might get scooped up. That’s what happened to Google.com back in 2016.
Prioritize your URL over your registrar
For the most part, if a name is available, you will probably be able to purchase it through any of the best domain registrars. But some accredited registrars only offer limited top-level domains (TLD). (A TLD is the stuff that comes after the dot.) This is especially common in smaller registrars, or providers that offer domain registration as a secondary service, like a web host. (For example, InMotion Hosting, one of our favorite web hosts, can only register .com, .net, .org, .biz, .us, and .info domains.)
That’s because a registrar is different than a registry. Registries are who actually hold the TLD and their associated names — for example, VeriSign controls all .com and .net domains while PIR controls all .org and .ngo domains. Registrars manage the reservations of the names provided by the registries, and have to act in accordance with each one they are involved with. Not all registrars work with all registries, which is why some only have access to specific TLDs.
What matters here is that you get the URL you want — if it’s not available at the first place you check, look around. You may also be able to buy it with the help of a broker.
Don’t make a big deal of tiny price differences
Registrars are middlemen between you, the customer, and domain registries, who hold all the domains. It’s similar to how department stores are the middlemen between shoppers and clothing manufacturers. The registries set their prices — the equivalent of wholesale prices — and registrars add their fees on top. That’s how they make money. A registrar selling a domain for more money than its competitor is just making more money off the sale of the same product. (Some registrars are making headlines for registering domains “at cost,” including Cloudflare, the content delivery network provider.) If you are price-comparison shopping, take into account the renewal fee, the price of privacy protection, and the cost of your time should you need to wait on hold longer for worse customer service.
Recap of the best domain registrars
You should buy your domain name from a registrar (not a web host) and you should not buy anything else from your domain registrar. You’re here for one thing and one thing only.
There are a number of registrar-only options. I recommend Namecheap. It has good prices and is the easiest to use. It’s what I use. There are a few upsells during the purchase flow, but you can skip them, since the only one you really need is included for free: privacy protection.
- Last updated March 19, 2019 — Added bullets to sum up the features of the top domain registrars and answered some frequently asked questions.
- First published December 4, 2018