How to transfer your domain name between hosts

GoDaddy has raised the ire of the Internet—again. The Web domain registry firm received withering criticism for supporting the Stop Online Piracy Act, then backtracked and pulled its support. The company’s sexually suggestive commercials haven’t helped, nor has the widely reported recreational elephant hunting of its CEO. The company has also been accused before of delaying Whois updates in violation of ICANN policies.

Users who are uncomfortable with patronizing GoDaddy, or simply have been sitting on a domain elsewhere that they want to move, have a lot of legwork ahead of them—it can be an involved process. We sat down and documented all the stops you have to take on the path to transfer.

Defining domain terms

Before we start, let’s define what you own and where it lives. A domain name is a human-readable Internet address that’s uniquely registered to an individual or organization, like macworld.com. (The part separated by dots to the left of the domain name is called a subdomain, like www.macworld.com.)

A domain name is used in the Domain Name System (DNS) to link the text address to server information, such as an Internet protocol or IP address, the location of the mail server that receives messages for a domain or subdomain, or more obscure elements like a cryptographic signature that can confirm the rightful owner of a domain. A record might look like:

www IN A 70.42.185.230
macworld.com. IN MX 1 macworld.com.s6a1.psmtp.com.

The first line translates to “the Internet (IN) address (A) for the www subdomain for this domain name is 70.42.185.230.” The second line means, “the first Internet (IN) mail exchanger or server (MX) to try to deliver to for the full domain name macworld.com (indicated by that final period that it’s the full domain) is macworld.com.s6a1.psmtp.com.” (Multiple mail servers are often set to avoid losing mail if one crashes or is under heavy load.) Some DNS hosts require that you enter information in this highly technical form, while others provide friendly popup menus and wizards to guide you through entry.

DNS address (A) records—shown here in the easyDNS console—match the whole domain (the blank entry) or subdomains with IP addresses.

Domains are both registered and hosted. Registration involves working with a domain name registrar—like GoDaddy, easyDNS, DynaDot, Network Solutions, or thousands of others. The registrar acts as a middleman to let you request a domain name, and interacts with a central registry for a given top-level domain (TLD), whether that’s .com, .org, .uk, .aero, or one of many others. This ensures the same name isn’t registered twice. A recurring yearly fee covers initial and then continued registration. (A tiny part of that fee, 18 cents, goes to ICANN, the international body that manages domains, while a few dollars goes to the TLD’s central authority. Any markup above that is kept by the domain name registrar.)

That central registry keeps track of your ownership details, broken out into ownership, administrative, technical, and billing contacts with associated mailing and email addresses. Those email addresses are critical, as we’ll discuss below. Some registrars can act as proxies for you at extra cost, providing their own registration information on your behalf so that you don’t have to expose your phone number or email address to the Internet at large.

Once a domain is registered, it must be hosted at two or more DNS nameservers that respond to requests for DNS records (this can be changed later). Registration points to DNS hosts, which contain records for the main domain and its subdomains. When a computer or other device anywhere in the world wants to obtain a DNS record, like the IP address for a website, the requester queries the TLD operator, which points to the server that has the answer for that domain. (This is somewhat simplified, for those of you aching to provide additional details in the comments.)

Every domain has to have two or more nameservers attached to it in its registration. Here, the .NU registrar lists the DNS servers at DNS Made Easy that I set for the domain isbn.nu. (The IP address for each DNS server must be set when it is added, but some DNS registrars don’t show those numbers when displaying the current list of assigned nameservers.)

Much of the time, the domain is first registered and then hosted at the same firm. This is not a requirement. Anyone may operate a DNS server, as software to do so is both freely and commercially available; custom DNS servers in turn point to the separate hosting servers. Most large companies run their own servers. More typically, though, the domain registrar and the DNS host are one and the same. The registrar/host often charges a single yearly fee that includes both functions in a single bundle. We explain in this article how to transfer both registration and hosting to a new firm.

Finally, it’s absolutely imperative you understand that an email host, a Web host, and a Web server have no direct connection with DNS at all. Just as DNS registration via a registrar may be separate from DNS hosting, one may also locate a website anywhere on the Internet, and simply adjust DNS values so that a given domain name or subdomain is associated with the server’s IP address.

Here’s an easy way to picture this, if you can remember what a printed phonebook looks like. Through life, unless you legally change your name, your moniker is fixed. I’m Glenn Fleishman, now and forever. If someone pulls down a phone book and wants to look up my phone number (like an IP address) or my street address (like email), they find me by that name. If I move or change my phone number, the next phone book will have the update. The same is true with DNS (the white pages) and a website or email server; the change happens in a matter of minutes to days, instead of the phone book's up to a full year, depending on what changes you’re making.

Some people register a domain with one firm, host DNS with another, locate mail at yet another, and put their website yet somewhere else. These are all independent of one another, but may all be handled at a single firm, like GoDaddy, Pair Networks, or 1and1.

Preparing to transfer

Because you could be dealing with as many as four different firms for domain registration, domain hosting, email hosting, and Web hosting, you should first make sure you know which function is handled where.

For instance, I have a domain in the .nu hierarchy, which belongs to the Island of Niue, a South Pacific nation-state. (It's a long story.) My registration is with the firm that handles domain issues for the country. But that firm doesn’t require I host DNS with it. My domain name is hosted instead at DNS Made Easy, which handles the DNS records for many TLDs. (Some domain hosts only handle major hierarchies, like .com and .net.) My email is delivered to Fastmail.fm, a firm purchased by Opera Software a few years ago, and I host websites on my own virtual private servers at Linode. (On a day-to-day basis, this is absolutely uncomplicated.)

My scenario is ridiculously easy in terms of making changes. If I want to change my DNS hosting, all I have to do is find another firm that will handle a .nu domain, sign up with them, and move my existing DNS values (a couple dozen separate entries in my case) to that new firm. At the .nu central authority, I update the domain record to point to my new DNS host’s servers. My registrar, email host, and Web host stay the same.

One increasingly common scenario involves customers using traditional Web hosts (like Dreamhost), but turning to the Google Apps service for handling email.

If you don’t know how or whether your registration, email, and Web hosting functions are split, and you (or someone who helped set up your site or domain) never explicitly set them up at separate services, you are almost certain to be all in one place. The following advice is for you. If your DNS host and other services are separate, you can skip to “Transferring a Domain Name.”

Make a note at this stage, even printing out a listing, of all the DNS records that you have set for the current domain. Every host is different, so read your provider’s online help, or email or call customer support, to find out how to make note of your DNS records. You’ll need this information to set up DNS hosting at your new provider. (If you’re handling all your functions at one host and moving to a new one, you may not need to transfer or remember any values at all, however. The new host will provide all the values for the new DNS, email, and Web hosting.)

If you’re moving email or a website along with domain hosting, it is absolutely critical that you have your new hosting service completely set up at the new location before you initiate the DNS host move. This will reduce or eliminate any interruption in receiving email or handling visitors at your site. (For some relatively short period, you maintain your website and email with two different providers; after you make the DNS move, some Internet users may reach you through the old provider, and some through the new during that transition time.)

DNS values are cached by any computer or server that looks up a domain from a period of hours to days. The moment you change a DNS record, you’re in flux as some machines rely on the old, cached information, while others immediately start using the new data.

Moving email: Recreate all of the accounts at the new host that you have at the existing one; you may have just a single account, of course, but many people have multiple incoming mail addresses that deposit mail into a single inbox of one account. Every host is different, so be sure to give yourself plenty of time if you’re moving many accounts to check that you can have all the features you need, which might include vacation replies, forwarding, and a sufficient storage quota for email.

Some hosts have you set your email client to log in not to their main domain name as a mailserver (like “mail.mailhostingcompany.com”), but instead require that you use your domain name as the mail host name. In that case, you cannot set up your client ahead of time, because the DNS values still point to your current hosting firm. Most mail hosts do, however, provide a Webmail interface at which you can read email without using your domain name to access it.

Once you change DNS records for your mail server, you may be unable to reach your old mail host to retrieve email that comes during the transition period as DNS values age out of caches. I recommend that on your old mail host, you set up forwarding or sending a copy of incoming messages to an email address other than one at the domain you’re moving, such as a temporary Gmail or other email account. If you can’t forward or copy, you may instead be able to still use Webmail on your old host after the DNS records have changed to gather up lingering mail.

Moving a website: It’s typically much easier to move a website to a new location. If you have scripts or other programs that need to run or special configurations, make sure your new host can handle those, and that you give yourself sufficient time to test. For sites with only static pages, JavaScript (which runs on the browser, not the server), images, or movies, you should have no problems at all.

I recommend setting up a temporary subdomain at which you can test the new site. After setting up an account and getting the correct IP address values at your new host, set up a “test.yourdomain.com” or “migrate.yourdomain.com” address at your current DNS host with those values. You can then test at the new location without breaking the current site.

Website switchovers are far easier than mail server changes, as a visitor either gets the old site or the new site, but you don’t lose that visitor in between. If you’re worried about logging, any Web-tracking service that uses JavaScript, like Google Analytics, will pick up both the old and new site’s traffic since the user’s browser actually sends the traffic data, not your server.

Before moving the domain name registration and hosting: Because you control both your domain registration and DNS records at your old host, I recommend making changes before you transfer, if at all possible. Once your new account is set up, you can change the DNS servers listed in your registration even before you swap registrars. That lets you switch over to new DNS, email, and Web hosting before the registration transfer happens. You could instead leave your DNS servers alone, and change your email and Web host records at your old DNS host before making the switch. Either way, making that change ahead of changing your registrar and DNS host lets you ensure that everything works in the new location.

Now you’re ready to make the switch for your registration and hosting.

Transferring a domain name’s registration

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