One of my visitors wrote to ask me, "what happens after the year for which I paid to own the domain name? Who would I be paying in order to have the right to keep the domain for a second year or more? If my site is successful, am I likely to find the registrar demanding an inflated price for me to keep that name?" This article attempts to clarify the issues pertaining to registering or "buying" a domain name.
The fee you pay the domain name registrar is an annual fee. In other words, you "own" the domain only as long as you keep paying the yearly fee for it. In this sense, the "ownership" of the name is not like the ownership of a physical object (eg, a car) that you buy, where once you pay for it you own it permanently. Instead, it's more like a rental fee where, as long as you pay the "rent", you can continue to point that domain name to your website.
The good news is that nowadays, because of heavy competition, domain name fees are very low. At the time I write this, prices at most registrars hover around $10 to $15 per annum. Actual prices vary from registrar to registrar, so if you really want an accurate number, please go to the registrar's own site to find out. A list of some well-known registrars can be found on the How to Register a Domain Name page.
You are under no obligation to keep paying for the domain name. That is, if you decide in the end that you want to close your website, simply don't renew your domain name. Normally, when your domain name is about to expire at the end of its registration period, domain name registrars will send you an email message to remind you that it's time to renew. If you don't want to keep the domain, just ignore the email and don't pay for the next year's fee. Their system will then automatically terminate your domain name at the end of that period, and that's that. When you type that domain into your browser after that date, you will no longer see your website.
Note: if you have originally asked your registrar to automatically renew your domain name, and now don't want it done, you will need to return to your registrar's website to disable the automatic renewal. Otherwise the registrar will go ahead and charge your credit card for the renewal fee when the domain is about to expire (since it won't know that you've decided to quit).
Should you decide to keep your domain name, and you did not set it to auto-renew, you will have to return to the same registrar you used before to pay the next year's fee.
This doesn't mean that you're stuck with a single registrar for life. You're free to change registrars if you like. However, don't wait till the last minute to change registrars, or you may run into problems. I can't remember the exact period, but I vaguely recall that there are rules that a domain name cannot be transferred a certain number of days (60?) after it is bought/transferred. I'm not sure if there are any rules that restrict it from being transferred close to its expiry date. Either check with your registrar, or just play safe and transfer it long before the expiry date.
(Before you ask, to transfer a domain, just go to the new registrar, pay the usual domain name fee, and initiate the transfer from there. The registrar will provide you with instructions on how to do it. The procedure differs from registrar to registrar, and changes from time to time.)
Please bear in mind, as you read my answer to this question, that I'm neither omniscient nor prescient. I don't know the internal workings of any registrar, and thus cannot predict their prices in the future. So take what I say here with a pinch of salt.
I doubt that any of the bigger domain name registrars, like those I mention on the How to Register a Domain page, bother to monitor your site for signs of success and thus adjust their prices to you specifically.
I've never dealt with small time registrars (and I don't even know who they are), so I've no idea if there are any that do such things.
In my experience with the registrars I've used before, their prices are the same for everyone. And it's automated so you're not dealing with a nefarious person sneakily adjusting prices on their website every time they sense that you're surfing at their site.
Having said that, it's true that prices change over time. When I first started my websites, my first domain name cost me $35 per annum. With the competition that exists in the domain name industry today, the prices have dropped tremendously. But they may still go up in the future. Or perhaps go down even further. I've absolutely no idea.
If you want to lock in the current price that your registrar is charging for the domain, you can always pay multiple years in advance. For example, if a particular registrar is currently charging $10 a year, you can always pay for (up to) 10 years in advance at $10 a year. That will give you the domain name for 10 years under the current price. (As far as I know, the maximum period you can pay for any domain is 10 years.)
Remember that you're not stuck with a particular registrar. If you really have the misfortune to use a registrar that targets you for a huge price increase, you don't have to swallow the bad treatment. Just transfer your domain name elsewhere.
And you needn't worry. If you still have, say, 5 years remaining on your domain name, when you transfer your domain name to another registrar, the 5 remaining years will be transferred as well, so you don't lose anything.
Although buying a domain name seems like a big deal to a beginner, it's actually only a starting-up issue, something that bothers you only when you're setting up a website for the first time.
Eventually, you'll find that it's one of the few things where you can fire and forget: that is, after you buy it and point it to your site, you don't have to attend to it any more nor even bother with it (except when paying for renewals). In fact, as time goes on, you'll find that the problem with domain names is that it's so easy to forget to renew it.
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