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How to transfer your domain name between hosts

GoDaddy has raised the ire of the Internet--again. The Web domain registry firm is one of many publishers, studios, and other copyright holders who signed on in support of the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA), according to a list published by Gizmodo.

SOPA would let the Justice Department obtain court orders requiring Internet service providers to filter out specific domain names and require search engines to block websites that are accused of infringing copyright. It's been a source of heated debate lately, with security, privacy, and technology experts arguing that the law would cripple the Internet; copyright holders believe that the bill authorizes new and superior ways to suppress sites that are alleged to spread pirated works. The bill has stalled for the moment, as significant public, think-tank, and corporate opposition emerged late in the process.

So why is GoDaddy taking so much flak for its SOPA support? Because the firm has done a lot of business as an inexpensive source for domain registration and Web hosting. (An incident earlier this year, in which GoDaddy's president posted a video of himself killing an elephant in Africa, probably hasn't helped the company's public image either.)

As this article was being prepared for publication, The Verge reported that GoDaddy was withdrawing its SOPA support in the face of public criticism. "Fighting online piracy is of the utmost importance, which is why Go Daddy has been working to help craft revisions to this legislation--but we can clearly do better," CEO Warren Adelman said in a statement released by GoDaddy. "It's very important that all Internet stakeholders work together on this. Getting it right is worth the wait. Go Daddy will support it when and if the Internet community supports it."

Users who are unmoved by that statement and still want to transfer domain name registration and hosting from 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.

Domains are both registered and hosted. Registration involves working with a domain name registrar--like GoDaddy, easyDNS, DynaDot, NetworkSolutions, 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.

One a domain is registered, it must be hosted at two or more DNS nameservers that respond to requests for DNS records. As part of registration, at least two servers hosting the DNS records must be noted (and 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.)

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 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 own 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

Switching the registrar for your domain name can be a hassle because of checks in the system against fraudulent domain transfers of ownership, which used to be a regular occurrence in the earlier days of the commercial Internet. The current system has two main protections: a domain name lock at your current registrar that prevents changes by any party, and an authorization code for transferring a domain name that is typically mailed to the administrative address in a domain name registration. Make sure that your registration record has a current email address for you; otherwise you add time and frustration to making the transfer.

You can't transfer a domain within 60 days of registering it. GoDaddy claims on its transfer support page that changing other details of your registration can also put a 60-day lock in effect, but that is not ICANN policy, and you may need to call GoDaddy--not email the company--to make it start the transfer. (Failing that, you can complain to ICANN.)

If you've opted for "private" registration with a domain host, that adds another step that you need to take care of first. Private registration, which has a murky but acceptable status in the domain world, puts your domain in a kind of escrow in which the DNS host registers the domain in its name, even though you own it. Those trying to pull information out of the public registration records can't get at your mailing address, phone number, or email.

You must turn off private registration and wait for the central registry for that TLD to update its records with your actual details before proceeding. The rest of the steps are the same.

Here's the sequence you need to follow at your current registrar:

  • Remove private registration if you have it (as noted above), and wait for confirmation that your domain name registration is now in your name and with a current email address.
  • Unlock the domain name, if it's locked, which is now standard policy at most registrars. You have to be logged in on your registrar's website to the account, and follow its instructions to unlock the domain. Unlocking happens immediately, unless something is broken, as this status is reported directly to the TLD's central authority.
  • Request an authorization code to make the transfer. That code is nearly always sent via email; some Web hosts display it on a special webpage instead. (For some TLDs, you may not need a code, but simply approve the transfer via a link sent via email. For others, the process of getting a code is somewhat involved.)

At your new registrar, you follow these steps:

  • Set up an account. (You likely have already done this if you read my advice earlier.)
  • Follow the prompts to transfer a domain, not register a new one. If you failed to unlock the domain or your current registrar didn't follow procedures, you won't be able to get beyond this step until that's done.
  • Choose domain services, if options are available, and pay for the domain. ICANN rules essentially require that domains are paid for in advance of the transfer.
  • Enter the authorization code you received in email when prompted.

Your new registrar will provide information about how long to wait for a response, and you may receive several emails from the old and new registrars about status.

Assuming that you are also hosting your domain at the new registrar, you should now be able to enter all the information you need to for your DNS records. If the new registrar is hosting DNS, email, and your website, the host may already have all the correct values in place for you, or offer a Web app assistant that sets these values. Check your account configuration page at the host, as well as their FAQ, wiki, or support site to get those details.

Master of your own domain

Switching your domain registration and hosting isn't a simple matter, even though it should be the equivalent of a change-of-address card at the post office. Instead, you must reach your hands deep down into the ancient guts of the Internet to effect what you want. With preparation, deliberation, and an attention to detail, you can swap your registrar without a hiccup.

Glenn Fleishman registered his first domain names in 1994, including ones that later went on to fame and fortune, like out.com, faucet.com, and film.com. He is a senior contributor at Macworld, and often writes about Internet plumbing. His latest book is Take Control of Your 802.11n AirPort Network, updated for Lion.

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