SnapNames is a web domain name marketplace - meaning that they only deal specifically with domains that are currently owned by somebody else. They offer daily and premium auctions, private brokerage of domains, and buy-it-now listings for buying and selling domain names, including over 30 million domain names that aren't all, as you'll find on some services, exorbitant. They have over three million customers, including a significant number of small businesses, which is worth it.
There are organizations that are called registries that manage each TLD option. When you register domain names, you would first visit a domain registrar who would in turn check with the registry that manages that TLD to see if the domain is available. If the domain for the TLD you want discovers that it is in fact available, the registry adds it to their registry and gives you access to it. If the domain has already been registered by another user for that TLD, you will be shown during the domain registration process that the domain isn't available.
Domain names disappear extremely fast. Many people claim that all the good domain names are gone. I doubt that — but it is probably true that most good domain names that are descriptive of products and services have been taken. If you want a domain name for your site, I suggest you act now, or face the anguish of having lost that name later. After all, US$10 (more or less) for a year's ownership of the name is rather cheap when you realise that you're securing a good name for your website.
Domain names used in works of fiction have often been registered in the DNS, either by their creators or by cybersquatters attempting to profit from it. This phenomenon prompted NBC to purchase the domain name Hornymanatee.com after talk-show host Conan O'Brien spoke the name while ad-libbing on his show. O'Brien subsequently created a website based on the concept and used it as a running gag on the show.
What is a domain? Despite this word being mentioned so frequently, it’s often unclear what the functions and structures of domains are. Knowing the hierarchical structure of the Domain Name System (DNS) is fundamental for anyone working in IT or in any online industry. We explain the difference between top-level, second-level, and third-level domains, and how you can benefit from subdomains that...
My personal preference is to register the name directly with a domain name registrar rather than through my web host. I've heard stories, in the past, of less-than-reputable web hosts that registered the domain under their own name, making them the owner of the domain rather than you (although I don't know if such web hosts still exist today). Registering direct with a domain name registrar allows me to make sure that I am registered as the owner, the administrative and technical contacts. Being the owner is vital — if someone else places himself as the owner (such as your web host), he can always decide to charge you some exorbitant fee for the use of the name later, and there is little you can do. The various other contacts are less vital, but may still play important roles, depending on your registrar. For example, for some registrars, the administrative contact's approval is required before a domain name is transferred out of a web host (or at least, it used to be). If he/she cannot be contacted, the technical contact is used.
Next, someone has to tell the rest of the Internet that google.com points to 126.96.36.199. This is done by a “registry”, which is also the wholeseller that provides domains to registrars. Each top-level domain (TLD) — .com, .net., .org etc — has a registry that manages it. The .com TLD has been managed by the same registry since the beginning of time — an extremely profitable monopoly called Verisign. More on that later.
Keep in mind, however, that free domain names are usually free only for one or two years, after which the registrar will bill you for the annual or biennial fee. In other words, the provider of the free domain name pays only for the first billing from the registrar. Also take note of whether or not the provider charges a fee for setting up a domain name. Most services offer to transfer an existing domain name to their servers at no cost, but sometimes you'll find a setup fee over and above the registrar's fee.
Sedo is where I bought my domain - over Escrow - and is a global marketplace to buy, sell, and park domain names. They've over 18 million domain names for sale, but the big part is that they're a huge, well-respected company. This may not be important if you're spending $150 on a domain, but in a $15,000+ purchase - which happens in many cases - you will be potentially buying from a foreign entity, that you don't know, and many of them will suggest an escrow payment. This means you put the money in an account owned by a third party that will hold it and only pass it on once the domain has been transferred over into their name (which in this case is what Sedo does). This can be quite disconcerting - but Sedo is well-known and has done many, many deals - and the process is about as full of hand-holding as handing tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for a domain name can be.
Registrars offer a wide variety of registration durations—one year, three, five, and even ten. Be careful about registering for more than a year, though. First, there might be restrictions on your ability to transfer the domain name should the registrar give poor service. Second, the registrar could go out of business, leaving your domain name without a host. Check the policies closely.