If you already have a web host, obtain from them the names of their primary and secondary nameservers. Don't worry if you don't understand what these things mean. Just save the information somewhere. The information can usually be obtained from their FAQs or other documentation on their site, usually under a category like "domain name" or "DNS" or "domain name transfer" and the like. If you can't find it, email them. You'll need the information to point your domain name to your website after you buy your domain. Having said that, if you don't have a web host yet, don't worry. Just read on.
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.
Note that you can also transfer your domain name from one registration service to another. You'll want to do this if you're not satisfied with your current domain hosting service, if you find a better deal when your current registration is coming due, or, most likely, if you've signed up with a web hosting service that will also transfer your name to its site. Expect to get the transfer for free, but if that isn't offered, search for another domain hosting service.

A domain name is, quite simply, the name of your website. The domain can be found in the URL and is used in order to locate the website of a specific person or organization. Each domain name or URL directs users to a specific IP address. Domains are easier to remember than a long and complicated IP address, which takes the form of a series of numbers. A domain can be divided up into three different elements: a subdomain, a domain name, and a top level domain (TLD). Take about.1and1.com as an example: the 'about' element is the subdomain, the '1and1' element is the domain name itself and the '.com' part of the URL is the top level domain. It is also possible to have multiple subdomain levels, info.about.1and1.com for example, which you can use to segment your website into separate categories. The length limit of a complete domain name is 255 characters. With 1&1, you can choose a domain name that best suits you or your business, or you can transfer an already existing domain over to 1&1. Next, customers can select a TLD from a wide variety of domain extensions on offer. When choosing a domain name, it is important to select something that properly reflects the ethos of your business in a concise and catchy way. A good domain should be memorable, brandable, and should have a suitable extension.
While looking at domains, you might come across the name "ICANN" -- the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. This organization accredits some registrars that agree to a set of operational standards, but ICANN accreditation isn't required to sell domains, nor is it necessarily a sign of a company with good customer service. In fact, ICANN plays no role in the sale of many top-level domains, including country-specific domains.

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If you do not have a web host, you can always allow the registrar to park your domain name at a temporary website specially set up for you. This way you can quickly secure your domain name before it's too late and still take your time to set up the other aspects of your site. As far as I can tell, most registrars (or probably all) automatically park your domain by default whether you ask them to or not, so if this is your situation, you probably don't have to do anything special to get it done. Some of those registrars also provide you with a free email address at your own domain name while it is parked at their site, like sales@example.com (where "example.com" is your domain).
Many registrars reserve the right to revoke your domain name for specific reasons, typically if you use the domain for illegal purposes or purposes deemed unacceptable (such as spamming). Many contracts contain a clause letting the registrar delete your domain name for no apparent reason. The implication, of course, is that the domain name is the registrar's, not yours.
The suffix identifies the name as belonging to a specific top-level domain (TLD). As of late 2016, when this article was written, there are numerous TLDs available for general purchase, including .com, .edu, .game, .green, .hiphop, .net, and .org. The most popular of these by far is .com, which is supposed to indicate commercial sites, but in reality has come to include almost everything.
Second-level (or lower-level, depending on the established parent hierarchy) domain names are often created based on the name of a company (e.g., bbc.co.uk), product or service (e.g. hotmail.com). Below these levels, the next domain name component has been used to designate a particular host server. Therefore, ftp.example.com might be an FTP server, www.example.com would be a World Wide Web server, and mail.example.com could be an email server, each intended to perform only the implied function. Modern technology allows multiple physical servers with either different (cf. load balancing) or even identical addresses (cf. anycast) to serve a single hostname or domain name, or multiple domain names to be served by a single computer. The latter is very popular in Web hosting service centers, where service providers host the websites of many organizations on just a few servers.
Is your domain name portable if you change service providers? I’m starting a non-profit and I want to hold the name, but eventually I will fire someone to do the website development and want them to be able to use the platform they think they can work most effectively in. If I were to register with GoDaddy for services and get a free domain name… do I lose it if I switch to another web-hosting provider?
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