Pointing a domain name to a hosting provider and transferring it to another registrar are two important operations with different goals and outcomes.
Both involve changing the configuration of the domain name, but one affects the visitors, and the other affects the owner. Understanding the differences between these two cases is crucial to managing a website, so you should take the time to learn them carefully.
Pointing a domain name to new DNS servers simply tells visitors’ web browsers where on the web to look for the website associated with that name. Transferring the domain name changes the registrar that’s responsible for the domain name.
You can point a domain name to new DNS (which stands for “Domain Name System”) servers without transferring it, and you can transfer a domain name to a new registrar without changing the its DNS records.
In this guide, we will go through the differences between pointing a domain name and transferring it, and when you should do one versus the other.
This guide will also go into the pros and cons of changing your domain name’s DNS records and changing its registrar to help you decide which process you should undertake.
What It Means to Point a Domain Name Somewhere
Websites are hosted on servers, which can be accessed via IP addresses.
The problem with IP addresses is that they’re hard for visitors to remember. Imagine having to type in 192.168. 1.1 to access Google or Facebook!
To solve this, the pioneers of the World Wide Web as we know it today invented domain names many, many years ago. A domain name is basically a shortcut to a server’s IP address that lets you access a website from a user-friendly URL.
To point a domain name is to connect it to the server where the website is hosted.
You do this by editing the domain name’s DNS records.
The Domain Name System (DNS) is a global book of record for the servers that domain names point to.
When you type a domain name into your browser’s address bar, the DNS records tell your browser where exactly on the Internet to go for that website’s contents to. It’s like a big index of shortcuts for the web.
When you change the DNS records of a domain name that you own, you change the location on the Internet that it points to. It’s a simple change that can be done in a couple of minutes, although it can take as long as 24-48 hours for the changes to propagate on the entire web.
DNS record updates are usually done via your domain registrar’s control panel (for add-on domains on cPanel hosting accounts, it’s done via cPanel’s DNS Zone Editor).
Once you’ve logged in to your registrar’s control panel, you should be able to point your domain name to the server where your website is hosted. Most registrars will even provide straightforward instructions on how to do so.
What It Means to Transfer a Domain Name
Whereas pointing the domain name to a new destination will affect what your website’s visitors see, transferring the domain name from one registrar to another will not affect them it all.
Domain transfers are an activity that affects you, the domain name’s owner, and the registrar, the organization that you registered and renew the domain name with.
Transferring a domain name is the process of changing the registrar that’s responsible for it. When you transfer a domain name, you’re changing who you manage and renew the domain name with.
For example, if you purchased a domain name from GoDaddy but then created a website on Squarespace, you can either keep your domain name with GoDaddy (and point it to your Squarespace website) or just transfer it to Squarespace.
Once you complete the transfer, the domain name will no longer be available in your GoDaddy account. Instead, you will manage and renew it through Squarespace.
When to Point, When to Transfer
Now that you understand the basics of connecting and transferring domain names, it’s time to talk about when to point a domain name to new DNS servers—and when to transfer it to a new registrar.
Update DNS Records When…
It only makes sense to point your domain name to a new destination if you change the web host or website builder you use.
For example, if you started your site on WordPress.com—and now you want to move it to Namecheap—you need to update the DNS records to point the domain name to Namecheap’s servers.
Transfer to Another Registrar When…
Transfer your domain name to a new registrar if you’re unhappy with your current one or you want to consolidate all your domains in a single place.
For example, if you bought many domain names from different registrars over the years, it may become too tedious to keep track of them and renew them. You can make things simpler for you (and your bookkeeper) by picking one registrar and transferring all the domain names to them.
Can You Do Both?
Suppose you bought a domain name from someone you know or from an aged domain marketplace.
You want to point it to your hosting account and start building the website for that domain name as soon as possible, but domain name transfers take 5 to 7 days.
Technically, you could ask the current owner of the domain name to update its DNS records before they unlock it for transfer and send you the domain name transfer code. The records update in 24 to 48 hours, allowing you to get to work almost immediately instead of having to wait for a week.
Updating a domain name’s DNS records and transferring it to another registrar are both vital parts of managing a website.
They both involve configuration changes, and yet they result in completely different results. To change the registrar, transfer your domain. To change the web host, update the domain name’s DNS records.