Ownership (or more precisely, control) of domain names is granted for a limited period of time, subject to the appropriate registration or renewal fees being paid. Once the owner of a domain name declines to pay the renewal fee to maintain their registration, that domain name will expire – that is, it will eventually be deleted and returned to the “pool” of unregistered names.
A domain name that is approaching its renewal date is said to be “expiring soon” and a domain name that has passed its renewal date (also known as its “expiry date” – it’s just a matter of perspective!) without the renewal fee being paid is said to have “expired”.
Once a domain name has expired and been deleted, it is available to be re-registered by anyone. It is at the exact moment of deletion that the real battle begins for the control of the newly-available names – a battle that can only have one winner.
The domain expiration cycle
The domain expiration cycle (the process in which the domain name expires, and then is made available for re-registration) differs significantly from registrar to registrar, so we will content ourselves with a detailed overview of the expiry/deletion process.
Once a domain name has passed its expiry date, a number of things happen. Firstly, the domain name is typically put on hold – that is, its name server information is deleted or modified so that the domain name no longer points to the website it is associated with. Secondly, the domain name is put in the registrar’s deletion queue for processing according to its procedures for handling expiring domains (as mentioned previously, these vary significantly from registrar to registrar
Some registrars give customers very little leeway, choosing to delete domain names within ten days of the expiry date. Others hold on to names for longer periods, typically 30 or 45 days. Still others don’t release domain names back into the pool at fixed intervals, but in large batches at irregular intervals.
To understand this process further, let’s look at the typical paths a domain name can take during its “life-cycle”:
1) A domain name is registered for a fixed period of 1-10 years
2) As the expiry/renewal date approaches, the owner of the domain name is sent one or more reminders that they must pay the domain name renewal fee
3) If the domain name owner renews the name, then the domain name returns to its status in Stage 1)
4) At the renewal date, since the domain name has not been paid for and the registration has run out, the domain name is put on hold. The domain’s nameserver information is deleted or modified to point to the registrar’s homepage or to a page explaining that the domain name in question has expired.
Another effect of the “hold” being placed upon a domain name is that the domain name is no longer transferable to another registrar (for example, one with a lower renewal fee!)
5) Most registrars have a “grace period” (sometimes detailed explicitly on their site or by email, oftentimes applied without comment) after domain names have expired.
During that grace period, the original owner of the domain name can pay to renew their domain name (and hence remove it from “on hold” status and reactivate it). Some registrars may impose an additional administrative “penalty fee” to renew domain names during their grace period. If the domain name owner renews the name during the grace period, then the name returns to Stage 1)
6) At the end of the grace period, the existing owner can no longer renew their domain name and has lost all control over it. What happens next depends on the registrar…
Some registrars will delete the name immediately following the end of the grace period. Some will hold it for a certain additional time-period before releasing it. And some will change the ownership information on the domain name so that it becomes registered to the “Unpaid Names Department” or similar, and continue to hold the name for an extended period of time before it is finally deleted..
Once a domain name has reached Stage 6), it is about to return to the domain market i.e. it will once more become available for registration. If the domain name is considered valuable, there may be many interested parties lining up to try and grab it i.e. to attempt to secure it as it is deleted.