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What to do if your web designer registers your domain in their name

Over at Pint Sized Sites, I insist that all of my clients take care of their web hosting and domain names. In fact, I refuse to register this for them. Oh, I could make extra money doing the web hosting, but I don’t believe it’s in my customers’ best interest.

Your domain name is a business asset

It has value. It is as much a part of your business as the name, the logo, and the client list. You should always be in control of your domain name. Never let anyone else register it for you. If you ever decide to sell the business, the domain name is a part of the assets included with the business.

Unfortunately, too many small businesses don’t understand how important this is. They are intimidated or tech averse and would rather let their web designer handle it. Next thing you know, the web designer has closed the business, retired, moved to Costa Rica, or just decided to never return your phone calls. In the last several years, I have gotten several clients who have found themselves in this situation.

What can they do?

A Quick & Painless Primer™ on domain names

What is a domain name?

Good question, my young jedi. The domain name is all that stuff after www. The domain name of Massage Therapy World is MassageTherapyWorld.com

Yes, the .com is a part of the domain. You might see some that are .edu (these are schools and universities), .gov (these are government agencies), .ca (these are Canadian), .uk (these are in the United Kingdom), and so forth. The ideal domain name is YourBusinessName.com

Do I buy a domain name?

Another great question. No, you LEASE a domain name. A lot of people forget that and then the lease expires and they no longer have the domain name anymore. Not cool. Put a reminder on your calendar to make sure you renew.

If I lease the domain name, who do I lease it from?

You are probably using a Registrar and they register the domain name with ICANN. Confused? Let’s use an analogy:

Domain Name = Apartment

Registrar = Apartment Manager

ICANN = Apartment Building Owner

You will likely never deal with ICANN. ICANN stands for: Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. Remember this, there will be a quiz later.*

Whois ICANN?

ICANN is in control of domain names and has a big database of all the registered domain names. They are very careful about not letting just anyone call them up and asking them to change the lease holder on the domain name. If they weren’t, I would have already contacted them and gotten possession of google.com, microsoft.com, yahoo.com, and whitehouse.gov. That wouldn’t be cool for those companies, would it?

That’s why it’s difficult, on purpose, for you to get your domain name back from your web designer without their help.

How do you transfer the domain name from your designer to you?

Step 1 – Contact your designer and ask them for their help. Ideally, they will submit the transfer request and, in a few business days, the domain name will be all yours. Dont’ wait for the transfer to go through. Right after you talk to your designer, go to Step 2

Step 2 – Open up an account at NameCheap.com or GoDaddy.com. Personally, I use NameCheap but most of you have heard of GoDaddy. The pricing is almost identical. These companies are both Registrars. They both have instructions and help lines if you need help setting up the account in anticipation of getting the domain name transferred.

Step 3 – Once you have the domain name, you’ll need to get web hosting. I have my preferences here, too. LunarPages, HostGator and BlueHost are all affordable and good quality. **

Ideally, that should do it.

What if your web designer disappears, dies, or refuses to transfer the domain name?

I’ve had clients live through all 3 of these scenarios. It happens. Unfortunately, resolving this is neither easy or simple. Given that ICANN is the internet equivalent of the Illuminati, it’s not like you can just pick up the phone and talk to someone. Your best bet is to start with the registrar your designer is using.


Since most people use them, I called GoDaddy to ask what steps a person would have to take to get them to transfer the domain without the designer’s help. A Wonderful Dude named David*** spent several minutes on the phone with me even though I don’t have an account with them. (In my defense, I have a lot of customers who have accounts, so it’s not like I’m just soaking up their time for nought.)

Here is what David said: You can file a Request for Change of Account. You will have to be able to prove that you should be the rightful owner of the domain name. He recommended that you include ALL the supporting documentation you can think of. This would include:

  • Proof of business/tradename registration in your state, city, etc. All of it.
  • Receipts proving that you paid for the web design and paid for the domain name.
  • Any contracts supporting that the domain name is for you.
  • Any correspondence that might show that the designer was registering the domain on your behalf

GoDaddy will review your form. He estimated that it would take about 5-10 business days for them to approve or deny the request. That’s not really all that long, but it will go faster if you submit all your supporting documentation with the request.

If you’re not with GoDaddy, just call that registrar and talk to their nice support people. I can’t promise you’ll get A Wonderful Dude named David, but they should be pretty helpful.

What if you don’t know the registrar?

Well, now you have to go to ICANN. Like I said, there’s no phone number to call, but there is an online form you can submit. I’m sure it will take longer than 5-10 business days, but there isn’t any real data from them on how long it will take.

This is all so confusing! I can’t handle this!

That’s cool. Just contact me. I’m for hire. I’m also just here to answer the occasional question for free.

So while it’s not easy or simple to transfer the domain name, it is possible. I’ve seen it done. It takes time, patience, paperwork, and sometimes an attorney, but it can be done.

Have I answered your questions? Is there more you can think of? Hit the comment box below and I’ll do my best to find you a good answer.


* No there won’t be a quiz. Do you think I have time for quizes?

** You can always contact me for information on hosting stuff. Or hire me. Really, I’m not above asking for your business here.

*** For all of my public grousing about GoDaddy, one thing I will always compliment them on is their tech support. I’ve spent many, many hours on the phone with their support people and they are unfailingly polite, helpful, and sometimes really sweet.

7 Responses to What to do if your web designer registers your domain in their name

      • If I manage to get the domain name transferred, can I still get hosting from my web designer or will I need to go through another company? (Just wondering, because I prepaid for 2 years worth of hosting)

        • You could still get hosting from your web designer, but there is a decent chance that they are charging you more if than if you were to handle it yourself. There are a number of places that you can find easy to use hosting including HostGator, GoDaddy, etc.

          Also, you shouldn’t have to pay her to transfer the domain to you. There are plenty of instructions online to do it yourself.

  1. Thank you for posting this–I have always controlled my own domain name, but the nonprofit for which I volunteer has not, and we’ve gone through some of the problems you list out here.

    Even though I graduated from my massage training program in 2006, our business classes focused on advertising in traditional print media. Websites are necessary but intimidating, and it’s often necessary to contract them out (I maintain mine, but that’s a totally optional behavior). It’s nice to see you offering guidance about what to expect from a provider!

    • Emily – I’ve noticed that a lot of the business classes offered at the schools still emphasize print media rather than online media. They seem to be slow catching up to the reality of online marketing. I spend one entire class talking about online marketing – websites, blogs, and social media – because that’s where people are looking for us. I dropped my yellow page listing years ago since it was costing me much more than I had ever made on it.

      I’ve seen so many people end up with having to drag their lawyer into getting their domain name and hosting back from a former web designer and it just breaks my heart. They took their website designer’s advice and handed over control of that to someone whose only interest in their little business is to maximize revenues. I would argue that it’s unethical for a web designer to provide hosting and domain registry, but they are taught that it’s a nice income stream, so they continue to do it.

      Buyer beware! I’ll keep posting stuff like this as I come across it. If you have suggestions for new posts, I’m always open.

"Dream large, laddie!" - Local Hero, 1983