Switching online hosting service can be a pain. We explain how to safely move your domain and website to a new provider
Many people like to set up a website with a personalised domain, such as www.computeractive.co.uk. While this isn’t in itself a difficult process, choosing a ‘host’ can be trickier.
The host is the company you pay to store your site on its server computers, so it’s permanently available on the web. Different hosting companies offer hosting packages to suit various needs but once you’ve settled on one and performed the necessary setup, there’s usually little else for you to worry about.
Hosting companies are like any other service provider, though. Prices go up, prices go down, and previously excellent customer support can plummet for any number of reasons.
However, just like when switching utility or mobile phone providers to get a better deal, changing from one hosting company to another may involve rather more than just cancelling one account and opening another. Even worse, overlook some small detail during the switch and your treasured domain name could be taken by someone else.
But that’s where we can help. In this article we’ll explain just what you need to do to switch between hosts, safely and without worry. We’ve also anonymously tested the customer service departments of a few of the best-known hosting companies - so read on to find out who should get your business.
The basics of web hosting
Setting up a website essentially requires two things – a domain name and a hosting package. The domain name is what’s typed after the ‘www.’ bit in a web browser when someone wants to visit and, while one isn’t strictly necessary for running a website (more on this later), it is a good way to stand out online.
A domain name isn’t much use by itself, since it’s just a memorable pointer to the server computer where the files that comprise a website are stored. For most people, that server belongs to a web-hosting company that provides storage space and the other technical gubbins that comprise a ‘hosting package’ in return for a fee.
The process of registering a domain means choosing a domain name that isn’t in use by someone else and paying for the exclusive right to use it on the internet. Domain-name registrations aren’t permanent and must be renewed periodically – typically every couple of years – for a fee. Failing to do this means the domain reverts to the pool of available names, so it can be registered by someone else.
Domain-name registrations are recorded by a domain-name registrar and various ones around the world each deal with various ‘top level’ domain types such as .com, .uk and so on. This barely matters because most people register a domain name with a hosting company when signing up for a hosting package.
The web-hosting company will then deal with the necessary domain registrar on your behalf (although many are now registrars themselves) and handle the administration required to link the domain name with the website that will soon reside on its servers.
Even if a domain name is registered with someone other than your web-hosting company, it can still point to a site on its servers, or be changed to point to any other web host.
A domain name can even point to a site at a free hosting company such as Wordpress or Tumblr, which is a simple way of setting up a site that has a more personal address than http://janesblog.tumblr.com, for example.
Thankfully, this domain-name rejigging isn’t complicated, which is just as well because it’s something that may be necessary when switching web-hosting companies.
There are many reasons you might fancy switching hosts, from saving money to garnering better customer support. These factors are beyond our scope here but, fortunately, domain and site transfers are much the same for all registrars and hosts, and any differences are typically cosmetic ones between online account-management tools.
Once you’ve chosen a company, the next thing to decide is what you’re going to move.
There’s little point moving a domain name from one registrar to another, since a registrar’s services are seldom required for anything more than registering the domain in the first place, making sure it points to the right website (usually a one-off setup) and paying the domain-renewal fee when the time comes.
Some registrars are cheaper than others, so moving to another can save money, though probably not much.
Similarly, if your domain registrar and web-hosting company are different, there’s little need to change registrars when moving hosts, although the domain will need to be updated with its new host’s Nameserver details (explained later).
However, as mentioned, if your new web host’s domain-renewal fees are lower than your current registrar’s, then it makes sense to transfer your domain to them, too; the same also applies when both domain and site hosting are with the same company.
All things being equal, though, it’s usually simpler to use the same company for both domain registration and hosting, which is what many people do. The process for transferring a domain and/or hosting are the same though, so we’ll explain all options below. To keep things simple, we’re just going to cover the .uk (which includes .co.uk) and .com top-level domains, but the steps are broadly similar for others.
Transferring a .uk domain name
Start by visiting the web page of the destination registrar or web-hosting company and select the option to transfer a domain – this is usually available from a ‘Domains’ menu on its home page.
We’re using 34SP as our new destination registrar in our example. The destination registrar will ask for the domain name to transfer and if the ‘Nameservers’ need to be updated (the information that links a particular domain name to a particular web-hosting company).
If site hosting for a domain isn’t also being moved, leave this option alone; if the domain isn’t currently used for a website, this option doesn’t matter either way. A Nameserver change is required only if web hosting is also being transferred to a new company, but the change is best done later. See the ‘Transferring web hosting’ section on the next page for more details.
34SP doesn’t charge for the incoming transfer of .uk domains, so all that remains is to register as a new customer (or sign in as an existing one). One more piece of information is required from the destination registrar, though: its ‘IPS tag’. This is a code that uniquely identifies a domain registrar and, if it isn’t provided by the destination registrar as part of this transfer process, you’ll need to ask them for it.
Nothing else is required at the destination registrar’s end, so next visit the existing (outgoing) registrar’s website. If you don’t know who this is, you can find out using the Whois service. Search for the domain name and it will be listed as ‘Already taken’ (by you), so click the Whois link for the domain in the More Choices table to see the registrar’s details.
Now log in to the customer account or control-panel area at the existing registrar’s site - if you don’t know these details, you’ll need to ask the registrar for them - and look in its domain-management area for a ‘transfer away’ option. With Easyspace, for example, the domain to be transferred must be selected and the new registrar tag entered (‘34SP’, in this case).
Once the transfer request is submitted, the registrar will ‘unlock’ the domain so it can be transferred and notify the new registrar accordingly. Most registrars charge an administration fee for outgoing domain transfers; Easyspace levies a £15 fee, for example.
Transfer a .com domain name
Transferring .com domains is a little more involved and the first step is to ensure the contact details for the domain name are correct for the registration, specifically the ‘Admin-C’, or ‘administrative contact’ name. This can be checked by performing a Whois search as described above and updated, if necessary, using the domain-management tools at the appropriate registrar’s website.
A .com domain must also be ‘unlocked’ before it can be transferred, which again means using the appropriate option in its current registrar’s domain-management control panel. You also need an ‘EPP code’ (sometimes called a ‘Registry’ or ‘Authorisation Code’) that will be used to confirm ownership of the domain.
A domain’s registrar will not provide this to anyone except the registered owner and, in our Easyspace example, this is obtained from the domain control panel. However, some registrars will supply it only in response to an emailed, faxed or written request.
The next step is to request an incoming domain transfer with the destination registrar, which is the same as for a .uk domain transfer (with the same Nameserver caveats). Some registrars may charge a small fee for incoming .com domain transfers, while others may do it free and instead charge a domain-renewal fee, but the whole process shouldn’t cost more than £20 – plus whatever the original registrar charges to relinquish the domain, of course.
The destination registrar will then send an email to the domain’s administrative contact (which is why it needs to be correct in the domain-registration details) requesting the EPP code. Once supplied, the transfer should be complete within seven days or so.
The longer timeframe for .com domain transfers means it’s a very bad idea to begin one if a domain needs renewing within a month. Should the transfer be delayed for some reason, the registration may expire and the interim state of the domain may hinder renewal, which means someone else could register it in the meantime. So, if your domain is just about to expire we’d strongly advise renewing it before contemplating any transfer.
Transferring web hosting
Unless you want to scrap your existing website and start from scratch, transferring web hosts is not something to embark upon lightly. Downloading the content of an existing website from one host and uploading it to another is seldom enough to guarantee that it will still work. It’s also too complex a topic to deal with here, but we can provide an outline.
Static websites (ones made of separate HTML files that don’t change that often) are the easiest to transfer, since their content can usually just be downloaded and re-uploaded via an FTP server with no ill effect.
However, dynamic websites (those that change regularly, such as blogs) present a problem, because they usually consist of a database of content that is ‘published’ by software running on the web server. Some dynamic-website services make moving content (the information stored in their database) easy.
Wordpress, for example, has a built-in ‘Export’ option and, once the Wordpress software is installed and configured at the new web host, its ‘Import’ option can be used to restore the site.
Once you’ve figured out how to transfer a website from one host to another, this is best done before the domain name is updated (via its Nameservers) to point at its new location.
The site hosted at the new hosting company can then be tested alongside the old, still-available site via the IP address the hosting company provides - the only way to find it until its domain name is updated accordingly.
Once the new site is running smoothly, the domain name’s Nameservers can be updated to the new hosting company’s and the change will take seamless effect within 72 hours.
Although there’s little need to contact a registrar or web-hosting company about a domain or hosting transfer unless there’s a problem, it’s useful to know how they respond to questions for when all is not hunky-dory. So, as an informal – and by no means scientific – test, we contacted a few popular firms, posing as a potential customer looking to transfer a domain and site hosting.
Of the eight we emailed a list of questions to, Strato, Godaddy and 123-reg responded within hours, 34SP and Fasthosts within a day and Easyspace and 1&1 after 36 hours. Easily replied only after we contacted its customer services department twice, three days later.
Godaddy and 34SP had clear contact email addresses on their sites and each answered our seven questions individually, and in some detail, so full marks to them. 123-reg provided a detailed reply too, but the lack of a contact email address on its site meant we had to register a free account and raise a support ticket before we could ask them.
Similarly, while Strato’s detailed answers were useful we think its own website could do with a tidy up, as it took us a while to find the relevant contact forms we were looking for.
Easyspace, 1&1 and Easily were all concise in their replies, but still provided useful information, although links to the relevant resources on their sites would have been helpful. Fasthosts didn’t answer any of our questions and instead provided a phone number to call.
To be fair, we didn’t supply a telephone number with our initial email, but then nor did we want to be called by one its sales team. When we did call, the sales consultant was helpful enough, providing answers as to whether particular things could be achieved. However, he didn’t provide detail on how they might be achieved, so we would have needed further guidance had we wished to proceed.
Dealing with domain disputes
Because .uk domain transfers are initiated (‘pushed’) by the domain owner via the current registrar, transfer problems should be immediately apparent – not that there are likely to be any, other than for technical reasons.
A .com domain transfer, however, is initiated (‘pulled’) by the destination registrar, which is why the domain owner must unlock the domain first. If the current .com registrar then refuses the transfer request, contact ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) for assistance.
If ownership of a domain is disputed for some reason, a dispute-resolution service is the best option. Nominet oversees all .uk domains and offers a free confidential mediation service but, if unsuccessful, a paid-for adjudication by an independent expert may be needed. ICANN offers something similar for .com disputes. You will need a lawyer and a wedge of cash.
Can i host my own website?
Few people consider the possibility of hosting their own website and with good reason – it isn’t that easy and it can be very time-consuming. However, if you have a computer connected to the internet then it is possible, and it would remove the need to pay ongoing fees to a hosting company.
The process is far too involved to explain now but here are the basics. First, you’ll need a broadband provider that permits self-hosted sites (not all do) and an internet connection with a fast upload (not download) speed.
The faster this is, the faster the site will load for visitors – 1Mbit/sec is enough for small sites, but popular ones need much more. You’ll also need a static IP address at which to point a domain name, the ability to configure your firewall accordingly, a dedicated computer that runs constantly and the considerable free time it takes to learn how to use some complex web-server software.
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