A top-level domain (or TLD), refers to the letters to the right of the dot in a domain name. For example, our website, opensrs.com, uses a .COM TLD. Most of us are familiar with classic TLDs like .COM or .ORG, as well our native country-code TLD (.CA, .US, .UK, etc.). But there are actually over 1000 different TLDs, most of which are open to anyone for registration.
If that piqued your curiosity, check out our TLD list. And if you’re on the hunt for a unique domain name for your new business or latest online project, we highly recommend checking out Hover’s curated TLD lineup.
In this post, we’ll take a quick look at the different types of TLDs and how they work.
What are the different types of TLDs?
There are a couple of different ways people categorize TLDs, but they are most often broken down into three groups:
Legacy or classic top-level domains (gTLDs)
The “classic” or “legacy” TLDs have been around since the 1980s, and were created to serve a very specific purpose:
.COM — Commercial
.NET — Network technologies
.ORG — Organization
.EDU — Education
.GOV — U.S. Government
.MIL — U.S. Military
.INT— Intergovernmental organizations
Today, we’re used to seeing some of these extensions used for all sorts of websites. For example, you don’t have to be running a commercial enterprise to register a .COM domain. Others, however, like .GOV, are still very much restricted to certain purposes.
These top-level domains are often referred to as “generic” TLDs, or gTLDs for short.
Today, the operation of these TLDs is subject to the policies and regulations of an intergovernmental organization called ICANN (more on that below).
Country-code TLDs (ccTLDs)
As their name would imply, country-code TLDs are allocated to a nation or state—or, in the case of .EU, a group of states. Each ccTLD has its own policies based on local regulations. The result is that some ccTLDs—not all—can be more complicated to register than standard gTLDs.
Some ccTLDs are restricted for use by residents, citizens, or companies with a presence in the region they represent, but many are open for registration globally.
Fun fact: all two-letter top-level domains are country-code TLDs, even those that have been widely appropriated for a totally different purpose:
- .CO, often used as a stand-in for .COM, is actually the ccTLD for Columbia.
- .IO, popular among developers because it’s a shorthand for “input/output,” is, in fact, the ccTLD for the British Indian Ocean Territory.
The first “new” top-level domains (including .INFO) were introduced in 2004, but the largest wave of launches began in 2013. Since then, they’ve continued to trickle in. Today there are more than 1000 “new” gTLDs. Like the legacy gTLDs, all new TLDs are 3+ characters in length, are regulated by ICANN (more on this below), and are not—unlike ccTLDs—representative of a specific nation or state. Hence, we can call this group new gTLDs.
But unlike legacy gTLDs, the new gTLDs are a huge and widely-varying group, so it’s helpful to break them down further:
Restricted new TLDs
Some of the new gTLDs are reserved for a specific purpose: .LAW, for example, can only be registered by verified members of the legal community.
Companies can actually apply to use their corporate name as the TLD for their website. Real life examples include .BMW, operated by the German automotive company, and .BARCLAYS, operated by the British financial services and investment bank.
These TLDs indicate a specific geographical location, like .NYC, .LONDON, or .AMSTERDAM. They are distinct from ccTLDs in that they are more than two letters, and they are not officially allocated to a specific nation or state—they simply target a particular region. Some geoTLD registries do restrict registrations to local residents, but many do not.
And the rest
Most new TLDs are open to anyone and allow for some playful website names and smart branding. For example, if you’re selling a product or service online, you might opt for a .SHOP, .STORE, or .SHOPPING domain. If you’re an arts worker, top-level domains like .DESIGN, .ART, or .STUDIO might be of interest.
There are a ton of options. And some of them are incredibly niche. There’s a .HORSE TLD!
How OpenSRS categorizes TLDs
As you now know, many people classify TLDs based on how long they’ve been around (legacy vs. new TLDs), and whether they’re allocated to a specific nation or state or operated by an independent registry (ccTLDS vs. all others).
At OpenSRS, we like to classify them according to how a website owner is likely to evaluate them: based on their purpose. We place all TLDs into two distinct categories:
GeoTLDs: chosen because they speak to a specific geographic market. In our eyes, this includes both ccTLDs like .CA and new TLDs like .BERLIN.
Generic TLDs: chosen because they reflect the industry or purpose of the customer’s website (like .BLOG) or because they are truly generic (like .ONLINE).
So who manages these various different top-level domains?
All TLDs are operated by registries. In the case of ccTLDs, where the TLD is allocated to a particular nation or state, the registry is often some sort of government entity. And, quite often, the government entity will partner with an independent TLD registry who can supply them with the technical backend infrastructure, effectively operating the ccTLD on their behalf.
For all other TLDs, the registry is a company. They might operate a single TLD, or they might operate 50+.
Operating a generic TLD (gTLD)
Any registry that operates a gTLD (any TLD that isn’t a two-letter country code) is regulated by an international non-profit called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).
ICANN does a lot. They develop policies “for coordination of some of the Internet’s core technical elements, including the domain-name system.” This includes:
- reviewing applications to establish top-level-domains
- coordinating discussions where potential new TLDs cause conflict
- setting policies that dictate how domain registries must operate their TLDs
- setting policies that govern how domain registrars (like OpenSRS!) can offer services to domain owners (registrants).
If you want to do a deep dive into this, check out our post on the registry > registrar > registrant hierarchy.
Operating a ccTLD
Country-code TLDs are a bit more complicated. Unlike generic TLDs, the only rules that the ccTLD registries need to follow are the ones they create for themselves.
For example, all gTLD domain names are operated by accredited registries but sold through accredited registrars. ICANN policy makes it so. But some ccTLD registries actually sell domain registrations directly to the public. No registrar needed. Learn more
Want a creative TLD for your website or for your customers?
If you’re looking for the perfect domain for your own website, we highly recommend our sister company, Hover. They’ve got a great selection of TLDs, a clean, user-friendly platform, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a friendlier support team.