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I'm interested in a domain-name (.com) that is about to expire. What happens when the registration-expiration date is reached?

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A squatter snatches it up and puts it up for sale for $US5,000. –  Ignacio Vazquez-Abrams Aug 28 '10 at 6:14
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After the expiration date is reached, usually the registrar (the entity that takes care of registering that domain and who associates it with you) keeps the domain on hold for 1~2 months (can be more or less), having you (the current owner) as the priority-subscriber/renewer during that time.

In other terms, the domain is not yours anymore (for instance the top-level-domains DNS delegations are not directed to your DNS entries) but only you may register/renew it.

After that grace period is over, registrars follow one of the following scenarios

  • the domain is back to Nature, does not belong to anybody and anyone can register it from any registrar (the domain may simply be deleted)

  • while the domain can be registered by anyone, the domain is kept on hold by the registrar who knows that domain is likely to be registered by someone else soon

  • some registrars do that: if the domain is considered 'hot', after the grace period they may open a kind of auction, leaving the domain to the highest bid. For instance if you own nature.com and you don't renew it, it is likely that such an interesting domain will find plenty of buyers, and the registrar may want to make the highest amount of money from it.

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NB depending on the top level domain (.com vs. .au vs ...) the rules can change. –  Richard Aug 28 '10 at 9:40
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