26 November 2021 | 4 min read

What Is WHOIS and How Does It Work?

Learn about WHOIS and discover the uses and benefits of this query and response protocol.

What is WHOIS?

The WHOIS protocol is a query that checks domain names and IP addresses. Performed on websites like Whois.com and Lookup.icann.org, the WHOIS query reveals the WHOIS data or the identifying and contact information of the researched website. 

You can use the WHOIS system to see if a domain name is registered, who it’s registered to, the owner’s contact details and other helpful registration data on the domain name. Anyone can use the WHOIS service using publicly accessible websites. 

The public WHOIS database stores contact information on everyone who registers a specific domain name or changes their DNS settings. Even though this is not a single, centrally-operated domain name registrar, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) still regulates the entire WHOIS record database. 

However, when it comes to managing this data, it’s the job of specific independent entities – domain registrars or registries. Any organization can offer domain name registration services as long as they earn the ICANN accreditation

Registrars are also obligated to provide public access to the WHOIS information on every registered domain. So that everyone can freely use the WHOIS lookup protocol to search for complete WHOIS information.

Besides giving access to relevant information, registries are also responsible for managing generic top-level domains (gTLDs) like .com and .org

WHOIS benefits

The most important thing WHOIS records do for us is help make the global internet more transparent. Thanks to the WHOIS lookup option and detailed WHOIS record information on every domain, we can learn who is behind a specific domain.

WHOIS Lookup tool and a search engine on a laptop.
WHOIS lookup

Undoubtedly, transparency is crucial for the validity of everything we find online, especially today with the increasing expansion of fake news. 

WHOIS data allows us to quickly locate important information on domain names, and the system ensures that the WHOIS lookup results are valid. This is achieved in two primary ways: 

  • A registrant is obligated to provide accurate personal information during the registration process and update information during the entire registration period.
  • A registrar must keep accurate registration information and precise contact information until the expiration date of a domain. 

A registrar also must send annual reminders to inform a domain name registrant to update registration data if necessary. 

Is WHOIS necessary? 

Now that you are familiar with the benefits, it should be evident that WHOIS helps keep the internet democratic and open for everyone. 

Initially, the WHOIS database existed as a typical resource directory, and it can still act like one. However, its role has become much more important, and it can now help combat fake news and keep WHOIS record information public for everyone. 

Moreover, people looking to create a new site or start a business can search the WHOIS database and quickly learn if the domain name they’re after is free. 

The WHOIS database may also list similar domain names that are still available or help find already active domains with similar names. You can even use the domain name registration information to negotiate the purchase of the registered name. 

The WHOIS database

The WHOIS database contains crucial information on a domain, most of which we already covered. It rarely contains inaccurate information as ICANN ensures that registrars cancel or suspend domains that don’t provide accurate data for the registry. 

To be more specific, the registrar always requires you to include the following information during domain registration:

  • Name
  • Home address
  • Email address
  • Phone number

Even though the name and the contact details are considered sensitive information, you still need to provide it to get registered domain names. However, that doesn’t mean domain privacy is not an option. We’ll explain that in the next section. 

Examples of data in the WHOIS record, including names and registration dates.
Information in the WHOIS record

The additional information a WHOIS record provides includes:

  • Registrant’s (owner’s) name and contact information
  • Registrar’s (domain registration service provider’s) name and contact information
  • Name servers
  • Registration dates
  • Expiration dates
  • Estimated domain age
  • Most recent update
  • Administrative and technical information (not always)

WHOIS privacy protection

You must provide private and sensitive information when registering a domain. ICANN requires this per their Registrar Accreditation Agreement

However, you can still make some data private and ensure domain privacy as registrars offer private registration services or proxy services. 

Furthermore, some information, especially sensitive details about the registrant, is often redacted from the public listings that anyone can access when searching the WHOIS directory. This usually includes a registrant’s name, country of residence, phone number and other private information.

The image below demonstrates how confidential information is shown by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers registration data lookup tool.

Example of how Redacted for privacy information looks on the ICANN Lookup.
Redacted for privacy information

It’s worth noting that the recent changes in the EU laws, namely the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), have ensured that personal information stays private. 

Prompted by GDPR, ICANN has decided to introduce a tiered-access system under which most personal information remains private. However, some verified third parties with legitimate interests can gain access to redacted information

How to perform a WHOIS lookup 

Performing a WHOIS lookup is easy. You can follow these simple instructions to learn how to do it yourself in just a few moments.

1. Visit www.whois.com/whois
2. Type in the domain name you want to look up and click Search.

Homepage of the Whois Domain Lookup tool.
Whois Domain Lookup

3. Scroll down the page to find all available information about the domain and its registrant. To demonstrate a Whois lookup, we use example.com as an example. This domain belongs to the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA).

Domain information and Raw Whois Data of example.com.
Example.com domain information and Whois data

Conclusion

In essence, WHOIS is an integral part of the modern internet landscape. Even though a lot of the information it now provides is private, WHOIS still allows us to look up the owners of most domains we access online and, more notably, contact them if we need to. 

By taking a few simple steps, you can quickly perform a WHOIS lookup on your own. Besides knowing how to find information, you also now know what WHOIS is and why it matters in our day-to-day lives. 

Still need help?

Slack community

Get involved in the IPXO Slack community.

Ask the IPXO community

Contact support

If you have any questions, contact our support team!