A domain is the part of a website address after the www and before the .com, such as www.johnkettlewell.com. And it can be the part of your email address after the @ and before the .com. The part after the domain (the .com or other) is called a Top Level Domain, or a TLD. You may have noticed that many addresses end in .com, with lots of others ending in .net, .org, or a slew of other TLDs. Many TLDs are viable for use with your personal domain, and you may be tempted to purchase a domain that ends in something other than .com. This is one way to sometimes purchase a domain name that is already taken with the .com ending.
Buy Your Domain
Unfortunately, there is a downside for most of us if we stray beyond the most popular options of .com, .net, and .org. Spammers and other dobadders have purchased lots of domain names using some of the other lesser known TLDs, such as .xyz. Subsequently, many top-level TLDs, as attractive as they might be to you, get blocked by spam filters. I tried out a domain that I fancied which was available with the TLD .xyz, which is the one used by www.alphabet.xyz (Google's parent company). One of the first messages I sent using a .xyz domain email address was questioned by a friend. He sent me an email via another channel asking if it was a scam. In short, stick to a .com if you want to look as legitimate as possible and have the least confusion around your address, with the second choice of trying .net or .org if you can't find the .com you want. One other thing that you'll find is people are so used to typing in .com after an email domain that anything else is bound to lead to misdirected emails.
Domains are easy to purchase and don't cost more than about $9-$12 a year through most providers. Reputable ones that I recommend based on my own experience include Namecheap (not the cheapest, but first class), Namesilo (one of the cheapest and reliable), and Google Domains. I own several domains that I have purchased from Namesilo and others that I have moved there after purchasing elsewhere. I like Namesilo's combination of low pricing (less than $9 for a .com domain), easy to use interface, and reliability. Namecheap has a bigger name, but I'm not certain they are worth the slightly higher cost. They charge extra for WHOIS identity protection (see below) after the first year, but it is included in the Namesilo price. I find the Namesilo interface to be easier to use.
Google Domains has one flat price, $12 per year, for hosting .com domains. It might be the ideal place to register a domain if you plan on just using email forwarding from your domain, with no dedicated mailbox. In other words, your email gets received by the domain and then forwards to another email client, like Gmail or Outlook.com, where you have an Inbox. I'll show you how you can then send mail from your domain later on.
To find a domain you just go to one of the websites mentioned above, such as www.namesilo.com. You'll find a search box on the homepage where you can start plugging in names that you love. You'll quickly discover that many real words are already taken, and every possible four-letter combination is gone. There are still some five-letter combinations available, but most are not actual words. You may be tempted to add things like hyphens and numbers (allowed), but they could lead to confusion since they are less common. A handy site that helps in finding an available domain is www.domainnamesoup.com. You can plug in lots of options, like five-letter domains that begin with z or q, etc. Keep trying and you'll find a domain you can be proud of!
Host Your Domain
You can purchase your domain online quickly and easily and soon be presented with a control panel where you can do various things with the domain. The basic setup at most domain registrars will include "nameservers" that will announce to the Internet where your domain is and how to find it. You will also find a section of the controls where you can adjust your DNS settings. These include entries that might "park" your domain with a mini-webpage that says something like, "This site under construction." Namesilo provides a standard parking page that tells people the domain is parked with them.
One option to watch out for is WHOIS privacy. This is the registration contact information for anyone trying to get in touch with the domain owner or manager. Many people (myself included) opt to utilize a registrar service that makes this information anonymous, but allows for messages to be redirected to your actual email address. This helps (somewhat) to prevent scam messages from being sent directly to you constantly, and allows for some anonymity. In general, it is not a good idea to allow your real email address to appear in plain text anywhere on the Internet or else it will be scooped up by web crawlers and spammed constantly.
Another important option on the DNS page will allow you to modify or add MX records that govern where your email goes and how it is handled. Namesilo, Namecheap, and Google Domains allow forwarding of domain email addresses to another location. In other words, I can set up John@MyDomain.com and have it automatically forwarded to my favorite Gmail address or other location. With Namesilo it is easy to set up different forwarding addresses for different email addresses. In other words, I could have John@MyDomain.com go to my Gmail account, but Jolie@MyDomain.com might go to a different Outlook.com account. This is a great setup for husbands and wives, or any couple, to share a domain, but have different email addresses that forward to different places.
Send Email From Your Domain
For some, receiving domain email in another account, say Gmail, is all that is needed. Personally, I love Gmail for its cost (free), large storage limit, and associated services like Google Drive and Google Photos (free, unlimited photo storage), calendars and contacts. I'd have a tough time leaving Gmail for any reason.
But, if you just do the forwarding, any responses you make to your domain emails or any new emails you create will go out with your regular Gmail address. Many of us would like the option to both send and receive domain email using our domain email address. Many people do this by purchasing email service from a specialized provider that provides you with MX and other records that you add to your DNS at your domain registrar. Each registrar and each email service provider does this a bit differently, so check out their help sections for detailed instructions. Set up at first can be a bit daunting and typically takes a half-hour or so if all goes well. Don't worry if something doesn't work right at first--you can't really break anything permanently!
There are innumerable email service providers that can provide email services, with a wide variety of options in terms of pricing, storage limits, types of interface available, service options, etc. There are too many to list, but I suggest prioritizing based on three main criteria: reliability, security, and features. It is a very competitive market, so pricing tends to be very similar for similar options. Expect to pay as little as $20 per year at the low end up to $50-$60 per year for robust, almost professional grade email.
At the low end I have used and can recommend POBox.com, which has a service that forwards emails to your other email account, like Gmail, but then also provides SMTP sending services through POBox. They also offer a robust level of service for $50 per year with a 50GB inbox and most of the bells and whistles anyone would want. They are now owned by Fastmail, an Australian company that offers similar services but with somewhat different pricing and options. Both companies and services are excellent. Another robust option is to purchase Google's G Suite for $5 per month, with a 30GB inbox and all the other services that Google provides to free users, but with a business level of privacy and security. G Suite even has real customer service available via email, chat, and phone, which is worth the $5 per month over the free level.
However, I have found that the free level of Gmail suits my needs wonderfully, and there is still a great way to send domain email direct from the same Gmail inbox I know and love. It takes a little setup and a few minutes, but in the end you have free domain email that rivals many paid options.
Domain Email from Gmail
1. Forward email from domain registrar to Gmail.
2. In Gmail go to My Account/Sign-in & security/Signing in to Google/App passwords
3. Create a new "App Password" for the domain you want to add as a sending address
4. Go to Gmail/Settings/Accounts and Import/Add another email address
5. You will see a link to "Add another email address" you own
6. Enter name: John Doe (the name you want people to see your email is coming from)
7. Enter email address: email@example.com (or other address you want to use and is set up to be forwarded from domain registrar)
8. Check box for "Treat as an alias"
9. Select to change Reply-to address to the new email address being added (firstname.lastname@example.org)
10. Select "Next Step"
11. SMTP Server use: smtp.gmail.com
12. Username: email@example.com (use your regular gmail address for the account)
13. Password: enter the "App Password" created in Step 3 above
14. Select "Secured connection using TLS" and Port 587
15. Click "Add Account"
16. You will get another box where you will be prompted to enter a confirmation code that will be emailed to the new address (which in turn should be forwarded to Gmail)
17. Enter the code manually in the box instead of clicking the link in the email that arrives in Gmail
18. If all goes well your new domain email address will now appear under Gmail/Settings/Accounts and Import. It can be chosen to be the default sending address if you want it to be.
19. When composing messages in Gmail select the sending address desired using the drop down arrow at the end of the From line.
20. Those who receive email sent from this new domain address will see your new address in the From location in their email inbox, but if they go so far as to explore deep into the email headers they will see that the Return Path is set to your actual Gmail address. Gmail rewrites the email headers to do this for some reason. The only way to avoid this is to send your domain email using a SMTP server outside of Gmail using a service like POBox.com, Fastmail, or another of your choosing. However, only rather technical types would ever delve into the email headers, so for most correspondents your email will appear to be coming from your domain email and any replies will be sent back to your domain email.
Rewards of Your Own Domain
Aside from the branding advantages and the nice feeling of having a unique email address, there are some further benefits to having your own domain email. Since you control the domain names and where your email is being forwarded you are no longer at the mercy of an unreachable giant like Google if your email account is shut down or you are locked out. Similarly, if using a full-service email service provider that you don't like or goes belly up just change the domain DNS settings and you are on to another provider. It is unlikely to happen, but not unheard of. Do some Googling around to read some horror stories about people locked out and losing years' worth of correspondence, contacts, and documents. If this happens and you still are using Gmail simply redirect your emails by changing the forwarding or the MX records at your domain registrar.
Another advantage is the ability to have an email address people will find easy to remember and distinctive. Instead of JohnZQ136458 at Gmail you can be John@YourOwnDomain.com. You can also create new email addresses for specialized uses. You might want to have a few generic addresses for use in places where you might not want your name to be known. It is possible to set up a "catch-all" system where anything written before the @ symbol will be forwarded to you. The idea is to have a different address for American Express and Visa, and another for Boat US and Defender. In other words, you can have a unique email address for almost anything, making it easy to determine where spam is coming from. This can also make it easy to block a specific address.
However, I don't really recommend using the catch-all method since anything sent to your domain will be vacuumed into your inbox. Spammers often send out emails to lots of guessed addresses since there is very little cost, assuming quite rightly that many emails sent to people like "info" and "contact" will have a working address. If you limit the addresses your domain accepts you will limit the amount of spam coming in.
Lastly, your own domain email is potentially more secure and private than large, free email services. Thieves tend to go where there is a lot of opportunity to score and the chances are very slim that some odd domain is going to be lucrative. Generally, your personal domain won't attract much attention. Still, I would only go with domain registrars that offer robust security, including two-factor authentication when logging in. Same goes for any email providers. You will find many, many options for domain registrars and email services, but stay away from ones that are too small and obscure to have much of an online track record. You may be able to save a few bucks a year, but there are many reputable options that are very competitive in price.
I look at domain email as another way to personalize my tiny, obscure corner of humanity, while also gaining some great practical benefits. Try it, you'll like it!