Years ago I thought I’d grab a domain name with an accent and so I registered a .eu domain name. That was nearly 11 years ago!
Since then a lot of things have changed, but unfortunately a lot of things haven’t changed as well.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Back then you couldn’t register a .ie domain name with a fada (accent). So if you wanted to register a domain name using a word in the Irish language you had to do so without any of the accents. That can be a problem:
Nowadays you can register most domain names with an accent. In fact you can register many domain names using Cyrillic scripts and many others that are not “standard” Latin.
So, yes you can register way more domain names using accents and even different scripts these days. They will “work”.
The problem of course is twofold.
What actually works?
How hard is it to get it to work?
This is where the problems lie.
I’ve worked with internet technologies for over a quarter of a century (that makes me sound old!). While my formal educational background might not be technical I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit of a DNS geek. And I found some of this really annoying and unnecessarily complicated. The user experience wasn’t great and while I’m happy (mostly) with the results it shouldn’t be this hard.
So in 2021 how hard is it?
Registering the domain name with an accent, in my case micheál.ie, was easy. I just searched for the domain I wanted and registered it. That probably took less than 5 minutes, as I’ve already got other .ie domain names registered.
But here’s where it gets a little funky.
While I can happily type in:
In order for that string of characters to exist in the DNS the accented internationalised version of the domain name has to be encoded into something that the DNS system can handle.
So it becomes:
Software, like your browser, can interpret the second string of characters, which is called punycode, and display the accented domain name.
What the hell is punycode?
Punycode is a simple and efficient transfer encoding syntax designed for use with Internationalized Domain Names in Applications (IDNA). It uniquely and reversibly transforms a Unicode string into an ASCII string.RFC 3492
Software likes stuff to be in plain text (ASCII) so punycode is the “bridge” between the two worlds. And if you’re a software developers there’s a load of libraries and tools you can use to handle it (and hopefully hide it from mere mortals!)
But unless you speak fluent IDN, and I definitely don’t, it’s not easy to remember that
are one and the same. I shouldn’t have to care. I didn’t register “xn--” anything. I registered the Irish language version of my first name.
Why does this matter?
Well a lot of software has issues with internationalised domain names. It doesn’t matter that they shouldn’t or that X issue has been known for years. It’s just a simple fact that a lot of software does not work well with IDNs or that it works, but requires you to see things that you really shoudn’t have to. (The punycode being the most obvious one)
So if I look at the whois output this is what I get:
whois micheál.ie (the whois command ran from the command line)
The output (trimmed for clarity):
Domain Name: xn--michel-tta.ie
Registry Domain ID: 14186934-IEDR
Registrar WHOIS Server: whois.weare.ie
Registrar URL: https://www.blacknight.com
Updated Date: 2022-01-09T16:03:53Z
Creation Date: 2022-01-08T14:57:03Z
Registry Expiry Date: 2023-01-08T14:57:03Z
Registrar: Blacknight Solutions
Registrar IANA ID: not applicable
Registrar Abuse Contact Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Registrar Abuse Contact Phone: +353.599183072
Domain Status: ok https://icann.org/epp#ok
Domain Status: addPeriod https://icann.org/epp#addPeriod
Registry Registrant ID: 14204101-IEDR
Registrant Name: REDACTED FOR PRIVACY
Registry Admin ID: 167984-IEDR
Registry Tech ID:
Registry Billing ID: REDACTED FOR PRIVACY
Name Server: ns1.blacknight.com
Name Server: ns2.blacknight.com
Name Server: ns3.blacknight.com
Name Server: ns4.blacknight.com
So even though the whois query was against the domain with a fada the actual returned output was the punycode.
This makes some things a little complicated as I discovered.
Meanwhile the IEDR’s email about the domain name actually used the accent:
No indication of this magical punycode stuff anywhere, is there?
And my own company’s emails about the order and its completion all, correctly, use the accented domain name, because it’s 2021 and software can handle this.
But when I went to add the domain to cPanel I couldn’t. Not until I switched to using the punycode. Inputting the accented domain just threw a useless error about the domain’s format.
Once I realised that it was mostly “fine”. My new shiny domain name got setup with its SSL cert and a clean install of WordPress. The domain displays with the accent correctly in all the browsers I’ve tried.
Using Email With an Accent
So with the website working I thought I’d see how well email was handled. Last time I’d tried this 10 years ago it was a mess, but I was hoping that things would have improved.
I setup an email address on my cPanel VPS. It’s set to forward to my personal email account which is with Microsoft 365. While I mentioned that cPanel’s handling of IDN domains could be better and less of mess for the user, it does actually work. You just have to use the punycode when you add the domain name to the account and you have to see the punycode in other places too:
But that does work.
For day to day stuff, however, I use Outlook on the Mac.
And it absolutely refuses to deal with my poor accented domain name:
I haven’t tried using the email address with any online services or tried to update my login details with any service provider as yet. I suspect that if I do I’ll have a rather uneven experience. (I can be diplomatic!)
So in conclusion
Yes IDN domains do work to a point, but the user experience is far from optimal. What’s disappointing is that huge software companies like Microsoft haven’t got all of their software to work with them yet.
If anyone who has an IDN domain wants to share their experiences, both positive and negative, please do via the comments!
UPDATE: Added experience with Outlook for iOS