Your street address doesn't change unless you move, but your e-mail address is another story. It can be switched at an Internet service provider's whim or shut off entirely -- as many Washington area residents who once had clark.net, digex.com or home.com e-mail addresses found out when those firms closed their doors.
You can, however, get a permanent e-mail address -- it's just not easy.
The simplest way is to open a Web-mail account with a site like Yahoo and, soon, Google. But these companies can change their rules or cut back on service without much notice; some, like AltaVista, have dropped e-mail service entirely. You can also check to see whether your college, its alumni association or any professional associations you belong to offer an e-mail address. Not all schools or groups offer this option; for example, the University of Maryland does not.
But the most reliable way to get an address that will last forever, or close enough, is to get a personal domain name -- a .com, .net, .org or other address exclusive to you.
The first step in the process is to go to a company called a registrar to see whether the domain you want is available, then register it for your use.
If the .com name you want is taken, consider other top-level domains -- not just .net or .org, but also such newer options as .info, .name (designed for personal domain name use), .biz or .us (residents of the United States only). Names that have long been taken in their .com forms can be available in these other formats; on the other hand, some correspondents may use the .com version of your domain by mistake, just because that's the most common type of domain.
Dozens of registrars exist; the confusing part is that their prices vary from $5 to $35 a year for the same basic service. The best guide to them we've found is RegSelect, (www.regselect.com), an independent site that lists these firms by such criteria as price, bundled extras and popularity.
The registrar you're likeliest to know is Network Solutions (www.networksolutions.com), the oldest one of the bunch -- but also the most expensive. Newer competitors, such as Domain Direct (www.domaindirect.com), Dotster (www.dotster.com) and GoDaddy (www.godaddy.com), offer cheaper prices, especially for multiple-year contracts.
A domain name alone, however, is like a street address without a mailbox. Most registrars offer two ways to deliver the mail, one cheaper and simpler, one costlier but potentially more reliable.
The first approach is to have mail automatically and invisibly forwarded to an address you already pay for -- the one included with your regular Internet account, a Web-mail inbox or your work account. You don't need to change anything in your mail software to have these new messages show up, but to send mail from the domain, you'll need to edit your software's return-address settings.
The second option is to get a separate account from the registrar. This will cost $5 a year and up but minimizes the risk of mail getting lost in forwarding. Look for multiple ways to check your mail: A registrar should support the POP (Post Office Protocol) and IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) standards and also offer a Web-mail log-in.
If you want to put up a personal Web site, the same choices apply: You can have the registrar forward requests for your domain to whatever other site hosts your pages (this other site's address can be "masked" in the process). Or you can buy Web hosting from a registrar, at $10 a month and up.
With both e-mail and Web service, whether to adopt a forwarding system or purchase service directly from a registrar may come down to a question as simple as this: Do you want to run a business with the domain name? If not, forwarding should suffice.
One last tip for those looking for a permanent, private address: Once you do have the new domain set up, don't direct all your mail to it. Give that address only to family and friends, and you'll have a fighting chance of keeping it off of spammers' mailing lists.