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Domain registration is usually offered for periods of one to ten year increments. You may purchase several years in advance to reserve the domain names you want to keep as staples, or those that have the best value.
If you do not purchase domains in advance, you will want to use a registrar that provides an auto-renew feature so that you never loose your web identity. If your domain expires, your domain name can be snapped up by the first person on a waiting list or open to the general public.