Registering or buying an internet domain is a pretty well established process. But getting the Twitter username that you want for yourself or your business can be much harder, and in some critical ways, difficult to navigate.
That’s because Twitter distributes usernames—they’re the text after the @ sign, and are also known as handles—to the first person who requests them, and then prohibits their resale. Now, eight years after the service’s launch, it has become extremely difficult to secure short handles without resorting to the inclusion of middle initials, dashes, numbers, or abbreviations. (Tales of hacking and attempted blackmail are unfortunate testaments to the rarity and perceived value of short handles.)
If the handle you want is taken, there are ways to negotiate with its owner to transfer it to you. Twitter will help in the case of impersonation or trademark violations. And, despite Twitter’s prohibition, there is an unsanctioned secondary market.
Here’s everything you need to know to get the best new Twitter handle or upgrade your current one:
Is it actually available?
Know your limits
You probably aren’t going to get a one-letter account name, your first name, or an extremely popular noun in the absence of Twitter ruling that it represents trademark infringement, particularly if it’s an active account. So be realistic.
Assuming the username you want is taken:
Try just asking and being nice
This should be the first step, regardless of the status or situation of the handle. If you have a good reason to use a handle, the current holder might be willing to give it up or swap. Be aware that if you represent a large company, notifying the holder they have something potentially valuable could lead to demands for compensation. Some businesses use private investigators to make such requests while cloaking who they’re coming from.
Check for signs of life
If the holder of a username isn’t actually using the account, Twitter could potentially make the handle available. (More on how it does that later.)
Twitter says that in order to keep an account active, a user needs to log in and tweet at least once every six months, or risk permanently losing an account.
But Twitter’s standards for inactivity can be more complicated than tweets alone. The company also says:
“Inactivity is based on a combination of tweeting, logging in, and the date an account was created. Please note that you may not be able to tell whether an account is currently inactive, as not all signs of account activity are publicly visible.”
So an account might appear dead, but someone might be an active reader of other’s tweets. The company might also not want to delete an account that’s less than a year old without giving someone a chance to use it again.
Are you dealing with a squatter?
In addition to inactivity, the company will release accounts held by squatters, or people who deliberately try to accrue popular or in-demand account names in order to sell them or use them for other purposes.
Twitter uses a few criteria to separate account squatters from people who just don’t tweet very often. They include how many accounts someone has created and whether they are making accounts just to prevent others from using them, creating accounts for the purpose of selling them, or using third-party content under that third-party’s own name. An example of the last would be maintaining a feed consisting solely of a large media organization’s content using a handle that incorporates its name.
Know the rules
One important rule when it comes to getting hold of a handle is that Twitter doesn’t sanction transactions. From the company’s rules:
“Attempts to sell, buy, or solicit other forms of payment in exchange for usernames are also violations and may result in permanent account suspension.”
The company is serious about the idea that accounts come on a “first come, first served” basis, except for instances of abuse. That doesn’t mean that such transactions don’t happen. Prominent examples of purchases include @cnnbrk by CNN, and @israel by the State of Israel.
But publicly pursuing one (as a buyer or seller) could potentially end up backfiring if Twitter decided to step in and suspend your current account. (Twitter’s press relations department didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article.)
Exercise your trademarks
Just because an account isn’t active or is being squatted on doesn’t mean you can get it right away. The company will not specifically release accounts “except in cases of trademark violation.” It used to be easier to submit a request for inactive names, but as the site has grown, it’s gotten less likely that requests for non-trademarked names will be honored.
Trademark violation means, according to Twitter, that an account is using a “company or business name, logo, or other trademark-protected materials in a manner that may mislead or confuse others with regard to its brand or business affiliation may be considered a trademark policy violation”
If Twitter determines there’s clear intent to mislead, the company will suspend the user. If it’s unintentional, Twitter says it will ask the user to clear up any confusion and may release the name to you. JP Morgan Chase, for example, reportedly secured @chase that way.
If you think there’s a trademark violation, you can use this form to report and request a release. You’ll have to provide a fairly long string of details, including your name, the trademark violation, and your trademark registration number.
Even for trademarks, if it’s not used in a confusing way or inactive, Twitter won’t necessarily release it.
Set up alerts to know when Twitter releases inactive usernames
The company, according to its support pages, plans to release inactive usernames in bulk. But it doesn’t disclose any specific timeframe for doing so.
If you’re waiting for an account to be released, there are a couple of services that promise to keep track of usernames for you and alert you if they become open. Tweetclaims is a service which claims to have helped users secure names like @beer, @autos, @launch, and @chat. A free version checks once a day to see if the username you want is available, and the $20 per year service will check every 30 minutes. Twitter Counter offers a similar free email alert service.
While Twitter’s rules mean it can be hard to tell whether an account is inactive, there is anecdotal evidence of desired accounts seemingly lying dormant for years.
More impatient people can submit requests to Twitter’s support team, but there’s no guarantee of success or response. In the absence of a trademark or documented impersonation, noting with a request that you have the same domain and email address as your desired handle might help if there’s proof of inactivity.
Check for other violations
There are a number of other reasons Twitter will step in to intervene even if there’s not a registered trademark involved. They include spam in its many incarnations, targeted abuse, malware, and impersonation.
The last one in particular has a defined recourse. If somebody is pretending to be you in a potentially misleading way, then the account can be suspended. But if they share a name or clearly state it isn’t you, then you’re out of luck.
Notifying Twitter that this is going on isn’t a surefire way to get an account suspended. And Twitter won’t necessarily let you know if it releases the handle so you can grab it.
Consider creative tactics for skirting the rules
There have been multiple high-profile and confirmed instances of accounts changing hands. CNN, for example, took over the popular Twitter account @CNNBRK in 2009 from its originator, James Cox. The account already built nearly a million followers tweeting breaking news despite no affiliation with the network.
CNN got around the prohibition on direct purchases by hiring Cox as a consultant. His services, of course, included that Twitter account. Twitter had offered to recover the account on its behalf, but CNN apparently didn’t want to alienate a fan.
JP Morgan reportedly offered $20,000 via a third party to Twitter user Chase Giunta for “@chase.” After he declined to sell, according to the New York Post, the company ended up working with Twitter to get the account transferred due to unspecified trademark issues.
There may be other creative solutions beside the “paid consultant” route that CNN took. A donation to a charity selected by the person holding the username you want, for example, might be one way to get them to agree to a transfer.
Get the actual transfer right
Unless done through Twitter in the relatively narrow set of circumstances it allows, the actual release of a handle by one person to another isn’t a guaranteed process. Once a handle is released, it’s technically up for grabs for anyone who’s fast enough.
That means that transfers need to be as coordinated and well planned as possible so you don’t go through the trouble of getting someone to release a name only to lose it to somebody else. Particularly for highly in-demand or high-profile names, someone might be on the lookout to grab it.
Turn on two-step verification
Once you have a new and better handle, protect it. There have been multiple cases of people hacking, impersonating, or blackmailing users in order to get them to release their Twitter handles. The story of how Naoki Hiroshima lost @N (since restored) is worth reading.
Partially in response to such attempts, Twitter enacted two-factor authentication last May. Use it.