Types of SSL Certificates: Which One Should You Pick?

An SSL certificate is a security protocol that encrypts the connection between a site and the web browsers that visit it. It is heavily recommended for website owners to install this feature, especially if they request sensitive information from users.

That said, SSL certificates come in several types, and some are better for certain websites than others. Ideally, you want a certificate most suitable for your business, budget, and site’s size.

To help with your decision, this guide will explain the different types of SSL certificates. We will discuss the pros and cons of each one and the differences between SSL validation levels.

Why Do You Need an SSL Certificate?

SSL stands for Secure Sockets Layer. It’s a collection of small data files issued to a website by a third party called the Certificate Authority (CA). Its purpose is to add a secure layer over the protocol used to transfer web traffic on the internet, otherwise known as HTTP.

When a website has an SSL certificate, its URL will start with https:// instead of http://. A padlock icon will also appear on the address bar.

Example of an SSL certificate on Hostinger's website.

Below is a brief explanation of how SSL certificates work:

  1. First, the webmaster purchases an SSL certificate from a Certificate Authority. If the process is successful, the site will get a public and a private key.
  2. When a user opens the website, the browser will request the web server to send its SSL certificate and public key for verification. Most web browsers come built-in with public keys from various Certificate Authorities, so they’re able to check their validity.
  3. If successful, the browser will generate two symmetric keys to encrypt the connection – one for itself and the other for the web server. The browser delivers the symmetric key to the server using its public key to keep it secured.
  4. After receiving the encrypted symmetric key, the server will use its private key to decrypt it. With both the browser and server having symmetric keys, they can now establish a secure connection to transfer information.
  5. If successful, the padlock and https:// will appear on the address bar.
An infographic describing how SSL certificates work.

SSL certificates offer the following benefits:

  • Better protection. With encryption, your and your visitors’ information won’t be easily intercepted by unauthorized users. For online business owners, having an SSL certificate also helps with PCI compliance.
  • Improved user experience. When a site isn’t SSL-certified, major browsers like Chrome and Safari will advise visitors not to enter any sensitive information. This warning can be harmful to businesses.
Example of a website without an SSL certificate.
  • SEO. Google generally prefers sites with an SSL certificate as it considers HTTPS a vital part of a good page experience.

Now that we understand how SSL certificates work and what they do, let’s go over the different SSL types.

Four Types of SSL Certificates

Before delving into the classification, note that this guide doesn’t cover the self-signed certificate. While it is free of charge, it is not issued by a CA and therefore doesn’t encrypt data as well as other types of SSL certificates.

With that in mind, the following SSL certificate types offer the same level of security across the board. What makes each of them different is how many domains or subdomains they can protect.

Single-Domain SSL Certificates

A single-domain SSL certificate protects only one domain specified in the Certificate Signing Request (CSR) and all the pages under it. That said, it won’t secure any subdomains related to the website.

In other words, a single certificate will protect example.com and all of its subdirectories like example.com/blog. However, it won’t work on its subdomains, such as support.example.com.

Since a single SSL certificate only covers one domain, this type usually comes at a low price. However, it can be time-consuming to install such certificates one by one if you have multiple domains or subdomains.

Wildcard SSL Certificates

Wildcard SSL certificates offer protection for a single domain and unlimited subdomains associated with it. Therefore, they will secure example.com as well as websites like support.example.com or store.example.com.

To see if a website uses a wildcard certificate, click on the padlock icon on the address bar and open the Certificate. If there is an asterisk before the domain name, it means the protocol also covers the site’s subdomains.

Example of a wildcard SSL certificate on Healthline's website.

Naturally, a wildcard SSL certificate is more expensive than a single-domain one. However, this type is a more cost-effective option for those using multiple subdomains.

The downside to wildcard certificates is that they only cover subdomains at the first level, which means that a subdomain like login.store.example.com will not be protected.

Secondly, they may pose additional security risks since the private key is shared among all the servers that host the subdomains. If an unauthorized person has the private key, they can impersonate any domain that uses it.

Multi-Domain SSL Certificates

Multi-domain SSL certificates secure multiple domains that aren’t associated with each other. So, aside from example.com, they can also protect example-one.com and example-two.com.

Like a wildcard SSL certificate, this type of SSL certificate can protect unlimited subdomains of each site.

The number of sites the certificate can secure depends on the provider, though the typical range is between 100 and 250.

Websites that use multi-domain SSL certificates will have several names listed in the Subject Alternative Name (SAN) section of the Certificate Details.

Example of a multi-domain SSL certificate on Vox's website.

One benefit of multi-domain SSL certificates is that they are more affordable than purchasing separate single certificates for each site. That’s why they’re suitable for those running multiple online businesses.

That said, similarly to a wildcard SSL certificate, there will be security risks associated with sharing a private key between multiple servers. Furthermore, the number of domains added to the certificate can affect the site’s size, thereby slowing it down.

Finally, every time you modify the list of domains on the certificate, the CA has to renew and reissue the file. This process may cause all the protected sites to go offline for some time.

Unified Communications Certificates

A Unified Communications Certificate (UCC) is the predecessor of the multi-domain SSL certificate. It is intended for websites and applications hosted on Microsoft Exchange and Live Communications servers.

While it’s possible to use UCCs for non-Microsoft platforms, they have specific configurations that make them best to secure Microsoft Exchange server environments.

Three Types of SSL Certificate Validation Levels

Types of SSL certificates also vary by their validation level – the degree to which a CA checks the legitimacy of the person or company who owns the website. The more rigorous the vetting process, the more legitimate the certificate will look to the visitor.

There are three different types of SSL certificates based on their validation levels – Domain Validation, Organization Validation, and Extended Validation certificates.

Domain-Validated Certificates

Best for: Personal bloggers and freelancers

A Domain-Validated SSL certificate (DV) is the easiest and most affordable certificate to obtain.

At the domain validation level, the website owner only has to prove their domain ownership to the CA by email, phone call, or changing the DNS record. They won’t have to submit any documentation to install the certificate.

Websites that use DV SSL certificates will only show the domain name in the Subject field of the Certificate Details.

Example of a domain-validated SSL certificate on justinesnacks.com.

Organization-Validated Certificates

Best for: Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that deal with customers’ personal information

Organization Validation (OV) involves a more thorough vetting process than DV. Aside from domain validation, the CA will also check the applying entity’s information to determine if it’s a legitimate business.

To obtain an OV certificate, the registrant usually has to provide the CA with documentation that verifies their business name, physical address, phone number, and legal status. The process can take up to three days.

Websites that implement OV SSL certificates will display the business’s location information in the Subject line in the Details section. For this reason, this type of SSL certificate can make the entity appear much more legitimate to visitors.

Example of an organization-validated SSL certificate on Mailchimp's website.

Extended Validation Certificates

Best for: Large organizations

Extended Validation (EV) SSL certificates offer the most credible proof of legitimacy. The validation process is even more comprehensive than OV.

In addition to verifying the official records through an extensive background check, the CA will contact the registrant to confirm their physical location, legal status, and order details. This process can take up to several weeks.

Check the CA/Browser forum’s EV SSL certificate guidelines for the standardized procedures to obtain an EV SSL certificate.

To see if a website has an EV certificate, click the padlock on the address bar. This type of SSL certificate will usually feature the organization’s name, like so:

Example of an extended validation SSL certificate on Apple's website.

Click on Certificate and navigate to the Details tab -> Subject field. EV certificates will typically include the company number and object identifiers for the country and region where the business is based.

Apple.com's SSL certificate details

How to Install an SSL Certificate

Most hosting companies like Hostinger offer a built-in feature to install an SSL certificate. That way, users can easily set up a certificate instead of searching for one on their own.

The following sections will show you how to install Let’s Encrypt’s Lifetime SSL and Comodo’s PositiveSSL certificates on Hostinger. Note that both of them are single-domain and use domain validation.

Alternatively, you can install a custom SSL certificate.

How to Install a Lifetime SSL Certificate

All Hostinger hosting plans come with a free Lifetime SSL certificate which users can install right from their hosting control panel.

Here are the installation instructions:

  1. Log in to the hPanel and go to the Home or SSL section.
  2. Click Setup on the pending SSL activation order.
Screenshot of hPanel, Hostinger's control panel for managing web hosting.
  1. Select the website you want to use the SSL certificate on and click Install SSL.
Screenshot of selecting a website to install an SSL certificate.
  1. You will be redirected to the SSL section of the Hosting Account dashboard. Wait a few minutes for the installation process to complete. Once the process is successful, the Status column will let you know that the certificate is Active.
Screenshot of successfully installing the SSL certificate.

Editor's Note

Make sure that the domain is pointing to Hostinger’s nameservers, or an error message will appear. If you purchase a domain from Hostinger, it will use our nameservers by default. Otherwise, log in to your domain registrar’s account and change the nameservers to the ones below: ns1.dns-parking.com ns2.dns-parking.com

Editor

Darius Grigorjevas

Chief Customer Officer

How to Install a Comodo PositiveSSL Certificate

Hostinger clients can upgrade to the Comodo PositiveSSL certificate for $7.49/year. It comes with the highest level of security and $10,000 worth of relying party warranty.

To install the SSL certificate, you will need a domain-based admin email account.

Once you have that, follow the steps below:

  1. After buying the certificate, log in to hPanel and go to the Home or SSL page. Press the Setup button next to the Comodo PositiveSSL Certificate.
Screenshot of the setup button for Comodo PositiveSSL Certificate,
  1. Input the required contact information. Choose the admin email address you’ve created in the Approval Email field. Click Setup to finish.
Screenshot of filling in the contact information to set up the Comodo PositiveSSL certificate.
  1. You will receive a verification email in the admin inbox. Open it and copy the provided code.
Screenshot of the verification email for Comodo PositiveSSL certificate,
  1. Then, click the link in the message and paste the code there. Click Next.
Screenshot of the domain control validation page,
  1. Check the email you used to register the Hostinger account with. There should be an email with a .zip attachment containing CRT files. Download it as you will use these files for installation later.
Screenshot of the successful attachment email from Comodo,
  1. Return to hPanel and head to the Hosting Account dashboard -> SSL. Click Manage on the Comodo PositiveSSL section.
  2. Press the Download button to get the certificate files. They will contain a zipped folder with a .key extension – this is your certificate’s private key.
  3. Click Install. There will be three fields you’ll need to fill in:
    • Certificate (CRT). This is the public key downloaded from the email earlier. The name format is usually yourdomainname_com.crt. Open the file using a text editor like Notepad and copy-paste everything to the field.
    • Private Key (KEY). That’s the private key with the .key extension downloaded from hPanel. Open the file using a text editor and copy-paste its contents to the field.
    • Certificate Authority Bundle. This includes SectigoRSADomainValidationSecureServerCA.crt and USERTrustRSAAAA CA.crt. This field is optional as the server will retrieve the files from the public repository during the installation.
Screenshot of installing the Comodo PositiveSSL certificate on the hPanel
  1. When finished, click Install SSL. The certificate should now be active.
Screenshot of successfully installing the Comodo PositiveSSL certificate,

Editor's Note

If you can’t create a custom email account, contact our customer success representative to verify the domain using a different method.

Editor

Darius Grigorjevas

Chief Customer Officer

Conclusion

In this guide, we’ve explored the different types of SSL certificates. Short for Secure Sockets Layer, an SSL certificate is responsible for encrypting the connection between a website and its visitors’ browsers.

There are four types of SSL certificates based on the number of domains they can protect:

  1. Single domain SSL certificate. Secures one website only.
  2. Wildcard SSL certificate. Protects one website and its associated first-level subdomains.
  3. Multi-domain SSL certificate. Applicable for multiple domains that aren’t subdomains of each other.
  4. Unified communications certificate. A multi-domain certificate that’s configured for Microsoft servers.

There are also three levels of certificate validation: Domain Validation, Organization Validation, and Extended Validation. DV has the least rigorous vetting process as webmasters only need to verify their domain ownership via email or phone. EV and OV require submitting some business documentation, though they offer the highest level of authentication.

When choosing between different types of SSL certificates, make sure to pick one that best suits your website and business needs. Good luck.

Author
The author

Maisha Rachmat

Maisha is a web hosting expert and content writer at Hostinger. A believer in the power of the internet and technology, she aims to help others navigate their way through the world of tech. She spends her free time reading and cooking.