SSL FAQ: What is SSL, and How Does it Work?

New to SSL? No problem! As a leading certificate authority, RapidSSL has been helping webmasters secure their sites for years. Here's what you need to know to get started.

Q: What is SSL?

A: Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) is a protocol for enabling data encryption and site authentication on the Internet. Credit card numbers, health details and other sensitive information is transmitted only after being converted into a secure code. Domain authentication reassures site users that they're actually interacting with the site identified in the URL bar. Without SSL, online transactions would be vulnerable to interception by unauthorized parties. These hackers or identity thieves could also more easily imitate a legitimate website. SSL is most commonly used to protect communications between web browsers and servers. However, it is also used for server-to-server communications and for web-based applications.

Q: What is a Wildcard SSL certificate?

A: A Wildcard SSL certificate provides the same encryption and authentication features as other SSL certificates. However, a Wildcard certificate can also be applied to unlimited subdomains of a site. Some sites utilize subdomains like A Wildcard SSL certificate supports the root domain ( as well as its subdomains. You can buy a Wildcard SSL certificate from RapidSSL.

Q: What is a certificate authority?

A: Companies that issue SSL certificates are known as certificate authorities. The protection provided by an SSL certificate is only as good as the company that stands behind it. Web browsers like Firefox and Chrome maintain a list of trusted certificate authorities. If your site serves up one of these trusted certificates, the browser will recognize it as secure.

RapidSSL is a certificate authority. Our SSL certificates are trusted by more than 99% of browsers, providing reassurance and protection to countless visitors.

Q: Why should I buy from RapidSSL?

A: Our value proposition is simple: high-quality SSL protection at a low cost. We accomplish this a variety of ways, and it's what separates us from other SSL certificate authorities. We also back our certificates with warranties. Want more details? Here are 10 reasons to buy from RapidSSL.

Q: How long are RapidSSL certificates valid?

A: Our SSL and Wildcard SSL certificates can be purchased for terms of 1-3 years. You can then renew the certificate.

Q: How long does enrollment take and how soon will I be able to secure my site?

A: An SSL certificate may be issued within minutes of submitting your enrollment information as long as the information is correct and the authorized administrator responds promptly to the confirmation email. RapidSSL® Certificates and RapidSSL® Wildcard both use an authentication process to verify domain control validation.

Q: What is domain control validation?

A: RapidSSL will confirm domain control by sending an email to the administrator listed with the registrar for the domain. If the authorized administrator does not reply, a second email will be sent to an email address at the domain such as info@ or support@. (You may select a secondary email address during the enrollment process.) In addition to validation by email, you will be asked to provide a telephone number where you can be reached immediately after submitting your enrollment. If everything checks out, the SSL certificate is issued.

Q: What is data encryption and why are there different levels?

A: Encryption is a mathematical process of coding and decoding information in order to keep data secure while traveling between computers. If raw, unencrypted data is sent, anyone who intercepts the information can easily understand it. The number of bits (40-bit, 56-bit, 128-bit, 256-bit) tells you the size of the key. Like a longer password, a larger key has more possible combinations. When an encrypted session is established, the encryption level is determined by the capability of the web browser, SSL certificate, web server, and client computer operating system.

Q: How do visitors know if a website is using SSL?

A: When a browser connects to a secure site it retrieves its SSL certificate and checks that it has not expired, that it has been issued by a certificate authority the browser trusts, and that it is being used by the website for which it has been issued. If it fails on any one of these checks the browser will display a warning to the end user. If it succeeds, several security indicators are built into modern browsers to indicate that SSL is enabled.

  • The beginning of the URL or web address changes from http:// to https://
  • A padlock on the browser window changes from open to closed
  • The address bar will turn green and display the name of the website owner when connecting to a website protected by an Extended Validation SSL certificate.

In addition, a trust mark such as the RapidSSL site seal may be added to web pages on a secure site.

Q: What does browser recognition mean?

A: When a browser or operating system encounters an SSL certificate, it checks to make sure that the certificate is valid and trusted. An SSL certificate is trusted if the browser contains a corresponding pre-installed root certificate. If a browser does not contain the root certificate, a security warning will alert the end user.

Q: What is a public/private key pair?

A: SSL uses unique cryptographic key pairs: each key pair consists of a secret private key and a related public key. Information encrypted with a public key can only be decrypted with the corresponding private key, and vice-versa.

Q: What is a certificate signing request or CSR?

A: A CSR is a public key that you generate on your server according to your server software instructions. If you do not have access to your server, your web host or internet service provider will generate it for you. The CSR is required during the SSL certificate enrollment process because it validates the specific information about your web server and your organization.

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