SSL Vs. Wildcard SSL Certificate – Which SSL Certificate Should I Choose?

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SSL/TLS certificates are the foundation of website security. They encrypt the data transferred between the client and server over the wire and provide third-party verification of the applicant’s business identity.

Wildcard Certificate Vs. Regular Certificate

Depending upon your business needs, you can get a single certificate for each domain that you want to secure or get a single certificate that can accommodate multiple domains and/or subdomains. All SSL certificates have a field called the website’s common name (also referred to as the host or the domain name) which dictates the domain to be covered by the certificate.

SSL certificates that cover a range of subdomains at a specific level are known as Wildcard certificates. The top-level domain remains the same, but the subdomain is different.

Consider an example:

Todd has a domain named www.site.com. He can request the CA to secure that single domain with a standard SSL certificate. When he does that most CAs will secure the non-www version for free. So, Todd will now get an SSL certificate for both www.site.com as well as site.com. Please note that the reverse is not true. Had Todd requested a certificate for a non-www version such as site.com the CA would not have issued a certificate with free coverage for www.site.com.

Now suppose www.site.com has multiple sub-domains such as:

  • mail.site.com
  • order.site.com
  • product.site.com
  • blog.site.com, etc.

There is a lot of work and money involved if Todd has to make a request to secure these subdomains individually, and he will end up managing multiple SSL certificates.

With a wildcard SSL certificate, *.site.com will automatically secure mail.site.com, order.site.com, product.site.com, blog.site.com, etc. The asterisk is used to specify the level, and it can only secure one level, not multiple levels. For example, a certificate for *.site.com will not secure test.blog.site.com.

Single Name SSL Certificate SSL Wildcard Certificate
One certificate for one single FQDN (fully qualified domain name), will not secure additional subdomains. One certificate for an unlimited number of subdomains at a specific level.
Example: www.site.com Example: *.site.com secures every subdomain at that level such as order.site.com, blog.site.com, etc.
256-bit strong encryption with 2048-bit RSA signature key 256-bit strong encryption with 2048-bit RSA signature key
Available for all levels of validation – DV, OV and EV A single private key is shared amongst all sub-domains across servers. Unauthorized access to the certificate’s private key can be used to set up a rogue site with a valid SSL certificate giving it undue legitimacy. This sort of breach is hard to detect and impacts the security of all sub-domains, and for this reason, EV (Extended Validation) certificates are not issued in conjunction with wildcard SSL.

Which SSL certificate do I need for my website?

Given the security considerations of a wildcard SSL, if there is only one domain to secure with no intention of adding more subdomains, it makes sense to go for a standard single-domain SSL certificate. However, if you have multiple subdomains and you can live without Extended Validation, it is reasonable to go for a wildcard SSL while taking extra measures against unauthorized access to the private key.

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