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What is the difference between a URI, a URL and a URN?


Question

People talk about URLs, URIs, and URNs as if they're different things, but they look the same to the naked eye.

What are the distinguishable differences between them?

2019/10/11
1
4429
10/11/2019 12:52:47 PM

Accepted Answer

From RFC 3986:

A URI can be further classified as a locator, a name, or both. The term "Uniform Resource Locator" (URL) refers to the subset of URIs that, in addition to identifying a resource, provide a means of locating the resource by describing its primary access mechanism (e.g., its network "location"). The term "Uniform Resource Name" (URN) has been used historically to refer to both URIs under the "urn" scheme [RFC2141], which are required to remain globally unique and persistent even when the resource ceases to exist or becomes unavailable, and to any other URI with the properties of a name.

So all URLs are URIs (actually not quite - see below), and all URNs are URIs - but URNs and URLs are different, so you can't say that all URIs are URLs.

EDIT: I had previously thought that all URLs are valid URIs, but as per comments:

Not "all URLs are URIs". It depends on the interpretation of the RFC. For example in Java the URI parser does not like [ or ] and that's because the spec says "should not" and not "shall not".

So that muddies the waters further, unfortunately.

If you haven't already read Roger Pate's answer, I'd advise doing so as well.

2020/01/07
1780
1/7/2020 9:08:49 AM


URI -- Uniform Resource Identifier

URIs are a standard for identifying documents using a short string of numbers, letters, and symbols. They are defined by RFC 3986 - Uniform Resource Identifier (URI): Generic Syntax. URLs, URNs, and URCs are all types of URI.

URL -- Uniform Resource Locator

Contains information about how to fetch a resource from its location. For example:

  • http://example.com/mypage.html
  • ftp://example.com/download.zip
  • mailto:[email protected]
  • file:///home/user/file.txt
  • tel:1-888-555-5555
  • http://example.com/resource?foo=bar#fragment
  • /other/link.html (A relative URL, only useful in the context of another URL)

URLs always start with a protocol (http) and usually contain information such as the network host name (example.com) and often a document path (/foo/mypage.html). URLs may have query parameters and fragment identifiers.

URN -- Uniform Resource Name

Identifies a resource by a unique and persistent name, but doesn't necessarily tell you how to locate it on the internet. It usually starts with the prefix urn: For example:

  • urn:isbn:0451450523 to identify a book by its ISBN number.
  • urn:uuid:6e8bc430-9c3a-11d9-9669-0800200c9a66 a globally unique identifier
  • urn:publishing:book - An XML namespace that identifies the document as a type of book.

URNs can identify ideas and concepts. They are not restricted to identifying documents. When a URN does represent a document, it can be translated into a URL by a "resolver". The document can then be downloaded from the URL.

URC -- Uniform Resource Citation

Points to meta data about a document rather than to the document itself. An example of a URC is one that points to the HTML source code of a page like: view-source:http://example.com/

Data URI

Rather than locating it on the internet, or naming it, data can be placed directly into a URI. An example would be data:,Hello%20World.


Frequently Asked Questions

I've heard that I shouldn't say URL anymore, why?

The W3 spec for HTML says that the href of an anchor tag can contain a URI, not just a URL. You should be able to put in a URN such as <a href="urn:isbn:0451450523">. Your browser would then resolve that URN to a URL and download the book for you.

Do any browsers actually know how to fetch documents by URN?

Not that I know of, but modern web browser do implement the data URI scheme.

Does the difference between URL and URI have anything to do with whether it is relative or absolute?

No. Both relative and absolute URLs are URLs (and URIs.)

Does the difference between URL and URI have anything to do with whether it has query parameters?

No. Both URLs with and without query parameters are URLs (and URIs.)

Does the difference between URL and URI have anything to do with whether it has a fragment identifier?

No. Both URLs with and without fragment identifiers are URLs (and URIs.)

Does the difference between URL and URI have anything to do with what characters are permitted?

No. URLs are defined to be a strict subset of URIs. If a parser allows a character in a URL but not in a URI, there is a bug in the parser. The specs go into great detail about which characters are allowed in which parts of URLs and URIs. Some characters may be allowed only in some parts of the URL, but characters alone are not a difference between URLs and URIs.

But doesn't the W3C now say that URLs and URIs are the same thing?

Yes. The W3C realized that there is a ton of confusion about this. They issued a URI clarification document that says that it is now OK to use the terms URL and URI interchangeably (to mean URI). It is no longer useful to strictly segment URIs into different types such as URL, URN, and URC.

Can a URI be both a URL and a URN?

The definition of URN is now looser than what I stated above. The latest RFC on URIs says that any URI can now be a URN (regardless of whether it starts with urn:) as long as it has "the properties of a name." That is: It is globally unique and persistent even when the resource ceases to exist or becomes unavailable. An example: The URIs used in HTML doctypes such as http://www.w3.org/TR/html4/strict.dtd. That URI would continue to name the HTML4 transitional doctype even if the page on the w3.org website were deleted.


URI/URL Venn Diagram

2019/02/15

In summary: a URI identifies, a URL identifies and locates.

Consider a specific edition of Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet, of which you have a digital copy on your home network.

You could identify the text as urn:isbn:0-486-27557-4.
That would be a URI, but more specifically a URN* because it names the text.

You could also identify the text as file://hostname/sharename/RomeoAndJuliet.pdf.
That would also be a URI, but more specifically a URL because it locates the text.

*Uniform Resource Name

(Note that my example is adapted from Wikipedia)

2016/04/17

These are some very well-written but long-winded answers. Here is the difference as far as CodeIgniter is concerned:

URL - http://example.com/some/page.html

URI - /some/page.html

Put simply, URL is the full way to indentify any resource anywhere and can have different protocols like FTP, HTTP, SCP, etc.

URI is a resource on the current domain, so it needs less information to be found.

In every instance that CodeIgniter uses the word URL or URI this is the difference they are talking about, though in the grand-scheme of the web, it is not 100% correct.

2015/03/30

First of all get your mind out of confusion and take it simple and you will understand.

URI => Uniform Resource Identifier Identifies a complete address of resource i-e location, name or both.

URL => Uniform Resource Locator Identifies location of the resource.

URN => Uniform Resource Name Identifies the name of the resource

Example

We have address https://www.google.com/folder/page.html where,

URI(Uniform Resource Identifier) => https://www.google.com/folder/page.html

URL(Uniform Resource Locator) => https://www.google.com/

URN(Uniform Resource Name) => /folder/page.html

URI => (URL + URN) or URL only or URN only

2018/02/24

A small addition to the answers already posted, here's a Venn's diagram to sum up the theory (from Prateek Joshi's beautiful explanation):

enter image description here

And an example (also from Prateek's website):

enter image description here

2014/10/16

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