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I can register a .uk domain, does this mean I can set any subdomain I like infront of it including .co? Or even .ac? Wouldn't this mean that anyone can get an .ac.uk domain by just having ac as a subdomain on a .uk domain?

Is a .co.uk domain all one TLD or is the .co just a subdomain preadded by domain registrars?

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I can register a .uk domain

Yes, for example: example.uk (example is your registered domain name.)

does this mean I can set any subdomain I like infront of it including .co?

Yes, for example: co.example.uk (co is a subdomain of the domain example.uk you have just registered).

Wouldn't this mean that anyone can get an .ac.uk domain by just having ac as a subdomain on a .uk domain?

No, see above.

Is a .co.uk domain all one TLD or is the .co just a subdomain preadded by domain registrars?

Strictly speaking, the co is a subdomain (second level domain / SLD) of the uk TLD (top level domain).

However, for the sake of registration, co.uk is a TLD. Being able to register SLDs under .uk is a relatively recent addition.

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Can you register any domain under .uk?

Not entirely: until 10 July 2019 owners of .co.uk, .org.uk, .me.uk and .net.uk have first refusal for the equivalent .uk domains (in that order in case of different owners).

As w3d points out .co and .ac are technically SLDs of the main .uk domain and stay registered and managed as they are, along with the restrictions on them: so to purchase a .ac.uk domain for example you still need to be an accredited academic institution, similarly for .ltd.uk and .plc.uk.

Basically the existing owner of a SLD has the right to enforce whatever restrictions they like on the purchasing of sub-domains, and some of these are still in place to ensure the validity of the domains, for details of these domains check out Nominet.UK's page on the .UK domain: http://nominet.uk/domains/our-domains/uk-domains/

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