Some 300,000 Europeans rushed to register their new ".eu" domain names in the first hour of being able to sign up for the new Internet addresses, officials said Friday.

By midday, registrations had exceeded 550,000.

Until Friday, registration was limited to specific groups, such as registered trademark owners, public bodies and companies. Now, anyone who resides in the 25-nation European Union can buy a name on a first-come, first-served basis.

EU Commissioner Viviane Reding said the Commission hopes the new ".eu" name will one day rival the ".com" name.

"Europe and its citizens can now project their own Web identity, protected by EU rules," she said.

The initial registrations Friday mostly came from Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Belgium, Reding said. Previously, special groups registered 320,000 names since that became available in December.

All EU institutions, including the Commission, European Parliament and the EU's general Web site will switch to the ".eu" name on May 9, Europe Day, Reding said.

Before the creation of ".eu," Europeans had to choose between a national domain such as ".fr" for France or a global one like ".com," often seen as American. Officials from the EU small business lobby UEAPME said the ".eu" name could be useful for companies that serve several or all European countries.

EU officials urged consumers to be cautious over registration charges. They said they found names available for as little as $14.77.

There are about 250 domain names on the Internet, but they are typically assigned by country or territory.

The Internet's key oversight agency, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, made an exception because EU is on a special "reserved" list kept by the International Organization for Standards, a worldwide standardization body.

ICANN also is considering a ".asia" name for that continent.