Not only is Bitcoin the first cryptocurrency, but it’s also the best known of the more than 5,000 cryptocurrencies in existence today. Financial media eagerly covers each new dramatic high and stomach churning decline, making Bitcoin an inescapable part of the landscape.
While the wild volatility might produce great headlines, it hardly makes Bitcoin the best choice for novice investors or people looking for a stable store of value. Understanding the ins and outs can be tricky—let’s take a closer look at how Bitcoin works.
Bitcoin is a decentralized digital currency that you can buy, sell and exchange directly, without an intermediary like a bank. Bitcoin’s creator, Satoshi Nakamoto, originally described the need for “an electronic payment system based on cryptographic proof instead of trust.”
Each and every Bitcoin transaction that’s ever been made exists on a public ledger accessible to everyone, making transactions hard to reverse and difficult to fake. That’s by design: Core to their decentralized nature, Bitcoins aren’t backed by the government or any issuing institution, and there’s nothing to guarantee their value besides the proof baked in the heart of the system.
“The reason why it’s worth money is simply because we, as people, decided it has value—same as gold,” says Anton Mozgovoy, co-founder & CEO of digital financial service company Holyheld.
Bitcoin is built on a distributed digital record called a blockchain. As the name implies, blockchain is a linked body of data, made up of units called blocks that contain information about each and every transaction, including date and time, total value, buyer and seller, and a unique identifying code for each exchange. Entries are strung together in chronological order, creating a digital chain of blocks.
Bitcoin mining is the process of adding new transactions to the Bitcoin blockchain. It’s a tough job. People who choose to mine Bitcoin use a process called proof of work, deploying computers in a race to solve mathematical puzzles that verify transactions.
To entice miners to keep racing to solve the puzzles and support the overall system, the Bitcoin code rewards miners with new Bitcoins. “This is how new coins are created” and new transactions are added to the blockchain, says Okoro.
In the early days, it was possible for the average person to mine Bitcoin, but that’s no longer the case. The Bitcoin code is written to make solving its puzzles more and more challenging over time, requiring more and more computing resources. Today, Bitcoin mining requires powerful computers and access to massive amounts of cheap electricity to be successful.
In the U.S. people generally use Bitcoin as an alternative investment, helping diversify a portfolio apart from stocks and bonds. You can also use Bitcoin to make purchases, but the number of vendors that accept the cryptocurrency is still limited.
Big companies that accept Bitcoin include Microsoft, PayPal and Whole Foods, to name only a few. You may also find that some small local retailers or certain websites take Bitcoin, but you’ll have to do some digging.
You can also use a service that allows you to connect a debit card to your crypto account, meaning you can use Bitcoin the same way you’d use a credit card. This also generally involves a financial provider instantly converting your Bitcoin into dollars. “Crypto.com and CoinZoom are two services that have regulation in the U.S.,” Montgomery says.
In other countries—particularly those with less stable currencies—people sometimes use cryptocurrency instead of their own currency.
Most people buy Bitcoin via cryptocurrency exchanges. Exchanges allow you to buy, sell and hold cryptocurrency, and setting up an account is similar to opening a brokerage account—you’ll need to verify your identity and provide some kind of funding source, such as a bank account or debit card.
Major exchanges include Coinbase, Kraken, and Gemini. You can also buy Bitcoin at an online broker like Robinhood.
Regardless of where you buy your Bitcoin, you’ll need a Bitcoin wallet in which to store it. This might be what’s called a hot wallet or a cold wallet. A hot wallet (also called an online wallet) is stored by an exchange or a provider in the cloud. Providers of online wallets include Exodus, Electrum and Mycelium. A cold wallet (or mobile wallet) is an offline device used to store Bitcoin and is not connected to the Internet. Some mobile wallet options include Trezor and Ledger.
A few important notes about buying Bitcoin: While Bitcoin is expensive, you can buy fractional Bitcoin from some vendors. You’ll also need to look out for fees, which are generally small percentages of your crypto transaction amount but can really add up on small-dollar purchases. Finally, be aware that Bitcoin purchases are not instantaneous like many other equity purchases seemingly are. Because Bitcoin transactions must be verified by miners, it may take you at least 10-20 minutes to see your Bitcoin purchase in your account.
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