A cryptocurrency is a digital or virtual currency secured by cryptography, which makes it nearly impossible to counterfeit or double-spend. Many cryptocurrencies are decentralized networks based on blockchain technology, a distributed ledger enforced by a disparate network of computers.
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What is cryptocurrency? A cryptocurrency is a digital currency, which is an alternative form of payment created using encryption algorithms. The use of encryption technologies means that cryptocurrencies function both as a currency and as a virtual accounting system. To use cryptocurrencies, you need a cryptocurrency wallet.
These wallets can be software that is a cloud-based service or is stored on your computer or on your mobile device. The wallets are the tool through which you store your encryption keys that confirm your identity and link to your cryptocurrency.
- A cryptocurrency is a form of digital asset based on a network that is distributed across a large number of computers. This decentralized structure allows them to exist outside the control of governments and central authorities.
- Some experts believe blockchain and related technologies will disrupt many industries, including finance and law.
- The advantages of cryptocurrencies include cheaper and faster money transfers and decentralized systems that do not collapse at a single point of failure.
- The disadvantages of cryptocurrencies include their price volatility, high energy consumption for mining activities, and use in criminal activities.
Types of Cryptocurrency
Many cryptocurrencies were created to facilitate work done on the blockchain they are built on. For example, Ethereum’s ether was designed to be used as payment for validation work done on the blockchain. When the blockchain transitioned to proof-of-stake in September 2022, ether (ETH) inherited an additional duty as the blockchain’s staking mechanism. Ripple’s XRP is designed to be used by banks to facilitate transfers between different geographies.
Because there are so many cryptocurrencies on the market, it’s important to understand the types of cryptocurrencies. Understanding if the coin you’re looking at has a purpose can help you decide whether it is worth investing in—a cryptocurrency without a purpose is likely to be riskier than one with utility.
Most of the time, when you hear about cryptocurrency types, you hear the coin’s name. However, coin names differ from coin types. Here are some of the types you’ll find with some of the names of tokens in that category:
- Utility: XRP and ETH are two examples of utility tokens. They serve specific functions on their respective blockchains.
- Transactional: Tokens designed to be used as a payment method. Bitcoin is the most well-known of these.
- Governance: These tokens represent voting or other rights on a blockchain, such as Uniswap.
- Platform: These tokens support applications built to use a blockchain, such as Solana.
- Security tokens: Tokens representing ownership of an asset, such as a stock that has been tokenized (value transferred to the blockchain). MS Token is an example of a securitized token. If you can find one of these for sale, you can gain partial ownership of the Millenium Sapphire.
How does cryptocurrency work?
Cryptocurrencies run on a distributed public ledger called blockchain, a record of all transactions updated and held by currency holders.
Units of cryptocurrency are created through a process called mining, which involves using computer power to solve complicated mathematical problems that generate coins. Users can also buy the currencies from brokers, then store and spend them using cryptographic wallets.
If you own cryptocurrency, you don’t own anything tangible. What you own is a key that allows you to move a record or a unit of measure from one person to another without a trusted third party.
Although Bitcoin has been around since 2009, cryptocurrencies and applications of blockchain technology are still emerging in financial terms, and more uses are expected in the future. Transactions including bonds, stocks, and other financial assets could eventually be traded using the technology.
There are thousands of cryptocurrencies. Some of the best known include:
Founded in 2009, Bitcoin was the first cryptocurrency and is still the most commonly traded. The currency was developed by Satoshi Nakamoto – widely believed to be a pseudonym for an individual or group of people whose precise identity remains unknown.
Developed in 2015, Ethereum is a blockchain platform with its own cryptocurrency, called Ether (ETH) or Ethereum. It is the most popular cryptocurrency after Bitcoin.
This currency is most similar to bitcoin but has moved more quickly to develop new innovations, including faster payments and processes to allow more transactions.
Ripple is a distributed ledger system that was founded in 2012. Ripple can be used to track different kinds of transactions, not just cryptocurrency. The company behind it has worked with various banks and financial institutions.
Non-Bitcoin cryptocurrencies are collectively known as “altcoins” to distinguish them from the original.
How to buy cryptocurrency
You may be wondering how to buy cryptocurrency safely. There are typically three steps involved. These are:
Step 1: Choosing a platform
The first step is deciding which platform to use. Generally, you can choose between a traditional broker or dedicated cryptocurrency exchange:
- Traditional brokers. These are online brokers who offer ways to buy and sell cryptocurrency, as well as other financial assets like stocks, bonds, and ETFs. These platforms tend to offer lower trading costs but fewer crypto features.
- Cryptocurrency exchanges. There are many cryptocurrency exchanges to choose from, each offering different cryptocurrencies, wallet storage, interest-bearing account options, and more. Many exchanges charge asset-based fees.
When comparing different platforms, consider which cryptocurrencies are on offer, what fees they charge, their security features, storage and withdrawal options, and any educational resources.
Step 2: Funding your account
Once you have chosen your platform, the next step is to fund your account so you can begin trading. Most crypto exchanges allow users to purchase crypto using fiat (i.e., government-issued) currencies such as the US Dollar, the British Pound, or the Euro using their debit or credit cards – although this varies by platform.
Crypto purchases with credit cards are considered risky, and some exchanges don’t support them. Some credit card companies don’t allow crypto transactions either. This is because cryptocurrencies are highly volatile, and it is not advisable to risk going into debt — or potentially paying high credit card transaction fees — for certain assets.
Some platforms will also accept ACH transfers and wire transfers. The accepted payment methods and time taken for deposits or withdrawals differ per platform. Equally, the time taken for deposits to clear varies by payment method.
An important factor to consider is fees. These include potential deposit and withdrawal transaction fees plus trading fees. Fees will vary by payment method and platform, which is something to research at the outset.
Step 3: Placing an order
You can place an order via your broker’s or exchange’s web or mobile platform. If you are planning to buy cryptocurrencies, you can do so by selecting “buy,” choosing the order type, entering the amount of cryptocurrencies you want to purchase, and confirming the order. The same process applies to “sell” orders.
There are also other ways to invest in crypto. These include payment services like PayPal, Cash App, and Venmo, which allow users to buy, sell, or hold cryptocurrencies. In addition, there are the following investment vehicles:
- Bitcoin trusts: You can buy shares of Bitcoin trusts with a regular brokerage account. These vehicles give retail investors exposure to crypto through the stock market.
- Bitcoin mutual funds: There are Bitcoin ETFs and Bitcoin mutual funds to choose from.
- Blockchain stocks or ETFs: You can also indirectly invest in crypto through blockchain companies that specialize in the technology behind crypto and crypto transactions. Alternatively, you can buy stocks or ETFs of companies that use blockchain technology.
The best option for you will depend on your investment goals and risk appetite.
How to store cryptocurrency
Once you have purchased cryptocurrency, you need to store it safely to protect it from hacks or theft. Usually, cryptocurrency is stored in crypto wallets, which are physical devices or online software used to store the private keys to your cryptocurrencies securely. Some exchanges provide wallet services, making it easy for you to store directly through the platform. However, not all exchanges or brokers automatically provide wallet services for you.
There are different wallet providers to choose from. The terms “hot wallet” and “cold wallet” are used:
- Hot wallet storage: “hot wallets” refer to crypto storage that uses online software to protect the private keys to your assets.
- Cold wallet storage: Unlike hot wallets, cold wallets (also known as hardware wallets) rely on offline electronic devices to securely store your private keys.
Follow these tips to protect your cryptocurrencies:
- Look before you leap! Before investing in a cryptocurrency, be sure you understand how it works, where it can be used, and how to exchange it. Read the webpages for the currency itself (such as Ethereum, Bitcoin or Litecoin) so that you fully understand how it works, and read independent articles on the cryptocurrencies you are considering as well.
- Use a trustworthy wallet. It is going to take some research on your part to choose the right wallet for your needs. If you choose to manage your cryptocurrency wallet with a local application on your computer or mobile device, then you will need to protect this wallet at a level consistent with your investment. Just like you wouldn’t carry a million dollars around in a paper bag, don’t choose an unknown or lesser-known wallet to protect your cryptocurrency. You want to make sure that you use a trustworthy wallet.
- Have a backup strategy. Think about what happens if your computer or mobile device (or wherever you store your wallet) is lost or stolen or if you don’t otherwise have access to it. Without a backup strategy, you will have no way of getting your cryptocurrency back, and you could lose your investment.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Cryptocurrency
Cryptocurrencies were introduced with the intent to revolutionize financial infrastructure. As with every revolution, however, there are tradeoffs involved. At the current stage of development for cryptocurrencies, there are many differences between the theoretical ideal of a decentralized system with cryptocurrencies and its practical implementation.
Some advantages and disadvantages of cryptocurrencies are as follows.
- Removes single points of failure
- Easier to transfer funds between parties
- Removes third parties
- Can be used to generate returns
- Remittances are streamlined
- Transactions are pseudonymous
- Pseudonymity allows for criminal uses
- Have become highly centralized
- Expensive to participate in a network and earn
- Off-chain security issues
- Prices are very volatile
Is cryptocurrency safe?
Cryptocurrencies are usually built using blockchain technology. Blockchain describes the way transactions are recorded into “blocks” and time stamped. It’s a fairly complex, technical process, but the result is a digital ledger of cryptocurrency transactions that’s hard for hackers to tamper with.
In addition, transactions require a two-factor authentication process. For instance, you might be asked to enter a username and password to start a transaction. Then, you might have to enter an authentication code sent via text to your personal cell phone.
While securities are in place, that does not mean cryptocurrencies are un-hackable. Several high-dollar hacks have cost cryptocurrency start-ups heavily. Hackers hit Coincheck to the tune of $534 million and BitGrail for $195 million, making them two of the biggest cryptocurrency hacks of 2018.
Tips to invest in cryptocurrency safely
According to Consumer Reports, all investments carry risk, but some experts consider cryptocurrency to be one of the riskier investment choices out there. If you are planning to invest in cryptocurrencies, these tips can help you make educated choices.
Before you invest, learn about cryptocurrency exchanges. It’s estimated that there are over 500 exchanges to choose from. Do your research, read reviews, and talk with more experienced investors before moving forward.
Know how to store your digital currency:
If you buy cryptocurrency, you have to store it. You can keep it on an exchange or in a digital wallet. While there are different kinds of wallets, each has its benefits, technical requirements, and security. As with exchanges, you should investigate your storage choices before investing.
Diversify your investments:
Diversification is key to any good investment strategy, and this holds true when you are investing in cryptocurrency. Don’t put all your money in Bitcoin, for example, just because that’s the name you know. There are thousands of options, and it’s better to spread your investment across several currencies.
Prepare for volatility:
The cryptocurrency market is highly volatile, so be prepared for ups and downs. You will see dramatic swings in prices. If your investment portfolio or mental wellbeing can’t handle that, cryptocurrency might not be a wise choice for you.
Cryptocurrency is all the rage right now, but remember, it is still in its relative infancy and is considered highly speculative. Investing in something new comes with challenges, so be prepared. If you plan to participate, do your research, and invest conservatively to start.
Cryptocurrencies are still relatively new, and the market for these digital currencies is very volatile. Since cryptocurrencies don’t need banks or any other third party to regulate them; they tend to be uninsured and are hard to convert into a form of tangible currency (such as US dollars or euros.) In addition, since cryptocurrencies are technology-based intangible assets, they can be hacked like any other intangible technology asset. Finally, since you store your cryptocurrencies in a digital wallet, if you lose your wallet (or access to it or to wallet backups), you have lost your entire cryptocurrency investment.