What is cryptocurrency — and how can I use it?
Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, Litecoin, Peercoin and many more are growing in popularity. Here’s how they work.
The value of bitcoin is reaching all-time highs in 2017, boosting interest in all cryptocurrencies — more than 700 out there at any given time. But just what is cryptocurrency, and how you can save, earn and spend it?
What is cryptocurrency?
How are cryptocurrency records kept?
That digital public ledger on which all transactions are recorded is called the blockchain. Data is stored across a network, so it’s not susceptible to exploitation by hackers or central failure.
Each record or series of records on the blockchain is known as a block. A block is sent to the network and added to the blockchain after it’s accepted by the network as a valid transfer. Once verified, the blocks cannot be changed.
What does it mean to mine cryptocurrency?
Cryptocurrencies are released to the world through a process called “mining.” For you to mine this currency, you must attempt to solve a computational puzzle known as a hash, which allows you to add the next block. These transactions are then recorded in the blockchain for all to see.
People around the world compete to be the first to solve a hash. Those “miners” who succeed in solving the hash receive a block reward — or an amount of the cryptocurrency they mined.
What equipment do I need to begin mining cryptocurrency?
It depends on what you would like to mine, some will need extremely specialized equipment like ASIC miners where other coins can be mined with just a mobile phone.
Look for free software with easy-to-follow instructions that explain how these programs work with your selected hardware.
Mined coins will need to be stored on your wallet. The type of wallets available depends in the CryptoCurrency you prefer to mine.
How can I buy and use cryptocurrency?
Cryptocurrency is a volatile market, with exchange rates that can wildly fluctuate by day, and sometimes by hour. Bitcoin is the better-known and most valuable cryptocurrency out there, but there are many others to explore, including litecoin, peercoin, dogecoin, monero and ripple.
When you buy or receive cryptocurrency, you are given a digital key to the address of that currency. You can use this key to access and validate or approve transactions.
You need a place to keep your key safe, which is where a cryptocurrency wallet comes in.
You have a variety of cryptocurrency wallets to choose from:
- Desktop wallets. Software like Cryptonator allows you to send and store cryptocurrency addresses and also connects to the network to track transactions.
- Online wallets. Cryptocurrency keys are stored online by exchange platforms like Coinbase or Circle and can be accessed from anywhere.
- Mobile wallets. Apps like Blockchain store and encrypt your bitcoin keys so that you can make payments using your mobile device.
- Paper wallets. Some websites offer paper wallet services, generating a piece of paper with two QR codes on it. One code is the public address at which you receive cryptocurrency, and the other is your private address you can use for spending.
- Hardware wallets. You can use a USB device created specifically to store bitcoin electronically and your private address keys.
Why should I use cryptocurrency?
You already use debit cards and credit cards — two tools that “digitize” your dollars, pounds or euros. But there are a few advantages to using cryptocurrency over your standard government-issued currency.
- Low transaction fees. Because miners are simply rewarded cryptocurrency from the network itself, there are typically little to no fees for core transactions.
- Ownership. With your digital key, access to your currency is yours alone. Unlike money you store at a bank, your use of your cryptocurrency cannot be frozen or limited by any entity.
- Identity protection. Paying with credit or debit cards requires submitting sensitive banking information that could be stolen or compromised. Cryptocurrency can be sent directly to a recipient without any information other than total amount you want to send.
- Accessibility. Billions of people can access the Internet, but not everyone has access to banks or money exchange systems. Cryptocurrency requires no bank or line of credit to make or receive payments electronically.
- Risk-free for sellers. Payments using cryptocurrency can’t be reversed, which means merchants don’t have to worry about stopped payments. The blockchain makes it difficult for you to be defrauded.
Are there drawbacks to using cryptocurrency?
Aside from the difficulty of understanding the concept of cryptocurrency itself, there are a few drawbacks to using it:
- General awareness. More people and businesses are starting to accept cryptocurrency, but it’s a small number compared to those accepting debit and credit cards.
- Volatility. Cryptocurrency exchange rates can vary greatly. Which means the amount you pay or receive one day could be wildly different the next. The market should eventually settle down, but it’s hard to predict where the rates will be.
- Newness. Even popular bitcoin is new and growing. It could take time before the various cryptocurrencies reach their potential. Similarly, some may fall by the wayside, while others come to dominate the market.
Terms you may encounter with cryptocurrencies
51% attack. An attack on the blockchain, whereby a group of miners controls more than half of a network’s computing power and can refuse to verify transactions and pay users. It hasn’t happened, but it’s a possibility discussed in the market.
Block. Each record or series of records on the blockchain.
Block reward. An amount of bitcoin given to the person who adds a new block to the blockchain.
Blockchain. A digital public ledger on which the entire history of a cryptocurrency is recorded.
Proof of stake. A system that replaces the concept of “mining” with a consensus algorithm, whereby miners put up a stake of their currency to verify a block of transactions.
Proof of work. A hash that is so difficult, it could only have been solved through significant work or power.