Cryptocurrency (Like Bitcoin) Explained Simply
We explain “how cryptocurrency works.” The goal of this guide is to teach beginners about blockchain and digital currencies (like Bitcoin).
Below we simplify things to make a somewhat complex system easier to understand. Do a site search, Google search, or see the links below to learn more about specific concepts.
What a new user needs to know: In terms of being a payment system, cryptocurrency is roughly the equivalent of using PayPal or a Debit Card, except the numbers on the screen represent decentralized digital currency instead of dollars. In terms of investment, cryptocurrency is more like trading stocks, as their values tend to fluctuate against the dollar often. All a new user needs to do is set up a Coinbase account or download Robinhood or Cash App to get started (although other platforms exist). With Coinbase and Robinhood users can buy, sell, send, receive, and store coins like Bitcoin, Ether, and Litecoin (Coinbase provides an all-in-one wallet, broker, and exchange service making them a one-stop-shop for new users, plus they have a big selection of coins). With Cash App users can buy, sell, send, receive, and store only Bitcoin (but there are fewer bells and whistles to figure out than with other platforms).
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The basic concepts are: To use cryptocurrency, you don’t need to understand it (any more than you need to understand the monetary system to use a debit card). However, if you want to understand cryptocurrency you need to understand the concept of digital currency, the concept of blockchain (both as a public ledger of transactions and a technology), and the concept of cryptography. After all, cryptocurrency is a digital currency, where transactions are recorded on a public digital ledger called a blockchain, and every process along the way is secured by cryptography. The goal of this page will be to help you understand these things and how they connect.
Cryptocurrency works a lot like bank credit on a debit card. In both cases, a complex system that issues currency and records transactions and balances works behind the scenes to allow people to send and receive currency electronically. Likewise, just like with banking, online platforms can be used to manage accounts and move balances. The main difference between cryptocurrency and bank credit is that instead of banks and governments issuing the currency and keeping ledgers, an algorithm does.
What is cryptocurrency? Cryptocurrency is best thought of as digital currency (it only exists on computers). It is transferred between peers (there is no middleman like a bank). Transactions are recorded on a digital public ledger (called a “blockchain”). Transaction data and the ledger are encrypted using cryptography (which is why it is called “crypto” “currency”). It is decentralized, meaning it is controlled by users and computer algorithms and not a central government. It is distributed, meaning the blockchain is hosted on many computers across the globe. Meanwhile, cryptocurrencies are traded on online cryptocurrency exchanges, like stock exchanges. Bitcoin (commonly traded under the symbol BTC) is one of many cryptocurrencies; other cryptocurrencies have names like “Ether (ETH),” “Ripple (XRP),” and “Litecoin (LTC).” Alternatives to Bitcoin are called “altcoins.”
How does cryptocurrency work? Transactions are sent between peers using software called “cryptocurrency wallets.” The person creating the transaction uses the wallet software to transfer balances from one account (AKA a public address) to another. To transfer funds, knowledge of a password (AKA a private key) associated with the account is needed. Transactions made between peers are encrypted and then broadcast to the cryptocurrency’s network and queued up to be added to the public ledger. Transactions are then recorded on the public ledger via a process called “mining” (explained below). All users of a given cryptocurrency have access to the ledger if they choose to access it, for example by downloading and running a copy of the software called a “full node” wallet (as opposed to holding their coins in a third party wallet like Coinbase). The transaction amounts are public, but who sent the transaction is encrypted (transactions are pseudo-anonymous). Each transaction leads back to a unique set of keys. Whoever owns a set of keys, owns the amount of cryptocurrency associated with those keys (just like whoever owns a bank account owns the money in it). Many transactions are added to a ledger at once. These “blocks” of transactions are added sequentially by miners. That is why the ledger and the technology behind it are called “block” “chain.” It is a “chain” of “blocks” of transactions. TIP: I’ve just described how Bitcoin works and how many other coins work too. However, some altcoins use unique mechanics. For example, some coins offer fully private transactions and some don’t use blockchain at all.
How does blockchain work? The blockchain is like a decentralized bank ledger, in both cases, the ledger is a record of transactions and balances. When a cryptocurrency transaction is made, that transaction is sent out to all users hosting a copy of the blockchain. Specific types of users called miners then try to solve a cryptographic puzzle (using software) which lets them add a “block” of transactions to the ledger. Whoever solves the puzzle first gets a few “newly mined” coins as a reward (they also get transaction fees paid by those who created the transactions). Sometimes miners pool computing power and share the new coins. The algorithm relies on consensus. If the majority of users trying to solve the puzzle all submit the same transaction data, then it confirms that the transactions are correct. Further, the security of the blockchain relies on cryptography. Each block is connected to the data in the last block via one-way cryptographic codes called hashes which are designed to make tampering with the blockchain very difficult. Offering new coins as rewards, the difficulty of cracking the cryptographic puzzles, and the amount of effort it would take to add incorrect data to the blockchain by faking consensus or tampering with the blockchain, helps to ensure against bad actors.
What is cryptocurrency mining? People who are running software and hardware aimed at confirming transactions to the digital ledger are cryptocurrency miners. Solving cryptographic puzzles (via software) to add transactions to the ledger (the blockchain) in the hope of getting coins as a reward is cryptocurrency mining.
How does cryptography work with cryptocurrency? The keys that move balances around the blockchain utilize a type of one-way cryptography called public-key cryptography. The “hashes” (the one-way cryptographic codes that tie together blocks on the blockchain) use a similar type of cryptography. Meanwhile, transaction data sent and stored on the blockchain is tokenized (tokenization is a type of one-way cryptography that points to data but doesn’t contain all the original data). The key to understanding these layers of encryption which ensure a system like Bitcoin’s (some coins work a little differently) is found in one-way cryptographic functions (cryptographic hash functions, cryptographic tokens, and public-key cryptography are all names for specific, but related, types of one-way cryptographic functions). The main idea is that cryptocurrency uses a type of cryptography that is easy to compute one way, but hard to compute the other way without a “key.” Very loosely you can think of it like this, it is easy to create a strong password if you are in your online bank account, but very hard for others to guess a strong password after it has been created.
How does one obtain or trade cryptocurrency? Cryptocurrency can be obtained most of the same ways other types of currencies can. You can exchanges goods and services for cryptocurrency, you can trade dollars for cryptocurrencies, or you can trade cryptocurrencies for other cryptocurrencies. Trading is generally done via brokers and exchanges. Brokers are third parties that buy/sell cryptocurrency, exchanges are like online stock exchanges for cryptocurrency. One can also trade cryptocurrencies directly between peers. Peer-to-peer exchanges can be mediated by a third party, or not. Please be aware that cryptocurrency prices tend to be volatile. One should ease into cryptocurrency investing and trading and be ready to lose everything they put in (especially if they invest in or trade alternative coins with lower market caps). See cryptocurrency investing tips.
TIP: Like anything else in life, there are tax implications to trading or using cryptocurrency. Make sure you understand the tax implications. In short, you’ll owe money on profits (capital gains) and may owe sales tax or other taxes when applicable. Learn more about cryptocurrency and taxes.
To summarize the above:
- Cryptocurrency can be thought of as a digital currency like PayPal or bank credit (what you use with your credit or debit card).
- Cryptocurrency transactions and balances are recorded on a public digital ledger called a blockchain.
- Cryptocurrencies can be accessed through software called wallets (transactions are broadcast to the network to be added to the blockchain via transactions created in wallets). This can be equated to online banking (where you have account numbers and passwords and move funds between accounts).
- Cryptocurrencies can be bought through a broker or traded on online cryptocurrency exchanges (like a stock exchange).
- There are many other cryptocurrencies beyond Bitcoin (some of which are better defined as digital assets).
- Unlike bank credit, which represents a centrally controlled and issued fiat currency (like the US dollar), cryptocurrency is decentralized and thus not centrally controlled.
- Instead of a central powering controlling cryptocurrency, an algorithm and users themselves control cryptocurrency. The algorithm dictates how transactions work and how new coins are created, users create peer-to-peer transactions using software called wallets. Transactions are recorded on a public digital ledger.
- Those who confirm transactions by breaking cryptographic codes are called miners. Mining is a process that creates new coins.
- Of course, you don’t need to know any of that. All you need to do is set up a Coinbase account and use that to buy and sell Bitcoin, Bitcoin Cash, Ether, or Litecoin and to send and receive cryptocurrency. Just remember to pay your taxes.