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What is cryptocurrency and how does it work?

by Guest Writer
cryptocurrency

Cryptocurrency, sometimes called crypto-currency or crypto, is any form of currency that exists digitally or virtually and uses cryptography to secure transactions. Cryptocurrencies don’t have a central issuing or regulating authority, instead using a decentralized system to record transactions and issue new units.

What is cryptocurrency?

Cryptocurrency is a digital payment system that doesn’t rely on banks to verify transactions. It’s a peer-to-peer system that can enable anyone anywhere to send and receive payments. Instead of being physical money carried around and exchanged in the real world, cryptocurrency payments exist purely as digital entries to an online database describing specific transactions. When you transfer cryptocurrency funds, the transactions are recorded in a public ledger. Cryptocurrency is stored in digital wallets.

Cryptocurrency received its name because it uses encryption to verify transactions. This means advanced coding is involved in storing and transmitting cryptocurrency data between wallets and to public ledgers. The aim of encryption is to provide security and safety.

The first cryptocurrency was Bitcoin, which was founded in 2009 and remains the best known today. Much of the interest in cryptocurrencies is to trade for profit, with speculators at times driving prices skyward.

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.

Cryptocurrency examples

There are thousands of cryptocurrencies. Some of the best known include:

Bitcoin:

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.

Ethereum:

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.

Litecoin:

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:

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. Online Store

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.

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