Not only is Bitcoin (BTC) the first cryptocurrency, but it’s also the best known of the more than 19,000 cryptocurrencies in existence today. Financial media eagerly covers each new dramatic high and stomach-churning decline, making Bitcoin an inescapable part of the landscape.
What Is Bitcoin?
Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency, a virtual currency designed to act as money and a form of payment outside the control of any one person, group, or entity, and thus removing the need for third-party involvement in financial transactions. It is rewarded to blockchain miners for the work done to verify transactions and can be purchased on several exchanges.
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.
Bitcoin was introduced to the public in 2009 by an anonymous developer or group of developers using the name Satoshi Nakamoto.
How Does Bitcoin Work?
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 containing information about each 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.
When a transaction takes place on the blockchain, information from the previous block is copied to a new block with the new data, encrypted, and the transaction is verified by validators—called miners—in the network. When a transaction is verified, a new block is opened, and a Bitcoin is created and given as a reward to the miner(s) who verified the data within the block—they are then free to use it, hold it, or sell it.
How to Use Bitcoin
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 there are some vendors that accept the original crypto.
Big companies that accept Bitcoin include Microsoft, PayPal and Whole Foods, to name a few. You may also find that some small local retailers or certain websites take Bitcoin, but you’ll have to do some digging.
To use your Bitcoin, you need to have a cryptocurrency wallet. Wallets hold the private keys to the bitcoin you own, which need to be entered when you’re conducting a transaction. Bitcoin is accepted as a means of payment for goods and services at many merchants, retailers, and stores.
Regardless of where you buy your Bitcoin, you’ll need a Bitcoin wallet in which to store it. This might be called a “hot wallet” or a “cold wallet.”
A hot wallet (also called an online wallet) is held 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.
How to Invest in Bitcoin
Like a stock, you can buy and hold Bitcoin as an investment. You can even now do so in special retirement accounts called Bitcoin IRAs.
No matter where you choose to hold your Bitcoin, people’s philosophies on how to invest it vary: Some buy and hold long term, some buy and aim to sell after a price rally, and others bet on its price decreasing. Bitcoin’s price over time has experienced big price swings, going as low as $5,165 and as high as $28,990 in 2020 alone.
Risks of Investing in Bitcoin
Speculative investors have been drawn to Bitcoin after its rapid price appreciation in recent years. Bitcoin had a price of $7,167.52 on Dec. 31, 2019, and a year later, it had appreciated more than 300% to $28,984.98. It continued to surge in the first half of 2021, trading at a record high of over $69,000 in November 2021—it then fell over the next few months to hover around $40,000.9
An important note: While crypto-based funds may add diversification to crypto holdings and decrease risk slightly, they still carry substantially more risk and charge much higher fees than broad-based index funds with histories of steady returns. Investors looking to grow wealth steadily may opt for index-based mutual and exchange-traded funds (ETFs).