What Is Cryptocurrency? Here’s What Investors Should Know

What is cryptocurrency?

A cryptocurrency (or “crypto”) is a digital asset that can circulate without the need for a central monetary authority such as a government or bank. Instead, cryptocurrencies are created using cryptographic techniques that enable people to buy, sell or trade them securely.

Bitcoin and most other cryptocurrencies are supported by a technology known as blockchain, which maintains a tamper-resistant record of transactions and keeps track of who owns what. The creation of blockchains addressed a problem faced by previous efforts to create purely digital currencies: preventing people from making copies of their holdings and attempting to spend them twice.

Individual units of cryptocurrencies can be referred to as coins or tokens, depending on how they are used. Some are intended to be units of exchange for goods and services, others are stores of value, and some are mostly designed to help run computer networks that carry out more complex financial transactions.

One common way cryptocurrencies are created is through a process known as mining, which is used by Bitcoin. Mining can be an energy-intensive process in which computers solve complex puzzles in order to verify the authenticity of transactions on the network. As a reward, the owners of those computers can receive newly created cryptocurrency. Other cryptocurrencies use different methods to create and distribute tokens, and many have a significantly lighter environmental impact.

For most people, the easiest way to get cryptocurrency is to buy it, either from an exchange or another user.

How to buy cryptocurrency safely

Buying cryptocurrencies securely involves four basic steps:

1. Decide where to buy it

There are many ways to buy cryptocurrency safely, though the most accessible method for beginners is likely to be a centralized exchange. Centralized exchanges act as a third party overseeing transactions to give customers confidence that they are getting what they pay for. These exchanges typically sell crypto at market rates, and they make money on fees for various aspects of their services.

If you’re more accustomed to traditional brokerage accounts, there are a few online brokers that offer access to cryptocurrencies as well as stocks. Of the online brokers reviewed by NerdWallet, these include Robinhood, Webull, SoFi Active Investing and TradeStation. If you’re looking for an exchange that operates solely within the cryptocurrency world, look for pure-play crypto exchanges. These platforms, such as Coinbase, Gemini and Kraken, won’t give you access to core assets like stocks and bonds, but they typically have a much better selection of cryptocurrencies, and more on-platform crypto storage options.

Though centralized exchanges are relatively easy to use, they also can be an attractive target for hackers given the volume of crypto that flows through them.

For more advanced users, there are decentralized exchanges whose fees can be lower than those charged by centralized platforms. Those can be more difficult to use and demand more technical know-how, but they may also offer some security benefits because there is no single target for a cyberattack. Cryptocurrencies can also be traded through peer-to-peer transactions.

2. Choose how you’ll pay

While there are thousands of cryptocurrencies being traded around the world, you’ll find that the most popular options are widely available for purchase in fiat currencies such as the U.S. dollar. If you’re a first-time buyer, you’ll very likely have to use regular money to buy cryptocurrency.

If you’re a more experienced investor, you may want to trade some of your existing crypto holdings for another type of cryptocurrency — for instance Bitcoin for Ethereum.

3. Add value to your account

Depending on how you choose to pay, you may have to fund your account before purchasing any crypto. If you’re using fiat currency, most exchanges allow debit and bank transfers. Some also allow you to fund a purchase with your credit card, though this can be a risky move with a volatile asset like cryptocurrency because interest costs can deepen your losses if your investments decline in value.

If you already own cryptocurrency, you can transfer it into your account from a digital wallet or another platform, then use it to trade. Just be sure to verify that your crypto exchange allows trading between the assets you’re looking at. Not all cryptocurrencies can be directly traded for one another, and some platforms have more trading pairs than others.

Another thing to note is that exchanges’ fees vary depending on what you’re buying and how you’re buying it, so review these details carefully.

4. Select a cryptocurrency

There are many options for cryptocurrency investors, though there are none that are likely to be right for everyone. Before you buy, ask yourself what your goals are for this investment. Are you hoping it will increase in value? Are you interested in carrying out transactions using cryptocurrency? Are you interested in using the underlying technology via decentralized apps? These may help you make your decision.

NerdWallet has created guides to some widely circulated cryptocurrencies, including Bitcoin and some Bitcoin alternatives:

  • Bitcoin is the first and most valuable cryptocurrency.

  • Ethereum is commonly used to carry out financial transactions more complex than those supported by Bitcoin.

  • Cardano is a competitor to Ethereum led by one of its co-founders.

  • Solana is another competitor to Ethereum that emphasizes speed and cost-effectiveness.

  • Dogecoin began as a joke but has grown to be among the most valuable cryptocurrencies.

  • Stablecoins are a class of cryptocurrencies whose values are designed to stay stable relative to real-world assets such as the dollar.

Best cryptocurrencies by market capitalization

More than 18,000 different cryptocurrencies are traded publicly, according to CoinMarketCap.com, a market research website. And cryptocurrencies continue to proliferate. The total value of all cryptocurrencies on March 8, 2022, was about $1.7 trillion, having fallen substantially from an all-time high above $2.9 trillion late in 2021.

If that weren’t enough to navigate, there are millions of NFTs — or nonfungible tokens — which are based on similar technology and offer ownership of content such as pictures and videos.

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Fees

0.5% – 4.5%

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Fees

0.5% – 3.99%

depending on payment method and platform

Keeping crypto safe

Once you’ve decided to buy crypto and determined which cryptocurrencies you want to invest in, your next decision will be how you want to store it safely.

This is an important choice. Crypto assets require a private key, which proves ownership of cryptocurrencies and is necessary for carrying out transactions. If you lose your private keys, you’ve lost your cryptocurrency. If someone gets your private keys, they can dispense with your cryptocurrencies however they want.

Crypto owners use digital wallets to store their holdings securely. There are multiple options to consider when it comes to digital wallets.

  • On-platform storage: Some people choose to keep their cryptocurrency on the exchange or platform where they got it. This has some advantages. It outsources the complexities to a third-party that brings some expertise to the table. You don’t have to keep track of your own private keys; all the information is right there when you log in. The drawback is that if the provider has a security breach outside of your control, or if someone hacks your individual credentials, your cryptocurrency could be at risk. On-platform storage is often used by people who think they might want to trade their crypto soon, or who want to participate in exchanges’ staking and rewards programs.

  • Noncustodial wallets: Because of the threat of hacking, it can be risky to leave large balances on crypto exchanges for longer than necessary. If you’re ready to dive into storing your own crypto, there are many options on the market. They are generally divided into two categories: hot wallets and cold wallets. Hot wallets have some online connectivity, which may make them easier to use but could expose you to some security vulnerabilities. Cold wallets are offline, physical devices that would be unreachable to anyone who does not have them in their material possession.

Pros and cons of cryptocurrency

Cryptocurrency inspires passionate opinions across the spectrum of investors. Here are a few reasons that some people believe it is a transformational technology, while others worry it’s a fad.

Cryptocurrency pros

  • Supporters see cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin as the currency of the future and are racing to buy them now, presumably before they become more valuable.

  • Some supporters like the fact that cryptocurrency removes central banks from managing the money supply since over time these banks tend to reduce the value of money via inflation.

  • Other advocates like the blockchain technology behind cryptocurrencies, because it’s a decentralized processing and recording system and can be more secure than traditional payment systems.

  • Some speculators like cryptocurrencies because they’re going up in value and have no interest in the currencies’ long-term acceptance as a way to move money.

  • Some cryptocurrencies offer their owners the opportunity to earn passive income through a process called staking. Crypto staking involves using your cryptocurrencies to help verify transactions on a blockchain protocol. Though staking has its risks, it can allow you to grow your crypto holdings without buying more.

Cryptocurrency cons

  • Many cryptocurrency projects are untested, and blockchain technology in general has yet to gain wide adoption. If the underlying idea behind cryptocurrency does not reach its potential, long-term investors may never see the returns they hoped for.

  • For shorter-term crypto investors, there are other risks. Its prices tend to change rapidly, and while that means that many people have made money quickly by buying in at the right time, many others have lost money by doing so just before a crypto crash.

  • Those wild shifts in value may also cut against the basic ideas behind the projects that cryptocurrencies were created to support. For example, people may be less likely to use Bitcoin as a payment system if they are not sure what it will be worth the next day.

  • The environmental impact of Bitcoin and other projects that use similar mining protocols is significant. A comparison by the University of Cambridge, for instance, said worldwide Bitcoin mining consumes more than twice as much power as all U.S. residential lighting. Some cryptocurrencies use different technology that demands less energy.

  • Governments around the world have not yet fully reckoned with how to handle cryptocurrency, so regulatory changes and crackdowns have the potential to affect the market in unpredictable ways.

Managing cryptocurrency risk

Cryptocurrency is a relatively risky investment, no matter which way you slice it. Generally speaking, high-risk investments should make up a small part of your overall portfolio — one common guideline is no more than 10%. You may want to look first to shore up your retirement savings, pay off debt or invest in less-volatile funds made up of stocks and bonds.

There are other ways to manage risk within your crypto portfolio, such as by diversifying the range of cryptocurrencies that you buy. Crypto assets may rise and fall at different degrees, and over different time periods, so by investing in several different products you can insulate yourself — to some degree — from losses in one of your holdings.

Perhaps the most important thing when investing in anything is to do your homework. This is particularly important when it comes to cryptocurrencies, which are often linked to a specific technological product that is being developed or rolled out. When you buy a stock, it is linked to a company that is subject to well-defined financial reporting requirements, which can give you a sense of its prospects.

Cryptocurrencies, on the other hand, are more loosely regulated in the U.S., so discerning which projects are viable can be even more challenging. If you have a financial advisor who is familiar with cryptocurrency, it may be worth asking for input.

For beginning investors, it can also be worthwhile to examine how widely a cryptocurrency is being used. Most reputable crypto projects have publicly available metrics showing data such as how many transactions are being carried out on their platforms. If use of a cryptocurrency is growing, that may be a sign that it is establishing itself in the market. Cryptocurrencies also generally make “white papers” available to explain how they’ll work and how they intend to distribute tokens.

If you’re looking to invest in less established crypto products, here are some additional questions to consider:

  • Who’s heading the project? An identifiable and well-known leader is a positive sign.

  • Are there other major investors who are investing in it? It’s a good sign if other well-known investors want a piece of the currency.

  • Will you own a portion in the company or just currency or tokens? This distinction is important. Being a part owner means you get to participate in its earnings (you’re an owner), while buying tokens simply means you’re entitled to use them, like chips in a casino.

  • Is the currency already developed, or is the company looking to raise money to develop it? The further along the product, the less risky it is.

It can take a lot of work to comb through a prospectus; the more detail it has, the better your chances it’s legitimate. But even legitimacy doesn’t mean the currency will succeed. That’s an entirely separate question, and that requires a lot of market savvy. Be sure to consider how to protect yourself from fraudsters who see cryptocurrencies as an opportunity to bilk investors.

Cryptocurrency legal and tax issues

There’s no question that cryptocurrencies are legal in the U.S., though China has essentially banned their use, and ultimately whether they’re legal depends on each individual country.

The question of whether cryptocurrencies are legally allowed, however, is only one part of the legal question. Other things to consider include how crypto is taxed and what you can buy with cryptocurrency.

  • Legal tender: You might call them cryptocurrencies, but they differ from traditional currencies in one important way: there’s no requirement in most places that they be accepted as “legal tender.” The U.S. dollar, by contrast, must be accepted for “all debts, public and private.” Countries around the world are taking various approaches to cryptocurrency. El Salvador in 2021 became the first country to adopt Bitcoin as legal tender. Meanwhile, China is developing its own digital currency. For now, in the U.S., what you can buy with cryptocurrency depends on the preferences of the seller.

  • Crypto taxes: Again, the term “currency” is a bit of a red herring when it comes to taxes in the U.S. Cryptocurrencies are taxed as property, rather than currency. That means that when you sell them, you’ll pay tax on the capital gains, or the difference between the price of the purchase and sale. And if you’re given crypto as payment — or as a reward for an activity such as mining — you’ll be taxed on the value at the time you received them.

Frequently asked questions

How does a blockchain work?

Most cryptocurrencies are based on blockchain technology, a networking protocol through which computers can work together to keep a shared, tamper-proof record of transactions. The challenge in a blockchain network is in making sure that all participants can agree on the correct copy of the historical ledger. Without a recognized way to validate transactions, it would be difficult for people to trust that their holdings are secure. There are several ways of reaching “consensus” on a blockchain network, but the two that are most widely used are known as “proof of work” and “proof of stake.”

What does proof of work mean?

Proof of work is one way of incentivizing users to help maintain an accurate historical record of who owns what on a blockchain network. Bitcoin uses proof of work, which makes this method an important part of the crypto conversation. Blockchains rely on users to collate and submit blocks of recent transactions for inclusion in the ledger, and Bitcoin’s protocol rewards them for doing so successfully. This process is known as mining.

There is stiff competition for these rewards, so many users try to submit blocks, but only one can be selected for each new block of transactions. To decide who gets the reward, Bitcoin requires users to solve a difficult puzzle, which uses a huge amount of energy and computing power. The completion of this puzzle is the “work” in proof of work.

For lucky miners, the Bitcoin rewards are more than enough to offset the costs involved. But the huge upfront cost is also a way to discourage dishonest players. If you win the right to create a block, it might not be worth the risk of tampering with the records and having your submission thrown out — forfeiting the reward. In this instance, spending the money on energy costs in an attempt to tamper with the historical record would have resulted in significant loss.

Ultimately, the goal of proof of work is to make it more rewarding to play by the rules than to try to break them.

Proof of stake is another way of achieving consensus about the accuracy of the historical record of transactions on a blockchain. It eschews mining in favor of a process known as staking, in which people put some of their own cryptocurrency holdings at stake to vouch for the accuracy of their work in validating new transactions. Some of the cryptocurrencies that use proof of stake include Cardano, Solana and Ethereum (which is in the process of converting from proof of work).

Proof of stake systems have some similarities to proof of work protocols, in that they rely on users to collect and submit new transactions. But they have a different way of incentivizing honest behavior among those who participate in that process. Essentially, people who propose new blocks of information to be added to the record must put some cryptocurrency at stake. In many cases, your chances of landing a new block (and the associated rewards) go up as you put more at stake. People who submit inaccurate data can lose some of the money they’ve put at risk.

How do you mine cryptocurrency?

Mining cryptocurrency is generally only possible for a proof-of-stake cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin. And before you get too far, it is worth noting that the barriers to entry can be high and the probability of success relatively low without major investment.

While early Bitcoin users were able to mine the cryptocurrency using regular computers, the task has gotten more difficult as the network has grown. Now, most miners use special computers whose sole job is to run the complex calculations involved in mining all day every day. And even one of these computers isn’t going to guarantee you success. Many miners use entire warehouses full of mining equipment in their quest to collect rewards.

If you don’t have the resources to compete with the heavy hitters, one option is joining a mining pool, where users share rewards. This reduces the size of the reward you’d get for a successful block, but increases the chance that you could at least get some return on your investment.

How do you pull your money out of crypto?

Just like with buying cryptocurrencies, there are several options for converting your crypto holdings into cash. While decentralized exchanges and peer-to-peer transactions may be right for some investors, many choose to use centralized services to offload their holdings.

With a centralized exchange, the process is basically the reverse of buying. But one advantage if you own crypto is that you probably already have everything set up. Here are the steps:

  • Connect the wallet that holds the cryptocurrencies that you want to sell, and make sure the exchange you’ve chosen supports both that wallet and the asset in question.

  • Move your cryptocurrency onto the exchange.

  • Sell your cryptocurrency.

  • Transfer the proceeds back to your bank account.

Every exchange will handle such transactions differently, so you’ll want to look up the fees and processes for your specific provider. Also, remember that you may be creating crypto tax liability when you sell your digital assets.

Disclosure: The author held no positions in the aforementioned investments at the original time of publication.

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