Updated: Jan 13
A cryptocurrency is a digital or virtual currency designed to work as a medium of exchange. It uses cryptography to secure and verify transactions as well as to control the creation of new units of a particular cryptocurrency. Essentially, cryptocurrencies are limited entries in a database that no one can change unless specific conditions are fulfilled.
One of the most important problems that any payment network has to solve is double-spending. It is a fraudulent technique of spending the same amount twice. The traditional solution was a trusted third party - a central server - that kept records of the balances and transactions. However, this method always entailed an authority basically in control of your funds and with all your personal details on hand.
In a decentralized network like Bitcoin, every single participant needs to do this job. This is done via the Blockchain - a public ledger of all transaction that ever happened within the network, available to everyone. Therefore, everyone in the network can see every account’s balance.
Every transaction is a file that consists of the sender’s and recipient’s public keys (wallet addresses) and the amount of coins transferred. The transaction also needs to be signed off by the sender with their private key. All of this is just basic cryptography. Eventually, the transaction is broadcasted in the network, but it needs to be confirmed first.
Within a cryptocurrency network, only miners can confirm transactions by solving a cryptographic puzzle. They take transactions, mark them as legitimate and spread them across the network. Afterwards, every node of the network adds it to its database. Once the transaction is confirmed it becomes unforgeable and irreversible and a miner receives a reward, plus the transaction fees.
Essentially, any cryptocurrency network is based on the absolute consensus of all the participants regarding the legitimacy of balances and transactions. If nodes of the network disagree on a single balance, the system would basically break. However, there are a lot of rules pre-built and programmed into the network that prevents this from happening.
Cryptocurrencies are so called because the consensus-keeping process is ensured with strong cryptography. This, along with aforementioned factors, makes third parties and blind trust as a concept completely redundant.
What can you do with cryptocurrency
In the past, trying to find a merchant that accepts cryptocurrency was extremely difficult, if not impossible. These days, however, the situation is completely different.
There are a lot of merchants - both online and offline - that accept Bitcoin as the form of payment. They range from massive online retailers like Overstock and Newegg to small local shops, bars and restaurants. Bitcoins can be used to pay for hotels, flights, jewelery, apps, computer parts and even a college degree.
Other digital currencies like Litecoin, Ripple, Ethereum and so on aren’t accepted as widely just yet. Things are changing for the better though, with Apple having authorized at least 10 different cryptocurrencies as a viable form of payment on App Store.
Of course, users of cryptocurrencies other than Bitcoin can always exchange their coins for BTCs. Moreover, there are Gift Card selling websites like Gift Off, which accepts around 20 different cryptocurrencies. Through gift cards, you can essentially buy anything with a cryptocurrency.
Many people believe that cryptocurrencies are the hottest investment opportunity currently available. Indeed, there are many stories of people becoming millionaires through their Bitcoin investments. Bitcoin is the most recognizable digital currency to date, and just last year one BTC was valued at $800. In November 2017, the price of one Bitcoin exceeded $7,000.
Ethereum, perhaps the second most valued cryptocurrency, has recorded the fastest rise a digital currency ever demonstrated. Since May 2016, its value increased by at least 2,700 percent. When it comes to all cryptocurrencies combined, their market cap soared by more than 10,000 percent since mid-2013.
However, it is worth noting that cryptocurrencies are high-risk investments. Their market value fluctuates like no other asset’s. Moreover, it is partly unregulated, there is always a risk of them getting outlawed in certain jurisdictions and any cryptocurrency exchange can potentially get hacked.
If you decide to invest in cryptocurrencies, Bitcoin is obviously still the dominant one. However, in 2017 its share in the crypto-market has quite dramatically fallen from 90 percent to just 40 percent. There are many options currently available, with some coins being privacy-focused, others being less open and decentralized than Bitcoin and some just outright copying it.
While it’s very easy to buy Bitcoins - there are numerous exchanges in existence that trade in BTC - other cryptocurrencies aren’t as easy to acquire. Although, this situation is slowly improving with major exchanges like Kraken, BitFinex, BitStamp and many others starting to sell Litecoin, Ethereum, Monero, Ripple and so on. There are also a few other different ways of being coin, for instance, you can trade face-to-face with a seller or use a Bitcoin ATM.
Once you bought your cryptocurrency, you need a way to store it. All major exchanges offer wallet services. But, while it might seem convenient, it’s best if you store your assets in an offline wallet on your hard drive, or even invest in a hardware wallet. This is the most secure way of storing your coins and it gives you full control over your assets.
As with any other investment, you need to pay close attention to the cryptocurrencies’ market value and to any news related to them. Coinmarketcap is a one-stop solution for tracking the price, volume, circulation supply and market cap of most existing cryptocurrencies.
Depending on a jurisdiction you live in, once you’ve made a profit or a loss investing in cryptocurrencies, you might need to include it in your tax report. In terms of taxation, cryptocurrencies are treated very differently from country to country. In the US, the Internal Revenue Service ruled that Bitcoins and other digital currencies are to be taxed as property, not currency. For investors, this means that accrued long-term gains and losses from cryptocurrency trading are taxed at each investor’s applicable capital gains rate, which stands at a maximum of 15 percent.
Miners are the single most important part of any cryptocurrency network, and much like trading, mining is an investment. Essentially, miners are providing a bookkeeping service for their respective communities. They contribute their computing power to solving complicated cryptographic puzzles, which is necessary to confirm a transaction and record it in a distributed public ledger called the Blockchain.
One of the interesting things about mining is that the difficulty of the puzzles is constantly increasing, correlating with the number of people trying to solve it. So, the more popular a certain cryptocurrency becomes, the more people try to mine it, the more difficult the process becomes.
A lot of people have made fortunes by mining Bitcoins. Back in the days, you could make substantial profits from mining using just your computer, or even a powerful enough laptop. These days, Bitcoin mining can only become profitable if you’re willing to invest in an industrial-grade mining hardware. This, of course, incurs huge electricity bills on top of the price of all the necessary equipment.
Currently, Litecoins, Dogecoins and Feathercoins are said to be the best cryptocurrencies in terms of being cost-effective for beginners. For instance, at the current value of Litecoins, you might earn anything from 50 cents to 10 dollars a day using only consumer-grade hardware.
But how do miners make profits? The more computing power they manage to accumulate, the more chances they have of solving the cryptographic puzzles. Once a miner manages to solve the puzzle, they receive a reward as well as a transaction fee.
As a cryptocurrency attracts more interest, mining becomes harder and the amount of coins received as a reward decreases. For example, when Bitcoin was first created, the reward for successful mining was 50 BTC. Now, the reward stands at 12.5 Bitcoins. This happened because the Bitcoin network is designed so that there can only be a total of 21 mln coins in circulation.
As of November 2017, almost 17 mln Bitcoins have been mined and distributed. However, as rewards are going to become smaller and smaller, every single Bitcoin mined will become exponentially more and more valuable.
All of those factors make mining cryptocurrencies an extremely competitive arms race that rewards early adopters. However, depending on where you live, profits made from mining can be subject to taxation and Money Transmitting regulations. In the US, the FinCEN has issued a guidance, according to which mining of cryptocurrencies and exchanging them for flat currencies may be considered money transmitting. This means that miners might need to comply with special laws and regulations dealing with this type of activities.
Accept as payment (for business)
If you happen to own a business and if you’re looking for potential new customers, accepting cryptocurrencies as a form of payment may be a solution for you. The interest in cryptocurrencies has never been higher and it’s only going to increase. Along with the growing interest, also grows the number of crypto-ATMs located around the world. Coin ATM Radar currently lists almost 1,800 ATMs in 58 countries.
First of all, you need to let your customers know that your business accepts crypto coins. Simply putting a sign by your cash register should do the trick. The payments can then be accepted using hardware terminals, touch screen apps or simple wallet addresses through QR codes.
There are many different services that you can use to be able to accept payments in cryptocurrencies. For example, CoinPayments currently accepts over 75 different digital currencies, charging just 0.5 percent commission per transaction. Other popular services include Cryptonator, CoinGate and BitPay, with the latter only accepting Bitcoins.
In the US, Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have been recognized as a convertible virtual currency, which means accepting them as a form of payment is exactly the same as accepting cash, gold or gift cards.
For tax purposes, US-based businesses accepting cryptocurrencies need to record a reference of sales, amount received in a particular currency and the date of transaction. If sales taxes are payable, the amount due is calculated based on the average exchange rate at the time of sale.
Legality of cryptocurrencies
As cryptocurrencies are becoming more and more mainstream, law enforcement agencies, tax authorities and legal regulators worldwide are trying to understand the very concept of crypto coins and where exactly do they fit in existing regulations and legal frameworks.
With the introduction of Bitcoin, the first ever cryptocurrency, a completely new paradigm was created. Decentralized, self-sustained digital currencies that don’t exist in any physical shape or form and are not controlled by any singular entity were always set to cause an uproar among the regulators.
A lot of concerns have been raised regarding cryptocurrencies’ decentralized nature and their ability to be used almost completely anonymously. The authorities all over the world are worried about the cryptocurrencies’ appeal to the traders of illegal goods and services.
Moreover, they are worried about their use in money laundering and tax evasion schemes.
As of November 2017, Bitcoin and other digital currencies are outlawed only in Bangladesh, Bolivia, Ecuador, Kyrgyzstan and Vietnam, with China and Russia being on the verge of banning them as well. Other jurisdictions, however, do not make the usage of cryptocurrencies illegal as of yet, but the laws and regulations can vary drastically depending on the country.
Most common cryptocurrencies
Bitcoin — The first ever cryptocurrency that started it all.
Ethereum — A Turing-complete programmable currency that lets developers build different distributed apps and technologies that wouldn’t work with Bitcoin.
Ripple — Unlike most cryptocurrencies, it doesn’t use a Blockchain in order to reach a network-wide consensus for transactions. Instead, an iterative consensus process is implemented, which makes it faster than Bitcoin but also makes it vulnerable to hacker attacks.
Bitcoin Cash — A fork of Bitcoin that is supported by the biggest Bitcoin mining company and a manufacturer of ASICs Bitcoin mining chips. It has only existed for a couple of months but has already soared to the top five cryptocurrencies in terms of market cap.
NEM — Unlike most other cryptocurrencies that utilize a Proof of Work algorithm, it uses Proof of Importance, which requires users to already possess certain amounts of coins in order to be able to get new ones. It encourages users to spend their funds and tracks the transactions to determine how important a particular user is to the overall NEM network.
Litecoin — A cryptocurrency that was created with an intention to be the ‘digital silver’ compared to Bitcoin’s ‘digital gold.’ It is also a fork of Bitcoin, but unlike its predecessor, it can generate blocks four times faster and have four times the maximum number of coins at 84 mln.
IOTA — This cryptocurrency’s breakthrough ledger technology is called ‘Tangle’ and it requires the sender in a transaction to do a Proof of Work that approves two transactions. Thus, IOTA has removed dedicated miners from the process.
NEO — It’s a smart contract network that allows for all kinds of financial contracts and third-party distributed apps to be developed on top of it. It has many of the same goals as Ethereum, but it’s developed in China, which can potentially give it some advantages due to improved relationship with Chinese regulators and local businesses.Dash — It’s a two-tier network. The first tier is miners that secure the network and record transactions, while the second one consists of ‘masternodes’ that relay transactions and enable InstantSend and PrivateSend type of transaction. The former is significantly faster than Bitcoin, whereas the latter is completely anonymous.
Qtum — It’s a merger of Bitcoin’s and Ethereum’s technologies targeting business applications. The network boasts Bitcoin’s reliability, while allowing for the use of smart contracts and distributed applications, much how it works within the Ethereum network.
Monero — A cryptocurrency with private transactions capabilities and one of the most active communities, which is due to its open and privacy-focused ideals.
Ethereum Classic — An original version of Ethereum. The split happened after a decentralized autonomous organization built on top of the original Ethereum was hacked.