Cryptocurrencies are digital or virtual currencies underpinned by cryptographic systems that enable secure online payments without a central authority. When you make a transaction using cryptocurrency, it’s recorded on an open public ledger, known as a blockchain, that’s distributed across thousands of computers around the world. Each entry on the blockchain is verified using a variety of cryptographic techniques, including elliptical curve encryption and public-private key pairs. With these safeguards, cryptocurrencies provide cheaper, faster money transfers and decentralized systems that don’t collapse at a single point of failure.
While some cryptocurrencies have real-world use cases, most are traded as investments and speculative assets. As such, their prices can be volatile. This makes them great for traders who can make or lose large sums of money quickly on trades, but can be dangerous for new investors or those who hold their coins for longer periods.
The list of goods and services you can buy with cryptocurrencies continues to grow as consumers, retailers, and service providers become more comfortable with the technology. Currently, you can use cryptos to purchase everything from insurance to consumer staples to concert tickets. A growing number of major crypto exchanges also offer cryptocurrencies as payment options on their platforms, and a growing list of banks accept them directly. Many people also use cryptocurrency top-up cards, which allow them to spend their cryptos at retail and online outlets that accept them as payment.
Buying and selling cryptos is typically done through an exchange, which acts as a third-party middleman that facilitates the transaction. Exchanges charge fees to process transactions, and those fees vary widely. You should always shop around to find the best rates and terms, and be sure to check out an exchange’s security features before deciding to use it. Most exchanges require that you verify your identity before you can withdraw or deposit funds, and some offer additional protections like two-factor authentication and multi-signature protocols.
Once you have purchased a cryptocurrency, you store it in a wallet, which is a computer app that enables you to send and receive the asset. Some wallets are simpler and designed for beginners, while others have advanced features for more sophisticated users. You can store your cryptos in a hosted wallet that the exchange maintains, have full control over your private keys with a non-custodial wallet, or take extra precautions with a hardware wallet that provides an extra layer of security.
Cryptocurrency proponents say the technology democratizes the power of money by wresting it from central banks and Wall Street. Critics, however, say the unregulated market empowers criminal groups and rogue states, while the energy-guzzling mining of some cryptocurrencies is harmful to the environment. As a result, many governments have begun to regulate or ban the technology.