You might have heard about Bitcoin, but there’s so much more to cryptocurrency than that. Our guides make learning about cryptocurrency easy – allowing you to buy, trade and store your cryptocurrency in as much time as it takes to set up a new bank account.
Cryptocurrencies aren’t just future technology. They’re already being used today and doing things that were impossible just a few short years ago.
Imagine sending Canadian dollars to Europe, having it automatically converted to euros and deposited in the account of your choice. Now, imagine doing it almost instantly and anonymously, at competitive exchange rates, all while paying just a couple of dollars or less in fees.
That’s not a hypothetical example. That’s something you could do today if you wanted, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Most cryptocurrencies are built for a specific purpose and with the specific intention of being able to do it better than anything else ever could. This makes them the perfect disruptors of existing industries.
What do I need to get started?
Getting involved in the world of cryptocurrencies is easier than it looks. It involves three simple steps.
Choose a cryptocurrency
Bitcoin and Ethereum are just the beginning. There are over a thousand different cryptocurrencies in existence, and they’re all different. A lot of people start with bitcoin or Ethereum, and then spread it into a more diverse portfolio for more security in case the price of a coin crashes.
Check out our coins page for guides on some of the most commonly traded cryptocurrencies on the market today.
Get a wallet
Where do you hold crypto-money? In a crypto-wallet of course.
Most of these wallets take the form of computer programs you can quickly download to your phone or PC, although physical devices called hardware wallets are recommended for long-term storage.
However, not all wallets can hold all coins. Before buying, check whether your wallet can hold your chosen cryptocurrency or whether you can leave the coin in storage on the exchange you purchased it at.
We’ve listed some of the compatible wallets for each currency on our coin pages. Or, you can learn more about choosing the best for your needs below.
Buy from an exchange
The third step is buying your cryptocurrency. The first purchase will usually involve exchanging fiat currency (such as USD, CAD or EUR) to your chosen cryptocurrency.
After that, you might find it easier to trade cryptocurrencies for each other.
Buying for the first time usually involves:
This usually means sending proof of identification, such as a scan of your driver’s licence. Verification is standard practice at any exchange that deals with fiat currency.
Each exchange has different accepted payment methods, such as local bank transfer, credit card or international wire transfer. We’ve listed accepted payment methods on our exchanges pages, so you know whether each option will suit your needs.
Different exchanges will list different coins for sale. Each of our coin pages also shows a list of different exchanges where you can purchase it. After buying, you can either leave your coin on the exchange or transfer it to your own wallet.
What exactly is cryptocurrency?
Cryptocurrencies are digital tokens that have a value, just like a $10 note is a physical token that happens to have $10 worth of value.
The problem with digital currencies is that they’re purely electronic. Just like a photograph on the Internet can be copied and replicated over and over again until the original is worthless, the same thing could happen to a coin.
In order for a cryptocurrency to have value, a coin needs to be unique and unreplicable.
A blockchain is simply a ledger that contains the entire history of a certain cryptocurrency. By tracking all of the movements and the entire history of a currency, it’s impossible to make any counterfeits.
To prevent tampering, most blockchains are open source and decentralized.
Open source – The programming is made publicly available so anyone can see exactly how it works. This prevents tampering from inside.
Decentralized – The blockchains are operated by different people all around the world. With public blockchains such as bitcoin, anyone can start operating a “node” on the blockchain whenever they want. This prevents anyone from taking over the network and prevents tampering from outside.
The name blockchain refers to the particular way it assembles data in the ledger.
Each block is like a container for transactions. Transactions on the blockchain are collections of data, usually including the wallet address of the coin sender and receiver, and the amount sent.
When you make a transaction, this information is packed into a block. Once the transaction is added to a block, it cannot be edited and cannot be removed. This ensures the security and reliability of the blockchain.
When a block is ready to go, it’s added to the blockchain. This is like having the package sent.
Each block is digitally strung together like the links in a chain. It’s attached to the one that comes before it and the one that comes after, creating an unbroken and tamper-proof history of every single transaction executed in the history of the cryptocurrency. Each block is given a number, and anyone can look back and see the transactions that were carried out on each block.
Most blockchains are simply one unbroken chain. Others are more complicated and might run other chains off the side of the main blockchain or might try assembling blocks in a web-like structure rather than a single chain.
Not all blockchains work exactly the same, and not all cryptocurrencies even use a blockchain. The basic principles and their implications remain the same.
It takes computing power to operate the blockchain, verify the transactions and add more blocks to the chain. This is usually called mining.
Miners use the computing power to package transactions into blocks, link blocks to the blockchain and secure the network against outside tampering.
Different cryptocurrencies can have very different mining systems. The following are two of the most popular:
Proof of work. This involves having miners solve a cryptographic puzzle to determine the nature of the upcoming block. If the answer is correct, it proves they’ve found the right block and can safely add it to the chain. It’s a relatively simple and secure mining system, but it’s also very inefficient. Miners are competing with each other to solve the puzzles, so it often ends up using a huge amount of energy and computing power. This is the kind of system that bitcoin uses.
Proof of stake. This type of mining involves asking coin owners to hold special wallets holding coins online. The coins in their wallets will then automatically interface with the network and mine new blocks. This is a relatively efficient way of mining coins. The main downside is that it’s relatively complicated and can encourage unusual hoarding of coins. Ethereum will be switching from proof of work to proof of stake.
Cryptocurrencies will almost always offer miners some kind of reward to encourage people to dedicate their computing power to the blockchain. This reward will often be newly created coins of the type they just mined or transaction fees paid by everyone whose transaction was packaged into the newly-mined block.
Some coins will use proof of work or proof of stake, while others might switch between them or use variations of either.
When you’re researching a coin, you should pay attention to the mining system. This is because it can directly affect coin prices. For example, higher mining rewards can mean more inflation and a declining coin value. Or, news of an upcoming switch to proof of stake might drive prices upwards as everyone starts buying coins to mine with after the switch.
Many cryptocurrencies simply try to replicate bitcoin’s success, while many more go their own way by creating completely different coins. Traditionally, all cryptocurrencies other than bitcoin were known as “altcoins,” but today bitcoin is just one cryptocurrency among many.
Here are just a handful of popular cryptocurrencies to help you get a sense of what’s out there.
Ether (ETH) or Ethereum. Ethereum was specifically created to utilize the potential of blockchain technology by introducing “smart contracts.” These allow for foolproof and 100% trustworthy automation of computer tasks without any third party required.
Ripple (XRP). Ripple was developed by a privately owned company with the specific purpose of facilitating international money transfers. It allows for extremely quick and cheap movement of actual value around the world almost instantly. It’s being used by banks, money transfer services and multinational companies to make international payments a lot cheaper and quicker.
Dogecoin (DOGE). This coin was based on a meme and created to be a joke. It was mostly to tip people on the Internet and never taken seriously. It still grew in value and built a market cap over a billion dollars though.
Golem (GNT). In simple terms, Golem uses blockchain technology to let almost anyone turn their home PC into a supercomputer on demand. It does this by assembling and monetizing a worldwide supercomputer network, made up of phones and home PCs. Blockchain technology means this can be done with complete security and safety for all involved.
Monero (XMR). Monero was designed to be a completely secure, private and untraceable cryptocurrency that lets anyone make completely untraceable and anonymous payments as needed.
IOTA (IOTA). An extremely ambitious project, IOTA wants to become the currency of the “Internet of Things” and the next generation that comes after the blockchain. It aims to create a global machine-to-machine network of connected systems, allowing microtransactions and seamless communication between all kinds of devices. Someday you might use IOTA to pay a stranger for their parking spot if you’re in a hurry or top up your phone battery by quickly buying someone else’s excess power and a whole lot more.
There are a few different ways to use cryptocurrencies.
For their intended purpose
If nothing else, you can always use a cryptocurrency exactly as intended. For bitcoin, this might simply be holding onto it or using it to buy other cryptocurrencies.
For Ethereum, this might be powering smart contracts, which consumes small amounts of Ether as a sort of transaction fee.
For the 1,000+ other cryptocurrencies in existence, this might be almost anything.
Purchase products or services
Are you paying with cash, credit or cryptocurrency?
A lot of merchants today accept popular cryptocurrencies as payment, especially if you’re paying with a popular currency like bitcoin.
These merchants might be as small as someone selling used furniture at a local business or as big as Microsoft. In brick and mortar stores that accept cryptocurrency, you’ll often see QR codes printed and pinned next to the cash registers. These are scanned to make crypto payments.
Money transfers and cryptocurrency tipping
Some cryptocurrencies are specifically designed to make transfers as quick and cheap as possible. For example, Nano (formerly RaiBlocks) lets you make 100% secure transfers in a couple of seconds flat without any fees whatsoever.
If you’re sending money to someone who doesn’t do crypto, you might use Stellar Lumens instead. This coin lets you make quick and cheap transfers, while simultaneously converting money from cryptocurrency to your fiat currency of choice.
Transferring cryptocurrencies is often so quick and easy that some coins (eg, Dogecoin) have even built tipping platforms for themselves. With the press of a button, users tip each other with coins for entertaining or informative posts on Reddit, Twitter and other social media.
That might not sound like a big deal, but blockchain technology allows people to send amounts as little as 5 or 10 cents to someone on the other side of the world for the first time in history. Previously, these kinds of transfers would be eaten up by international transaction fees.
What to watch out for
Cryptocurrencies are not without their pitfalls and you will need to be careful when handling your digital currency.
Before jumping into cryptocurrency, do your research. No single guide will ever be able to cover everything you need to know about all cryptocurrencies and you’ll always be able to find two sides to any argument. Additionally, you will need to understand how exchanges and wallets work.
Before you make a decision, make sure you’re informed. Read guides, find reviews and test drive with small, disposable amounts of money before making bigger purchases.
There is no safety net when working with cryptocurrencies. It’s still largely unregulated and you typically won’t be able to make a police report if your cryptocurrency gets stolen.
The freedom to go beyond the banks and outside of government money comes with a lot of responsibility. Here are a few tips:
Before you send cryptocoins to someone, always double check their wallet address.
Never hand over products or services before the transaction on the blockchain is verified. This might take up to 10 minutes on some blockchains.
Always keep the computer on which your wallet is installed safe and clean from viruses and malware.
Never lose your wallet password. You might not be able to get it back and every cryptocoin you own will be lost.
Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies in general often suffer from sudden dips in value. Whenever purchasing cryptocoins, always be aware that the value of your holdings can fall.
Of course this could work in your favour if it goes the other way. Always be aware that the cryptocurrency market is extremely volatile and past performance is not indicative of future performance.
cryptocurrency. A digital currency for which encryption techniques are used to regulate its use and generate its release. Unlike fiat currency — like US dollars, Canadian dollars, euros and yen — cryptocurrency is not regulated or controlled by any government or agency.
bitcoin. A digital cryptocurrency using peer-to-peer technology for nearly instant payments. Bitcoin was invented by an unidentified programmer, or group of programmers, under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto.
bitcoin address. Also called a key, a string of alphanumeric characters used to receive bitcoin. Whereas public addresses typically begin with a 1 or 3, private addresses — or addresses that aren’t visible to all users — typically begin with a 5 or 6.
bitcoin exchange. An online website or platform that allows users to buy and sell bitcoin for other currencies.
blockchain. A public digital ledger in which the entire history of a cryptocurrency is recorded chronologically.
block reward. The amount of cryptocurrency mined after a “miner” has succeeded in solving a hash.
digital wallet. Sometimes called an e-wallet, an electronic system or app that securely stores personal information, payment details and passwords so that a consumer can make digital payments online or at retail stores that accept it.
hash. A computational puzzle that a cryptocurrency “miner” must solve in order to add the next block on a blockchain.
I to O
mining. A process by which a cryptocurrency is released into the world. “Miners” complete a computational puzzle to be rewarded with a block of currency along the public blockchain.
node. A computer connected to the bitcoin network.
P to Z
proof of work. A hash — or computational puzzle to unlock a cryptocurrency — that is so difficult, it could only have been solved through significant work or power.
proof of stake. A system that replaces the concept of “mining” a cryptocurrency with a consensus algorithm, whereby miners put up a stake of their currency to verify a block of transactions.
A brief history of cryptocurrency
The road to cryptocurrencies started in the 1980s. In an effort to protect the cash of small shops and gas stations, banks began investigating and pushing the idea of points of sale, where a customer can use a credit card instead of cash to pay for products.
Later, in the 90s, came a web-based payment system still used today: PayPal. This gave merchants the power to accept credit card payments online and it introduced the idea of transferring fiat currencies directly between end users entirely online. With PayPal proving that the web is a viable medium for transferring currency, similar services were created, such as WebMoney (a Russian PayPal alternative) and e-Gold, an American corporation that let users buy gold online – gold that it would then hold for them.
In the 2000s, after the FBI shut down e-Gold, cryptocurrencies began popping up in the cryptography community and mailing lists. Known as the Cypherpunks, people like Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, and Jacob Appelbaum, the developer of Tor, were members.
Unfortunately, none of these cryptocurrencies could gather the necessary momentum to push them into the public’s consciousness until, in 2008, Satoshi Nakamoto published a paper titled “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System”.
In the years to come, bitcoin grew to become not only the number one cryptocurrency available on the market, but a household name among even those who have no interest in cryptocurrencies.
Bitcoin eventually gave rise to hundreds of cryptocurrencies, known collectively as altcoins. Some of these altcoins are little more than copies of bitcoin, but others are attempting to do things with the underlying blockchain technology that not only disrupt the financial sector, but also our understanding of apps and website services, all in an attempt to fix today’s problem of centralization.
The problem with centralization
Read any literature relating to bitcoin and cryptocurrencies and you’ll eventually stumble upon the concept of decentralization. To understand decentralization, you first need to understand centralization.
If we take a close look at the world we inhabit today, a world of information and data about who we are, what we do and what we like, we realize that our information is held by a few large organizations: private and public corporations and the government. The dataset representing you (financial records, emails, Facebook messages and likes etc) is held on servers that exist in a central location. For example, your financial records, every transaction you’ve ever been a part of, your current balance and all your loans, exist on your bank’s servers. Your bank might have multiple servers for backup and audit purposes, but it still all exists in virtually one location: your bank.
So let’s say a cracker – a malicious hacker – attacks your bank’s servers and tampers with your account reducing your balance to $0. How can you prove that you didn’t just withdraw all your money? How can your bank verify your claim that you were hacked?
The Cypherpunks, the community from which cryptocurrencies first arose, understood this bleak scenario and aimed to fix it. Cryptocurrencies are said to be decentralized systems because every user of a cryptocurrency keeps a copy of everyone’s transaction history. The moment you join a blockchain, you receive the entire history of that cryptocurrency, including all transactions ever made. If a user disagrees with a transaction (say a cracker changes their wallet value from 1 BTC to 1,000 BTC), a consensus must be reached by at least 51% of the users of that cryptocurrency. That 51% then decides what the correct amount should be.
This automatic consensus is the beauty behind cryptocurrencies and decentralization. There is no one server that crackers can attack. They would need to convince 51% of all users because every user keeps a copy of the blockchain.
Frequently asked questions
Simple money transfers. Imagine you wanted to sell your friend a vase. Would it be better to go directly to them and exchange the vase for cash, or would it be better to hire a lawyer and go through the courts to formally transfer ownership and eventually possession of the vase to them?
With cryptocurrencies, you don’t have to go through a third party, like a financial institution or organization like PayPal, to give someone money in exchange for property. You just give it directly to them, and the transaction gets logged onto the blockchain. The simplicity of cryptocurrencies is probably the biggest benefit.
No or low fees. The simplicity and lack of third parties means things like transfer fees either don’t exist or are very low. The miners, the people who run the computations to register a transfer, are compensated for their work by “mining” currency as they complete transfers, so there’s no need to give them any more money.
Faster international transfers. International money transfers using cryptocurrencies are completed quickly. As the system becomes more complex, transfer times have slowed. They are still faster than traditional methods. Again, this is because you go through a few computers instead of through several banks, companies and governments (along with their working hours and holidays) to transfer currency.
More accessible. An estimated 2.2 billion people have access to the Internet — but not all are connected to traditional banking systems. For these people, cryptocurrencies can be lifesavers because they can exchange money with the Internet-enabled phones they already have.
Hackers. The first and most obvious risk is that because cryptocurrencies are digital, they’re susceptible to hackers. The robustness of the blockchain formula prevents hackers from attacking the currency systems themselves, but individuals could find that their virtual accounts have been hacked and drained of funds.
This is the digital equivalent of someone breaking into a bank account. But because no central authorities, banks or other regulated industries are involved, there’s nothing the victim can do. If someone drains your bank account, your bank refunds your money. With cryptocurrencies, the money is just gone.
Lack of protection. Similarly, if a person is the victim of fraud — say, they bought an item that never shipped — the anonymous nature of most cryptocurrencies means the victim cannot seek redress from either the fraudster or a financial institution with a duty to protect customers from fraud.
Volatile currency rates. Bitcoin only has value because people want to use it. There’s no supply of gold or silver backing up the currency. There isn’t even value in its physical makeup, like there is in the metals used to produce coins because the currency is only digital. As a result, bitcoin’s value can fluctuate wildly depending on the demands of the market. So you could stand to earn or lose money quickly, especially if you put a significant amount of money in bitcoin, like the situation that unfolded in 2010.
For the time being at least, transferring fiat currency through a money transfer specialist is easier. This is because transferring funds using cryptocurrency is still more labour intensive — and more expensive.
When you initiate a transfer through a money transfer service, you’re essentially telling that provider how much you want to transfer and who you want to send it to. The provider then takes care of the rest until your money is safely in the hands of your family or loved ones.
However, transferring with cryptocurrency requires work and savvy on behalf of both you and your recipient. You first deposit your fiat currency onto a bitcoin platform, buy bitcoin with it and then send the bitcoin to your recipient. Your recipient then has to sell the bitcoin you’ve sent for their fiat currency of choice and then withdraw it to their bank account.
More steps, but also more potential, for “double charging” — or getting hit on the exchange rate. You’ll lose money on the exchange rate when you buy the bitcoin with US dollars. Then, your recipient loses money when they sell it for their country’s currency.
Until bitcoin and altcoins can make their process less expensive and less complicated, they won’t be able to compete with the major players
Cryptocurrency transactions are traceable, but your name is kept private. The transactions have to be traceable — that’s how miners verify transactions and ensure the balance adds up.
However, according to Bitcoin.org, “The identity of the user behind an address remains unknown until information is revealed during a purchase or in other circumstances.” The transactions are easily traceable, but the user’s identities are not — especially if you use a new public address every time you receive bitcoin.
That doesn’t mean it’s completely anonymous, however. While your name and photo aren’t attached to the transaction record, with some work it’s possible for a transaction to eventually be traced back to you or at least your IP address. That’s why we say cryptocurrency is “somewhat anonymous” and not just “anonymous.”
Only Malta has actively sought to use blockchain technology, both by using bitcoin and by implementing the technology in their land and national health registries. Many cities around the world are becoming interested in adopting the new technology.
The city government of Zug, Switzerland, became the world’s first locality to accept bitcoin. Although residents can pay government fees worth up to 200 Swiss francs, most local businesses don’t accept the currency. Travellers on Swiss Federal Railways can buy tickets using bitcoin, however.
In short, they’d lose control of their currency. As Mayer Amschel Rothschild, founder of the banking dynasty, said, “Give me control of a nation’s money supply, and I care not who makes its laws.” Governments have a reason to want to control the money in their borders.
Governments print and distribute money, sometimes creating more of their currency in times of economic hardship to maintain a stable, growing economy. They’re loathe to give up that control, especially to a volatile young currency like bitcoin.
Generally, countries and governments don’t accept bitcoin. But businesses are more willing to take some moderate risks to allow customers to spend money the way they want to. As a result, you’ll find lists online of companies that accept bitcoin, and these lists are only growing.
Web-based companies like Reddit, Wikipedia and NameCheap are early adopters of cryptocurrency, but many real-world retailers also accept bitcoin. Subway, Dell, Tesla and the San Jose Earthquakes soccer team all accept bitcoin. Even small retailers like Grass Hill Alpacas, a farm in Massachusetts; the Pink Cow, a diner in Tokyo; and the Old Fitzroy, a pub in Sydney, accept bitcoin.
Surprisingly, the answer is yes — sort of. Coinbase gives employees the option of being paid in bitcoin. Canadian startup Wagepoint manages companies’ admin and payroll, and it offers a service that pays employee wages in bitcoin. As of 2014, it’s paid CAD$75,000 in bitcoin to customers’ employees, and 80% of those employees opted to have their entire wage in bitcoin.
The list of companies offering wages in bitcoin is still small, but many companies are using the option to draw in potential employees — especially in the hypercompetitive tech industries, where many early bitcoin adopters work.
It depends. With cryptocurrency, transfer times are increasing as the mathematical problems at the heart of the blockchain get harder.
Still, this chart from 2016 shows how much shorter transaction times can be with systems that use blockchain technology:
Blockchain.info created the interactive chart below that shows while transaction times are increasing, they still take only minutes or hours. It takes days to transfer funds through more traditional routes.
Disclaimer: Cryptocurrencies are speculative, complex and involve significant risks – they are highly
volatile and sensitive to secondary activity. Performance is unpredictable and past performance is no guarantee of
future performance. Consider your own circumstances, and obtain your own advice, before relying on this information.
You should also verify the nature of any product or service (including its legal status and relevant regulatory
requirements) and consult the relevant Regulators' websites before making any decision. Finder, or the author, may
have holdings in the cryptocurrencies discussed.
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