The legality of your bitcoin activities will depend on who you are and what you are doing with it.
Last updated: 6th March 2014
More merchants are beginning to accept bitcoins in exchange for goods and services, although the best place to find these merchants is marketplaces and aggregator sites that gather large numbers of supporting establishments together at once.
Spending your bitcoins
We’ve told you how to mine bitcoin, and how to buy it. However you choose to acquire your digital currency, at some point you’re going to want to spend it. But where can you go to exchange your bitcoins for goods and services?
There are several different types of sites – online and off – that you can go to spend your bitcoin, as described in this guide. So, what can you buy with bitcoins?
Buying physical goods with bitcoin
Although bitcoin is well-suited to purchasing services online, that doesn’t mean it can’t be used for physical goods too. There are various sites that sell physical products for bitcoin – although they mostly accept payments over the Internet. Even so, a growing number of standard high-street businesses are accepting bitcoin paid for on the spot via a digital wallet on a mobile device.
Some of the directories that exist online provide a long list of merchants that accept bitcoin. However, these are not necessarily 100% up-to-date and you may discover that these merchants have tested bitcoin as a payment option at one point, but no longer use it. Or they may be selling a very limited range of goods in a particular geographical area.
Of the sites that are left, the pickings are rather hit-and-miss. You may sometimes feel like you are looking for a place that accepts your bitcoins just for the sake of spending them. In an ideal world, you would look for a product first and expect the merchant to accept the currency as a matter of course. We are a long way from that utopia yet.
That said, there are options for people who don’t wish to pick their way through hundreds of listings just to find products vaguely approximating those they want. There are some more general e-commerce sites selling multiple products in a particular category and offering cross-category sales.
Perhaps the biggest of all is Overstock, which offers everything from furniture to jewellery to electronics. Prices are in dollars but there is an option to pay in BTC on the checkout page. They offer international shipping to over 100 countries and some US territories. For now, though, bitcoin purchases are limited to US buyers. That is likely change in the near future.
Popular e-commerce platform Shopify added a bitcoin payment option for its sellers in late 2013. With a base of over 70,000 online stores, the number of goods that can potentially be purchased with bitcoin suddenly expanded significantly. Strangely, finding them is not currently very easy, because the Shopify.com marketplace page no longer exists, however there is a list of 75 stores now accepting BTC on their blog.
Bitcoinshop.us offers products from air-conditioners to watches, all priced in bitcoin, for those wanting to make a purchase. The catch: it only ships to people in the continental US.
BitcoinStore.com sells electronics and ships internationally, but you should check its shipping rates for your country before ordering.
Memory Dealers carries a range of networking hardware equipment and computer memory. It has been a ‘bitcoin believer’ from the beginning.
The UK’s Theatre Tickets Direct has recently started accepting bitcoin, offering a ticket booking service for mostly London shows, such as West End theatre and musicals.
CoinDesk frequently discovers interesting local sellers: Keystone Pet Place will handle all your pet’s needs, The Java Nomad will ship you fresh coffee beans from Bali and Persian Shoes will sell you handmade shoes and bags from Iran. Several local, niche merchants accept bitcoin only and will not/cannot accept fiat currency.
Bitcoin gift cards
If you can’t find any physical stores that accept bitcoin directly, the easiest way to turn your digital currency into ‘real-world’ goods and services is via gift cards. Plenty of gift card businesses accept bitcoins and these cards can be used at a surprising number of major retailers like Walmart, Amazon, Target and Nike. For US customers, companies like Gyft, eGifter, iTradeBTC and GiftCardZen have the widest range of options, and there are also store-specific card sellers like GiftcardBTC (for Amazon.com gift cards).
Note: many gift cards are only valid in their country of issue, which is usually the United States (although overseas shoppers may still make purchases with gift cards from US retailers in many cases). Other countries have their own options; for example, Australians can see what’s available at Bitcoin Gift Cards. You will usually pay a little more to trade your bitcoins for gift cards (around 5-10% is normal) but on the upside, you don’t need to deal with exchanges or transfers.
Some sites, like Europe’s BitCC, will exchange bitcoins for disposable prepaid debit cards.
Physical establishments that accept bitcoin
Bars and restaurants that accept bitcoin remain the exception, rather than the rule. Luckily they’re usually great places to go. If you’re determined to spend your digital currency on a plate of fish and chips, or a cold beer, there are easy ways to find out where you can go.
Bitcoin.Travel is a respected site, offering a mappable list of accommodation, apartments, attractions, bars, and beauty salons around the world. Coinmap also maintains a worldwide database of establishments.
If you’re in London, UK, the Pembury Tavern is well known, as is the Old Fitzroy pub if you’re in Sydney, Australia. If you make it to Tokyo, you’ll find local bitcoiners dining out on bitcoin at The Pink Cow.
When it comes to food and drink, there are other ways to spend bitcoins, even if a restaurant doesn’t directly accept them.
Foodler, a site enabling you to browse and order delivery and take-out meals from restaurants across the globe, has over 13,000 restaurants in 3,150 cities on its books. You can use bitcoins to pay for ‘Foodler credits’, which can be used at any of the restaurants.
Interestingly, we are starting to see nascent clusters of bitcoin-friendly establishments. For example, the Bitcoin-Kiez in Berlin is persuading local establishments in small numbers along the Graefekiez there to support bitcoin.
Bitcoin gambling sites
One of the biggest destinations for people’s bitcoin is online gambling. It’s fast, with an immediate return (or loss) and bets can start relatively small. When done properly, it’s also easy to prove that bets are fair – either by tracking payouts in the block chain, or by using external proof.
SatoshiDice has been the most popular online gambling site. Users mail money to one of a set of addresses, and in return they get a payout based on the probability of winning. Others include PeerBet – which accepts a host of cryptocurrencies other than bitcoin – plus Just-Dice and BetCoin Dice.
If you prefer your sound money in slightly heavier form, Amagi Metals has been trading bitcoins for precious metals since 2012. Based in Denver, the company sells bullion via its e-commerce site to almost anywhere in the world and says bitcoin is a great tool for promoting interest in financial responsibility.
Online bitcoin marketplaces and auctions
Online marketplaces are another way to spend bitcoins. They are effectively clearing houses that enable anyone to sell products to anyone else.
It all started with Silk Road, an underground marketplace that enabled people to sell illicit goods and services using bitcoin. The site, only accessible via the Tor anonymous browsing system, capitalized on the currency’s ability to facilitate anonymous trades (if you know what you’re doing).
Silk Road got shut down in October 2013 and promptly ‘returned’ a month later. If that’s not your game, there are more legitimate bitcoin marketplaces where you can spend your coins. Most of them are still in the fledgling stage and have a limited range of goods to offer, though.
Bitcoin Market and Cryptothrift are two category-driven sites, albeit sparsely populated. Flibbr allows you to search listed products by name. Reddit offers a subthread called Bitmarket, that allows people to list their goods as Reddit posts.
There are other, specialist sites popping up. BitPremier will sell your high-end luxury items for bitcoins, using an escrow service. It has an impressive selection of high-end listings including luxury cars, yachts, condos, antiques, and artworks. There is even an island for sale.
Online bitcoin services
Perhaps not surprisingly for a movement that requires a fair bit of technical know-how, bitcoin has garnered a lot of support from the online services community. Hosting companies in particular are willing to give your website or server a home on the Internet in exchange for bitcoin.
The bitcoin wiki has a good list. WordPress is among the most visible and popular sites, and will offer you a blogging presence online for payment in cryptocurrency. You can also go to BitcoinCodes to buy credits for Steam, Spotify, XBoxLive, PlayStation Network and AirVPN. Namecheap accepts bitcoin directly as payment for domain services. If you want a little more privacy online, several VPN (virtual private network) providers now accept only bitcoin after being blocked by credit card companies and PayPal.
Tipping, or donating bitcoin to a cause
Feel like giving your bitcoins away to a good cause, or to reward an interesting comment? Here’s The Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice, a London-based NGO that campaigns for “justice, human rights and reconciliation” in Sri Lanka, and Sean’s Outpost – a homeless shelter in Pensacola, Florida.