Chapter 01

What Is Bitcoin?

The first mention of a product called bitcoin was in August 2008 when two programmers using the names Satoshi Nakamoto and Martti Malmi registered a new domain, bitcoin.org. In October of the same year, Nakamoto released a document, called a white paper, entitled “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System.” In the preceding months, Nakamoto and a group of volunteer researchers had proposed different versions of the concept in forums and email threads. It was in 2008 that it all came together.

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The Bitcoin White Paper
Source: Satoshi Nakamoto

This paper laid out principles of Bitcoin, an electronic payment system that would eliminate the need for any central authority while ensuring secure, verifiable transactions. In short, the document described a new form of currency, one that allowed for trustless payments on the web – that is, they require a minimal amount or even no trust between parties.

In other words, the system allowed two users who didn’t know or trust each other to exchange money in the same way they could pass cash back and forth. The system also allowed users to confirm messages, transactions and data using a tool called public key encryption, eliminating any need to disclose their identities to transaction partners or third parties. Pseudonymity, in this case, was a byproduct but not a primary feature.

In January 2009, the first bitcoin currency transaction occurred between two computers owned by Nakamoto and the late Hal Finney, a developer and an early cryptocurrency enthusiast. 

To this day, no one knows who Satoshi Nakamoto really is. Even a man named Dorian Nakamoto was erroneously named as Bitcoin’s creator by a Newsweek reporter in 2014.

Source: Newsweeklied.com
Dorian Nakamoto wasn't Satoshi.
Source: Newsweeklied.com

In the end, however, because of the decentralized nature of the platform, it is not considered important to know who Satoshi Nakamoto is.

Bitcoin Up Close

Bitcoins aren’t printed, like dollars or euros – they’re produced by computers all around the world using free software and held electronically in programs called wallets. The smallest unit of a bitcoin is called a satoshi. It is one hundred millionth of a bitcoin (0.00000001). This enables microtransactions that traditional electronic money cannot perform.

Bitcoin (often abbreviated BTC was the first example of what we call cryptocurrencies today, a growing asset class that shares some characteristics with traditional currencies except they are purely digital, and creation and ownership verification is based on cryptography.

Generally the term “bitcoin” has two possible interpretations. There’s bitcoin the token, which refers to the keys to a unit of the digital currency that users own and trade. A bitcoin token is held in a bitcoin wallet that is identified by a string of numbers and letters such as “1A1zP1eP5QGefi2DMPTfTL5SLmv7DivfNa.” When someone wants to send you bitcoin, that person will send it to your particular, public wallet address, and you will access it via your private keys. 

Then there’s Bitcoin the protocol, a distributed ledger that maintains the balances of all token trading. These ledgers are massive files stored on thousands of computers around the world. The network records each transaction onto these ledgers and then propagates them to all of the other ledgers on the network. Once all of the networks agree that they have recorded all of the correct information – including additional data added to a transaction that allows the network to store data immutably – the network permanently confirms the transaction. 

Bitcoin can be used to pay for things electronically, if both parties are willing. In that sense it’s like conventional dollars, euros or yen, which can also be traded digitally using ledgers owned by centralized banks. Unlike payment services such as PayPal or credit cards, however, once you send a bitcoin, the transaction is irreversible – it cannot be called back. 

That said, bitcoin does not depend on a centralized system of banking. Because each node on the network is owned by a private entity, the entire network is responsible for maintaining the accuracy of the ledger. When you send a bitcoin – or a fraction of a bitcoin – to another person, the entire network takes part.

This process is called decentralization, one of the Bitcoin network’s most important characteristics. No single institution controls the bitcoin network. The protocol is maintained by a group of volunteer coders, and run by an open network of dedicated computers around the world. 

Since there is no central validator in this network, users do not need to identify themselves when sending bitcoin to others. When a sender initiates a transaction, the protocol checks all previous transactions to confirm the sender has the necessary bitcoin as well as the authority to send them. Put another way, bitcoin users theoretically operate in semi-anonymity and the network is self-policing, ensuring that bad actors cannot be rewarded. 

Bitcoin is also pseudo-anonymous. In practice, each user is identified by the address of his or her wallet, which can be used to track transactions. Law enforcement has also developed methods to identify users if necessary. Most exchanges are required by law to perform identity checks on their customers before they are allowed to buy or sell bitcoin. This means an exchange-assigned wallet address is most likely connected to a particular user. However, cryptocurrency wallets are not limited to exchanges or other online services, and a wallet generated by an anonymous user on a single computer is fairly difficult to trace. Further, every transaction on the network is fully transparent, a fact that concerns some privacy advocates. Ultimately, tracing a bitcoin transaction to a specific person is difficult but not impossible, and any statements describing the “anonymity” of bitcoin are inaccurate.

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Source: Shutterstock

Since the network is transparent, the progress of a particular transaction is visible to all. Once that transaction is confirmed, it cannot be reversed. This means any transaction on the bitcoin network cannot be tampered with, making it immune to hackers. Most bitcoin hacks happen at the wallet level, with hackers stealing the keys to hoards of bitcoins rather than affecting the Bitcoin protocol itself.

Another attribute of bitcoin that takes away the need for central banks is that its supply is tightly controlled by the underlying algorithm. With fiat currencies (dollars, euros, yen, etc.), central banks can issue as many currency units as they want and can attempt to manipulate a currency’s value relative to others. Holders of the currency, especially citizens with little alternative, bear the cost.

With bitcoin, a small number of new coins trickle out every hour, and will continue to do so at a diminishing rate until a maximum of 21 million has been reached. This makes bitcoin more attractive as an asset: in theory, if demand grows and the supply remains the same, the value will increase. 

Roughly every four years, the amount of bitcoin that miners can earn in the network will be halved, potentially driving up the asset’s price. Such an event is called bitcoin halving (the most recent one happened in May 2020).

Disclosure
The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.

Chapter 02

How Can I Buy Bitcoin?

So you’ve learned the basics of bitcoin, now you’re excited about its potential and want to buy some. But how?

Bitcoin can be bought on exchanges or directly from other people via marketplaces.

You can purchase bitcoin in a variety of ways, using anything from hard cash to credit and debit cards to wire transfers, or even other cryptocurrencies, depending on who you are buying them from and where you live.

The first step is to set up a wallet to store your bitcoin – you will need one, whether you’re buying bitcoin online or with cash. This could be an online wallet (either part of an exchange platform, or via an independent provider), a desktop wallet, a mobile wallet or an offline one (such as a hardware device or a paper wallet).

You can find more information on some of the wallets out there, as well as tips on how to use them, here and here.

The most important part of any wallet is keeping your keys and/or passwords safe. If you lose them, you lose access to the bitcoin stored there. In addition, never invest more than you can afford to lose – cryptocurrencies are volatile and their prices could go down as well as up.

If you want to buy bitcoin online, you can open an account at a cryptocurrency exchange that will buy and sell bitcoin on your behalf. There are hundreds currently operating, with varying degrees of liquidity and security, and new ones continue to emerge while others end up closing down due to hacking. As with wallets, it is advisable to do some research before choosing – you may be lucky enough to have several reputable exchanges to choose from, or there might just be one or two based on your geographical area.

The largest bitcoin exchange in the world at the moment in terms of US$ volume is Bitfinex, although it is mainly aimed at savvier traders. Other high-volume exchanges are Coinbase, Bitstamp and Poloniex. For small amounts, most reputable exchanges should work well. 

With the clampdown on know-your-client (KYC) and anti-money-laundering (AML) regulation, many exchanges now require verified identification for account setup. This usually includes a photo of your official ID, and sometimes also a proof of address.

Most exchanges accept payments via bank transfers or credit cards, and some are willing to work with Paypal transfers. They typically charge fees for each transaction, which include the cost for using the bitcoin network.

A bitcoin transaction takes anywhere from a few minutes to a couple days to process, depending on the traffic in the network as well as the fee attached to that transaction.

Once the exchange has received payment, it will purchase the corresponding amount of bitcoin on your behalf, and deposit them in an automatically generated wallet on the exchange. You should then move the funds to your off-exchange wallet.

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BATMTwo Bitcoin ATM
Source: Bitcoin ATM

If you prefer to buy bitcoin with cash, platforms such as LocalBitcoins will help find individuals near you who are willing to exchange bitcoin for cash. Also, LibertyX lists retail outlets across the United States at which you can exchange cash for bitcoin. And WallofCoins, Paxful and BitQuick will direct you to a bank branch near you that will allow you to make a cash deposit and receive bitcoin a few hours later.

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Localbitcoin coverage
Source: LocalBitcoins.com

Bitcoin ATMs are machines that will send bitcoin to your wallet in exchange for cash. They operate in a similar way to bank ATMs – you feed in the bills, hold your wallet’s QR code up to a screen, and the corresponding amount of bitcoin is beamed to your account. Coinatmradar can help you to find a bitcoin ATM near you.

(Note: specific businesses mentioned here are not the only options available, and should not be taken as a recommendation.)

Disclosure
The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.

Chapter 03

Why Use Bitcoin?

Satoshi Nakamoto originally created Bitcoin as an alternative, decentralized payment method. Unlike international bank transfers, it was low-cost and almost instantaneous. 

An added advantage for merchants (less so for users) was that it was irreversible, removing the threat of expensive charge-backs. In return, consumers benefit from a wider selection of merchants both domestic and international without worrying about exchange fees. Moreover, the details of their transactions are encrypted which protects their personal data. 

The improvement in domestic payment methods and the rapid development of alternative (non-cryptocurrency) forms of international transfers, however, has reduced bitcoin’s advantage in this area, especially given its increasing fees and frequent network bottlenecks.

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payments
Source: Shutterstock

Furthermore, the increasing oversight and regulation to prevent money laundering and illegal transactions have restricted the cryptocurrency’s use for privacy reasons.

In some parts of the world, bitcoin is still a more efficient and cheaper way to transfer money across borders, and several remittance startups make use of this feature. Last year, Coinbase added cross-border transfers and custody services for high-volume clients in Asia and Europe. A recent partnership between crypto exchange Bitex and Uruguay-based banking service provider Bantotal now facilitates direct bitcoin payments across 60 banks in Latin America. 

Bitcoin’s cost and speed advantages, though, are being eroded as traditional channels improve and the network’s fees continue to increase and availability remains a problem in many countries.

Also, a number of large and small retailers accept the cryptocurrency as a form of payment, although reports suggest that demand for this function is not high.

And many individuals feel more comfortable holding a part of their wealth in securely-stored bitcoin wallets, where a central authority cannot block access or take a cut. Since the coronavirus lockdown began in March, we’ve witnessed a surge in demand for bitcoin wallets as users search for alternative self-custody solutions. The pandemic has also seemed to accelerate the widespread adoption of blockchain technology, as more and more businesses, payments companies and e-commerce marketplaces turn to digital currencies, especially stablecoins. 

Recently bitcoin seems to have assumed the role of investment asset, as traders, institutional investors and small savers have woken up to the potential gains from price appreciation.

According to some sources, bitcoin is increasingly being used for money laundering. But blockchain analytics startups and crypto tracing firms are rolling out new tools to help exchanges comply with anti-money laundering standards. And anyway, bitcoin is not, as is commonly believed, a good vehicle for money laundering, extorsion or terrorism financing, since it is both traceable and transparent – as a spate of recent arrests can attest.

Disclosure
The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.

Chapter 04

How to Store Your Bitcoin

Before holding any bitcoin, you need somewhere to store it. Just like in the physical world, you store your bitcoin in a wallet. 

Similar to a bank account number, your wallet comes with a wallet address that shows up in a ledger search and is shared with others so you can make transactions. This address, which is a shorter, more usable version of your public key, consists of between 26 and 35 random alphanumeric characters, something like 1A1zP1eP5QGefi2DMPTfTL5SLmv7DivfNa. Keep in mind that every letter and number in that address is important. Before sending any bitcoin to your wallet, double-check the entire address, character by character.  

Also tied to your wallet address is one or more private keys, which as the name suggests should not be shared with anyone. Keys are used to verify you own the aforementioned public key, and to sign off on transactions. Some wallets create a secure seed phrase, a set of words that will allow you to unlock your wallet if you lose your keys. Print this phrase out and keep it in a safe place.

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Source: Shutterstock

The unfortunate truth is your bitcoin wallet is akin to your physical wallet. If you lose the private keys to your wallet, you’re most likely going to lose the currency in it forever. 

Your wallet generates a master file where your public and private keys are stored. This file should be backed up in case the original file is lost or damaged. Otherwise, you risk losing access to your funds.

You can store your private keys on your computer, mobile device, on a physical storage gadget or even on a piece of paper. It’s crucial that you keep your private keys safe by generating backups both online and offline.

Remember: Your wallet does not reside on any single device. The wallet itself resides on the Bitcoin blockchain, just as your banking app doesn’t truly “hold” the cash in your checking account.

While wallet apps work well and are relatively safe, the safest option is a hardware wallet you keep offline, in a secure place. The most popular hardware wallets use special layers of security to ensure your keys are not stolen and your bitcoin is safe. But, once again, if you lose the hardware wallet your bitcoins are gone unless you have kept reliable backups of the keys.

The least-secure option is an online wallet, i.e. storing your bitcoin in an exchange. This is because the keys are held by a third party. For many, the online exchange wallets are the easiest to set up and use, presenting an all-too-familiar choice: convenience versus safety.

Many serious bitcoin investors use a hybrid approach: They hold a core, long-term amount of bitcoin offline in so-called “cold storage,” while keeping a spending balance in a mobile account. 

Depending on your bitcoin strategy and willingness to get technical, here are the different types of bitcoin wallets available. Bitcoin.org has a helper that will show you which wallet to choose.

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Source: Shutterstock

Cloud wallets exist online and the keys are usually stored in a distant server run by a third party. Cloud-based wallets tend to have a more user-friendly interface but you will be trusting a third party with your private keys, which makes your funds more susceptible to theft. Some examples of this wallet type are Coinbase, Blockchain and Lumi Wallet. Most cryptocurrencies, including bitcoin, have their own native wallets. Some offer additional security features such as offline storage (Coinbase and Xapo).

With your private keys stored on a server, you have to trust the host’s security measures and also trust the host won’t disappear with your money or close down and deny you access.

Software wallets can be installed directly on your computer, giving you private control of your keys. Most have relatively easy configuration and are free. The disadvantage is you are in charge of securing your keys. Software wallets also require greater security precautions. If your computer is hacked or stolen, the thief can get a copy of your wallet and your bitcoin.

While you can download the original software Bitcoin Core protocol (which stores a ledger of all transactions since 2009 and takes up a lot of space), most wallets in use today are “light” wallets, or SPV (Simplified Payment Verification) wallets, which do not download the entire ledger but sync to it. 

Electrum is a well-known SPV desktop bitcoin wallet that also offers “cold storage” (a totally offline option for additional security). Exodus can track multiple assets with a sophisticated user interface. Some (such as Jaxx Liberty) can hold a wide range of digital assets, and some (such as Copay) offer the possibility of shared accounts.

Before downloading any app, please confirm you are downloading a legitimate copy of a real wallet. Some shady programmers create clones of various crypto websites and offer downloads for free, leading to the possibility of a hack. 

Mobile wallets are available as apps for your smartphone, especially useful if you want to pay for something in bitcoin in a shop or if you want to buy, sell or send while on the move. All of the online wallets and most of the desktop ones mentioned above have mobile versions, while others – such as Abra, Edge and Bread – were created with mobile in mind. Remember, many online wallets will store your keys on the phone itself, leading to the possibility of losing your bitcoin if you lose your phone. Always keep a backup of your keys on a different device and print out your seed phrase.

Hardware wallets are small devices that connect to the web only to enact bitcoin transactions. They are more secure because they are generally offline and therefore not hackable. They can be stolen or lost, however, along with the bitcoins that belong to the stored private keys, so it’s recommended that you backup your keys. Some large investors keep their hardware wallets in secure locations such as bank vaults. Trezor, Keepkey and Ledger are notable examples.

Paper wallets are perhaps the simplest of all the wallets. Paper wallets are pieces of paper that contain the private and public keys of a bitcoin address. Ideal for the long-term storage of bitcoin (away from fire and water, of course) or for the giving of bitcoin as a gift, these wallets are more secure in that they’re not connected to a network. They are, however, easier to lose.

With services such as WalletGenerator, you can easily create a new address and print the wallet on your printer. When you’re ready to top up your paper wallet you simply send some bitcoin to that address and then store it safely. Whatever option you go for, be sure to back up everything and only tell your nearest and dearest where your backups are stored.

For more information on how to buy bitcoin, see here. And for some examples of what you can spend it on, see here.

(Note: Specific businesses mentioned here are not the only options available, and should not be taken as an official recommendation. Further, companies could go out of business and be replaced with more nefarious owners. Always protect your keys.)

Disclosure
The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.

Chapter 05

How to Sell Bitcoin

These days virtually all the methods available to buy bitcoin also offer the option to sell.

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The exception is bitcoin ATMs – some do allow you to exchange bitcoin for cash, but not all. Coinatmradar will guide you to bitcoin ATMs in your area.

All exchanges allow you to sell as well as buy. What type of exchange you choose to sell your bitcoin will depend on what type of holder you are: small investor, institutional holder or trader?

Some platforms such as GDAX and Gemini are aimed more at large orders from institutional investors and traders.

Retail clients can sell bitcoin at exchanges such as Coinbase, Kraken, Bitstamp, Poloniex, etc. Each exchange has a different interface, and some offer related services such as secure storage. Some require verified identification for all trades, while others are more relaxed if small amounts are involved.

(Of course, don’t forget to declare any profit you make on the sale to your relevant tax authority!)

You can, if you wish, exchange your bitcoin for other cryptoassets rather than for cash. Some exchanges such as ShapeShift focus on this service, allowing you to swap between bitcoin and ether, litecoin, XRP, dash and several others.

Another alternative is the direct sale. You can register as a seller on platforms such as LocalBitcoins, BitQuick, Bittylicious and BitBargain, and interested parties will contact you if they like your price. Transactions are usually done via deposits or wires to your bank account, after which you are expected to transfer the agreed amount of bitcoin to the specified address.

Or, you can sell directly to friends and family once they have a bitcoin wallet set up. Just send the bitcoin, collect the cash or mobile payment, and have a celebratory drink together. (Note: it is generally not a good idea to meet up with strangers to exchange bitcoin for cash in person. Be safe.)

(Note: specific businesses mentioned here are not the only options available, and should not be taken as a recommendation.)

Disclosure
The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.

Chapter 06

How Do Bitcoin Transactions Work?

Now that you’ve set up your bitcoin wallet and are ready to make your first transaction, let’s take a look at how bitcoin transactions actually work. 

There are three key variables in any bitcoin transaction: an amount, an input and an output. An input is the address from which the money is sent, and an output is the address that receives the funds. Since a wallet can contain several input addresses, you can send money from one or more inputs to one or more outputs. There is also a data storage portion on each transaction, a sort of note, that allows you to record data to the blockchain immutably.

But the unique thing about bitcoin transactions is that, if you initiate a transaction that’s worth less than the total amount in your input, you get your change back not to your original output, but through a new third address in your control. This means your wallet typically ends up containing multiple addresses, and you can pull funds from these addresses to make future transactions.

You’ve learned how to buy and store your bitcoins, so you already know what public and private keys are for, and you’ll need these to issue a transaction. To do that, you put your private key, the amount of bitcoins you want to send and the output address into the bitcoin software on your computer or smartphone. 

Then the program generates a signature made from your private key to announce this transaction to the network for validation. The network needs to confirm that you own the bitcoin being transferred and that you haven’t spent it by checking all previous transactions which are public on the ledger. Once the bitcoin program verifies that indeed your private key corresponds to the provided public key (without knowing what your private key is), your transaction is confirmed. 

This transaction is now included in a “block” which gets attached to the previous block to be added to the blockchain. Every transaction in the blockchain is tied to a unique identifier called a transaction hash (txid), which looks like a 64-character string of random letters and numbers. You can track a particular transaction by typing this txid in the search bar on the blockchain explorer

Transactions can’t be undone or tampered with, because it would mean re-doing all the blocks that came after. This process is not instantaneous. Because the bitcoin blockchain is fairly large, it takes a lot of time to process a single transaction among the many on the blockchain. 

The amount of time it takes to confirm a transaction varies, ranging anywhere from a few minutes to a couple days, based on traffic on the blockchain and the size of your transaction. Larger transactions with higher fees tend to get validated by miners quicker than smaller ones. That said, once it is confirmed, it is immutably recorded forever.

If you want to indulge in some mindless fascination, you can sit at your desk and watch bitcoin transactions float by. Blockchain.info is good for this, but try BitBonkers if you want a hypnotically fun version.

Disclosure
The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.

Chapter 07

How Bitcoin Mining Works

When you hear about bitcoin “mining,” you envisage coins being dug out of the ground. But bitcoin isn’t physical, so why do we call it mining?

Similar to gold mining, bitcoins exist in the protocol’s design just as the gold exists underground, but they haven’t been brought out into the light yet, just as the gold hasn’t yet been dug up. 

The bitcoin protocol stipulates that a maximum of 21 million bitcoins will exist at some point. What miners do is bring them out into the light, a few at a time. Once miners finish mining all these coins, there won’t be more coins rolling out unless the bitcoin protocol changes to allow for a larger supply. Miners get paid in transaction fees for creating blocks of validated transactions and including them in the blockchain.

Chinese crypto mining machine maker Canaan saw its stock price closed at $1.98 per share, the first time since its initial public offering at a price of $9 per share last December. (Credit: Shutterstock)
Source: Shutterstock

To understand how bitcoin mining works, let’s backtrack a little bit and talk about nodes. A node is a powerful computer that runs the bitcoin software and fully validates transactions and blocks. Since the bitcoin network is decentralized these nodes are collectively responsible for confirming pending transactions. 

Anyone can run a node—you just download the free bitcoin software. The drawback is that it consumes energy and storage space – the network at time of writing takes hundreds of gigabytes of data. Nodes spread bitcoin transactions around the network. One node will send information to a few nodes that it knows, who will relay the information to nodes that they know, etc. That way, the pending transaction ends up getting around the whole network pretty quickly.

Some nodes are mining nodes,usually referred to as miners. These chunk outstanding transactions into blocks and add them to the blockchain. How do they do this? By solving a complex mathematical puzzle that is part of the bitcoin program, and including the answer in the block. 

The puzzle that needs solving is to find a number that, when combined with the data in the block and passed through a hash function (which converts input data of any size into output data of a fixed length, produces a result that is within a certain range. 

For trivia lovers, this number is called a “nonce”, which is an abbreviation of “number used once.” In the blockchain, the nonce is an integer between 0 and 4,294,967,296.

How do they find this number? By guessing at random. The hash function makes it impossible to predict what the output will be. So, miners guess the mystery number and apply the hash function to the combination of that guessed number and the data in the block. The resulting hash starts with a certain number of zeroes. There’s no way of knowing which number will work, because two consecutive integers will give wildly varying results. What’s more, there may be several nonces that produce the desired result, or there may be none. In that case, the miners keep trying but with a different block configuration.

The difficulty of the calculation (the required number of zeros at the beginning of the hash string) is adjusted frequently, so that it takes on average about 10 minutes to process a block.

Why 10 minutes? That is the amount of time that the bitcoin developers think is necessary for a steady and diminishing flow of new coins until the maximum number of 21 million is reached (expected some time in 2140).

The first miner to get a resulting hash within the desired range announces its victory to the rest of the network. All the other miners immediately stop work on that block and start trying to figure out the mystery number for the next one. As a reward for its work, the victorious miner gets some new bitcoin.

At the time of writing, the reward is 6.25 bitcoins per block, which is worth around $56,000 in June 2020.

However, it’s not nearly as cushy a deal as it sounds. There are a lot of mining nodes competing for that reward, and the more computing power you have and the more guessing calculations you can perform, the luckier you are.

Also, the costs of being a mining node are considerable, not only because of the powerful hardware needed, but also because of the large amounts of electricity consumed by these processors.

And, the number of bitcoins awarded as a reward for solving the puzzle will decrease. It’s 6.25 now, but it halves every four years or so (the next one is expected in 2024). The value of bitcoin relative to cost of electricity and hardware could go up over the next few years to partially compensate for this reduction, but it’s not certain.

If you’ve made it this far, then congratulations! There is still so much more to explain about the system, but at least now you have an idea of the broad outline of the genius of the programming and the concept. For the first time we have a system that allows for convenient digital transfers in a decentralized, trust-free and tamper-proof way. 

Disclosure
The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.

Chapter 08

How to Set Up a Bitcoin Miner

By this stage, you will understand how bitcoin works, and what mining means. But we need to get from theory to practice. How can you set up a bitcoin mining hardware and start generating some digital cash? The first thing you’re going to need to do is decide on your hardware, and there are two main things to think about when choosing it:

Hash rate is the number of calculations that your hardware can perform every second as it tries to crack the mathematical problem we described in our mining section. Hash rates are measured in megahashes, gigahashes, and terahashes per second (MH/sec, GH/sec, and TH/sec). The higher your hash rate (compared to the current average hash rate), the more likely you are to solve a transaction block. The bitcoin wiki’s mining hardware comparison page is a good place to go for rough information on hash rates for different hardware.

When choosing a hardware, it’s worth looking at your device’s energy consumption. All this computing power chews up electricity, and that costs money. You want to make sure that you don’t end up spending all of your money on electricity to mine coins that won’t be worth what you paid.

To work out how many hashes you’re getting for every watt of electricity that you use, divide the hash count by the number of watts.

bitriver-farm
Source: Credit: Anna Baydakova for CoinDesk

For example, if you have a 500 GH/sec device, and it’s taking 400 watts of power, then you’re getting 1.25 GH/sec per watt. You can check your power bill or use an electricity price calculator online to find out how much that means in hard cash.

However, there’s a caveat here. In some cases, you’ll be using your computer to run the mining hardware. Your computer has its own electricity draw on top of the mining hardware, and you’ll need to factor that into your calculation.

There are three main hardware categories for bitcoin miners: GPUs, FPGAs, and ASICs. We’ll explore them in depth below.

CPU/GPU Bitcoin Mining

The least powerful category of bitcoin mining hardware is your computer itself. Theoretically, you could use your computer’s CPU to mine for bitcoins, but in practice, this is so slow by today’s standards that there isn’t any point.

You can enhance your bitcoin hash rate by adding graphics hardware to your desktop computer. Graphics cards feature graphical processing units (GPUs). These are designed for heavy mathematical lifting so they can calculate all the complex polygons needed in high-end video games. This makes them particularly good at the Secure Hash Algorithm (SHA) hashing mathematics necessary to solve transaction blocks.

One of the nice things about GPUs is that they also leave your options open. Unlike other options discussed later, these units can be used with cryptocurrencies other than bitcoin. Litecoin, for example, uses a different proof of work algorithm to bitcoin, called Scrypt. This has been optimized to be friendly to CPUs and GPUs, making them a good option for GPU miners who want to switch between different currencies.

GPU mining is largely dead these days. Bitcoin mining difficulty has accelerated so much with the release of ASIC mining power that graphics cards can’t compete.

FPGA Bitcoin Mining

A Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) is an integrated circuit designed to be configured after being built. This enables a mining hardware manufacturer to buy the chips in volume, and then customize them for bitcoin mining before putting them into their own equipment. Because they are customized for mining, they offer performance improvements over CPUs and GPUs. Single-chip FPGAs have been seen operating at around 750 MH/sec, although that’s at the high end. It is of course possible to put more than one chip in a box.

ASIC Bitcoin Miners

This is where the action’s really at. Application Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs) are specifically designed to do just one thing: mine bitcoins at mind-crushing speeds, with relatively low power consumption. Because these chips have to be designed specifically for that task and then fabricated, they are expensive and time-consuming to produce – but the speeds are stunning. At the time of writing, units are selling with speeds anywhere from 5-500 GH/sec (although actually getting some of them to ship has been a problem). Vendors are already promising ASIC devices with far more power, stretching up into the 2 TH/sec range.

Before making your purchase, calculate the projected profitability of your miner, using mining profitability calculators online like this one. You can input parameters such as equipment cost, hash rate, power consumption, and the current bitcoin price to see how long it will take to pay back your investment.

One of the other key parameters here is network difficulty. This metric determines how hard it is to solve transaction blocks, and it varies according to the network hash rate. Difficulty is likely to increase substantially as ASIC devices come on the market, so it might be worth increasing this metric in the calculator to see what your return on investment will be like as more people join the game. 

Once you have chosen your hardware, you’ll need to do several other things. Depending on which equipment you choose, you will need to run software to make use of it. Typically when using GPUs and FPGAs, you will need a host computer running two things: the standard bitcoin client, and the mining software.

The standard bitcoin client connects your computer to the network and enables it to interact with the bitcoin clients, forwarding transactions and keeping track of the block chain. It will take some time for it to download the entire bitcoin block chain so that it can begin. The bitcoin client effectively relays information between your miner and the bitcoin network.

The bitcoin mining software is what instructs the hardware to do the hard work, passing through transaction blocks for it to solve. There are a variety of these available, depending on your operating system. They are available for Windows, Mac OS X, and others.

You may well need mining software for your ASIC miner, too, although some newer models promise to ship with everything pre-configured, including a bitcoin address, so that all you need to do is plug it in the wall.

One smart developer even produced a mining operating system designed to run on the Raspberry Pi, a low-cost credit card-sized Linux computer designed to consume very small amounts of power. This could be used to power a USB-connected ASIC miner.

Now, you’re all set up. Good for you. But you will stand little chance of success mining bitcoins unless you work with other people, by joining a bitcoin mining pool for example. 

Nowadays, the bitcoin mining industry primarily operates on a pool level rather than on an individual level. Some of the biggest bitcoin miners in the world are F2Pool, Poolin, Slush Pool and AntPool.   

Disclosure
The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.

Chapter 09

Can Bitcoin Scale?

You have some bitcoins in your wallet and want to spend them on your daily purchases. But what would that look like in a world where Visa, Mastercard and other financial services still dominate the market? 

The ability for bitcoin to compete with other payment systems has long been up for debate in the cryptocurrency community. When Satoshi Nakamoto programmed the blocks to have a size limit of approximately 1MB each to prevent network spam, he also created the problem of bitcoin illiquidity.

Since each block takes an average of 10 minutes to process, only a small number of transactions can go through at a time. For a system that many claimed could replace fiat payments, this was a big barrier. While Visa handles around 1,700 transactions a second, bitcoin could process up to 7. An increase in demand would inevitably lead to an increase in fees, and bitcoin’s utility would be limited even further.

The scaling debate has unleashed a wave of technological innovation in the search of workarounds. While significant progress has been made, a sustainable solution is still far from clear.

A simple solution initially appeared to be an increase in the block size. Yet that idea turned out to be not simple at all.

First, there was no clear agreement as to how much it should be increased by. Some proposals advocated for 2MB, another for 8MB, and one wanted to go as high as 32MB.

The core development team argued that increasing the block size at all would weaken the protocol’s decentralization by giving more power to miners with bigger blocks. Plus, the race for faster machines could eventually make bitcoin mining unprofitable. Also, the number of nodes able to run a much heavier blockchain could decrease, further centralizing a network that depends on decentralization.

Second, not everyone agrees on this method of change. How do you execute a system-wide upgrade when participation is decentralized? Should everyone have to update their bitcoin software? What if some miners, nodes and merchants don’t?

And finally, bitcoin is bitcoin, why mess with it? If someone didn’t like it, they were welcome to modify the open-source code and launch their own coin.

One of the earliest solutions to this issue was proposed by developer Pieter Wiulle in 2015. It’s called Segregated Witness, or SegWit

This process would increase the capacity of the bitcoin blocks without changing their size limit, by altering how the transaction data was stored. (For a more detailed account, see our explainer.)

SegWit was deployed on the bitcoin network in August 2017 via a soft fork to make it compatible with nodes that did not upgrade. While many wallets and other bitcoin services are gradually adjusting their software, others are reluctant to do so because of the perceived risk and cost.

Several industry players argued that SegWit didn’t go far enough – it might help in the short term, but sooner or later bitcoin would again be up against a limit to its growth.

In 2017, coinciding with CoinDesk’s Consensus conference in New York, a new approach was revealed: Segwit2X. This idea – backed by several of the sector’s largest exchanges – combined SegWit with an increase in the block size to 2MB, effectively multiplying the pre-SegWit transaction capacity by a factor of 8.

Far from solving the problem, the proposal created a further wave of discord. The manner of its unveiling (through a public announcement rather than an upgrade proposal) and its lack of replay protection (transactions could happen on both versions, potentially leading to double spending) rankled many. And the perceived redistribution of power away from developers towards miners and businesses threatened to cause a fundamental split in the community.

Other technological approaches are being developed as a potential way to increase capacity.

Schnorr signatures offer a way to consolidate signature data, reducing the space it takes up within a bitcoin block (and enhancing privacy). Combined with SegWit, this could allow a much greater number of transactions, without changing the block size limit

And work is proceeding on the lightning network, a second layer protocol that runs on top of bitcoin, opening up channels of fast microtransactions that only settle on the bitcoin network when the channel participants are ready.

Adoption of the SegWit upgrade is slowly spreading throughout the network, increasing transaction capacity and lowering fees.

Progress is accelerating on more advanced solutions such as lightning, with transactions being sent on testnets (as well as some using real bitcoin). And the potential of Schnorr signatures is attracting increasing attention, with several proposals working on detailing functionality and integration.

While bitcoin’s use as a payment mechanism seems to have taken a back seat to its value as an investment asset, the need for a greater number of transactions is still pressing as the fees charged by the miners for processing are now more expensive than fiat equivalents. More importantly, the development of new features that enhance functionality is crucial to unlocking the potential of the underlying blockchain technology.

Disclosure
The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.

Chapter 10

What is Bitcoin's Lightning Network?

Tackling bitcoin’s scalability isn’t easy, but developers Thaddeus Dryja and Joseph Poon had an idea. In a 2016 white paper, they proposed the concept of a protocol called “the lightning network” that would enable faster and cheaper transactions while not having to change the block size. 

The network creates a second layer on top of the bitcoin blockchain and comprises user-generated channels. You can securely send payments back and forth without the need to trust or even know your counterparty.

Say, for instance, that I wanted to pay you for each minute of video that I watched. We would open up a lightning channel, and as the minutes rolled by, periodic payments would be made from my wallet to yours. When I’m done watching, we would close the channel to settle the net amount on the bitcoin blockchain.

Because the transactions are just between me and you and don’t need to be broadcast to the whole network, they are almost instantaneous. And because there are no miners that need incentivizing, transaction fees are low or even non-existent.

How it works

First, two parties who wish to transact with each other set up a multisignature wallet (which requires more than one signature to enact a transaction). This wallet holds some amount of bitcoin. The wallet address is then saved to the bitcoin blockchain. This sets up the payment channel.

The two parties can now conduct an unlimited number of transactions without ever touching the information stored on the blockchain. With each transaction, both parties sign an updated balance sheet to always reflect how much of the bitcoin stored in the wallet belongs to each.

Once the two parties finish transacting and close out the channel, the resulting balance is registered on the blockchain. In the event of a dispute, both parties can use the most recently signed balance sheet to recover their share of the wallet.

It is not necessary to set up a direct channel to transact on lightning – you can send payments to someone via channels with people that you are connected with. The network automatically finds the shortest route.

Development of the technology got a significant boost with the adoption of SegWit on the bitcoin and litecoin networks. Without the upgrade’s transaction malleability fix, transactions on the lightning network would have been too risky to be practical.

Without the security of the blockchain behind it, the lightning network will not be as secure, which implies that it will largely be used for small or even micro transactions which carry a lower risk. Larger transfers that require decentralized security are more likely to be done on the original layer.

Where are we now?

In March 2018, California startup Lightning Labs announced the launch of a beta version of its software, making available what investors and project leads say is the first thoroughly tested version of the tech to date. It is still early days, however – transaction sizes are limited, and the release is aimed at developers and “advanced users”.
Recent research on the lightning network shows signs of increased vulnerability due to the centralization of a number of nodes in the network that control a majority of funds. Developers are continuously exploring new possibilities to enhance the privacy and efficiency of the lightning, as well as ways to incorporate other technologies such as Schnorr into the network. There’s no doubt that it’ll be some time before such system-wide updates can successfully take place.

Disclosure
The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.

Chapter 11

What are Bitcoin Mining Pools?

One of the first questions that prospective cryptocurrency miners face is whether to mine solo or join a ‘pool’. There are a multitude of reasons both for and against mining pools. Here’s what you need to know.

If you’re deciding whether to join a mining pool or not, it can be helpful to think of it like a lottery syndicate – the pros and cons are exactly the same. Going solo means you won’t have to share the reward, but your odds of getting a reward are significantly decreased. Although a pool has a much larger chance of solving a block and winning the reward, that reward will be split between all the pool members.

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Source: Shutterstock

Therefore, joining a pool creates a steady stream of income, even if each payment is modest compared to the full block reward (which currently stands at 6.25 BTC). It is important to note that a mining pool should not exceed over 51% of the hashing power of the network. If a single entity ends up controlling more than 50% of a cryptocurrency network’s computing power, it could theoretically wreak havoc on the whole network.

Difficulty level is another factor to keep in mind when considering solo mining.  It is currently so high that it’s practically impossible for soloists to make a profit mining. Unless, of course, you happen to have a garage full of ASICs sitting in Arctic conditions. If you’re a beginner, joining a mining pool is a great way to reap a small reward over a short period of time. Indeed, pools are a way to encourage small-scale miners to stay involved.

One method of mining that bitcoin facilitates is “merged mining”. This is where blocks solved for bitcoin can be used for other currencies that use the same proof of work algorithm (for example, namecoin and devcoin). A useful analogy for merged mining is to think of it like entering the same set of numbers into several lotteries.

First-time miners who lack particularly powerful hardware should look at altcoins over bitcoin – especially currencies based on the scrypt algorithm rather than SHA256. This is because the difficulty of bitcoin calculations is far too high for the processors found in regular PCs.

When deciding which mining pool to join, you need to weigh up how each pool shares out its payments and what fees (if any) it deducts. Typical deductions range from 1% to 10%. However, some pools do not deduct anything.

There are many schemes by which pools can divide payments. Most of which concentrate on the amount of ‘shares’ which a miner has submitted to the pool as ‘proof of work’.

Shares are a tricky concept to grasp. Keep two things in mind: firstly, mining is a process of solving cryptographic puzzles; secondly, mining has a difficulty level. When a miner ‘solves a block’ there is a corresponding difficulty level for the solution. Think of it as a measure of quality. If the difficulty rating of the miner’s solution is above the difficulty level of the entire currency, it is added to that currency’s block chain and coins are rewarded.

Additionally, a mining pool sets a difficulty level between 1 and the currency’s difficulty. If a miner returns a block which scores a difficulty level between the pool’s difficulty level and the currency’s difficulty level, the block is recorded as a ‘share’. There is no use whatsoever for these share blocks, but they are recorded as proof of work to show that miners are trying to solve blocks. They also indicate how much processing power they are contributing to the pool – the better the hardware, the more shares are generated.

The most basic version of dividing payments this way is the ‘pay per share’ (PPS) model. Variations on this puts limits on the rate paid per share; for example, equalised shared maximum pay per share (ESMPPS), or shared maximum pay per share (SMPPS). Pools may or may not prioritise payments for how recently miners have submitted shares: for example, recent shared maximum pay per share (RSMPPS). More examples can be found on the bitcoin wiki.

There are many pool options available for mining beside bitcoin. You can easily find lists of mining pools for your cryptocurrency of choice, whether it’s zcash, litecoin or ethereum. Some popular ones are BTC.com, Slush Pool and AntPool.

Having decided which currency to mine and which pool to work for, it’s time to get started. You need to create an account on the pool’s website, which is just like signing up for any other web service. Once you have an account, you’ll need to create a ‘worker’. You can create multiple workers for each piece of mining hardware you’ll use. The default settings on most pools are for workers to be assigned a number as their name, and ‘x’ as their password, but you can change these to whatever you like.

Disclosure
The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.

Chapter 12

What Can You Buy with Bitcoin?

After an initial flurry of interest among merchants in accepting bitcoin in their retail or online stores, interest has largely died down as increasing bitcoin transaction fees and volatile price movements made it less attractive as a means of exchange.

That doesn’t mean that there are no outlets to spend your bitcoin, however, far from it. A 2019 survey done by insurance company HSB finds that more than one-third of U.S. small and mid-sized businesses accept cryptocurrency, and 59% of them purchase digital currencies for their own use. 

Among the advantages of conducting business with cryptocurrency are the ease of cross-border transactions, and anonymity (unless you want physical delivery, of course). By accepting bitcoin, merchants get access to a broader market, and don’t have to worry so much about chargebacks since bitcoin transactions are irreversible.

In 2019, AT&T became the first major U.S. mobile carrier to accept payments in cryptocurrency via BitPay

If you want to use bitcoin to buy presents, the most obvious solution is gift cards, via Gyft or eGifter. The recipient will then be able to spend the gift card at one of a wide range of retailers.

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gifts, exchange, trade
Source: Shutterstock

You can pay for flights and hotels with bitcoin, through Expedia, CheapAir and Surf Air. If your ambitions are loftier, you can pay for space travel with some of your vast holdings, through Virgin Galactic.

Microsoft accepts bitcoin in its app stores, where you can download movies, games and app-based services. The leading game streaming platform Twitch also accepts payments in bitcoin and bitcoin cash for its subscriptions.

Some musicians (Bjork, Imogen Heap, G-Eazy, Dolly Parton) will let you download their music in exchange for cryptocurrency.

Need to furnish your house or buy a special present for someone? Overstock was one of the first big retailers to start accepting bitcoin, back in 2014, and its founder – Patrick Byrne – is still one of the technology’s most active proponents.

Fancy some gold? Sharps Pixley, APMEX and JM Bullion will take bitcoin off your hands in exchange for bullion.

And if you’re hungry and live in the U.S., PizzaforCoins will get a pizza delivered to your door (depending on where you live) in exchange for bitcoin.

If it’s knowledge you’re hungry for, several private and public universities as well as a couple of New York preschools accept bitcoin.

Some legal and accounting firms also accept payment for their services in cryptocurrency.

Of course, you could always donate to one of the bitcoin-accepting charities or crowdfunding sites, such as BitHope, BitGive or Fidelity Charitable.

For a list of offline stores near you that accept bitcoin, check an aggregator such as Spendabit or CoinMap.

(Note: specific businesses mentioned here are not the only options available, and should not be taken as a recommendation.)

Disclosure
The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.

Chapter 13

Is Bitcoin Legal?

As the market capitalization of the cryptocurrency market shoots up, through price movements and a surge in new tokens, regulators around the world are stepping up the debate on oversight into the use and trading of digital assets.

Very few countries have gone as far as to declare bitcoin illegal. That does not, however, mean that bitcoin is “legal tender” – so far, only Japan has gone as far as to give bitcoin that designation. However, just because something isn’t legal tender, does not mean that it cannot be used for payment – it just means that there are no protections for either the consumer or the merchant, and that its use as payment is completely discretionary.

Other jurisdictions are still mulling what steps to take. The approaches vary: some smaller nations such as Zimbabwe have few qualms about making brash pronouncements casting doubts on bitcoin’s legality. Larger institutions, such as the European Commission, recognize the need for dialogue and deliberation, while the European Central Bank (ECB) believes that cryptocurrencies are not yet mature enough for regulation. In the United States, the issue is complicated further by the fractured regulatory map – who would do the legislating, the federal government or individual states?

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A related question in other countries, to which there is not yet a clear answer, is: should central banks keep an eye on cryptocurrencies, or financial regulators? In some countries they are one and the same thing, but in most developed nations, they are separate institutions with distinct remits.

Another divisive issue is: should bitcoin be regulated on a national or international basis? There needs to be a further distinction between regulation of the cryptocurrency itself (is it a commodity or a currency, is it legal tender?) and cryptocurrency businesses (are they money transmitters, do they need licenses?). In a few countries the considerations are tied together – in most others, they have been dealt with separately.

Below is a brief summary of pronouncements made by certain countries. This list was last updated in July 2020.

Australia

The Australian government has been supportive of cryptocurrency and blockchain technologies. In 2017, it declared that cryptocurrencies were legal, and they would be treated as assets subjected to Capital Gains Tax

In 2018, the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre announced new regulations that require exchanges operating in the country to register with AUSTRAC, maintain records and verify users. To combat money laundering and terrorism financing in the future, unregistered exchanges will face charges and monetary penalties in the future.

Argentina

Under Argentina’s Constitution, bitcoins aren’t considered legal currency because they are not issued by the central bank. In spite of a strong bitcoin ecosystem, Argentina has not yet drawn up regulations for the cryptocurrency, although the central bank has issued official warnings of the risks involved.

Bangladesh

In 2015, Bangladesh expressly declared that using cryptocurrencies was a “punishable offence.” Authorities have been on the hunt for illegal bitcoin traders in the country. 

Bolivia

In 2014, the central bank of Bolivia officially banned the use of any currency or tokens not issued by the government.

Canada

Canada was one of the first countries to draw up what could be considered “bitcoin legislation.” In 2014, the Governor General of Canada passed Bill C-31 in 2014, which designated “virtual currency businesses” as “money service businesses,” compelling them to comply with anti-money laundering and know-your-client requirements. The law is pending issuance of subsidiary regulations.

The government has specified that bitcoin is not legal tender, and the country’s tax authority has deemed bitcoin transactions taxable, depending on the type of activity.

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China

While China has not banned bitcoin (and President Xi Jinping has continued to praise in blockchain developments as critical to technical innovations), financial regulators have cracked down on bitcoin exchanges – all major bitcoin exchanges in the country, including OKCoin, Huobi, BTC China, and ViaBTC, suspended order book trading of digital assets against the yuan in 2017.

It also appears to be withdrawing preferential treatment (tax deductions and cheap electricity) for bitcoin miners.

Ecuador

In 2014, the National Assembly of Ecuador banned bitcoin and decentralized digital currencies while the central bank stated that the online trading of cryptocurrencies is not forbidden. Still, bitcoin is not legal tender and is not an authorized payment method for goods and services..

Egypt

In January 2018, the Grand Mufti of Egypt declared that cryptocurrency trading was forbidden under Islamic religious law due to the risk associated with the activity. While this is not legally binding, it does count as a high-level legal opinion.

However, that ban was lifted in May 2019, easing restrictions by allowing companies with licenses to operate.

Europe

The European Union is taking a cautious approach to cryptocurrency regulation, with several initiatives underway to involve sector participants in the drafting of supportive rules. The focus appears to be on learning before regulating, while boosting innovation and taking into account the needs of the ecosystem.

In April 2018, the parliament’s members voted by a large majority to support a December 2017 agreement with the European Council for measures aimed, in part, to prevent the use of cryptocurrencies in money laundering and terrorism financing. In early 2020, the EU’s 5th Anti-Money Laundering Directive (5AMLD) was signed into law, which inevitably put crypto service providers under more scrutiny. 

India

The Indian central bank has issued a couple of official warnings on bitcoin, and at the end of 2017 the country’s finance minister clarified in an interview that bitcoin is not legal tender. The government does not yet have any regulations that cover cryptocurrencies, although it is looking at recommendations.

The central bank, however, has barred Indian financial institutions from working with cryptocurrency exchanges and other related services (a ban recently upheld by the country’s Supreme Court).

In June 2020, there were rumors of a new ban on crypto, which industry experts later said were premature. 

Iran

In April 2018, Iran’s central bank and one of its principal market regulators said that financial businesses should not deal in bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies. Furthermore, CoinDesk reported on government censorship of cryptocurrency exchange websites operating in the country. In May 2020, the Iranian parliament proposed to include cryptocurrency in currency smuggling laws. 

Japan

Japan was the first country to expressly declare bitcoin “legal tender,” passing a law in early 2017 that also brought bitcoin exchanges under anti-money laundering and know-your-customer rules (although license applications have temporarily been suspended as the regulators deal with a hack on the Coincheck exchange in early 2018).

Japan’s Financial Services Agency (FSA) has been cracking down on exchanges, suspending two, issuing improvement orders to several and mandating better security measures in five others. It has also established a cryptocurrency exchange industry study group which aims to examine institutional issues regarding bitcoin and other assets. In October 2019, the FSA issued additional guidelines for funds investing in crypto.

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Japan, flag

Kazakhstan

According to 2018 reports, the National Bank of Kazakhstan recently hinted at plans to ban cryptocurrency trading and mining, although as yet no strict regulations have been passed.

Kyrgyzstan

The central bank of Kyrgyzstan declared in 2014 that using cryptocurrencies for transactions was against the law. In August 2019, the Ministry of Economy drafted a law to impose crypto mining taxation. 

Malaysia

Malaysia’s Securities Commission is working together with the country’s central bank on a cryptocurrency regulation framework. In early 2019, the country’s Securities Commission began to mandate approvals for ICOs as securities offerings.

Malta

In June 2018, The European island passed a series of blockchain-friendly laws, including one that details the registration requirements of cryptocurrency exchanges. Earlier in 2020, Malta Financial Services Authority published a document addressing issues related to offerings of security tokens.

Mexico

In 2014, Mexico’s central bank issued a statement blocking banks from dealing in virtual currencies. The following year, the finance ministry clarified that, although bitcoin was not “legal tender,” it could be used as payment and therefore was subject to the same anti-money laundering restrictions as cash and precious metals.

At the end of 2017, Mexico’s national legislature approved a bill that would bring local bitcoin exchanges under the oversight of the central bank.

Morocco

Towards the end of 2017, Morocco’s foreign exchange authority declared that the use of cryptocurrencies within the country violated foreign exchange regulations and would be met with penalties.

Namibia

Namibia is one of the few countries to have expressly declared that purchases with bitcoin are “illegal.”

Nigeria

While Nigerian banks are prohibited from handling virtual currencies, the central bank is working on a white paper which will draft its official stance on use of cryptocurrencies as a payment method.

Pakistan

In April 2018, Pakistan’s central bank issued a statement barring financial companies in the country from working with cryptocurrency firms. In April 2019, the federal government introduced new regulations and licensing schemes for crypto firms. 

Russia

While cryptocurrencies are used in Russia for various payments and services, the Russian authorities have continued to propose new legislation that would crack down on crypto development around the country. In November 2019, the central bank said it would support a ban on crypto payments. New regulatory draft bills rolled out in early 2020, which would prohibit the issuance and operations of digital currencies in the country, including distributing crypto news.

Singapore

Hailed as a crypto haven of the world, Singapore has embraced an innovative approach toward cryptocurrency and blockchain, thanks to the leadership of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS). In January 2020, the MAS announced a new regulatory framework to cover all Singapore-based crypto businesses and exchanges under anti-money laundering and counterrorist-financing rules. It later added a six-month grace period of license exemption for a number of crypto companies such as Binance, Coinbase, Gemini and Bitstamp.

South Africa

In 2017, the South Africa Reserve Bank implemented a “sandbox approach,” testing draft bitcoin and cryptocurrency regulation with a selected handful of startups. In April 2020, the Intergovernmental Fintech Working Group proposed that would increase oversight of crypto activities and mandate business to register with AML watchdog the Financial Intelligence Centre.

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Johannesburg, South Africa

South Korea

In early 2018, South Korea banned anonymous virtual currency accounts. And in an effort to curb cryptocurrency speculation, the authorities are working on increased oversight of exchanges, although the governor of the Financial Supervisory Service has said the government will support “normal” cryptocurrency trading.

In an interesting shift in strategy, a recent report in the South Korean press indicated that the country’s financial authorities are in talks with similar agencies in Japan and China over joint oversight of cryptocurrency investment.

In April 2018, the Fair Trade Commission ordered 12 of the country’s cryptocurrency exchanges to revise their user agreements. In 2020, lawmakers voted on new requirements for crypto exchanges, which would potentially kick out small players who can’t afford new regulatory burdens.

Thailand

After allegedly declaring bitcoin illegal, the Bank of Thailand issued a backtracking statement in 2014, clarifying that it is not legal tender (but not technically illegal), and warning of the risks.

In March 2018, the government’s executive branch provisionally passed two royal decree drafts, establishing formal rules to protect cryptocurrency investors (as well as setting KYC requirements), and setting a tax on their capital gains. The drafts have yet to receive final cabinet approval. There were plans in August 2019 to include cryptocurrencies in the country’s anti-money laundering regime.

United States of America

The U.S. is plagued by a fragmented regulatory system, with legislators at both the state and the federal level responsible for layered jurisdictions and a complex separation of powers.

Some states are more advanced than others in cryptocurrency oversight. New York, for instance, unveiled the controversial BitLicense in 2015, granting bitcoin businesses the official go-ahead to operate in the state (many startups pulled out of the state altogether rather than comply with the expensive requirements). In mid-2017, Washington passed a bill that applied money transmitter laws to bitcoin exchanges.

New Hampshire requires bitcoin sellers to get a money transmitter license and post a $100,000 bond. In Texas, the state securities commission is monitoring (and, on occasion, shutting down) bitcoin-related investment opportunities. And California is in bitcoin regulation limbo after freezing progress on Bill 1326 which – while criticized for issues such as overly broad definitions – was seen as less oppressive than New York’s BitLicense.

At the federal level, the Securities and Exchange Commission’s focus has been on the use of blockchain assets as securities, such as whether or not certain bitcoin investment funds should be sold to the public, and whether or not a certain offering is fraud.

The Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) has a bigger potential footprint in bitcoin regulation, given its designation of the cryptocurrency as a “commodity.” While it has yet to draw up comprehensive bitcoin regulations, its recent efforts have focused on monitoring the nascent futures market. It has also filed charges in several bitcoin-related schemes, which underlines its intent to exercise jurisdiction over cryptocurrencies whenever it suspects there may be fraud.

The Uniform Law Commission, a non-profit association that aims to bring clarity and cohesion to state legislation, has drafted the Uniform Regulation of Virtual Currency Business Act, which several states are contemplating introducing in upcoming legislative sessions. The Act aims to spell out which virtual currency activities are money transmission businesses, and what type of license they would require. Critics fear it too closely resembles the New York BitLicense.

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United Kingdom

Britain’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) sees bitcoin as a “commodity,” and therefore does plan to regulate it. It has hinted, however, that it will step in to oversee bitcoin-related derivatives. This lack of consumer protection has been behind recent FCA warnings on the risks inherent in cryptocurrencies.

In July 2019, the Financial Conduct Authority finalized its guidance on crypto assets, clarifying which tokens would fall under its jurisdiction.

Ukraine

The government of Ukraine has created a working group composed of regulators from various branches to draft cryptocurrency regulation proposals, including the determination of which agencies will have oversight and access. Also, a bill already before the legislature would bring cryptocurrency exchanges under the jurisdiction of the central bank. The Ministry of Digital Information said in February 2020 that it won’t be regulating the crypto mining sector

Zimbabwe

Late in 2017, a senior official from Zimbabwe’s central bank stated that bitcoin was not “actually legal.” While the extent to which it can and cannot be used is not yet clear, the central bank is apparently undertaking research to determine the risks. CoinDesk recently produced a podcast series about the future of bitcoin in Africa, including in Zimbabwe

Disclosure
The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.

Chapter 14

What is the Difference Between Litecoin and Bitcoin?

In 2009, Satoshi Nakamoto launched bitcoin as the world’s first cryptocurrency. The code is open source, which means it can be modified by anyone and freely used for other projects. Many cryptocurrencies have launched with modified versions of this code, with varying levels of success.

What are the differences between litecoin and bitcoin?
Litecoin Logo
Source: Flickr

Litecoin was announced in 2011 with the goal of being the ‘silver’ to bitcoin’s ‘gold’. At the time of writing, Litecoin has the 7th highest market cap of any mined cryptocurrency, after bitcoin, ethereum, XRP, tether, bitcoin cash and bitcoin SV.

Here’s our guide to show you the crucial difference between bitcoin and litecoin.

At-a-glance differences

bitcoin litecoin
Coin limit 21 Million 84 Million
Algorithm SHA-256 Scrypt
Mean block time 10 minutes 2.5 minutes
Difficulty retarget 2016 block 2016 blocks
Block reward details Halved every 210,000 blocks. Halved every 840,000 blocks
Initial reward 50 BTC 50 LTC
Current block reward 6.25 BTC 12.5 LTC
Block explorer blockchain.info block-explorer.com
Created by Satoshi Nakamoto Charles Lee
Creation date January 3rd, 2009 October 7th, 2011
Market cap $167.28B $2.68B
 Bitcoin Statistics  Litecoin Statistics

Mining differences

Just like bitcoin, litecoin is a cryptocurrency that is generated by mining. Litecoin was created in October 2011 by former Google engineer Charles Lee. The motivation behind its creation was to improve upon bitcoin. The key difference for end-users being the 2.5 minute time to generate a block, as opposed to bitcoin’s 10 minutes. Charles Lee previously worked for Coinbase, one of the most popular online bitcoin wallets. He now dedicates his time to the Litecoin Foundation.

shutterstock_163021790
ASIC Mining
Source: Shutterstock

For miners and enthusiasts though, litecoin holds a much more important difference to bitcoin, and that is its different proof of work algorithm. Bitcoin uses the SHA-256 hashing algorithm, which involves calculations that can be greatly accelerated in parallel processing. It is this characteristic that has given rise to the intense race in ASIC technology, and has caused an exponential increase in bitcoin’s difficulty level.

Litecoin, however, uses the scrypt algorithm – originally named as s-crypt, but pronounced as ‘script’. This algorithm incorporates the SHA-256 algorithm, but its calculations are much more serialised than those of SHA-256 in bitcoin. Scrypt favours large amounts of high-speed RAM, rather than raw processing power alone. As a result, scrypt is known as a ‘memory hard problem.

The consequences of using scrypt mean that there has not been as much of an ‘arms race’ in litecoin (and other scrypt currencies), because there is (so far) no ASIC technology available for this algorithm. However, this is soon to change, thanks to companies like Alpha Technologies, which is now taking preorders.

1280px-austrianbitcoinminingrig
GPU mining
Source: Wikipedia

To highlight the difference in hashing power, at the time of writing, the total hashing rate of the bitcoin network is over 20,000 Terra Hashes per second, while litecoin is just 95,642 Mega Hashes per second.

For the time being, ‘state of the art’ litecoin mining rigs come in the form of custom PCs fitted with multiple graphics cards (ie: GPUs). These devices can handle the calculations needed for scrypt and have access to blisteringly fast memory built into their own circuit boards.

There was a time when people could use GPU mining for bitcoin, but ASICs have made this method not worth the effort.

Transaction differences

The main difference is that litecoin can confirm transactions much faster than bitcoin. The implications of that are as follows:

  • Litecoin can handle a higher volume of transactions thanks to its faster block generation. If bitcoin were to try to match this, it would require significant updates to the code that everyone on the bitcoin network is currently running.
  • The disadvantage of this higher volume of blocks is that the litecoin blockchain will be proportionately larger than bitcoin's, with more orphaned blocks.
  • The faster block time of litecoin reduces the risk of double spending attacks – this is theoretical in the case of both networks having the same hashing power.
  • A merchant who waited for a minimum of two confirmations would only need to wait five minutes, whereas they would have to wait 10 minutes for just one confirmation with bitcoin.

Transaction speed (or faster block time) and confirmation speed are often touted as moot points by many involved in bitcoin, as most merchants would allow zero-confirmation transactions for most purchases. It is necessary to bear in mind that a transaction is instant, it is just confirmed by the network as it propagates.

Disclosure
The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.

Chapter 15

How to Accept Bitcoin Payments for Your Store

One issue holding bitcoin back from wider adoption is the lack of businesses that accept the digital currency as payment. This is a chicken-and-egg problem. If more businesses had the ability to accept bitcoin, it might encourage consumers to start obtaining and spending it, and vice versa.

With this in mind, here is our guide to accepting bitcoin in a physical store.

Person-to-person payments

The easiest way to accept bitcoin payments is in-person, simply by getting your customer to send the correct amount of bitcoin (BTC) to your digital wallet. This is similar to thinking of it as a cash-in-hand payment.

burger-bear
A simple QR code system to accept bitcoin payment.

This can be done via many smartphone apps, such as the Bitcoin Wallet app by Andreas Schildbach, on Android. There are also options available on the Windows Phone app store for users of that OS.

Some months ago, Apple removed all bitcoin wallet apps from its App Store. However, on 2nd June, the company rescinded this policy, once again paving the way for wallet apps on iOS devices. These are already starting to appear, with Blockchain, Coinbase and others apps now available. We can expect many more to arrive in coming months too.

Read More: How Do Bitcoin Transactions Work?

Another alternative is CoinBox which is specifically designed for merchants wanting a straightforward option to receive payments. In these scenarios, the merchant enters the price of an item or service into the phone, which then presents a QR code containing the amount to be paid and the address the funds are sent to. The customer scans the QR code with their bitcoin wallet app and the payment is sent.

All of these simple systems are ideal for small businesses testing bitcoin acceptance or for those doing odd-jobs for small amounts. Businesses which are larger in scale will likely look into a dedicated solution that fits in with their existing POS systems.

Merchant bitcoin point-of-sale (POS) solutions

There is also a growing number of commerce-specific options that aim to streamline the process of taking bitcoin payments. The following services offer a variety of POS solutions for merchants, both online and off.

Coinify

Coinify, a Danish firm that acquired BIPS and Coinzone, offers POS solutions for both brick-and-mortar and online stores. Merchants can get paid in bitcoin or fiat currency – or a mixture of the two – and its mobile app, Coinify POS, works with both Android and iOS devices.

pos-promo
POS promo

For online sellers, Coinify offers various integration tools, such as payment buttons, shopping cart plugins or hosted invoicing.

CoinKite

CoinKite is a new startup that offers a bitcoin payment terminal looking exactly like the over-the-counter chip-and-PIN terminals we are so used to using in stores today. This handset reads a bitcoin-based debit card, also offered by CoinKite. The handsets can also serve as a bitcoin and litecoin ATM, as well as offer the option to print QR codes for customers to scan with their smartphone apps.

CoinBase

Coinbase is another payment processor that provides a point of sale app (Android) for bricks-and-mortar retailers. While it currently only supports US bank accounts as a funding source, it offers extensive e-commerce support. Not only does it offer an HTML code segment for easily inserting payment buttons into your website, it also provides plugins for WordPress, WooCommerce, Megento, and ZenCart.

BitPay

BitPay is an international payments processor for businesses and charities. It is integrated into the SoftTouch POS system for bricks-and-mortar retail stores. However, BitPay has an API which could be implemented into any other POS system with some coding work. BitPay has various tariffs that merchants can subscribe to, enabling features such as using the service on a custom domain (for online stores), exporting transactions to QuickBooks, etc.

Blockchain Merchant

Blockchain have also produced a merchant app for Android devices. Blockchain Merchant promises instant transactions, 0% fees on payments and it has multiple linguistic versions for use around the world.

Revel

As mentioned in our recent report: “Revel Systems offers a range of POS solutions for quick-service restaurants, self-service kiosks, grocery stores and retail outlets, among other merchants. POS packages start at $3,000 plus a monthly fee for an iPad, cash drawer and scanner.” It was recently announced that Revel will also include bitcoin as a method of payment in its POS software.

BitXATM

Germany-based startup BitXatm has announced the arrival of its Sumo Pro – a cryptocurrency ATM with a POS (point of sale) function that will appeal to merchants seeking to easily accept payments from customers in digital currencies.

Costing €2,900 (around $3,993), the stand-alone machine offers a generous 17-inch touchscreen and has the ability to accept any fiat currency. Additionally, it can accept or dispense any digital currency, according to the company’s website.

Paystand

California-based online payment processor PayStand provides US-based websites and mobile applications another way to accept payments such e-checks, credit cards and bitcoin. Paystand have recieved $1m in investment as part of its initial seed-funding round.

Founded in 2009, PayStand aims to be a multi-payment gateway that eliminates merchant transaction fees, in part by supporting digital currency acceptance.

Coin of Sale

A new bitcoin POS system, Coin of Sale, is trying to make it easier for merchants to accept bitcoin payments for their goods and services.

Created by Singapore-based expat Thomas Forgac, Coin of Sale works with both Android and iOS devices. When users sign up for an account, they are automatically set up with an Electrum wallet.

The merchant must simply enter the amount of money that needs to be charged and the app will automatically generate a QR code for it. The customer then scans this QR code to complete the payment.

XBTerminal

XBTerminal

 provides a bitcoin POS device that allows the merchant’s customers to pay from any mobile bitcoin wallet by NFC or QR code. Payment from offline mobile devices is supported by bluetooth. Payments take place through the company’s platform and, if desired, bitcoin can be converted instantly to fiat currency at the time of sale.

The company also provides web apps and an online interface for its payments solution for those that wish to invest in third-party hardware.

DIY

With bitcoin, it is possible to forego the fees of using a payment processor or provider, and simply integrate payments into your own custom system. Those with a technical background have achieved this, such as Stephen Early, who integrated bitcoin payments into the POS system of his UK pubs single-handedly.

Get noticed

Whether you have an online or a bricks-and-mortar store, if you accept bitcoin, you need to publicize the fact. You can find a ‘bitcoin accepted here’ sign at the bitcoin wiki.

weacceptbitcoin
We Accept Bitcoin

A sign with more impact may alert customers to the fact you accept bitcoin. Cryptocables produces a range of neon and LED signage.

Additionally, Coco Mats ’n More offersitcoin-logoed doormats and ‘Bitcoin Accepted Here’ mats for merchants wanting to advertise the cryptocurrency as a payment option. 

bitcoin-is-accepted-here-doormat
bitcoin-is-accepted-here-doormat

Last updated 14th October 2015

Disclosure
The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.