A cryptocurrency (or “crypto”) is a digital asset that can circulate without the need for a central monetary authority such as a government or bank. Instead, cryptocurrencies are created using cryptographic techniques that enable people to buy, sell or trade them securely.
Bitcoin and most other cryptocurrencies are supported by a technology known as blockchain, which maintains a tamper-resistant record of transactions and keeps track of who owns what. The creation of blockchains addressed a problem faced by previous efforts to create purely digital currencies: preventing people from making copies of their holdings and attempting to spend them twice.
Individual units of cryptocurrencies can be referred to as coins or tokens, depending on how they are used. Some are intended to be units of exchange for goods and services, others are stores of value, and some are mostly designed to help run computer networks that carry out more complex financial transactions.
One common way cryptocurrencies are created is through a process known as mining, which is used by Bitcoin. Mining can be an energy-intensive process in which computers solve complex puzzles in order to verify the authenticity of transactions on the network. As a reward, the owners of those computers can receive newly created cryptocurrency. Other cryptocurrencies use different methods to create and distribute tokens, and many have a significantly lighter environmental impact.
For most people, the easiest way to get cryptocurrency is to buy it, either from an exchange or another user.
How to buy cryptocurrency safely
Buying cryptocurrencies securely involves four basic steps:
There are many ways to buy cryptocurrency safely, though the most accessible method for beginners is likely to be a centralized exchange. Centralized exchanges act as a third party overseeing transactions to give customers confidence that they are getting what they pay for. These exchanges typically sell crypto at market rates, and they make money on fees for various aspects of their services.
If you’re more accustomed to traditional brokerage accounts, there are a few online brokers that offer access to cryptocurrencies as well as stocks. Of the online brokers reviewed by NerdWallet, these include Robinhood, Webull, SoFi Active Investing and TradeStation. If you’re looking for an exchange that operates solely within the cryptocurrency world, look for pure-play crypto exchanges. These platforms, such as Coinbase, Gemini and Kraken, won’t give you access to core assets like stocks and bonds, but they typically have a much better selection of cryptocurrencies, and more on-platform crypto storage options.
Though centralized exchanges are relatively easy to use, they also can be an attractive target for hackers given the volume of crypto that flows through them.
For more advanced users, there are decentralized exchanges whose fees can be lower than those charged by centralized platforms. Those can be more difficult to use and demand more technical know-how, but they may also offer some security benefits because there is no single target for a cyberattack. Cryptocurrencies can also be traded through peer-to-peer transactions.
While there are thousands of cryptocurrencies being traded around the world, you’ll find that the most popular options are widely available for purchase in fiat currencies such as the U.S. dollar. If you’re a first-time buyer, you’ll very likely have to use regular money to buy cryptocurrency.
If you’re a more experienced investor, you may want to trade some of your existing crypto holdings for another type of cryptocurrency — for instance Bitcoin for Ethereum.
Depending on how you choose to pay, you may have to fund your account before purchasing any crypto. If you’re using fiat currency, most exchanges allow debit and bank transfers. Some also allow you to fund a purchase with your credit card, though this can be a risky move with a volatile asset like cryptocurrency because interest costs can deepen your losses if your investments decline in value.
If you already own cryptocurrency, you can transfer it into your account from a digital wallet or another platform, then use it to trade. Just be sure to verify that your crypto exchange allows trading between the assets you’re looking at. Not all cryptocurrencies can be directly traded for one another, and some platforms have more trading pairs than others.
Another thing to note is that exchanges’ fees vary depending on what you’re buying and how you’re buying it, so review these details carefully.
There are many options for cryptocurrency investors, though there are none that are likely to be right for everyone. Before you buy, ask yourself what your goals are for this investment. Are you hoping it will increase in value? Are you interested in carrying out transactions using cryptocurrency? Are you interested in using the underlying technology via decentralized apps? These may help you make your decision.
NerdWallet has created guides to some widely circulated cryptocurrencies, including Bitcoin and some Bitcoin alternatives:
Bitcoin is the first and most valuable cryptocurrency.
Ethereum is commonly used to carry out financial transactions more complex than those supported by Bitcoin.
Cardano is a competitor to Ethereum led by one of its co-founders.
Litecoin is an adaptation of Bitcoin intended to make payments easier.
Solana is another competitor to Ethereum that emphasizes speed and cost-effectiveness.
Dogecoin began as a joke but has grown to be among the most valuable cryptocurrencies.
Stablecoins are a class of cryptocurrencies whose values are designed to stay stable relative to real-world assets such as the dollar.
Best cryptocurrencies by market capitalization
More than 19,000 different cryptocurrencies are traded publicly, according to CoinMarketCap.com, a market research website. And cryptocurrencies continue to proliferate. The total value of all cryptocurrencies on May 16, 2022, was about $1.3 trillion, having fallen substantially from an all-time high above $2.9 trillion late in 2021.
If that weren’t enough to navigate, there are millions of NFTs — or nonfungible tokens — which are based on similar technology and offer ownership of content such as pictures and videos.
varies by type of transaction; other fees may applyFees
depending on payment method and platformAccount minimum
no promotion available at this timePromotion
when you make your first trade. Terms Apply.Promotion
for new users after trading $100 or more within 30 days
Once you’ve decided to buy crypto and determined which cryptocurrencies you want to invest in, your next decision will be how you want to store it safely.
This is an important choice. Crypto assets require a private key, which proves ownership of cryptocurrencies and is necessary for carrying out transactions. If you lose your private keys, you’ve lost your cryptocurrency. If someone gets your private keys, they can dispense with your cryptocurrencies however they want.
Crypto owners use digital wallets to store their holdings securely. There are multiple options to consider when it comes to digital wallets.
On-platform storage: Some people choose to keep their cryptocurrency on the exchange or platform where they got it. This has some advantages. It outsources the complexities to a third-party that brings some expertise to the table. You don’t have to keep track of your own private keys; all the information is right there when you log in. The drawback is that if the provider has a security breach outside of your control, or if someone hacks your individual credentials, your cryptocurrency could be at risk. On-platform storage is often used by people who think they might want to trade their crypto soon, or who want to participate in exchanges’ staking and rewards programs.
Noncustodial wallets: Because of the threat of hacking, it can be risky to leave large balances on crypto exchanges for longer than necessary. If you’re ready to dive into storing your own crypto, there are many options on the market. They are generally divided into two categories: hot wallets and cold wallets. Hot wallets have some online connectivity, which may make them easier to use but could expose you to some security vulnerabilities. Cold wallets are offline, physical devices that would be unreachable to anyone who does not have them in their material possession.
Pros and cons of cryptocurrency