What is a bitcoin?

Bitcoin is a digital currency created in January 2009. It follows the ideas set out in a whitepaper by the mysterious and pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto.1 The identity of the person or persons who created the technology is still a mystery. Bitcoin offers the promise of lower transaction fees than traditional online payment mechanisms and, unlike government-issued currencies, it is operated by a decentralized authority.

Bitcoin is a type of cryptocurrency. There is no physical bitcoin, only balances kept on a public ledger that everyone has transparent access to. All bitcoin transactions are verified by a massive amount of computing power. Bitcoin is not issued or backed by any banks or governments, nor is an individual bitcoin valuable as a commodity. Despite it not being legal tender in most parts of the world, bitcoin is very popular and has triggered the launch of hundreds of other cryptocurrencies, collectively referred to as altcoins. Bitcoin is commonly abbreviated as “BTC.”

How to Buy Bitcoin in 4 Steps

1. Choose a Crypto Exchange

To buy Bitcoin or any cryptocurrency, you’ll need a crypto exchange where buyers and sellers meet to exchange dollars for coins.

There are hundreds of exchanges out there, but as a beginner, you’ll want to opt for one that balances ease of use with low fees and high security. Be sure to check out our top picks for best crypto exchanges, like Coinbase, Gemini and Binance.US if you don’t already have an exchange in mind.

Make sure to check if your exchange has a Bitcoin wallet built into its platform; if not, you’ll need to find one of your own. You may also choose to buy your crypto on a platform like Robinhood, Paypal or Venmo, though buying crypto this way often means you cannot withdraw your coins and move them to another platform. If you want to hold your crypto to a different wallet, you’ll need to sell your holdings and then rebuy them on a different exchange.

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2. Decide on a Payment Option

After choosing an exchange, you have to fund your account before you can begin investing in Bitcoin. Depending on the exchange, you can fund your account through bank transfers from a checking or savings account, PayPal, wire transfers, a cryptocurrency wallet or even a credit or debit card.

Keep in mind, though, that platforms may charge higher transaction fees for certain funding options. For example, Coinbase doesn’t charge a fee if you do an electronic transfer from a bank account. However, it charges $10 on wire transfers and 2.5% of the transaction amount if you use PayPal.

Things get even pricier if you use PayPal or a debit card to make a direct purchase of cryptocurrency, instead of funding your account and then using transferred money to make your purchase: Coinbase’s fee rises to 3.99% of the transaction amount. Credit card transaction fees on other platforms often run at least this high.

Because fees reduce how much money you can invest (and therefore also how much money you have to grow and compound), it tends to make sense to use electronic transfers from a bank account rather than other methods. In addition, if you use a credit card to buy cryptocurrency, it generally will count as a cash advance and be subject to a higher interest rate than you pay on regular charges. What’s more, taking on debt to buy volatile investments is extremely risky.

3. Place an Order

Once your account is funded, you can place your first order to buy Bitcoin. Depending on the platform you’re using, you may be able to purchase it by tapping a button, or you may have to enter Bitcoin’s ticker symbol (BTC). You’ll then have to input the amount you want to invest.

When the transaction is complete, you will own a portion of a Bitcoin. That’s because it requires a large upfront investment to buy a single Bitcoin now. If Bitcoin’s current price was $38,000, for example, you’d need to invest that much to buy a Bitcoin. If you invested less, say $1,000, you’d get a percentage, in this case 0.026%, of a Bitcoin.

4. Select a Safe Storage Option

The crypto exchange you use probably has an integrated Bitcoin wallet or at least a preferred partner where you can safely hold your Bitcoin. Some people, however, do not feel comfortable leaving their crypto connected to the internet, where it may be more easily stolen by hackers.

Most major exchanges have private insurance to reimburse clients if this happens, and increasingly, they’re also storing the majority of customer assets in offline so-called cold storage. If you want ultimate security, you can store your Bitcoin in an online or offline Bitcoin wallet of your own choosing. But keep in mind that if you move crypto off of an exchange, you may have to pay a small withdrawal fee. In addition, if you use a third-party crypto wallet custodian, you may also be permanently unable to access your coins if you lose the private key that serves as your wallet password. This has locked some Bitcoin millionaires out of their fortunes.

Selling Bitcoin

When you decide you’re ready to sell your Bitcoin, you can place a sell order through your exchange, much like you did when you originally purchased your BTC. Most exchanges offer multiple order types, so you can decide to sell only when Bitcoin reaches a certain price, or you can place an order that goes through immediately.

You can choose to sell your entire holdings of Bitcoin or only a specified amount. Once the sale goes through, you can transfer the money to your bank account. Your exchange, however, may have a holding period before you can make a transfer back to your bank account. This isn’t cause for concern; it simply takes some time to make sure the transactions clear.

When you sell your Bitcoin, you may make a profit. If you do, you’ll be on the hook for capital gains taxes as cryptocurrency sales must now be reported on your taxes.

Should You Buy Bitcoin?

Especially when Bitcoin’s price is skyrocketing, investing in the popular cryptocurrency can be tempting. But while it has the potential to be a lucrative investment, you should be cautious: It’s an incredibly volatile purchase that experts don’t recommend you allocate a large percentage of your investing dollars to.

If you’re not sure whether investing in Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies is a good idea for your needs, consider meeting with a financial planner who can help you figure out where cryptocurrencies fit into your investment strategy.