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Buying Bitcoin is often the first step that investors take into the world of cryptocurrency. And it can be an unfamiliar landscape for someone used to traditional financial products.
The value of Bitcoin — the world’s first and most popular cryptocurrency — has risen from $3,237 in December 2018 to the five figures. Like all cryptocurrencies, Bitcoin is speculative and subject to much more volatility than many tried-and-true investments, such as stocks, bonds and mutual funds.
Is Bitcoin right for you?
Bitcoin can be a risky investment, so it's important to think carefully about your goals and your strategy before you decide. While Bitcoin's price has appreciated dramatically over time, not every person who has bought it has gotten a piece of those gains. Because cryptocurrency markets in general are very volatile, it's nearly impossible to find the "right time" to buy or sell — the price could soar moments after you sell, or plummet as soon as you buy.
That said, there are some basic guidelines. One common rule of thumb is to invest no more than 10% of your portfolio in individual stocks or risky assets like bitcoin. If you're new to investing, find out more about how to invest money. If you do decide to buy bitcoin, there are also some technical and logistical decisions you'll have to make.
It's also a good idea to make sure you understand what you're investing in. Here are some basic things to know.
What's a cryptocurrency? Cryptocurrencies are digital assets that are usually created using a cryptographic computer networking technology called blockchain, which makes it possible to exchange them without the need for a central authority such as a bank. Cryptocurrencies are traded on public exchanges, but they are generally not subject to the same regulations as stocks and other traditional investment products.
How does Bitcoin fit in? Bitcoin is the dominant force in the market for cryptocurrencies, but there are thousands of other cryptocurrencies — some reputable, some not. Different cryptocurrencies are often designed for different purposes. For instance, Bitcoin was developed as a payment system. Some other cryptocurrencies, such as Ethereum, are used to carry out more complex transactions. Some, such as Dogecoin, were created as jokes but have attracted investor interest anyway.
» Learn more: What is cryptocurrency?
If you're thinking about buying Bitcoin or any cryptocurrency, there are a few ways to think about the risks and potential rewards. Bitcoin is a bet both on the cryptocurrency space itself and the specific technology behind Bitcoin. Both are relatively new and untested, and neither is guaranteed to reach the potential some of its proponents anticipate.
If you believe in the ideas behind cryptocurrency in general, but you're not convinced that Bitcoin is the ultimate expression of those concepts, you might want to consider a more diversified portfolio of cryptocurrencies.
How to buy Bitcoin in 4 steps
Decide where to buy Bitcoin. Cryptocurrency exchanges like Coinbase and a few traditional brokers like Robinhood can get you started investing in Bitcoin.
Think about how to store your cryptocurrency. Are you going to keep your Bitcoin in a hot wallet or a cold wallet?
Make your purchase. Figure out how much you want to invest in Bitcoin.
Manage your investment. Determine your long-term plan for this asset.
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1. Decide where to buy Bitcoin
There are a few different ways to buy Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, including exchanges and traditional brokers.
You can purchase bitcoin from several cryptocurrency exchanges. Many offer dozens of cryptocurrency choices, while others simply have Bitcoin and a handful of alternatives. They carry a variety of different fees and consumer protections, so do your diligence before choosing.
The choices among traditional brokers that give customers a way to buy and sell Bitcoin are few right now — Robinhood was the first mainstream investment broker to offer bitcoin (Robinhood Crypto is available in most, but not all, U.S. states). Like its stock-trading platform, Robinhood charges no fees for Bitcoin trades.
Of the online brokerages and cryptocurrency exchanges that NerdWallet reviews, the following currently offer Bitcoin.
Access to buy and sell nearly 60 cryptocurrencies.
Access to buy and sell nearly 100 cryptocurrencies.
Trading platform with access to 17 cryptocurrencies.
Ability to buy and sell more than 50 cryptocurrencies.
Seven cryptocurrencies including bitcoin, bitcoin cash and ethereum.
SoFi Active Investing
Offers more than 20 cryptocurrencies for trading including bitcoin, ethereum and litecoin.
Offers trading for five cryptocurrencies, including bitcoin, bitcoin cash and ethereum.
Offers 10 cryptocurrencies for trading, including bitcoin, bitcoin cash, ethereum and litecoin.
Offers more than 90 cryptocurrencies.
Other ways to buy or invest in bitcoin
Bitcoin ATMs. These work like normal ATMs, only you can use them to buy and sell bitcoin. Coin ATM Radar shows more than 27,000 Bitcoin ATMs around the U.S.
Peer-to-peer bitcoin owners. You can buy bitcoin directly from other Bitcoin owners, much like you would buy items on Craigslist, through peer-to-peer tools like Bisq, Bitquick and LocalBitcoins.com. Use extreme caution if buying Bitcoin directly from individuals.
Exchange-traded funds. The financial firm ProShares launched the first Bitcoin ETF in October of 2021. The fund (ticker: BITO) doesn't invest directly in bitcoin, however — instead, it invests in futures contracts for Bitcoin.
Grayscale funds. Grayscale Investments is a digital currency asset manager. Two of its investment trusts — Grayscale Bitcoin Trust (GBTC) and Grayscale Ethereum Classic Trust (ETCG) — are publicly traded, which means you can buy them through many discount brokers. There are fees, and GBTC often trades at a premium — that means GBTC shares often cost more than bitcoin, even though Bitcoin is its only holding. The thinking is that some investors are willing to pay extra to buy Bitcoin through a traditional exchange, without needing to worry about wallets and storage.
Preparing to buy
Have information you may need handy. Setting up a cryptocurrency account takes minutes, but you'll need to provide some information, including your Social Security number and the number to your bank account, debit card or credit card to fund your Bitcoin account. Some providers also may require you to have a picture ID. Record and safeguard any new passwords for your crypto account or digital wallet (more on those below).
Don’t use a credit card. Although some providers allow you to purchase Bitcoin by credit card, making investments by borrowing from a high-interest product like a credit card is never a good idea.
» Learn more: Is Bitcoin safe?
Understand investor protections. Or in this case, the lack thereof: Bitcoin and other cryptocurrency investments are not insured by the Securities Investor Protection Corporation for exchange failures or theft, a protection that traditional stock brokerage accounts enjoy on up to $500,000. Some exchanges like Coinbase provide private insurance, but that doesn’t protect against individual online breaches like someone stealing your password.
Use a secure, private internet connection. This is important any time you make financial transactions online. Buying Bitcoin while at the coffee shop, in your hotel room or using other public internet connections is not advised.
» Dive deeper: What is blockchain, and how does it work?
2. Decide how to store Bitcoin
Bitcoin can be stored in two kinds of digital wallets: a hot wallet or a cold wallet. With a hot wallet, transactions generally are faster, while a cold wallet often incorporates extra security steps that help to keep your assets safe but also make transactions take longer.
With a hot wallet, Bitcoin is stored by a trusted exchange or provider in the cloud and accessed through an app or computer browser on the internet. Any trading exchange you join will offer a free bitcoin hot wallet where your purchases will automatically be stored. But many users prefer to transfer and store their Bitcoin with a third-party hot wallet provider, also typically free to download and use.
Why choose a wallet from a provider other than an exchange? While advocates say the blockchain technology behind bitcoin is even more secure than traditional electronic money transfers, Bitcoin hot wallets are an attractive target for hackers. As Bitcoin.org warns: “Many exchanges and online wallets suffered from security breaches in the past and such services generally still do not provide enough insurance and security to be used to store money like a bank.”
» Compare: Best exchanges to store your cryptocurrency
There are many hot wallet providers, offering a range of wallet types. Here are a few:
Coinbase: Also a popular Bitcoin currency exchange, Coinbase offers free online hot wallets and insures losses due to security breaches or hacks, employee theft, or fraudulent transfers.
Electrum: Software that allows your bitcoin to be stored on your laptop or desktop computer.
Blockchain: Like Coinbase, Blockchain is an online hot wallet; unlike Coinbase, Blockchain isn’t a currency exchange and is considered a less attractive target for hackers.
Mycelium: A mobile-only bitcoin wallet, with versions available for Android or iPhone users.
Although some hot wallet providers offer insurance for large-scale hack attacks, that insurance may not cover one-off cases of unauthorized access to your account.
A cold wallet is a small, encrypted portable device that allows you to download and carry your Bitcoin. Cold wallets can cost as much as $100 but are considered much more secure than hot wallets.
Cold wallet providers include:
Trezor: This company offers small, key-size cold wallets ranging from about $60 to $220.
Ledger Nano: Designed like a thumb drive, Ledger Nano has cold wallets ranging from about $60 to $120.
When creating accounts for your digital wallets and currency exchange, use a strong password and two-factor authentication.
3. Make your purchase
After linking your bitcoin wallet to the Bitcoin exchange of your choice, the last step is the easiest — deciding how much Bitcoin you want to buy. While a single Bitcoin costs tens of thousands of dollars, the cryptocurrency (trading symbol BTC or XBT) can be bought and sold for fractional shares, so your initial investment could be as low as, say, $25.
4. Manage your investment
If you like the idea of day trading, one option is to buy bitcoin now and then sell it if and when its value moves higher. But if you see a future for BItcoin as a digital currency, perhaps your investment plan is to buy and hold for the long haul. Whatever your plan, know that owning Bitcoin creates a complex tax situation.
» Beyond bitcoin: What are altcoins, and how do they work?