Seed/Recovery Phrase: What It Is and How to Use One

A seed phrase can recover your crypto wallet if you lose your device or password.
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Written by Dalia Ramirez
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A seed phrase, or recovery phrase, is a series of words that grants access to your cryptocurrency wallet.

Seed phrases work like a master password, so you can recover your crypto assets even if you lose your password, phone or hardware device. You’ll likely have a regular password for daily login to your wallet, but a seed phrase serves as a backup in case of an emergency.

The words in a seed phrase are randomly generated when setting up your wallet. Therefore, this phrase needs to be written down and kept in a safe place so you can use it when needed.

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What is a seed phrase?

A seed phrase is the set of words your wallet generates that lets you access your crypto, no matter what happens to the wallet itself. This recovery phrase grants access not just to your wallet but to the crypto held inside it.

If you forget the password to a crypto wallet on your computer or phone, you can use your seed phrase to log back in. Seed phrases also come in handy if your computer hard drive is corrupted or any devices you use to store crypto are damaged.

Even if you lose a hardware wallet — the small electronic device that keeps your crypto offline — you can set up a new one using your seed phrase.

How is a seed phrase made?

Seed phrases are generated automatically by your wallet when you set one up, so you can’t customize yours or change it later. These phrases are usually a list of 12 to 24 simple words from the dictionary, such as “blanket,” “curious” and “dragon.”

Using a group of words instead of an extended code of numbers and letters makes it easier to write down and enter correctly without errors. Here is an example of a 12-word seed phrase: timber, sword, where, noodle, joy, eagle, admit, tuna, vibrant, museum, gossip, river.

The standard method for seed phrases is called BIP-39 —short for Bitcoin improvement proposal-39. BIP-39 was introduced in 2013 with a list of 2,048 words that could be in seed phrases. With this number of words, there are 2,048 to the power of 12 (more than a decillion) possible seed phrase combinations, which is such a large number that the odds of someone guessing your phrase are almost zero.

How can I keep my seed phrase safe?

When a wallet generates your seed phrase, it will most likely direct you to write down the phrase and store it in a safe place. Pencil and paper work fine, though some investors inscribe their seed phrases onto a fireproof metal container or card.

This is the most foolproof way to keep your crypto secure, though if you think you’re at risk of losing a piece of paper or metal, a password manager on your computer may be a better option.

Either way, keeping your recovery phrase in one secure place is essential. Texting or emailing a seed phrase to yourself — or even keeping it in a locked note on your phone or computer — can leave your crypto vulnerable to hackers.

Since your seed phrase is the only way to recover your crypto assets if you lose access to them, it’s worth as much as they are, so it should be treated accordingly. The piece of paper or metal with your seed phrase should be stored like any other valuables you own, whether in a safe at home, at the bank or in a secret hiding place.

Most importantly, never give out your seed phrase. Phishing scams may ask you for a seed phrase in creative ways, including by posing as your wallet company to ask for “verification.” The only person who should have your seed phrase is you. If someone uncovers your seed phrase, they can control all the crypto in your wallet.

Is a seed phrase the same thing as a private key?

A seed phrase is not the same as a private key, but they grant access to your crypto together. A private key is a code that secures your transactions automatically by proving your ownership of the crypto. Your wallet manages it, so you shouldn’t ever need to enter it manually.

Your seed phrase directly corresponds to your private key, so if someone else gets ahold of your seed phrase, they can control your private key and move your crypto.

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What happens if I lose my seed phrase?

If you can’t find your seed phrase, all hope is not lost. Here’s what you can do:

  • If you have your wallet login but not your seed phrase: You can still access your wallet using its standard login method or enter the PIN if you have a hardware wallet that uses one. Some wallets even have a feature to view your seed phrase and write it down again, provided you’re already logged in to the wallet.

  • If you think your seed phrase has been stolen or might be found by someone else: You should transfer your crypto into a new wallet as soon as possible and generate a new seed phrase.

  • If you lose access to your wallet and lose your seed phrase: You will lose access to your crypto assets. Seed phrases can’t be changed or recovered, making them an effective security tool.

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