Frequently Asked Questions
WHAT IS BITCOIN?
Bitcoin is a consensus network that enables a new payment system and a completely digital money. It is the first decentralized peer-to-peer payment network that is powered by its users with no central authority or middlemen. From a user perspective, Bitcoin is pretty much like cash for the Internet. Bitcoin can also be seen as the most prominent triple entry bookkeeping system in existence.
WHO CONTROLS THE BITCOIN NETWORK?
Nobody owns the Bitcoin network much like no one owns the technology behind email. Bitcoin is controlled by all Bitcoin users around the world. While developers are improving the software, they can’t force a change in the Bitcoin protocol because all users are free to choose what software and version they use. In order to stay compatible with each other, all users need to use software complying with the same rules. Bitcoin can only work correctly with a complete consensus among all users. Therefore, all users and developers have a strong incentive to protect this consensus.
HOW DOES BITCOIN WORK?
From a user perspective, Bitcoin is nothing more than a mobile app or computer program that provides a personal Bitcoin wallet and allows a user to send and receive bitcoins with them. This is how Bitcoin works for most users.
Behind the scenes, the Bitcoin network is sharing a public ledger called the “block chain”. This ledger contains every transaction ever processed, allowing a user’s computer to verify the validity of each transaction. The authenticity of each transaction is protected by digital signatures corresponding to the sending addresses, allowing all users to have full control over sending bitcoins from their own Bitcoin addresses. In addition, anyone can process transactions using the computing power of specialized hardware and earn a reward in bitcoins for this service. This is often called “mining”.
WHAT ARE THE ADVANTAGES OF BITCOIN?
Payment freedom – It is possible to send and receive bitcoins anywhere in the world at any time. No bank holidays. No borders. No bureaucracy. Bitcoin allows its users to be in full control of their money.
Choose your own fees – There is no fee to receive bitcoins, and many wallets let you control how large a fee to pay when spending. Higher fees can encourage faster confirmation of your transactions. Fees are unrelated to the amount transferred, so it’s possible to send 100,000 bitcoins for the same fee it costs to send 1 bitcoin. Additionally, merchant processors exist to assist merchants in processing transactions, converting bitcoins to fiat currency and depositing funds directly into merchants’ bank accounts daily. As these services are based on Bitcoin, they can be offered for much lower fees than with PayPal or credit card networks.
Fewer risks for merchants – Bitcoin transactions are secure, irreversible, and do not contain customers’ sensitive or personal information. This protects merchants from losses caused by fraud or fraudulent chargebacks, and there is no need for PCI compliance. Merchants can easily expand to new markets where either credit cards are not available or fraud rates are unacceptably high. The net results are lower fees, larger markets, and fewer administrative costs.
Security and control – Bitcoin users are in full control of their transactions; it is impossible for merchants to force unwanted or unnoticed charges as can happen with other payment methods. Bitcoin payments can be made without personal information tied to the transaction. This offers strong protection against identity theft. Bitcoin users can also protect their money with backup and encryption.
Transparent and neutral – All information concerning the Bitcoin money supply itself is readily available on the block chain for anybody to verify and use in real-time. No individual or organization can control or manipulate the Bitcoin protocol because it is cryptographically secure. This allows the core of Bitcoin to be trusted for being completely neutral, transparent and predictable.
IS BITCOIN ANONYMOUS?
Bitcoin is designed to allow its users to send and receive payments with an acceptable level of privacy as well as any other form of money. However, Bitcoin is not anonymous and cannot offer the same level of privacy as cash. The use of Bitcoin leaves extensive public records. Various mechanisms exist to protect users’ privacy, and more are in development. However, there is still work to be done before these features are used correctly by most Bitcoin users.
Some concerns have been raised that private transactions could be used for illegal purposes with Bitcoin. However, it is worth noting that Bitcoin will undoubtedly be subjected to similar regulations that are already in place inside existing financial systems. Bitcoin cannot be more anonymous than cash and it is not likely to prevent criminal investigations from being conducted. Additionally, Bitcoin is also designed to prevent a large range of financial crimes.
CAN BITCOIN BE REGULATED?
The Bitcoin protocol itself cannot be modified without the cooperation of nearly all its users, who choose what software they use. Attempting to assign special rights to a local authority in the rules of the global Bitcoin network is not a practical possibility. Any rich organization could choose to invest in mining hardware to control half of the computing power of the network and become able to block or reverse recent transactions. However, there is no guarantee that they could retain this power since this requires to invest as much than all other miners in the world.
It is however possible to regulate the use of Bitcoin in a similar way to any other instrument. Just like the dollar, Bitcoin can be used for a wide variety of purposes, some of which can be considered legitimate or not as per each jurisdiction’s laws. In this regard, Bitcoin is no different than any other tool or resource and can be subjected to different regulations in each country. Bitcoin use could also be made difficult by restrictive regulations, in which case it is hard to determine what percentage of users would keep using the technology. A government that chooses to ban Bitcoin would prevent domestic businesses and markets from developing, shifting innovation to other countries. The challenge for regulators, as always, is to develop efficient solutions while not impairing the growth of new emerging markets and businesses.
WHAT ABOUT BITCOIN AND TAXES?
Bitcoin is not a fiat currency with legal tender status in any jurisdiction, but often tax liability accrues regardless of the medium used. There is a wide variety of legislation in many different jurisdictions which could cause income, sales, payroll, capital gains, or some other form of tax liability to arise with Bitcoin.
HOW ARE BITCOINS CREATED?
New bitcoins are generated by a competitive and decentralized process called “mining”. This process involves that individuals are rewarded by the network for their services. Bitcoin miners are processing transactions and securing the network using specialized hardware and are collecting new bitcoins in exchange.
The Bitcoin protocol is designed in such a way that new bitcoins are created at a fixed rate. This makes Bitcoin mining a very competitive business. When more miners join the network, it becomes increasingly difficult to make a profit and miners must seek efficiency to cut their operating costs. No central authority or developer has any power to control or manipulate the system to increase their profits. Every Bitcoin node in the world will reject anything that does not comply with the rules it expects the system to follow.
Bitcoins are created at a decreasing and predictable rate. The number of new bitcoins created each year is automatically halved over time until bitcoin issuance halts completely with a total of 21 million bitcoins in existence. At this point, Bitcoin miners will probably be supported exclusively by numerous small transaction fees.
WON’T THE FINITE AMOUNT OF BITCOINS BE A LIMITATION?
Bitcoin is unique in that only 21 million bitcoins will ever be created. However, this will never be a limitation because transactions can be denominated in smaller sub-units of a bitcoin, such as bits – there are 1,000,000 bits in 1 bitcoin. Bitcoins can be divided up to 8 decimal places (0.000 000 01) and potentially even smaller units if that is ever required in the future as the average transaction size decreases.
HOW MUCH WILL THE TRANSACTION FEE BE?
Transactions can be processed without fees, but trying to send free transactions can require waiting days or weeks. Although fees may increase over time, normal fees currently only cost a tiny amount. By default, all Bitcoin wallets listed on Bitcoin.org add what they think is an appropriate fee to your transactions; most of those wallets will also give you chance to review the fee before sending the transaction.
Transaction fees are used as a protection against users sending transactions to overload the network and as a way to pay miners for their work helping to secure the network. The precise manner in which fees work is still being developed and will change over time. Because the fee is not related to the amount of bitcoins being sent, it may seem extremely low or unfairly high. Instead, the fee is relative to the number of bytes in the transaction, so using multisig or spending multiple previously-received amounts may cost more than simpler transactions. If your activity follows the pattern of conventional transactions, you won’t have to pay unusually high fees.
HASN’T BITCOIN BEEN HACKED IN THE PAST?
The rules of the protocol and the cryptography used for Bitcoin are still working years after its inception, which is a good indication that the concept is well designed. However, security flaws have been found and fixed over time in various software implementations. Like any other form of software, the security of Bitcoin software depends on the speed with which problems are found and fixed. The more such issues are discovered, the more Bitcoin is gaining maturity.
There are often misconceptions about thefts and security breaches that happened on diverse exchanges and businesses. Although these events are unfortunate, none of them involve Bitcoin itself being hacked, nor imply inherent flaws in Bitcoin; just like a bank robbery doesn’t mean that the dollar is compromised. However, it is accurate to say that a complete set of good practices and intuitive security solutions is needed to give users better protection of their money, and to reduce the general risk of theft and loss. Over the course of the last few years, such security features have quickly developed, such as wallet encryption, offline wallets, hardware wallets, and multi-signature transactions.
WHO CREATED BITCOIN?
Bitcoin is the first implementation of a concept called “cryptocurrency”, which was first described in 1998 by Wei Dai on the cypherpunks mailing list, suggesting the idea of a new form of money that uses cryptography to control its creation and transactions, rather than a central authority. The first Bitcoin specification and proof of concept was published in 2009 in a cryptography mailing list by Satoshi Nakamoto. Satoshi left the project in late 2010 without revealing much about himself. The community has since grown exponentially with many developers working on Bitcoin.
Satoshi’s anonymity often raised unjustified concerns, many of which are linked to misunderstanding of the open-source nature of Bitcoin. The Bitcoin protocol and software are published openly and any developer around the world can review the code or make their own modified version of the Bitcoin software. Just like current developers, Satoshi’s influence was limited to the changes he made being adopted by others and therefore he did not control Bitcoin. As such, the identity of Bitcoin’s inventor is probably as relevant today as the identity of the person who invented paper.
IS BITCOIN REALLY USED BY PEOPLE?
Yes. There are a growing number of businesses and individuals using Bitcoin. This includes brick-and-mortar businesses like restaurants, apartments, and law firms, as well as popular online services such as Namecheap, Overstock.com, and Reddit. While Bitcoin remains a relatively new phenomenon, it is growing fast. At the end of April 2017, the total value of all existing bitcoins exceeded 20 billion US dollars, with millions of dollars worth of bitcoins exchanged daily.
HOW DIFFICULT IS IT TO MAKE A BITCOIN PAYMENT?
Bitcoin payments are easier to make than debit or credit card purchases, and can be received without a merchant account. Payments are made from a wallet application, either on your computer or smartphone, by entering the recipient’s address, the payment amount, and pressing send. To make it easier to enter a recipient’s address, many wallets can obtain the address by scanning a QR code or touching two phones together with NFC technology.
WHY DO PEOPLE TRUST BITCOIN?
Much of the trust in Bitcoin comes from the fact that it requires no trust at all. Bitcoin is fully open-source and decentralized. This means that anyone has access to the entire source code at any time. Any developer in the world can therefore verify exactly how Bitcoin works. All transactions and bitcoins issued into existence can be transparently consulted in real-time by anyone. All payments can be made without reliance on a third party and the whole system is protected by heavily peer-reviewed cryptographic algorithms like those used for online banking. No organization or individual can control Bitcoin, and the network remains secure even if not all of its users can be trusted.
CAN I MAKE MONEY WITH BITCOIN?
You should never expect to get rich with Bitcoin or any emerging technology. It is always important to be wary of anything that sounds too good to be true or disobeys basic economic rules.
Bitcoin is a growing space of innovation and there are business opportunities that also include risks. There is no guarantee that Bitcoin will continue to grow even though it has developed at a very fast rate so far. Investing time and resources on anything related to Bitcoin requires entrepreneurship. There are various ways to make money with Bitcoin such as mining, speculation or running new businesses. All of these methods are competitive and there is no guarantee of profit. It is up to each individual to make a proper evaluation of the costs and the risks involved in any such project.
IS BITCOIN FULLY VIRTUAL AND IMMATERIAL?
Bitcoin is as virtual as the credit cards and online banking networks people use everyday. Bitcoin can be used to pay online and in physical stores just like any other form of money. Bitcoins can also be exchanged in physical form such as the Casascius coins, but paying with a mobile phone usually remains more convenient. Bitcoin balances are stored in a large distributed network, and they cannot be fraudulently altered by anybody. In other words, Bitcoin users have exclusive control over their funds and bitcoins cannot vanish just because they are virtual.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN BITCOINS ARE LOST?
When a user loses his wallet, it has the effect of removing money out of circulation. Lost bitcoins still remain in the block chain just like any other bitcoins. However, lost bitcoins remain dormant forever because there is no way for anybody to find the private key(s) that would allow them to be spent again. Because of the law of supply and demand, when fewer bitcoins are available, the ones that are left will be in higher demand and increase in value to compensate.
CAN BITCOIN SCALE TO BECOME A MAJOR PAYMENT NETWORK?
The Bitcoin network can already process a much higher number of transactions per second than it does today. It is, however, not entirely ready to scale to the level of major credit card networks. Work is underway to lift current limitations, and future requirements are well known. Since inception, every aspect of the Bitcoin network has been in a continuous process of maturation, optimization, and specialization, and it should be expected to remain that way for some years to come. As traffic grows, more Bitcoin users may use lightweight clients, and full network nodes may become a more specialized service. For more details, see the Scalability page on the Wiki.
WHAT ABOUT BITCOIN AND CONSUMER PROTECTION?
Bitcoin is freeing people to transact on their own terms. Each user can send and receive payments in a similar way to cash but they can also take part in more complex contracts. Multiple signatures allow a transaction to be accepted by the network only if a certain number of a defined group of persons agree to sign the transaction. This allows innovative dispute mediation services to be developed in the future. Such services could allow a third party to approve or reject a transaction in case of disagreement between the other parties without having control on their money. As opposed to cash and other payment methods, Bitcoin always leaves a public proof that a transaction did take place, which can potentially be used in a recourse against businesses with fraudulent practices.
It is also worth noting that while merchants usually depend on their public reputation to remain in business and pay their employees, they don’t have access to the same level of information when dealing with new consumers. The way Bitcoin works allows both individuals and businesses to be protected against fraudulent chargebacks while giving the choice to the consumer to ask for more protection when they are not willing to trust a particular merchant.
WHY DO BITCOINS HAVE VALUE?
Bitcoins have value because they are useful as a form of money. Bitcoin has the characteristics of money (durability, portability, fungibility, scarcity, divisibility, and recognizability) based on the properties of mathematics rather than relying on physical properties (like gold and silver) or trust in central authorities (like fiat currencies). In short, Bitcoin is backed by mathematics. With these attributes, all that is required for a form of money to hold value is trust and adoption. In the case of Bitcoin, this can be measured by its growing base of users, merchants, and startups. As with all currency, bitcoin’s value comes only and directly from people willing to accept them as payment.
WHAT DETERMINES BITCOIN’S PRICE?
The price of a bitcoin is determined by supply and demand. When demand for bitcoins increases, the price increases, and when demand falls, the price falls. There is only a limited number of bitcoins in circulation and new bitcoins are created at a predictable and decreasing rate, which means that demand must follow this level of inflation to keep the price stable. Because Bitcoin is still a relatively small market compared to what it could be, it doesn’t take significant amounts of money to move the market price up or down, and thus the price of a bitcoin is still very volatile.
WHY DO I HAVE TO WAIT FOR CONFIRMATION?
Receiving notification of a payment is almost instant with Bitcoin. However, there is a delay before the network begins to confirm your transaction by including it in a block. A confirmation means that there is a consensus on the network that the bitcoins you received haven’t been sent to anyone else and are considered your property. Once your transaction has been included in one block, it will continue to be buried under every block after it, which will exponentially consolidate this consensus and decrease the risk of a reversed transaction. Each confirmation takes between a few seconds and 90 minutes, with 10 minutes being the average. If the transaction pays too low a fee or is otherwise atypical, getting the first confirmation can take much longer. Every user is free to determine at what point they consider a transaction sufficiently confirmed, but 6 confirmations is often considered to be as safe as waiting 6 months on a credit card transaction.
IS BITCOIN SECURE?
The Bitcoin technology – the protocol and the cryptography – has a strong security track record, and the Bitcoin network is probably the biggest distributed computing project in the world. Bitcoin’s most common vulnerability is in user error. Bitcoin wallet files that store the necessary private keys can be accidentally deleted, lost or stolen. This is pretty similar to physical cash stored in a digital form. Fortunately, users can employ sound security practices to protect their money or use service providers that offer good levels of security and insurance against theft or loss.
COULD USERS COLLUDE AGAINST BITCOIN?
It is not possible to change the Bitcoin protocol that easily. Any Bitcoin client that doesn’t comply with the same rules cannot enforce their own rules on other users. As per the current specification, double spending is not possible on the same block chain, and neither is spending bitcoins without a valid signature. Therefore, It is not possible to generate uncontrolled amounts of bitcoins out of thin air, spend other users’ funds, corrupt the network, or anything similar.
However, powerful miners could arbitrarily choose to block or reverse recent transactions. A majority of users can also put pressure for some changes to be adopted. Because Bitcoin only works correctly with a complete consensus between all users, changing the protocol can be very difficult and requires an overwhelming majority of users to adopt the changes in such a way that remaining users have nearly no choice but to follow. As a general rule, it is hard to imagine why any Bitcoin user would choose to adopt any change that could compromise their own money.