What is bitcoin and how does it work?

Keen to learn the basics of bitcoin? Find out more about the cryptocurrency, including how it works, how it’s priced and how it’s used.

What is bitcoin?

Bitcoin is a cryptographically-secured digital currency that operates outside of the mandate of a central authority. It was created in 2009 by the pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto, and originally conceived as a method of payment that wouldn’t be subject to government oversight, transaction fees or transfer delay – unlike traditional ‘fiat’ currency.

Back in 2010, bitcoins were worth around 0.003 cents each. As of October 2017, that figure is upwards of $4200 – though this value has proved volatile, with frequent intraday swings. In that time, hundreds more cryptocurrencies have emerged, all with unique features and applications. Few of these have any significant value, but bitcoin does have its rivals in the form of ether and bitcoin cash, and – to a lesser extent – litecoin, ripple and dash.

Commodity or currency?

Bitcoin was initially devised as a method of payment, and in certain cases functions as exactly that. But it both lacks widespread adoption and is currently far too volatile to provide a real alternative to fiat currency: vendors need to revise their prices constantly in response to its swings in value.

This means bitcoin is used first and foremost as an investment, resembling gold and other precious metals more than it does traditional currencies. Like commodities, it is beyond the direct influence of a single economy, and largely unaffected by changes in monetary policy.

Remember that while bitcoin isn’t affected by many of the factors that affect traditional currencies, there are a number of unique influences it has to contend with.

How does bitcoin work?

Bitcoin needs two underlying mechanisms to function: the blockchain and the mining process.

The blockchain is a shared digital ledger composed of all the bitcoin transactions that have taken place up to that point. These transactions are grouped together in ‘blocks’, which are cryptographically secured during mining and linked to one another.

The blockchain is accessible to everyone at any given time, and can only be altered with the will and computing power of the majority of the network. This means it is almost impossible to be retroactively amended, won’t fall victim to human error and lacks a single point of failure. 

The miner consolidates recent cryptocurrency transactions into a 'block'. 

The block is cryptographically secured and linked to the existing blockchain. 

The miner earns a block reward, which they can inject directly back into the market.

Mining is the process required to secure each of these blocks and, in doing so, releases new units of the cryptocurrency. These units are known as the ‘block reward’. In bitcoin’s case, the block reward is currently 12.5 bitcoins, though this halves every four years or so.

The miner’s role is to carry out this process by solving complex algorithms – an ongoing task which can be made easier or more difficult. By altering the complexity of the algorithms, miners can ensure they keep the processing time of blocks roughly constant. Because of their crucial role in the network, miners exert significant control over bitcoin, especially as mining has now become big business. 

Once these tokens are in circulation, they can be freely exchanged via an exchange, and stored in a digital wallet. When you trade bitcoin CFDs with IG, you never actually own the underlying asset, so you won’t need a wallet or an exchange account. 

What is a bitcoin fork?

A fork occurs when one blockchain splits into two, creating two separate records of data. It is up to the network of bitcoin miners to agree which one of these to continue using, and which should be discarded.

Forks are the result of a misalignment of the community’s mining programs, and enable the blockchain to undergo essential software updates. The two main types are soft forks and hard forks.

Soft forks: The upgraded blockchain is now responsible for validating all transactions (blocks), but the existing blockchain will still recognise and record these transactions. Keep in mind that this only works one way: the upgraded blockchain will not recognise any blocks mined via programs using the existing blockchain.

Hard forks: The upgraded blockchain is now responsible for validating all transactions, but the existing blockchain no longer recognises these blocks as valid, nor records them. This means all users of outdated programs must update to access the upgraded blockchain.

Generally, forking is resolved with little to no disruption. But differences of opinion in how a cryptocurrency should scale or function have proven insurmountable in the past. The most high-profile example of this is bitcoin cash, which came about when bitcoin hardforked and divided bitcoin miners along with it. This ultimately resulted in two distinct cryptocurrencies, bitcoin and bitcoin cash, albeit ones with the same transactional history up until July 2017.

How is bitcoin used in business?

As payment

A number of businesses already accept bitcoin as a form of payment, though they are still very much in the minority. They include:

  • WordPress
  • Subway
  • Microsoft
  • Virgin Galactic
  • Wikipedia

Of course, these big names have the infrastructure to cater for the cryptocurrency. But given the regulatory question marks and the volatility of the market, it’s little surprise that bitcoin integration hasn’t yet become more commonplace.

As a foundation for technology

Many companies are looking past the currency itself and towards the decentralised ledger at the heart of bitcoin.

Blockchain technology has already seen the rise of an array of new business models, including those surrounding global payment, web development and data security. Plus, there are a number of funds looking to invest in blockchain-based projects, bringing cryptocurrency firmly into the eye-line of financial hubs worldwide.


Is bitcoin regulated?

No, bitcoin is currently mostly unregulated by both governments and central banks. One of the key concerns about the future of bitcoin is how the regulatory landscape will change over the next few years, and what this will do to the value of the investment.

US regulators have taken the lead in regulating bitcoin and bitcoin exchanges, although many disagreements still exist. For example, the US Treasury classifies bitcoin as a virtual currency, the CFTC classifies bitcoin as a commodity and IRS considers bitcoin property for tax purposes.

Is bitcoin legal everywhere?

No, bitcoin is illegal in four countries: Kyrgyzstan, Bolivia, Ecuador and Bangladesh. There are also steps being made in others – such as in China, where bitcoin exchanges and ICOs have been banned – to curb interest in and use of the cryptocurrency.

Is bitcoin risky?

Trading on any market comes with risk, but bitcoin has a few key pitfalls to bear in mind:

  • It is volatile: Sharp and sudden moves in price could see bitcoin lose hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars’ worth of value in next to no time
  • It is niche: While bitcoin’s popularity may have skyrocketed recently, most businesses and consumers are still some way from adopting it in earnest
  • Transfers aren’t foolproof: There’s no perfect way to prevent human error or technical glitches – and there’s no system in place to reimburse you for losses
  • The future is uncertain: Cryptocurrencies will be under a microscope from governments and central banks over the next few years, and new regulations could erode the benefits that set it apart from fiat currency

How many bitcoins have been lost?

There’s no way of knowing for sure how many bitcoins have been lost, but it’s estimated that – of the 16-plus million bitcoins to have been mined so far – as many as 25% have been lost for good. This is because there is no way to recover those that have been lost through carelessness, death, issues with hardware or the multiple other reasons for their disappearance. 

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