So you want to “get into Bitcoin”, but not sure where to start? Perhaps you find all the unfamiliar terminology and storage methods intimidating. What’s a bitcoin wallet anyway — is it like a bank account? Why do people keep talking about private keys, and where’s my password? If I lose my device, do I lose all my bitcoins? How do I buy and sell bitcoins with it? This guide is here to help.
Also read: Which Mobile Bitcoin Wallet Should I Choose?
We’re focusing on “starter wallets” we’d recommend for beginners and in particular, wallets you can use with a desktop computer. For popular mobile device wallets, look here.
The good news is there are now various services aimed at consumers, with interfaces that look and feel just like the online banking and finance services you’re used to. It’s not really necessary to have a “bitcoin account” to use bitcoin — but if an account is what you want then they’re available.
Here’s the part that’s tricky to grasp for newcomers: it’s not always easy (or possible) to buy and sell bitcoins directly from a wallet, or with a credit card. It depends where you live. some of these wallets will let you link a bank account and buy bitcoin. Some will let you sell it too, or provide a debit card to convert digital currencies back to your local one.
At this point, Coinbase is the only company that has full bank integration and buy/sell functionality for most of its customers.
You can use any of these wallets to store, send and receive bitcoin (BTC). Some support other cryptocurrencies like Ethereum’s ether (ETH) and litecoin (LTC). Some support any number of digital assets and blockchain tokens — and may also allow you to exchange them for others.
Read on to see the various options available. We’ve covered the most well-known ones here — it’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s enough to get you started.
(If you’re interested in reading more detail on the difference between wallets that keep your keys and the ones that let you store them, read this article. There are different privacy, security and recovery issues involved with each type.)
Coinbase is like the PayPal of Bitcoin — in every good and bad way. It’s popular (over 10 million users) and available in 32 countries. For a newcomer, it’s by far the easiest way to get a bitcoin wallet and use your country’s local currency to buy some BTC. It also supports ethereum, litecoin, and possibly bitcoin cash.
Since Coinbase is also an exchange and it links to your local bank account, it’s simple to convert in and out of cryptocurrency whenever you like. The account itself stores cryptocurrency and “normal” local currency balances.
Note: the bank account and buy/sell features Coinbase offers differs from country to country. Here’s a full list.
You can link credit and debit card accounts, and there’s a “recurring buys” feature to help you invest in digital assets incrementally using a dollar cost average technique.
Coinbase is account-based, which means Coinbase has your private keys. Many cryptocurrency purists balk at this but for a consumer, it’s a lot closer to a bank or PayPal account. That also means you’ll need to trust Coinbase with your money like you’d trust those other accounts. That said, Coinbase invests a lot of capital in building security systems and digital currency balances are insured against losses which are Coinbase’s fault. For U.S. residents, USD balances are covered by FDIC insurance up to $250,000.
U.S. residents can also link a Coinbase account to their PayPal account, and the Shift debit card. Charge the card from your digital currency balance and use it like any other debit card, wherever they’re accepted. To date this is the most widespread bitcoin debit card option for U.S. residents.
On the downside, Coinbase must stay legally compliant by collecting what some users consider intrusive information. They may ask what you’re using bitcoin for, or ask where certain transactions went. You can bet the IRS (or your local equivalent) is keeping tabs on all accounts. Coinbase, like PayPal, has been known to freeze or shutter accounts if it detects “suspicious activity” — and if you’re American, that can include using your own bitcoin to gamble online.
Often called Blockchain.info, this was one of the first bitcoin wallets for ordinary consumers and it’s still one of the most popular. Blockchain claims to have signed up over 19 million users and performed over 100 million transactions over the years.
Blockchain wallets support bitcoin (BTC) and Ethereum’s ether (ETH). They don’t hold national “fiat” currency (e.g. USD, GBP or EUR) balances.
Unfortunately, despite its longevity and popularity, Blockchain’s feature set is a bit disappointing — its lack of national fiat currency support and exchange functionality are two glaring examples.
Blockchain has a “buy bitcoin” feature that allows you to buy (but not sell) BTC — but at this stage it’s not available in the U.S., only India, the European Union and a few other Europe-region countries. Everyone else can trade between BTC and ETH using ShapeShift.
Even though you have to register with an email and password to use Blockchain, users do keep their own private keys. The keys are stored locally on each device, and the login credentials simply decrypt them. Remember your 12-word passphrase and you can always recover funds, even if your device is lost/broken/stolen.
Blockchain wallets also allow you to easily import private keys from other places, e.g. paper wallets.
Xapo is another one of the oldest consumer “bitcoin account” services and its stated goal is to make using bitcoin as familiar as possible to newcomers. It’s available worldwide but many key features aren’t available to all U.S. residents, limiting its appeal.
To use Xapo at all you’ll need to supply official ID and proof of residence. We were surprised to open an account we’d had for years, only to find we were locked out until we complied.
Bitcoin is the only cryptocurrency supported. Xapo also stores balances in various national currencies, and exchange between them and cryptocurrencies. There are no fees for exchanges between any currency within a user’s account.
You can buy (but not sell) bitcoins by linking your Xapo account to your local bank account. Note that due to U.S. money transmission laws (which are state-based) the bitcoin-buying feature is not available in 21 states.
Xapo holds all its users’ bitcoin private keys and most are “in deep-cold storage” offline servers. If you trust Xapo’s security resources more than your own, this may be preferable — on the other hand, it gives the company full control over your finances. However the FAQ page claims users would still be able to transfer bitcoin from their wallets even if the company closes.
Xapo does not have a function for selling BTC back to national fiat currencies. However in some regions (Europe, Turkey and Israel) it offers the Xapo Debit/ATM Card — meaning you can spend from your bitcoin balance at any merchant that accepts Visa (debit) cards.
Here we get into the more “crypto-centric” wallets. While they are designed to be easy to use, some of their concepts and user interface elements may be unfamiliar to newcomers.
Jaxx is a standalone application you need to download — it’s available for all desktop and mobile platforms. Once you’ve set it up, you can link devices to access the same “account” from any of them.
We say “account” because there’s no login or registration process to use Jaxx. You don’t need to provide ID, your name, or even an email address. Once you start the app, you’re ready to go.
It’s important to note: Jaxx will tell you the value of your balance in most national currencies. However it’s cryptocurrency-only — you cannot store balances in local fiat currencies, you can’t link it to a bank account and you can’t buy/sell bitcoins for dollars (or euro, yen etc.)
Jaxx focuses on user-friendliness. It’s pretty simple to send and receive digital currency transactions, but you’ll need some familiarity with the idea of transacting via bitcoin (or other) public addresses, and QR codes.
Keys are stored locally on each device, so there’s no central server to login to and you can recover a balance if the device is lost/stolen/broken. However, take note: you’ll need to write down the 12-word “backup phrase” and keep it safe. If you don’t record that backup phrase, there’s no-one who can recover your balance for you if it’s lost.
Jaxx is easy to set up, which makes it good for beginners. However it’s better for those interested in holding (and occasionally exchanging) multiple digital assets. Depending on the platform you use, it supports up to 50 digital tokens, well-known and obscure. Users can trade between the tokens without an exchange account, using Jaxx’s integration with ShapeShift.
Exodus is quite similar to Jaxx — it’s crypto-asset only and designed to be pretty and easy to use. It’s a standalone app you download, and you don’t need to sign up for an account or provide a name.
Unfortunately it’s the only wallet in this list that doesn’t have a companion mobile app, so you’re limited to a desktop or laptop.
The user interface is probably a bit simpler for newcomers. It’s also the most visually attractive wallet available with customizable skins and themes. A colorful pie chart displays the total balance value and percentage holdings in each asset (good for investors or traders who have trouble keeping track of what they own) and it’s broken down in a full list underneath.
Exodus also integrates with ShapeShift for instant exchange between digital assets without needing any account. At press time, it supports 18 different cryptocurrencies and tokens.
There are a number of other bitcoin-only wallet choices for desktop users, of varying experience/skill level. Some of the well-known ones are:
Bitcoin Core: This is the original bitcoin wallet. To use it, though, you’ll need to download and store the entire Bitcoin blockchain (over 145 GB) and keep it running most of the time. As such it’s not always recommended for beginners, though it’s not particularly difficult to use.
Electrum: Another downloadable app, Electrum is a “light client” that downloads and verifies the minimum relevant data from the blockchain to confirm transactions. Like Bitcoin Core, its user interface isn’t very beginner-friendly — but it does have a good reputation for security and functionality.
Green Address: (available as an extension/app for Google Chrome). Simple wallet app with security and recovery functions.
StrongCoin: This is a “hybrid wallet” which stores your private keys on a server, but encrypts them with a login account and password. U.S. customers can buy bitcoins through the wallet via Glidera if they have accounts with these banks.
Is there an easy, useful wallet we haven’t mentioned here? Do you have comments on any of the options listed? Let us know below.
Images via Coinbase, Blockchain, Xapo, Jaxx, Exodus, Pixabay, UK Bitcoin, TechNewsDaily, Jon Southurst