The price of the digital currency bitcoin is soaring. It’s up nearly 200% so far in 2017, and rapidly approaching $3,000 per coin. Bitcoin’s market cap is up to $46 billion.
So: want to get in?
Even though you may be wishing you bought sooner, it may not be too late: some believers are predicting $10,000 per coin. (Caveat: bitcoin is extremely volatile, with big swings up and down, week in and week out; Yahoo Finance is not dispensing investing advice here, just giving you instructions on how to buy if you wish.)
First, you’ll need a bitcoin wallet. To be clear, this digital wallet doesn’t hold actual coins (since bitcoins are intangible) and it doesn’t even hold any files. What it stores are your private keys, which are strings of numbers that allow you to access your coins.
For extra security, you’ll want to save your keys somewhere that isn’t connected to the Internet; cryptocurrency people call this “cold storage.” There are a number of companies now that make hardware for your keys (like a fob), or you can simply write them down on a Word document (that isn’t in the cloud) or on a piece of paper in your home.
Blockchain.info offers a free bitcoin wallet you can download, but it is not a place where you can purchase bitcoins.
The simplest way in for a newbie is Coinbase, which was an early leader in bitcoin-buying and remains the most popular mainstream option, with 7.6 million users and 24.7 million wallets. When you register for Coinbase, you can get a wallet and buy bitcoins, all in one place. (Another good site for a first-timer is Uphold, which calls itself a “cloud bank.” The peer-to-peer payments app Circle, which launched in 2013, originally enabled bitcoin-buying but has moved away from that.)
Once you’re all set with a Coinbase account and wallet (there are a number of questions it makes you answer first, for security purposes), you buy bitcoins using US dollars. USD in, BTC out. Coinbase now also offers the ability to buy ether (ETH, the token of the Ethereum network) and litecoin (LTC), currently the second- and sixth-largest digital currencies, respectively, by market cap.
Coinbase, as the leading US bitcoin wallet, also has connectivity to a number of third-party apps and developers. To give just one example, Lawnmower is an app that gives pricing charts and data and allows you to set a monthly amount of bitcoin you want it to buy. (The app recently sold to the bitcoin news site Coindesk, and will shut down its purchase feature soon.) Lawnmower’s purchasing operates as a plug-in to Coinbase, so when you buy bitcoin through Lawnmower, it appears as an additional wallet in your Coinbase account.
One thing to keep in mind about bitcoins: you own your coins, regardless of what site you used to buy them; that is, they don’t need to stay on Coinbase. You can go to another bitcoin exchange site and sell bitcoins, from your Coinbase wallet, by entering in your key. And there are many bitcoin exchange sites these days: Kraken, Bitfinex, Bitstamp, BTCC, and OKcoin are some of the biggest. The Winklevoss brothers launched a bitcoin exchange called Gemini. These are fast-paced platforms where you can trade bitcoin, but they aren’t typically the best, easiest-to-use place to buy for first time buyers.
What would you do once you own bitcoin? You could use it as payment at a growing list of online retailers, but for now its biggest appeal is as a speculative investment. The so-called “killer app” for bitcoin—a use case that would make it relevant and crucial to the average person on the street—still hasn’t come. (Wall Street and financial institutions, meanwhile, have warmed to other uses of blockchain, the technology that underlies bitcoin.)
Just remember, if and when you do buy some coins: cold storage. Do not lose your keys.
Daniel Roberts covers bitcoin and blockchain at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.