What is Bitcoin? Complete Beginner's Guide [2024]

Bitcoin for beginners: What is Bitcoin, how does it work and why does it matter?

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What is Bitcoin? BTC explained
Last updated:
February 29, 2024

tl;dr

  • Bitcoin introduces a decentralized digital currency enabling global, secure transactions without central oversight.
  • It's built on blockchain technology, offering a transparent and secure value exchange system.
  • Despite its potential, Bitcoin faces challenges like volatility, scalability, regulatory uncertainties, and environmental concerns, underscoring the complexities of integrating it into the wider financial landscape.

What is Bitcoin?

Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency, a peer-to-peer digital currency that operates independently of a central governing authority. Bitcoin enables direct transactions between users, secured by cryptographic technology and recorded on a transparent and immutable ledger known as the blockchain.

This innovation not only ensures security and transparency but also challenges traditional financial systems by offering a global currency that is accessible to anyone with internet access.

Picture it as digital gold: whereas gold is physically mined from the earth, Bitcoin is created through the use of powerful computers solving complex problems, known as "Bitcoin mining." Unlike gold, you can't physically touch Bitcoin; it exists purely in the digital realm.

Bitcoin was first introduced in 2009 by a person (or group) named Satoshi Nakamoto. Little is known about their identity–but more on that later!

Today, Bitcoin is the most popular cryptocurrency, with a market capitalization that far surpasses any other digital currency. It has become a benchmark for the crypto market, influencing the launch of thousands of other cryptocurrencies and ushering in a new era of digital finance.

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Key Bitcoin Concepts in Simple Words

  • Cryptocurrency: A type of digital or virtual money that uses cryptography for security, making it difficult to counterfeit.
  • Blockchain: A digital ledger that records all Bitcoin transactions, like a global spreadsheet that everyone can see but no one can tamper with.
  • Wallet: A digital pouch that safely stores your Bitcoin, similar to a virtual bank account.
  • Public and Private Keys: A pair of digital keys where the public key is your Bitcoin address (like an email address) and the private key is your secret password to access and send your Bitcoins.
  • Decentralization: The principle of distributing control across the entire network rather than relying on a central authority, like having a group decision instead of one boss calling the shots.
  • Mining: The process of using computer power to solve complex puzzles, securing the network and creating new Bitcoins as a reward.
  • Satoshi: The smallest unit of Bitcoin, named after its mysterious creator, worth one hundred millionth of a Bitcoin. 
  • BTC: BTC is the abbreviation for Bitcoin typically used when referring to the currency unit in transactions, price listings, and financial discussions.

What Makes Bitcoin Different From Other Currencies?

Difference between Bitcoin and Fiat currency like Dollar or Euro

When you compare Bitcoin to traditional currencies like dollars, euros, or yen, the contrasts are striking. Traditional currencies are produced and controlled by governments and central banks, available in both physical (coins, bills) and digital forms (bank account numbers). 

Bitcoin, however, is not governed or issued by any central authority, making it immune to control by any single government or entity. Its value is not anchored to any physical goods or the economy of a specific country.

Bitcoin operates on a decentralized network, where its transactions are secured and validated by a technology known as blockchain. 

Think of the blockchain as a vast, open ledger that records every Bitcoin transaction. This ledger is like a continually updated book that everyone can inspect, but no single person controls. 

Each transaction added is permanent and irreversible, creating a transparent and secure history of all transactions. 

The blockchain ensures security and trust in the Bitcoin network. It's as if a network of librarians (or computers, in Bitcoin's case) constantly verifies and maintains the records, making sure everything is accurate and agreed upon by everyone. 

This decentralized approach makes Bitcoin a global, borderless currency, free from the influence of any single institution.

What Does Decentralized Mean?

A decentralized system distributes power and control across multiple points, rather than being concentrated in a single location or managed by a single entity.

Think of it like a network of interconnected villages managing their affairs independently, compared to a central kingdom where a single ruler makes decisions for the entire land. 

This approach has several key implications:

  • Autonomy and Control: Users have more control over their transactions and information. There's no central authority to impose restrictions, freeze accounts, or dictate terms.
  • Security and Privacy: Decentralization can enhance security and privacy since there's no single point of failure. Attacks on the system are more difficult because there's not just one central node or database to target.
  • Transparency and Trust: Many decentralized systems, especially those using blockchain technology, are transparent. Transactions are recorded on a public ledger, visible to all participants, which helps in building trust among users.
  • Inclusivity: Decentralized systems can offer more inclusivity by allowing anyone with internet access to participate without needing approval from a central authority. This can be especially important for people in underbanked regions of the world.
  • Innovation and Flexibility: Decentralization encourages innovation and flexibility. Without a central authority making decisions, the system can evolve organically based on the consensus of its users or participants.

How Does Bitcoin Work?

bitcoin network explained

Bitcoin works through a combination of technologies and concepts including blockchain, mining, and peer-to-peer networking. To send Bitcoin from one wallet address to another, the following steps are involved:

  1. Transaction Creation: The sender initiates the transaction by specifying the recipient's wallet address and the amount of Bitcoin to send.
  2. Transaction Signing: The sender uses their private key to digitally sign the transaction, proving ownership of the Bitcoin they wish to send.
  3. Broadcasting: The signed transaction is broadcast to the Bitcoin network, making it available to miners for verification.
  4. Verification: Miners on the network verify the transaction's validity, ensuring the sender has enough Bitcoin and the authority to send it.
  5. Mining: Once verified, the transaction is included in a block of transactions. Miners compete to solve a cryptographic puzzle, and the first miner to solve it adds the new block to the blockchain.
  6. Confirmation: The transaction is considered confirmed once it's included in a block on the blockchain. Additional confirmations occur with each subsequent block added, further securing the transaction.

What Do I Need to Use Bitcoin?

To use Bitcoin, you only need a few essential tools and pieces of information. 

First, you'll require a crypto wallet, which is software that allows you to store, send, and receive Bitcoin. This wallet gives you a public key, which is like your Bitcoin address that others can use to send you Bitcoin, and a private key, which you use to authorize transactions. It’s crucial to keep your private key secret, as it provides full control over your Bitcoins.

Next, access to the internet is crucial since Bitcoin operates entirely online through its decentralized network.

Finally, to acquire Bitcoin, you might use a cryptocurrency exchange where you can buy, sell, or trade Bitcoin using traditional currency or other cryptocurrencies. 

Once set up with these essentials, you're ready to participate in the Bitcoin network!

What is the Blockchain?

Helpful visualization of block data in a blockchain

The blockchain is a digital ledger that records all transactions made with a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, organized into blocks linked together in a chain. 

Each block in the blockchain contains a list of transactions and, once added to the chain, the information becomes permanent and unalterable, ensuring a secure and transparent method to track digital currency movement. 

Furthermore, each block references its predecessor through a cryptographic hash (a digital fingerprint), forming an unbreakable and secure chain. 

This method of linking blocks guarantees the integrity of the transaction history, as it prevents any alterations to the data after it has been added to a block, maintaining the blockchain's reliability and security.

What is Bitcoin Mining?

Bitcoin mining is essentially the heartbeat of the Bitcoin network, adding new coins into circulation and making sure all transactions are legit and safe.

Think of it as a giant worldwide competition where people use powerful computers to guess a secret number. The first one to guess it gets to add a new block to the blockchain.

The Bitcoin algorithm can adapt the mining difficulty on the go, making it harder or easier to guess the secret number depending on the number of active miners and their computational power.

This process ensures new blocks are added consistently every 10 minutes or so.

Miners play a critical role in the network's security by verifying transactions, preventing double-spending, and adding these transactions to the blockchain.

As a reward for their work and as compensation for the resources used to power their computers, miners receive transaction fees as well as the “block rewards”, which are newly created Bitcoins.

The block rewards started at 50 BTC in 2009 and have since been cut in half every four years in a process known as Bitcoin Halving.

This is, of course, a very simplified explanation of the Bitcoin mining process. You’ll find a more technical analysis in our expert guide “Bitcoin Mining: The Backbone of the Bitcoin Network.

Who Invented Bitcoin?

Satoshi Nakamoto, the inventor of Bitcoin

Bitcoin was invented by an individual or group of individuals using the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. 

Nakamoto introduced Bitcoin in 2008 with a white paper titled "Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System," and then released the first Bitcoin software in 2009, launching the network. 

Satoshi Nakamoto remained involved in the development of Bitcoin until late 2010, after which they stepped away and left the project in the hands of the community. 

Their true identity remains one of the digital age's most enduring mysteries, but their vision for a decentralized currency free from the control of any single entity has profoundly influenced the development of cryptocurrencies and the global financial landscape.

Why Was Bitcoin Invented?

The invention of Bitcoin by Satoshi Nakamoto was in direct response to the dissatisfaction with the traditional banking system, particularly the lack of privacy, high transaction fees, and the ability of governments and financial institutions to inflate currency supply, leading to devaluation and financial crises. 

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 provided a poignant backdrop for Bitcoin's creation, highlighting the dangers of centralized financial control and the need for a system that could provide financial sovereignty to individuals.

Nakamoto's gripes with the existing financial system were thus addressed through Bitcoin's foundational principles: decentralization, transparency, security, and a fixed supply cap to prevent inflation. 

By solving the double-spending problem in digital currency, Nakamoto enabled a shift towards a system where trust in institutions could be replaced by trust in cryptography and the collective verification process of the network.

Pros & Cons of Bitcoin

Pros

  • Decentralization: One of Bitcoin's most significant advantages is its decentralization. It operates on a peer-to-peer network, free from central authority control, reducing the risk of censorship, fraud, and interference from governments or financial institutions.
  • Security and Privacy: Bitcoin transactions are secured by cryptography, making them highly secure. Although not completely anonymous, Bitcoin offers more privacy than traditional bank transactions, as transactions do not contain personal information.
  • Global Transactions: Bitcoin enables fast and cheap international money transfers, bypassing the need for currency exchange or traditional banking systems that may impose higher fees and longer processing times.
  • Limited Supply: Bitcoin has a capped supply of 21 million coins, making it deflationary by nature. This scarcity can potentially increase its value over time, unlike fiat currencies, which can be printed indefinitely by governments.
  • Accessibility: Bitcoin offers financial services to people without access to traditional banking systems, especially in underdeveloped or unstable regions.

Cons

  • Volatility: Bitcoin's price is highly volatile, with rapid increases and decreases in value. This unpredictability makes it a risky investment and a challenging medium of exchange for everyday transactions.
  • Scalability Issues: The Bitcoin network has limitations on the number of transactions it can process per second, leading to potential delays and higher transaction fees during peak times.
  • Regulatory Uncertainty: The regulatory environment for Bitcoin is still developing in many countries. Changes in regulations or legal status can affect its use, value, and acceptance.
  • Environmental Concerns: Bitcoin mining consumes a significant amount of energy, leading to concerns about its environmental impact. The proof-of-work mechanism, which secures the network, requires substantial computational power and electricity.
  • Security Risks: Despite the inherent security of the Bitcoin network, users are still at risk of theft, crypto scams, and loss due to hacking, poor security practices, or the loss of private keys.

What’s Next?

We're glad to hear that you want to learn more about Bitcoin and the world of cryptocurrencies!

Of course, we had to simplify many technical concepts in this article in order to provide an understandable introduction to Bitcoin.

This article was just the first part of our series "What is Bitcoin and how does it work?"

Here you'll find all the entries to help you become a Bitcoin pro in no time:

What is Bitcoin?

How does Bitcoin work?

What is Bitcoin mining?

What is Bitcoin Halving?

How do you buy Bitcoin?

Bitcoin wallets: what you need them for and how to create them

What are Bitcoin forks?

Advanced insights into the technology of Bitcoin

The history of Bitcoin

The future of Bitcoin

Or maybe you’d like to jump ahead and learn about the best cryptocurrencies to buy now?

Either way, be sure to also check out our popular crypto portfolio tracker and crypto tax calculator to learn why more than 350,000 crypto investors use Blockpit to make smarter decisions.

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About the author

Peter is deeply engaged with the revolutionary world of decentralized, unconfiscatable blockchain technology. His expertise in on-chain analysis and data engineering empowers him to provide in-depth, data-informed insights into the dynamic realm of cryptocurrency.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this blog post is for general information purposes only. The information was completed to the best of our knowledge and does not claim either correctness or accuracy. For detailed information on crypto regulations, we recommend contacting a certified legal advisor in the respective country.