To choose the best exchange for your needs, it is important to fully understand the types of exchanges.
The first and most common type of exchange is the centralized exchange. Popular exchanges that fall into this category are Coinbase, Binance, Kraken, and Gemini. These exchanges are private companies that offer platforms to trade cryptocurrency. These exchanges require registration and identification, known as the Know Your Customer (or Know Your Client) rule.
The exchanges listed above all have active trading, high volumes, and liquidity. That said, centralized exchanges are not in line with the philosophy of Bitcoin. They run on their own private servers, which creates a vector of attack.3 If the company’s servers were to be compromised, the whole system could be shut down for some time. Worse, sensitive data about its users could be released.
The larger, more popular centralized exchanges are by far the easiest on-ramp for new users, and they even provide some level of insurance should their systems fail. While this is true, when cryptocurrency is purchased on these exchanges, it is stored within their custodial wallets and not in your own wallet that you own the keys to.
The provided insurance is only applicable if the exchange is at fault. Should your computer and Coinbase account, for example, become compromised, you would lose your funds, and you would not likely have the ability to claim insurance. This is why it is important to withdraw any large sums and practice safe storage.
Decentralized exchanges work in the same manner that Bitcoin does. A decentralized exchange has no central point of control. Instead, think of it as a server, except each computer within the server is spread out worldwide, and an individual controls each computer that makes up one part of that server. If one of these computers turns off, it does not affect the network because plenty of other computers will continue running the network.
This is drastically different from one company controlling a server in a single location. Attacking something that is spread out and decentralized in this manner is significantly more difficult, making any such attacks unrealistic and likely unsuccessful.
Due to this decentralization, these types of exchanges cannot be subject to the rules of any regulatory body, as no specific person or group is running the system. The individuals who participate come and go, so there is no one individual or group that a government or regulatory body can realistically pursue. This means that those trading on the platform do not have to declare their identification and are free to use the platform in any manner they choose, whether legal or not.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is a Cryptocurrency Exchange? How Does It Work?
A cryptocurrency exchange is an online marketplace where users buy, sell, and trade cryptocurrency. A cryptocurrency exchange works similar to an online brokerage, as users can deposit fiat currency (such as U.S. dollars), and use those funds to purchase cryptocurrency. Users can also trade their cryptocurrency for other cryptocurrency, and some exchanges allow users to earn interest on cryptocurrency held within the exchange account.
What Should You Look at When Choosing a Cryptocurrency Exchange?
When looking for a cryptocurrency exchange to use, there are several things to look for, including security, fees, and cryptocurrencies offered. It is also important to understand how your cryptocurrency is stored and whether you can take custody of that cryptocurrency by transferring it to your own digital wallet.
Cryptocurrency exchanges also come in centralized and decentralized formats. Centralized exchanges closely align with financial regulations from governmental authorities (such as the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission), and many will insure your cash deposits, as well as require proof of identity to use the platform. Decentralized exchanges are unregulated online exchanges hosted on distributed nodes that are user-owned, and there is no centralized governing authority. While this may sound scary, decentralized exchanges offer transparent transactions and fees and a direct peer-to-peer exchange of cryptocurrency.
How Do You Buy Cryptocurrency?
To purchase cryptocurrency, most centralized exchanges allow you to deposit funds via your bank account, credit card, or debit card. You can then exchange those funds for the cryptocurrency of your choosing. While some offer a simple “Buy Now” type transaction that only offers a market order, some exchanges will allow you to set more advanced order types, including limit and stop orders.
Once you purchase that cryptocurrency, the exchange typically takes custody of it, and most store cryptocurrency in offline “cold storage” for safekeeping. If you want to take custody of the cryptocurrency yourself, most exchanges allow you to transfer it to your “hot” or “cold” wallet, along with the private keys for that cryptocurrency.
How Do You Open a Cryptocurrency Exchange Account?
To open a cryptocurrency exchange account, most exchanges require that you create an online account and provide proof of identity (to follow KYC standards). This may include answering personal questions, verifying your identity with a third-party application, or providing a picture of your driver’s license.
Once your account is approved, you can then deposit funds and start purchasing cryptocurrency.
Investopedia is dedicated to helping those interested in cryptocurrency investment make informed and safe decisions. We are committed to providing our readers with unbiased reviews of the top Bitcoin exchanges for investors of all levels. The landscape of cryptocurrency can be quite intimidating. We have chosen exchanges that we believe are trustworthy, secure, easy to use, and have had a long-standing and proven level of quality.
Investing in cryptocurrencies and other Initial Coin Offerings (“ICOs”) is highly risky and speculative, and this article is not a recommendation by Investopedia or the writer to invest in cryptocurrencies or other ICOs. Since each individual’s situation is unique, a qualified professional should always be consulted before making any financial decisions. Investopedia makes no representations or warranties as to the accuracy or timeliness of the information contained herein.