Blockchain technology has made digital currency transactions increasingly useful, practical and accessible. However, as the number of crypto users has gone up, so has the rate of cyber theft related to cryptocurrencies. That’s why it’s important to understand how cryptocurrency works, how it's stored and what to look for in a crypto wallet, whether it’s digital or physical.
What is a crypto wallet?
Cryptocurrency wallets, or simply crypto wallets, are places where traders store the secure digital codes needed to interact with a blockchain. They don’t actively store your cryptocurrencies, despite what their name may lead you to believe.
Crypto wallets need to locate the crypto associated with your address in the blockchain, which is why they must interact with it. In fact, crypto wallets are not as much a wallet as they are ledgers: They function as an owner’s identity and account on a blockchain network and provide access to transaction history.
How do crypto wallets work?
When someone sends bitcoin, ether, dogecoin or any other type of digital currency to your crypto wallet, you aren’t actually transferring any coins. What they’re doing is signing off ownership thereof to your wallet’s address. That is to say, they are confirming that the crypto on the blockchain no longer belongs to their address, but yours. Two digital codes are necessary for this process: a public key and a private key.
A public key is a string of letters and numbers automatically generated by the crypto wallet provider. For example, a public key could look like this: B1fpARq39i7L822ywJ55xgV614.
A private key is another string of numbers and letters, but one that only the owner of the wallet should know.
Think of a crypto or blockchain wallet as an email account. To receive an email, you need to give people your email address. This would be your public key in the case of crypto wallets, and you need to share it with others to be a part of any blockchain transaction. However, you would never give someone the password to access your email account. For crypto wallets, that password is the equivalent of your private key, which under no circumstances should be shared with another person.
Using these two keys, crypto wallet users can participate in transactions without compromising the integrity of the currency being traded or of the transaction itself. The public key assigned to your digital wallet must match your private key to authenticate any funds sent or received. Once both keys are verified, the balance in your crypto wallet will increase or decrease accordingly.
Types of crypto wallet
Crypto wallets can be broadly classified into two groups: hot wallets and cold wallets. The main difference is that hot wallets are always connected to the internet while cold wallets are kept offline.
- Hot Wallets
Hot wallets are digital tools whose connection to the internet cannot be severed. Users can access these pieces of software from a phone or desktop computer to monitor their currencies and trade them. Some hot wallets are also accessible through the web or as browser extensions, meaning you can use them on a wide variety of devices.
- Highly convenient, can be accessed from anywhere with an internet connection
- Easier to recover access if you lose the private key than cold wallets
- Less secure than cold wallets, vulnerable to a wider variety of attacks
- For custodial wallets, your keys are kept on the exchange's servers
- Cold Wallets
Cold wallets store your digital keys offline on a piece of hardware or sheet of paper. Hardware wallets usually come in the form of a USB drive which lets you buy, sell and trade crypto while it’s connected to a computer. With “paper” wallets, your keys may be accessible via print-out QR codes, written on a piece of paper, or engraved on some other material, such as metal.
- More secure than hot storage wallets due to offline storage
- Many hardware wallets are supported by hot storage wallets
- Transactions take longer on average
- Nearly impossible to recover currencies without a backup of your digital keys