There are lots of ways to hold your Bitcoin but they can mostly be divided into exchanges and wallets. If you put your Bitcoin on an exchange like Poloniex, Bitfinex, Bittrex or Kraken then really you’ve handed your Bitcoins over to the exchange provider to look after.
If, however, you want complete personal control over your Bitcoin then the only way to ensure that is to create your own wallet and hold your Bitcoin there. The difference from an exchange is huge – only you can deposit and withdraw money there because you’re the only person who knows the passphrase or seed (like a complex password). Whereas with an exchange you have to ask the exchange provider to deposit and withdraw money – you can’t be sure they will, though they usually will, and it’s up to them how long they take to carry out a transaction.
Here I’ll explain how to create a Bitcoin Wallet that is entirely yours to control. The example I’ll use is Electrum which is one of the biggest and most respected. Like most Bitcoin Wallets (and related software) it’s a software app that’s free to use.
To download the software go to https://electrum.org/#download and choose the most appropriate version for your device. I’m on Windows and have gone for the Windows Installer for the Latest Release (2.9.3 at time of writing). You could instead choose the standalone executable if you didn’t want to install it (you could then put it on a USB stick, for example).
Once downloaded run the installer as appropriate for your device (note that if you have an older version of Electrum installed it’s clever enough to upgrade the program without losing your data).
When that’s complete, close the installer and run Electrum (e.g. in Windows via an icon on your desktop). Then select File -> New/Restore. Choose a suitable wallet name (or accept the default if you plan to only ever have one). This will create a new wallet (the option to Restore only applies if you’ve previously created an Electrum wallet and want to reuse it).
Next you will be asked ‘What kind of wallet do you want to create?‘:
- Standard wallet
- Wallet with two-factor authentication: this requires a second device, typically your smartphone, as an extra security layer
- Multi-signature wallet: this is where two people are required to confirm a transaction (a bit like joint signatures on a bank account)
- Watch Bitcoin addresses: this allows you to monitor a Bitcoin address elsewhere (e.g. in a hardware wallet) but not make transactions with it
In most cases you should choose Standard wallet. If you are going to hold a lot of Bitcoin in this wallet you could research and choose Wallet with two-factor authentication. Here we’ll go with Standard wallet.
Next you’ll be shown the wallet generation seed. This is like a complex password, one that is made up of 12 individual words. Record this as it is the key to your wallet – lose it and you could lose the Bitcoin in the wallet.
If you are only going to hold small amounts of Bitcoin in this wallet then you may choose to store this seed electronically, e.g. copy the words to a Word document. However, if you are going to hold any significant amounts in this wallet then take the advice on the screen and write the seed on a piece of paper.
This avoids the risk of your device being hijacked (e.g. by malware) and your seed – and all the money in the wallet – being taken (an interesting property of Bitcoin is that if someone has your seed they don’t need to access your wallet – they can create a new wallet on their PC containing your money). Keep that piece of paper very safe – it could be far more valuable than your passport, bank cards, etc.
On the next screen you type in the seed so Electrum can confirm you really did record it! A bit painful, but a valuable check.
Once you’ve done that you have to enter a password to encrypt your wallet. I recommend you don’t make one up yourself (humans are very poor at creating passwords that can’t be cracked by computer). Instead go to Passwords Generator and create a new one with the following settings:
Press Generate Password then write down the password and the mnemonic below it (to help remember and confirm it). You can write this on the same piece of paper as the seed since in most cases your Bitcoin can be accessed with either.
Type in the password (not the long mnemonic) – don’t be tempted to copy and paste it (what gets used by Electrum needs to match how you read what you’ve written down). Leave Encrypt wallet file ticked and press Next.
There is a brief ‘Electrum is generating your wallet addresses‘ message then Electrum opens on its main view. It will default to showing a History tab listing transactions on the wallet – at this point it will be empty.
The bottom status bar will show the current Bitcoin value – if this is showing in dollars (USD) you can set it to pounds (GBP). Go to Tools -> Preferences -> Fiat -> Fiat currency and select GBP:
That’s it – you now have a Bitcoin wallet up and running ready to receive, store, and send out your Bitcoin. Its various features and the methods to send and receive Bitcoin will be covered in future posts, e.g. Receiving in an Electrum Wallet, and Sending from an Electrum Wallet.