Altcoins: What They Are and How They Work – NerdWallet

Altcoins are, by definition, any cryptocurrency that isn ’ triiodothyronine bitcoin, which means there are a lot of them : more than 10,000, according to CoinGecko. And considering bitcoin presently makes up approximately 40 % of the entire crypto market cap, more than half of the crypto grocery store ’ mho value is floating about in altcoins. But all altcoins aren ’ deoxythymidine monophosphate created equal. Some cost pennies, while others are hundreds of dollars per mint. Some have bright long-run applications, others are a flash in the pan. many aim to build on bitcoin ’ randomness successes, others claim to solve its problems. All this adds up to an altcoin universe that ’ sulfur huge and full of risk. here ’ s how to make feel of it.

How are altcoins different from bitcoin?

To understand altcoins, it helps to inaugural have a tauten grasp on bitcoin ( read up on bitcoin for beginners ). It ’ mho besides helpful to know the basics of blockchain technology, on which all cryptocurrencies operate. Altcoins have the same precede as bitcoin : to use the blockchain as an incorruptible, spread populace ledger, which allows and records a transaction only if there ’ s consensus that the transaction is lawful. But many altcoins have taken this premise and either used it to achieve different goals or sought to improve a sensed flaw in bitcoin. Litecoin, for exemplar, started out as a knockoff of the Bitcoin blockchain ‘s informant code, but included changes to speed up transaction times and improve memory efficiency. Litecoin ’ south purpose is the same as bitcoin ’ s — to be a peer-to-peer internet currentness — but its founder sought to improve the way bitcoin went about it. Ethereum, on the other pass, saw an opportunity in bitcoin ’ second blockchain technology beyond just recording fiscal transactions ; the Ethereum blockchain besides records agreements in the shape of “ smart contracts. ” Ethereum advocates say these smart contracts — computer programs that mechanically execute an agreement if certain conditions are met — could upend industries that presently rely on dearly-won middlemen, like indemnity, banking and copyright management. early altcoins have emerged that promise to be even faster, more decentralize, more scalable, more plug or a combination of all these core cryptocurrency tenets. The resultant role is a dizzy ecosystem of altcoins that ’ mho hard to categorize, but can be approximately broken down into these four buckets :

  • native cryptocurrencies .
  • Tokens .
  • Stablecoins .
  • Forks .

Native cryptocurrencies

native cryptocurrencies are the coins that were in the first place created to run on a specific blockchain net. Bitcoin is a native mint ( you ’ ll see native mint, currency, cryptocurrency and token used interchangeably ; it ’ s the “ native ” share that ’ s crucial here ) because it is the currency that ’ s used on the Bitcoin blockchain. quintessence, the second-largest cryptocurrency by market cap, is the native coin of the Ethereum network. To run applications like ache contracts on the Ethereum network, you ’ ll need to pay a transaction tip in quintessence. Binance mint ( BNB ), presently the fourth-largest cryptocurrency by market cap, is yet another native mint, as it ’ s the currency used on the Binance Chain. Binance is presently the largest cryptocurrency rally in the populace, and its users can greatly benefit from owning BNB. For example, trade fees are reduced by 25 % when paid with BNB, and little amounts of cryptocurrencies that would differently be untradable can be gathered and converted into BNB.


A token is a unit of value that operates on an existing blockchain and can be used for specific purposes within that environment. Using tokens is alike to going to an old-school arcade : You exchange your U.S. dollars for tokens that are only accepted by those video games. Chainlink, for exercise, is built on top of the Ethereum blockchain, and developers can use it to convert real-world data into a blockchain-friendly format that can be read by smart contracts and vice versa. LINK is the token that ’ s used to pay for Chainlink ’ randomness services. so, if an investor believes demand for smart contract-based services is going to rise, they might buy LINK ; the more Chainlink engineering is used, the think goes, the higher the demand for LINK, which could send its measure higher. Another case is the Uniswap platform, a decentralize central built on clear of the Ethereum system. Centralized exchanges ( such as the stock marketplace or Binance.US ) require deposits into an report or wallet that ’ south connected to the central. however, a decentralized exchange enables direct peer-to-peer trade from one personal wallet to another. UNI is the token of the Uniswap switch over, and it ’ s what ’ s known as a “ administration ” token — holders of UNI can vote on proposals that determine how Uniswap will operate, like to the way traditional shareholders have a allege in corporate administration.


Stablecoins were developed to offer the advantages of cryptocurrencies and tokens without the price volatility. They accomplish this by tying their value to an existing currency, one for one. Tether, the largest stablecoin by market cap, is tied to the U.S. dollar ; one leash will constantly equal one U.S. dollar. You won ’ triiodothyronine earn any net income through monetary value appreciation with stablecoins, but there are plenty of applications for a coin whose value doesn ’ thymine rise and fall by the minute. For some, stablecoins offer a way to hold funds in a crypto commute and easily convert them into another cryptocurrency, quite than converting from U.S. dollars. Others may use stablecoins to well send and receive funds globally. But possibly the most popular habit for them today is in decentralized finance, or DeFi. basically, DeFi platforms permit users lend stablecoins to others and earn interest in return key, all without the motivation for an mediator like a bank. What ’ s more, some platforms incentivize users by offering tokens, such as the administration tokens outlined above, on top of the interest they receive. many exchanges have greatly simplified this process. On Coinbase, for model, it ’ s presently free to convert U.S. dollars into the stablecoin USD mint ( USDC ), after which it will start earning 0.15 % APY. ( note that this rate is capable to change. )


In a cryptocurrency blockchain, groups of record transactions ( the populace ledger ) are organized into blocks, and each stuff is connected to the next via building complex cryptanalysis. For a modern block to be appended to the existing chain, all the former transactions in all the previous blocks must besides be verified, and there must be a consensus that all is right with the chain. This consensus is required for the list of transactions equally well as the rules that govern the blockchain network. And when a group decides it wants to change the rules, it can validate a schism in the chain ; this is a pitchfork. A new chain emerges, fix to start logging transactions under the modern rules agreed upon by those who chose to validate the crotch. meanwhile, the other prong of the fork keeps going on as normal. Forks can happen over and over again, creating new protocols and cryptocurrencies all the while. Bitcoin cash is a fork of the original Bitcoin blockchain, while Ethereum Classic is a fork of the Ethereum system. Dogecoin is a fork of Luckycoin, which was a fork of Litecoin, which was a fork of Bitcoin. so, as an investor, if you like the ideas, rules and changes found in a pitchfork of an existing blockchain, you could buy that fork ’ s currency in the hope that it rises in value.

What to consider before buying altcoins

Before diving into any altcoin, take the time to read through what the organization behind it is trying to accomplish. Ask yourself :

  • Does the altcoin seem like a plausible way to improve upon bitcoin ?
  • If it ’ s a token, does it have real-world application ?
  • If it ’ s a stablecoin, how are you going to use it ?
  • If it ’ s a fork, why was it created and do you agree with that decision ?

Be warned that this is a nascent market where shakeout is inevitable. Some of these projects will fail — there ’ s already a push cemetery of dead altcoins — and some will succeed. That ’ mho why fiscal pros frequently put altcoins firm in the “ option investments ” column : something you might dabble in if you ’ ve already got a healthy, diversified investment portfolio. ad

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NerdWallet rating  NerdWallet ‘s ratings are determined by our editorial team. The scoring formula for on-line brokers and robo-advisors takes into account over 15 factors, including score fees and minimums, investment choices, customer support and mobile app capabilities .

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disclosure : The author owned ETH, BTC and USDC at the original time of publication. NerdWallet is not recommending or advising readers to buy or sell any cryptocurrency .

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