Altcoins: What They Are and How They Work – NerdWallet

What are altcoins?

Altcoin refers to any cryptocurrency that isn ’ deoxythymidine monophosphate Bitcoin, which means there are a lot of them : more than 13,000, according to CoinGecko. Since Bitcoin presently makes up approximately 40 % of the sum crypto marketplace cap, that means more than one-half of the crypto market ’ south rate is floating about in altcoins. But all altcoins aren ’ thyroxine created peer. Some price pennies, while others are hundreds of dollars per mint. Some have bright long-run applications, others are a flash in the pan. many calculate to build on Bitcoin ’ second successes, others claim to solve its problems. All this adds up to an altcoin universe that ’ mho huge and entire of risk. hera ’ s how to make sense of it.

Understanding altcoins and how they work

To understand altcoins, it helps to first base have a tauten clasp on Bitcoin ( read up on Bitcoin for beginners ). It ’ randomness besides helpful to know the basics of blockchain engineering, on which all cryptocurrencies operate. Altcoins have the same premise as bitcoin : to use the blockchain as an incorruptible, distribute public ledger, which allows and records a transaction only if there ’ s consensus that the transaction is legitimate. But many altcoins have taken this premise and either used it to achieve different goals or sought to improve a perceive defect in Bitcoin. Litecoin, for model, started out as a knockoff of the Bitcoin blockchain ‘s generator code, but it included changes to speed up transaction times and improve repositing efficiency. Litecoin ’ randomness function is the lapp as Bitcoin ’ s — to be a peer-to-peer internet currency — but its founder sought to improve the means Bitcoin went about it. Ethereum, on the early hired hand, saw an opportunity in Bitcoin ’ s blockchain engineering beyond merely recording fiscal transactions ; the Ethereum blockchain besides records agreements in the phase of “ smart contracts. ” Ethereum advocates say these bright contracts — computer programs that mechanically execute an agreement if certain conditions are met — could upend industries that presently rely on costly middlemen, like insurance, bank and copyright management

Types of altcoins

Besides the ones mentioned above, early altcoins have emerged that promise to be even faster, more decentralize, more scalable, more impregnable or a combination of all these core cryptocurrency tenets. The result is a dizzy ecosystem of altcoins that ’ second hard to categorize, but can be roughly broken down into these four buckets :

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

Native cryptocurrencies

native cryptocurrencies are the coins that were primitively created to run on a specific blockchain net. Bitcoin is a native coin ( you ’ ll see native mint, currency, cryptocurrency and token used interchangeably ; it ’ s the “ native ” depart that ’ s important hera ) because it is the currentness that ’ s used on the Bitcoin blockchain. ether, the second-largest cryptocurrency by market capital, is the native coin of the Ethereum network. To run applications like smart contracts on the Ethereum network, you ’ ll need to pay a transaction fee in ether. Binance coin ( BNB ), presently the fourth-largest cryptocurrency by market cap, is however another native coin, as it ’ s the currency used on the Binance Chain. Binance is presently the largest cryptocurrency exchange in the world, and its users can greatly benefit from owning BNB. For model, trade fees are reduced by 25 % when paid with BNB, and little amounts of cryptocurrencies that would otherwise be untradable can be gathered and converted into BNB.


A keepsake is a unit of measurement of value that operates on an existing blockchain and can be used for specific purposes within that environment. Using tokens is similar to going to an old-school arcade : You exchange your U.S. dollars for tokens that are merely accepted by those television games. Chainlink, for exemplar, is built on lead of the Ethereum blockchain, and developers can use it to convert real-world data into a blockchain-friendly format that can be read by chic contracts and frailty versa. LINK is the nominal that ’ s used to pay for Chainlink ’ sulfur services. so, if an investor believes demand for chic contract-based services is going to rise, they might buy LINK ; the more Chainlink technology is used, the think goes, the higher the requirement for LINK, which could send its value higher. Another exercise is the Uniswap platform, a decentralized exchange built on top of the Ethereum system. Centralized exchanges ( such as the stock grocery store or Binance.US ) require deposits into an account or wallet that ’ s connected to the exchange. however, a decentralize exchange enables conduct peer-to-peer trade from one personal wallet to another. UNI is the nominal of the Uniswap exchange, and it ’ s what ’ s known as a “ administration ” token — holders of UNI can vote on proposals that determine how Uniswap will operate, exchangeable to the manner traditional shareholders have a read in corporate government.


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 currentness, one for one. Tether, the largest stablecoin by market cap, is tied to the U.S. dollar ; one tether will constantly equal one U.S. dollar. You won ’ thyroxine earn any profit through price appreciation with stablecoins, but there are enough of applications for a coin whose prize doesn ’ t rise and fall by the minute. For some, stablecoins offer a way to hold funds in a crypto exchange and easily convert them into another cryptocurrency, rather than converting from U.S. dollars. Others may use stablecoins to easily send and receive funds globally. But possibly the most popular use for them nowadays is in decentralize finance, or DeFi. basically, DeFi platforms permit users lend stablecoins to others and earn concern in render, all without the need for an mediator like a bank. What ’ s more, some platforms incentivize users by offering tokens, such as the administration tokens outlined above, on peak of the sake they receive. many exchanges have greatly simplified this process. On Coinbase, for case, 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 topic to change. )


In a cryptocurrency blockchain, groups of recorded transactions ( the public ledger ) are organized into blocks, and each auction block is connected to the following 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 number of transactions a well as the rules that govern the blockchain network. And when a group decides it wants to change the rules, it can validate a cleave in the chain ; this is a fork. A newly chain emerges, cook to start logging transactions under the new rules agreed upon by those who chose to validate the fork. meanwhile, the other prong of the fork keeps going on as convention. Forks can happen over and over again, creating raw protocols and cryptocurrencies all the while. Bitcoin cash is a fork of the original Bitcoin blockchain, while Ethereum Classic is a branching of the Ethereum system. Dogecoin is a pitchfork of Luckycoin, which was a fork of Litecoin, which was a pitchfork 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 ’ south currency in the hope that it rises in value.

Altcoins vs. Bitcoin

There are a few things that make altcoins different from Bitcoin, but the most glare is that Bitcoin is a draw older and as mentioned earlier, makes up a larger plowshare of the crypto market. This besides means that Bitcoin has more of a track phonograph record, which may be appealing to long-run investors vs. altcoins which could be viewed as a hazardous investment. That said, because altcoins aim to be more advance than Bitcoin, they may be the preferable option for some.

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 decisiveness ?

Be warned that this is a nascent market where shakeout is inevitable. Some of these projects will fail — there ’ s already a herd cemetery of dead altcoins — and some will succeed.

That ’ sulfur why fiscal pros often put altcoins in the “ alternative investments ” column : something you might dabble in if you ’ ve already got a healthy, diversify investment portfolio. ad

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

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