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Ask CryptoVantage: How Long Does it Take to Send Bitcoin?

It’s one of the first questions that many people have about Bitcoin but ultimately — when it comes to sending BTC — you’ll likely get the frustratingly vague answer of “It depends.”

An illustration of someone sending Bitcoin on their smartphone.

It depends on what your use case is and your definition of “sending bitcoin”. In general sending Bitcoin can take anywhere from seconds to over 60 minutes. Typically, however, it will take 10 to 20 minutes. In order to understand how long bitcoin transactions may take, it’s important to understand what occurs when sending bitcoin. This article explains what happens when you send bitcoin, gives tips so you can estimate how long your bitcoin transaction will take, and provides some options to help you send bitcoin faster.

What Happens When You Send Bitcoin

You typically send bitcoin using some sort of bitcoin wallet software. The software broadcasts a message to the bitcoin network saying something like “I, Alice, am sending 0.1 bitcoin to Bob, and whoever mines this transaction will earn a 0.0001 bitcoin transaction fee”. Bitcoin miners will receive the transaction and add it to their list of unconfirmed transactions, known as the mempool.

Miners take transactions from the mempool and bundle them into “blocks” that can hold around 3000 transactions each. Because of this limit, miners choose transactions that will reward them with the highest transaction fees. On average, one block is mined every 10 minutes, so if you pay a high enough transaction fee, your transaction should get confirmed (mined) within roughly ten minutes. Note that this is just an average time and blocks can sometimes take under a minute or over an hour to mine. To understand why mining is necessary, check out our article Why Does Bitcoin Need to be “Mined?”.

Bitcoin Transaction Confirmations

While it’s almost impossible to change bitcoin’s transaction history, there is an exception. When two miners mine different blocks at the same time, computers on the bitcoin network end up with two different transaction histories. This is known as a chain split or a fork. Eventually, a new block will be added to one of the two chains before the other. When this happens, everyone agrees that the longer chain (the one with more blocks) is the valid one.

When a bitcoin transaction gets mined into a block, it changes from being unconfirmed to being “confirmed with one confirmation”. Each additional block that gets added to the blockchain after that gives your transaction another confirmation. Because miners keep adding blocks to the chain containing your transaction, you can be quite sure there won’t be a chain split that removes the block with your transaction.

If you are only sending or receiving a small amount of bitcoin, then you might be willing to accept the risk of trusting a single confirmation. For larger transactions, the general rule of thumb is to wait for six confirmations, or approximately one hour, before accepting that the transaction is final. For extremely large transactions, it makes sense to wait a day or two before accepting them as final.

Some merchants will accept transactions with zero confirmations, so that you can receive what you pay for right away without requiring you to wait for more confirmations. Deciding how many confirmations you want to wait for depends on your risk tolerance and the value of the bitcoin you are sending or receiving.

How to Send Bitcoin Faster

There are a couple ways that you can speed up the time it takes to send bitcoin. The most common method is to pay a higher transaction fee so that miners will prioritize your transaction. It can be helpful to choose a bitcoin wallet that lets you set the transaction fee, so you can spend more on a fast transaction, or less if you are not in a hurry. By default, most wallets make you pay a high transaction fee to make the transaction confirm faster.

Another way to make faster bitcoin payments is by using the lightning network, which is a separate payment network built on top of bitcoin, in the same way that web pages are built on top of the internet. The lightning network uses the bitcoin currency but has its own set of rules that are different than the ones used by the bitcoin network. This allows payments to be made almost instantly and with nearly zero fees.

Summary

Sending bitcoin can be nearly instant for low-value transactions, but can take up to an hour, or even days, depending on the value of the bitcoin you are sending. The general rule of thumb is to wait for six confirmations, which should take around an hour, before accepting that a bitcoin transaction is final.

If you want your bitcoin transaction to send as fast as possible, make sure you include a high enough transaction fee so miners will prioritize your transaction over other, lower fee transactions. Bitcoin transactions cannot be instant, but if you are looking for that type of payment experience then you can choose to buy from merchants who accept zero confirmation transactions, or you could try using the lightning network.