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Ask CryptoVantage: Why Do I Need a Crypto Wallet?

For most people the first step to acquiring cryptocurrency should be setting up a wallet to store digital assets.

Why is it so important?

Well “owning” cryptocurrency is somewhat of a misleading way of thinking about it.

When we talk about Bitcoin ownership we really just mean that you have access to a secret number, commonly known as a private key, that can be used to mathematically prove that you have control of said Bitcoin.

Wallet that is full with credit cards

Receiving bitcoins, and subsequently sending or storing them, involves mathematical steps that involve the private keys interacting with the blockchain. These steps are complicated with lots of room for error, so we use Bitcoin wallets to manage the keys in the background, which makes it easier and safer for users to receive, send, and store their bitcoins.

This article explains how Bitcoin transactions actually work and breaks down why we use Bitcoin wallets to manage our private keys and transactions, and describes the common types of wallets. For even more information check out our guide to the best cryptocurrency wallets.

What is a Bitcoin Transaction?

A Bitcoin transaction is the transfer of coin ownership from one person to another. Transactions contain two types of information: inputs and outputs. A transaction input is where the sender uses their private key to prove ownership of an existing coin, allowing them to spend the coin. A transaction output is where the sender creates a new coin and locks its ownership to whoever possesses a separate private key. Single transactions may contain many inputs and outputs. All Bitcoin transactions are stored on the blockchain (which is similar to an online ledger).

Imagine Alice possesses the private key for a 0.08 BTC coin and she wants to give Bob ownership of 0.06 BTC. Alice creates a Bitcoin transaction with three parts:

  1. Transaction input: Alice uses her private key to prove she owns the 0.08 BTC coin and is allowed to spend it.
  2. Transaction output: worth 0.06 BTC, can only be spent by Bob’s private key.
  3. Transaction output: worth 0.01999 BTC, can only be spent by another private key owned by Alice (this is called the change output).

You probably noticed the transaction outputs didn’t add up to the original 0.8 BTC. The remaining balance of 0.00001 BTC will be paid as a transaction fee to whoever mines the block.

The Benefits of Wallets

It’s difficult to combine the necessary information and perform the calculations to correctly create a Bitcoin transaction. There are many steps where human error may cause a user to lose their funds. It would also be confusing and difficult to manually keep track of private keys.

We can avoid these problems by using Bitcoin wallets. Wallets help us manage our private keys and make it much simpler to send, receive, and store bitcoins. Software wallets, for example, allow us to create and use different private keys for different uses. When we want to send a Bitcoin transaction, the wallet combines the necessary information and performs the functions required to prove we own the coins that we are sending. The same is true when receiving a Bitcoin transaction.

Types of Wallets

Depending on your specific needs, there are different types of Bitcoin wallets to choose from. Each wallet comes with a set of trade offs between security, privacy, and ease of use.

Software Wallets

A software wallet is a program that runs on a computer and provides an interface for the user to send, receive, and store bitcoin. Software wallets are easy to use, but your funds are at risk since they are stored on a computer where hackers can access them.

Exodus is an example of a popular software wallet.

Hardware Wallets

Hardware wallets are physical devices that store and manage private keys for users. They are generally in the shape of a memory stick but some also include touchscreens. These wallets can be expensive and they are harder to use than regular software wallets, but the private keys never leave the hardware wallets. This means there is a much lower risk of being hacked.

Trezor and Ledger are the two most popular manufacturers of hardware wallets.

Paper Wallets

Since private keys are just secret numbers, they can be printed or written on paper for storage and backup (FYI: they are very long numbers!).

Paper wallets are generally not recommended these days, however, as it’s proven to be one of the most error-prone methods of storing private keys. Most people, however, do print their seed phrase, which is a way to recover Bitcoin, even if the wallet itself is lost or destroyed.

Brain Wallets

Private keys can be converted to a set of 12 words that represent the secret number. These 12 words can be memorized as a way of storing your private key. Brain wallets are not recommended because if you are unable to remember the words then your funds are lost forever.

Not Your Keys, Not Your Coins

When using the wallets discussed so far, the user is the only one with access to the private keys. These types of wallets are called non-custodial wallets because no third party has custody of the user’s funds. Conversely, custodial wallets are wallets where the user does not directly control the private keys for their funds.

A very common example of a custodial wallet is using an online exchange (such as Coinbase) to store bitcoin, where the exchange has full control over your funds. There are risks associated with using custodial wallets, as numerous exchange hacks have shown us in the past.

On the other hand if you’re not very tech-savvy and would rather trust one of the reputable exchanges to hold your private keys than you might be better off with a custodial wallet. The best cryptocurrency exchanges hold most of their crypto in something called cold storage, which is basically an offline wallet.


Bitcoin transactions contain a lot of information and require complicated calculations to send and receive them. Bitcoin wallets do most of the work for you, which reduces the risk of human error and makes for a much better user experience.

Users have different needs for wallets but, in general, most users will tend to start moving their crypto to offline wallets once they have accumulated a sizable amount (so long as they are tech savvy enough to do it). Of course everyone will have a different risk tolerance for their crypto and there are some people that trust exchanges 100% and don’t see a need for a wallet. Of course the original intent behind Bitcoin was to create a currency that didn’t require third parties to get involved so that line of thinking is somewhat counterintuitive to the original concept of crypto.

It’s worth mentioning that this article is focused on Bitcoin but most cryptocurrencies follow a very similar procedure for using wallets so this guide would also be applicable for something like Ethereum or Litecoin.

Be sure to carefully consider the options and trade offs when choosing a wallet, and remember – not your keys, not your coins!

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CryptoVantage Author Billy Garrison

About the Author

Billy Garrison

Billy Garrison focuses his research and writing on Bitcoin and the Lightning Network. He is interested in the technical details that allow these technologies to survive and grow without the need for a central authority. Billy also loves helping people learn about Bitcoin which led him to start the Halifax Bitcoin Meetup.

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