Physical wallets store the credentials necessary to spend bitcoins offline and can be as simple as a paper printout of the private key:[7]:ch. 10 a paper wallet. A paper wallet is created with a keypair generated on a computer with no internet connection; the private key is written or printed onto the paper[h] and then erased from the computer. The paper wallet can then be stored in a safe physical location for later retrieval. Bitcoins stored using a paper wallet are said to be in cold storage.[104]:39 In a 2014 interview, QuadrigaCX founder Gerald Cotten explained that the company stored customer funds on paper wallets in safe deposit boxes: "So we just send money to them, we don’t need to go back to the bank every time we want to put money into it. We just send money from our Bitcoin app directly to those paper wallets, and keep it safe that way."[105]
The proof-of-work system, alongside the chaining of blocks, makes modifications of the blockchain extremely hard, as an attacker must modify all subsequent blocks in order for the modifications of one block to be accepted.[92] As new blocks are mined all the time, the difficulty of modifying a block increases as time passes and the number of subsequent blocks (also called confirmations of the given block) increases.[79]
Bitcoin is a digital asset designed to work in peer-to-peer transactions as a currency.[4][141] Bitcoins have three qualities useful in a currency, according to The Economist in January 2015: they are "hard to earn, limited in supply and easy to verify."[142] Per some researchers, as of 2015, bitcoin functions more as a payment system than as a currency.[36]
In cryptocurrency networks, mining is a validation of transactions. For this effort, successful miners obtain new cryptocurrency as a reward. The reward decreases transaction fees by creating a complementary incentive to contribute to the processing power of the network. The rate of generating hashes, which validate any transaction, has been increased by the use of specialized machines such as FPGAs and ASICs running complex hashing algorithms like SHA-256 and Scrypt.[30] This arms race for cheaper-yet-efficient machines has been on since the day the first cryptocurrency, bitcoin, was introduced in 2009.[30] With more people venturing into the world of virtual currency, generating hashes for this validation has become far more complex over the years, with miners having to invest large sums of money on employing multiple high performance ASICs. Thus the value of the currency obtained for finding a hash often does not justify the amount of money spent on setting up the machines, the cooling facilities to overcome the enormous amount of heat they produce, and the electricity required to run them.[30][31]

Network nodes can validate transactions, add them to their copy of the ledger, and then broadcast these ledger additions to other nodes. To achieve independent verification of the chain of ownership each network node stores its own copy of the blockchain.[80] About every 10 minutes, a new group of accepted transactions, called a block, is created, added to the blockchain, and quickly published to all nodes, without requiring central oversight. This allows bitcoin software to determine when a particular bitcoin was spent, which is needed to prevent double-spending. A conventional ledger records the transfers of actual bills or promissory notes that exist apart from it, but the blockchain is the only place that bitcoins can be said to exist in the form of unspent outputs of transactions.[7]:ch. 5
In Charles Stross' 2013 science fiction novel, Neptune's Brood, the universal interstellar payment system is known as "bitcoin" and operates using cryptography.[236] Stross later blogged that the reference was intentional, saying "I wrote Neptune's Brood in 2011. Bitcoin was obscure back then, and I figured had just enough name recognition to be a useful term for an interstellar currency: it'd clue people in that it was a networked digital currency."[237]
Transaction fees for cryptocurrency depend mainly on the supply of network capacity at the time, versus the demand from the currency holder for a faster transaction. The currency holder can choose a specific transaction fee, while network entities process transactions in order of highest offered fee to lowest. Cryptocurrency exchanges can simplify the process for currency holders by offering priority alternatives and thereby determine which fee will likely cause the transaction to be processed in the requested time.
Most cryptocurrencies are designed to gradually decrease production of that currency, placing a cap on the total amount of that currency that will ever be in circulation.[25] Compared with ordinary currencies held by financial institutions or kept as cash on hand, cryptocurrencies can be more difficult for seizure by law enforcement.[1] This difficulty is derived from leveraging cryptographic technologies.
Bitcoin has been criticized for its use in illegal transactions, its high electricity consumption, price volatility, and thefts from exchanges. Some noted economists, including several Nobel laureates, have characterized it as a speculative bubble. Bitcoin has also been used as an investment, although several regulatory agencies have issued investor alerts about bitcoin.[19][20]