Where Can You Buy Bitcoins?

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The concept of a digital currency has really taken off over the past couple of years. Bitcoin's massive surge in price, combined with the ever-increasing number of retailers who accept the currency has made quite a few headlines.

Source: flickr user Marc van der Chijs

However, most of the headlines tend to be about businesses that accept bitcoins. And I'm partially to blame -- my previous bitcoin article was about places where you can spend the virtual currency.

Many people have no idea how to acquire bitcoins. With this in mind, here is a quick guide on how to get some bitcoins of your own to spend or to hold.

Two ways to get them
When it comes to acquiring bitcoins, there are two main ways to do it: mining or buying.

Mining involves buying expensive computing equipment that solves complex mathematical problems in the bitcoin network, for which the "miner" is rewarded with newly created coins.

The problem with mining is that as more coins are mined and as more people join in, the process gets exponentially more difficult, diminishing both returns and the value of the hardware itself. At this point, being profitable in bitcoin mining is a very speculative venture, and is probably best left to professionals.

That brings us to buying bitcoins, however it's not quite as easy as it sounds. Here is a quick guide to buying bitcoins for your own "wallet."

Buying from an exchange
There are a few bitcoin exchanges out there, such as Coinbase, where people can create their own bitcoin "wallet" and purchase their own bitcoins.

All you need to do is set up an account, link and verify your bank account, and buy your bitcoins at the current exchange rate. Buying on Coinbase takes a few days before your bitcoins are available in your wallet, but you pay the price shown at the time you place your order. And there is an "instant buy" feature with lower daily limits that requires you to link a Visa credit card to your account.

While Coinbase is the biggest and most reputable place to buy bitcoins, there are several other exchanges, and a good list is available here. Be careful of scams, however, and make sure you verify the authenticity of any exchange before making a purchase.

Just a hint: the prices should be close to each other on all legitimate exchanges. If Coinbase is selling bitcoins for $400 and a small exchange lists the price as $320, it should be a big red flag.

Can I use my credit card or buy with cash?
Not really. I mentioned that Coinbase allows you to link a credit card, but this is a backup payment method only. In other words, if your bank declines a purchase transaction, Coinbase can charge your credit card.

As far as cash goes, you can buy with cash, but it's a little tough to do right now for most people. The good news is that it's getting easier.

The new concept of a bitcoin ATM has really caught on, and in just a few months, a pretty good network of ATMs has been built up, as you can see on this map. Using a bitcoin ATM, you can use cash to purchase bitcoins, and some machines allow you to exchange your own bitcoins for cash. Check out these examples from Genesis Coin to see what they look like.

As bitcoin becomes more and more mainstream, this network should continue to expand.

Coming soon
While it's not the most complicated act in the world to buy bitcoins today, it's definitely not as mainstream-friendly as it could be. For instance, if there were a bitcoin ATM in every American town, or if bitcoins could be easily acquired with a credit card, I'd be willing to bet a lot more people would get involved.

And, that may be coming sooner than you think, thanks to the rapid expansion of the bitcoin ATM network, and PayPal's recent first step toward bitcoin integration by allowing its merchants to accept bitcoin payments. While it may be some time away, if PayPal's 100 million active users are able to buy, hold, and transfer bitcoins in their accounts, it could be the big push bitcoin needs to really break into the mainstream.

In the meantime, unless you happen to live near one of the ATMs, an online exchange (specifically Coinbase) linked to your bank account is the best way to get your hands on some of the virtual currency.

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