This article is going to show you how to get started with Bitcoins, and point you to some of the more common websites that you’ll need to use.
The first thing that you need is a Bitcoin wallet. Early users coined the name wallet because they wanted the process to be intuitive, but it’s actually a lot more like a bank account.
Your Bitcoin wallet is where you store Bitcoins, as well as where you send and receive payments. Using one of your public keys (which acts as your Bitcoin address) anyone can send money to your wallet, but only someone with the private key can then spend that money. Of course, there are some problems to watch out for.
First, it’s possible to lose your wallet. If you decide to store your wallet on your own computer, and then you accidentally delete it, the wallet is gone forever. The drawback of having great security is that no one can get that money back for you.
Some people prefer wallet services to keep track of their wallet and their private keys, but you’d better be sure you could trust the company beforehand. The other problem is the private key itself. Being a long, random string of numbers, you can’t really memorize it (at least most of us can’t). Besides, most people change their private keys periodically for additional security.
That means your private key has to be stored somewhere, and if anyone manages to find it they will be able to spend your Bitcoins. Again, wallet services promise to solve this problem for you, but then you have to trust the wallet service. There’s no perfect answer to these two issues, but awareness is the first step to avoiding problems.
Bitcoin.org has a helpful page giving you links to some of the better Bitcoin wallet programs, including ones that run on a tablet or a smart phone. The initialization takes about a day and you will need to download 6 gigabytes of data as of the writing of this article, so make sure you have plenty of time and bandwidth when you first get started.
If you’re wondering what could possibly take so long, remember that blockchain protocol that makes Bitcoin possible has encoded every transaction since Bitcoin was started, and your client is literally going to run through the entire historical blockchain in order to get up to speed with the rest of the network.
Fortunately, you will only have to go through this synchronization one time. In the future, even if you are away for a few weeks, re-synchronizing with the network will just take a couple of minutes and use minimal computer resources.
Even as Bitcoin grows in popularity and more data is necessary to get in sync, increases in bandwidth and processing power should ensure that initialization never actually prevents people from getting involved.
If a full day is more than you can stand, you can use a pre-synchronized blockchain. This isn’t encouraged mostly because you have to trust the source of the blockchain, which introduces a new potential weakness into the system.