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What is a Crypto Wallet? A Beginner’s Guide

Hot wallets vs cold wallets. Custodial or non-custodial. If you are confused by the different types of crypto wallets on the market, you have come to the right place.

Apr 26, 2022
What is a crypto wallet? Hot vs cold wallets

Key Takeaways

  • Contrary to popular belief, crypto wallets do not physically hold cryptocurrencies like the wallet in your pocket
  • Instead, they store the public and private keys required to buy cryptocurrencies and provide digital signatures that authorise each transaction
  • There are several types of crypto wallets including physical devices, software, and even paper
  • Determining which crypto wallet is best for you depends entirely on your individual trading needs 

What is a Crypto Wallet?

Cryptocurrency wallets store users’ public and private keys while providing an easy-to-use interface to manage crypto balances. They also support cryptocurrency transfers through the blockchain. Some wallets even allow users to perform certain actions with their crypto assets such as buying and selling or interacting with decentralised applications (dapps).

It is important to remember that cryptocurrency transactions do not represent a ‘sending’ of crypto tokens from your mobile phone to someone else’s mobile phone. When you are sending tokens, you are actually using your private key to sign the transaction and broadcast it to the blockchain network. The network will then include your transaction to reflect the updated balance in your address and the recipient’s.

So, the term ‘wallet’ is actually somewhat of a misnomer as crypto wallets don’t really store cryptocurrency in the same way physical wallets hold cash. Instead, they read the public ledger to show you the balances in your addresses and also hold the private keys that enable you to make transactions.

Not sure what a public or private key is? 
A key is a long string of random, unpredictable characters. While a public key is like your bank account number and can be shared widely, your private key is like your bank account password or PIN and should be kept secret. In public-key cryptography, every public key is paired with one corresponding private key. Together, they are used to encrypt and decrypt data.

Crypto Wallet public and private keys

Read more on the technical aspects of bitcoin transactions here

Why You Need a Crypto Wallet

Your cryptocurrency is only as safe as the method you use to store it. While you can technically store crypto directly on the exchange, it is not advisable to do so unless in small amounts or if you plan to trade them frequently. 

For larger amounts, it’s recommended that you withdraw the majority to a crypto wallet, whether that be a hot wallet or a cold one. This way, you retain ownership of your private keys and have full power and control over your own finances. 

How do Cryptocurrency Wallets Work?

As mentioned earlier, a wallet doesn’t actually hold your coins. Instead, it holds the key to your coins which are actually stored on public blockchain networks. 

In order to perform various transactions, you’ll need to verify your address via a private key that comes in a set of specific codes. The speed and security often depend on the kind of wallet that you have.

Different Types of Crypto Wallets

There are two main types of crypto wallets: software-based hot wallets and physical cold wallets. Read on to learn about the different types of cryptocurrency wallets, and which is best for you and your needs. 

Hot and Cold Wallets – What’s the Difference?

Hot wallets vs cold wallets

Hot Wallets

The main difference between hot and cold wallets is whether they are connected to the Internet. Hot wallets are connected to the Internet, while cold wallets are kept offline. This means that funds stored in hot wallets are more accessible, and are easier for hackers to gain access to.

Examples of hot wallets include:

  • Web-based wallets
  • Mobile wallets
  • Desktop wallets

In hot wallets, private keys are stored and encrypted on the app itself, which is kept online. Using a hot wallet can be risky because computer networks have hidden vulnerabilities that can be targeted by hackers or malware programs to break into the system. Keeping large amounts of cryptocurrency in a hot wallet is a fundamentally poor security practice, but the risks can be mitigated by using a hot wallet with stronger encryption, or by using devices that store private keys in a secure enclave.

There are different reasons why an investor might want their cryptocurrency holdings to be either connected or disconnected from the Internet. Because of this, it’s not uncommon for cryptocurrency holders to have multiple cryptocurrency wallets, including both hot and cold wallets.

Cold Wallets

As introduced at the beginning of this section, a cold wallet is entirely offline. While they’re certainly not as convenient as hot wallets, they are far more secure. An example of a physical medium used for cold storage is a piece of paper or an engraved piece of metal.

Examples of cold wallets include:

  • Paper wallets
  • Hardware wallets
What is a Paper Wallet?

A paper wallet is a physical location where the private and public keys are written down or printed. In many ways, this is safer than keeping funds in a hot wallet, since remote hackers have no way of accessing these keys which are kept safe from phishing attacks. On the other hand, it opens up the potential risk of the piece of paper getting destroyed or lost, which may result in irrecoverable funds.

What is a Hardware Wallet?

A hardware wallet is an external device (usually a USB or Bluetooth device) that stores your keys. You can only sign a transaction by pushing a physical button on the device, which malicious actors cannot control.

For any cryptocurrency assets that you do not need instant access to, the best practice is to store them offline in a cold wallet. However, users should note that this also means that securing your assets is entirely your own responsibility. So it’s up to you to make sure that you don’t lose it or have it stolen!

Tip: For increased security, separate your public and private keys, keep them offline, and store your physical wallet in a safe deposit box. 

Hot Wallets vs Cold Wallets: Which is Better?

While both methods of storage have benefits and drawbacks, the option you choose will depend on what you are looking for. For example:

  • If you plan to trade day-to-day, then accessibility will be of paramount importance, meaning that a hot wallet is probably an apt choice.
  • However, if you are considering storing a huge amount of crypto assets and value security over convenience, then it might be wise to invest in a cold wallet.

Custodial and Non-Custodial Wallets

In addition to the wallets mentioned above, wallets can be further separated into custodial and non-custodial types.

custodial wallets vs non-custodial wallets

Custodial Wallets

Most web-based crypto wallets tend to be custodial wallets. Typically offered on cryptocurrency exchanges, these wallets are known for their convenience and ease of usage, and are especially popular with newcomers, as well as experienced day traders. 

The main difference between custodial wallets and the types mentioned above is that users are no longer in full control of their tokens, and the private keys needed to sign for transactions are held only by the exchange.

The implication here is that users must trust the service provider to securely store their tokens and implement strong security measures to prevent unauthorised access. These measures include two-factor authentication, email confirmation, and biometric authentication, such as facial recognition or fingerprint verification. Many exchanges will not allow you to make transactions until these security measures are properly set up by the user.

Exchanges and custodial wallet providers will usually also take further steps to ensure the safety of users’ tokens. For example, a portion of the funds is usually transferred to the company’s cold wallet, where they can be safe from online attackers.

At Crypto.com, we have taken many measures to ensure the protection of customer funds. After rigorous security audits by a team of cybersecurity and compliance experts, Crypto.com is the first crypto company in the world to have obtained ISO/IEC 27701:2019, ISO22301:2019, ISO27001:2013 and PCI:DSS 3.2.1, Level 1 compliance, and independently assessed at Tier 4, the highest level for both NIST Cybersecurity and Privacy Frameworks, as well as Service Organization Control (SOC) 2 compliance.

Additionally, we have in place a total of US$360 million for insurance protection of customer funds.

Non-Custodial Wallets

Non-custodial wallets, on the other hand, allow you to retain full control of your funds since the private key is stored locally with the user.

When starting a non-custodial wallet, you will be asked to write down and safely store a list of 12 randomly generated words, known as a ‘recovery’, ‘seed’, or ‘mnemonic’ phrase. From this phrase, all of your public and private keys can be generated. This acts as a backup or a recovery mechanism in case you lose access to your device.

Anyone with the seed phrase will be able to gain full control of the funds held in your wallet. In a case scenario where the seed phrase is lost, you will lose access to your funds. So it is imperative to keep the mnemonic phrase in a secure location, and to not store a digital copy of it anywhere! Do not print it out at a public printer or take a picture of it with your phone.

Note that hardware wallets are inherently non-custodial since private keys are stored on the device itself. There are also software-based non-custodial wallets, such as the Crypto.com Wallet. The common theme here is that the private keys and the funds are fully in users’ control. As the popular saying within the crypto community goes, ‘not your keys, not your coins!’

On the flip side, however, this means that users must be in charge of their own security, with regard to the storage of passwords and seed phrases. If any of these are lost, recovery can be difficult or impossible since they are typically not stored in any third-party server.

Custodial vs Non-Custodial Wallets: Which is Better?

Custodial and non-custodial wallets have different pros and cons that make them suitable for different types of users:

  • If you are prone to losing passwords and devices, then it makes more sense to use a custodial wallet, since an exchange or custodian is likely to have better security practices and backup options. That’s why it’s a popular option for beginners who have little to no experience trading crypto. Further, transaction fees with a custodial wallet tend to be cheaper or even free. 
  • However, if you prefer to retain full control over your own funds, you might want to consider a non-custodial wallet.

Ultimately, it all comes down to your choice.

For Additional Security, Consider Multi-Signature Wallets

Multi-signature wallets – or multisig wallets – are wallets that require two or more private key signatures to authorise transactions. This solution is useful for a number of use cases:

  • An individual using a multisig wallet can prevent losing access to the entire wallet in a case scenario where one key is lost. For example, if a user loses one key, there will still be two other keys that are able to sign transactions.
  • Multisig wallets can prevent the misuse of funds and fraud, which makes them a good option for hedge funds, exchanges, and corporations. As each authorised person will have one key and a sign-off requires the majority of keys, it becomes impossible for any individual to unilaterally make unauthorised transactions.

Any of the wallet types described above have multisig versions. You can have multisig hot wallets, cold wallets, hardware wallets, and so on.

NFT Wallets

An NFT wallet is a secure place that stores non-fungible tokens (NFTs). When choosing an NFT wallet, you have two main choices: hardware wallets or software-based wallets.

What Should You Look for in an NFT wallet?

The right NFT wallet for you will depend on a variety of factors, including your level of experience, your security needs, and the types of tokens you plan on storing. Here are some things to consider when choosing an NFT wallet:

  • Compatibility with NFT marketplaces – You need a wallet that can integrate with the NFT marketplaces you want to buy from
  • Strong security – Such as two-factor authentication
  • User-friendly interface – A good NFT wallet should be user-friendly and easy to set up
  • Accessible on multiple devices – Most NFT wallets are available either as web extensions or as mobile or desktop applications. For enhanced convenience, look for a wallet that’s available on multiple devices and can synchronise transactions in real-time
  • Cross-chain compatibility – Most wallets support Ethereum-based tokens, however, if you want to mint, buy, and sell tokens on other networks, then you will need a wallet with cross-chain compatibility

Popular hardware wallets include devices by Ledger and Trezor. However, as NFTs are not natively supported by either of these wallets, you will need to connect your hardware wallet to a hot wallet that’s capable of storing and managing NFTs.

For an all-in-one solution, consider the Crypto.com DeFi Wallet, widely regarded to be one of the most trusted and secure wallets to store NFTs and voted the best NFT wallet 2022 by TradingPlatforms.

More about the Crypto.com DeFi Wallet 

The Crypto.com DeFi Wallet is non-custodial, which means that users retain full control of their private keys and assets. Available on Android and iOS, DeFi Wallet users can manage 700+ tokens across 20+ blockchains and send crypto to anyone at their preferred confirmation speed and network fee. What’s more, the dedicated wallet supports NFTs on Ethereum, Cronos chain, and Crypto.org chain, and enables users to easily view top collections using the NFT spotlight feature. Users can also use the wallet to earn passive income by staking cryptocurrencies like CRO, USDC, and DOT.Crypto.com users can now also choose to manage their NFTs right within the Crypto.com App. Learn more about how to get started with Crypto.com NFT here.

Which Crypto Wallet Should You Use?

When it comes to crypto wallets, there is no perfect solution. Each type of wallet has different strengths, purposes, and trade-offs. So it’s really up to you to weigh up what works best for you and your specific needs. 

  • For those with a high risk tolerance who want to make regular, quick online payments, the convenience of a hot wallet would suit you best
  • But if you’re a little more gun-shy and intend to hold your coins long-term, then a secure offline device might make the most sense
  • And if it’s the NFT market that you’re interested in, then you need to look for a wallet that is compatible with NFT marketplaces such as OpenSea, Solanart, and Crypto.com 

When choosing a crypto wallet, there are certain factors you should take into consideration. These include:

  • Software vs hardware
  • Security features
  • How user-friendly it is
  • Fees
  • Supported coins
  • Platform compatibility
  • Whether you need dapp and DEX integration
  • Whether the wallet has backup options
  • The wallet’s reputation and longevity on the market

As storing large quantities of coins in a single wallet is quite risky, a combination of cold and hot wallets is usually ideal, and can help you strike the right balance between convenience and security. 

The final choice remains yours, with the non-custodial Crypto.com Defi Wallet one of many secure options.

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