Buying Bitcoin Anonymously (More or Less)
Want to buy some bitcoin? Better get your ID and front-facing camera ready.
These days, the price of entry into cryptocurrency is usually not just your dollars or euros but also a wealth of personal data. The practice of gathering such data from users, known as know-your-customer, or KYC, has been increasingly adopted by major cryptocurrency platforms as regulators across the world grow concerned about the use of crypto by criminals. (Of course, bad actors still find ways to sneak in, as a recent CoinDesk investigation found.)
On the other hand, some people prefer to minimize sharing sensitive data about themselves, even if they are not involved in any criminal activities. One reason for that can be concerns about their personal data potentially getting stolen or leaked in a hack, like the one that happened to Binance, a top crypto exchange, in 2019.
This article is part of CoinDesk's Privacy Week series.
And some crypto users are just maintaining an old-school cypherpunk mentality, believing that in cyberspace, their real-world identity is nobody’s business.
“Privacy is important for a truly free and sovereign society,” said Lili Rhodes, senior mining analyst at U.S. bitcoin mining company Compass Mining, in a Twitter direct message to CoinDesk.
“Satoshi and the cypherpunks advocated for P2P [peer-to-peer] networks and technology. KYC #bitcoin was never the vision,” Rhodes argued in a recent Twitter thread.
Luckily for the privacy-minded, there are still ways to acquire bitcoin and other cryptos without doxxing yourself, several of which Rhodes described in her thread. CoinDesk looked into some options, which are described below.
This list is by no means exhaustive. Different methods have their pros and cons, which require careful consideration. So, if you decide to try any yourself, as they say, do your own research.
Remember that nothing on the internet is completely anonymous, so make sure you understand and manage the risks.
Face-to-face and bitcoin ATMs
Buying crypto in a real-world meetup is one of the oldest options on the market since the original cryptocurrency’s inception. Around 2014-2015, people would trade BTC in person at the Satoshi Square gatherings, named after Bitcoin’s pseudonymous creator. You might hand someone a wad of cash and they would scan a QR code from your phone for a Bitcoin address to send the BTC. (One New York trader would throw in a t-shirt.) These meetups took place around the world, from Austin to Kyiv.
The tradition seems to have faded in recent years, but you still can find Satoshi Square-like events in some places, such as Stockholm, Sweden, or Bangkok, Thailand. If you want the thrill of this old-school method, try to find meetups in your area on crypto forums like Bitcointalk or event boards like Meetup.com.
However, with in-person cash trades, due to their informal character, there is no way to guarantee the other party will deliver their part of the deal (i.e., your bitcoin), unless you sign some kind of agreement (which might defeat the purpose of the whole thing by exposing your personal information) or buy from someone you trust (and the person might want to know and trust you, too).
Another way to buy bitcoin in the physical world for paper cash, which also has caveats, is to use a bitcoin ATM – a machine you might find in places like pharmacies, convenience stores and grocery stores.
However, over the years, bitcoin ATMs also became subject to regulations in some parts of the world, so if you choose this method you need to figure out if the ATMs available require ID verification to make a purchase or if they have other possible limitations.
Read More: Government Report Suggests Tightening Regulations on Crypto ATMs
For example, Genesis Coin ATMs in San Antonio, Texas, allow you to buy $20 to $500 worth of bitcoin using only your phone number. But if you want to buy more than that, you need an ID, according to the Coin ATM Radar website.
On the other side of the globe, the Kurant ATM network in Austria allows you to purchase up to EUR 250 ($286) worth of bitcoin, bitcoin cash, litecoin or dash without ID verification, according to Coin ATM Radar.
There are plenty of websites monitoring the geography of bitcoin ATMs, like Coin ATM Finder or Bitcoin ATM Map. In any case, things can change over time both in the virtual and physical worlds, so it’s ultimately up to you to find the location and check if the ATM is still there, working and maintaining the same rules regarding KYC – or lack thereof.
For example, for my hometown of Moscow, both Coin ATM Finder and CoinATM Radar showed several ATMs by RusBit, located in grocery stores around the city center. Bitcoin ATM Map did not list them. No information was available regarding rules or limitations, so I went to check those machines myself.
In two of the listed locations, the ATMs were working and did not require ID to use. But in the third location, the grocery store that used to host the ATM was closed, so the machine was not available either. (The Bank of Russia's recent call to ban cryptocurrency use may endanger such kiosks, whether they require KYC or not.)
Bottom line, real-world purchasing methods require some free time and an adventurous mood.
Non-custodial P2P exchanges
There is a limited number of P2P marketplaces where users make deals directly with each other, rather than having bids and offers matched by an automated engine, as happens on big, centralized exchanges like Binance and Coinbase. In other words, the P2P experience is more like Craigslist than Nasdaq.
Among those P2P exchanges, a small subset does not require KYC and does not take custody of users’ funds.
To ensure both parties complete their part of the trade, P2P platforms like HodlHodl and LocalCryptos use smart contracts that lock bitcoin inside a multisignature wallet until the deal is complete, and release it to the buyer once the seller confirms a payment was made. LocalCrypto also offers markets in ether, bitcoin cash, litecoin and dash, while HodlHodl is bitcoin-only.
The fiat part of the deal happens outside of the platform and is totally up to buyers to take care of. Sellers may accept various payment methods, which they list in their ads, ranging from bank wire transfers to other cryptocurrencies and even in-person arrangements.
When two users decide to make a deal and agree on the payment details in a chat, the seller locks crypto in a multisignature escrow wallet. When the buyer sends a payment, the seller checks it and releases bitcoin from the escrow to the buyer’s wallet.
When there is a dispute and one user says the other one did not deliver their part of the deal (send fiat or release bitcoin), users can ask the platform to act as a referee. The buyer might provide proof of payment to show they held up their end of the bargain.
In the case of HodlHodl, the platform controls one of three keys to the multisignature escrow where bitcoin is stored for the duration of the deal. For each deal, the escrow is generated anew, with a set of three private keys: one controlled by the buyer, another one by the seller and the third one by the HodlHodl administrator.
To complete the deal, two out of three keys are needed, so if the buyer and a seller cannot agree, the platform uses its key to release bitcoin to whatever party it considers to be in the right, HodlHodl explains on its website. The project says it does not work with U.S. residents and asks new users to confirm they’re not U.S. residents before they can start using the website.
LocalCryptos describes a similar system for resolving disputes between users. One party can give an arbitrator a key to unlock funds in escrow and another to decrypt messages with the other party. Then the arbitrator can study the evidence and release funds to the party it considers right, the website says.
However, LocalCryptos does not provide detailed explanations of how the bitcoin escrow works or what happens when a dispute is resolved by the arbitrator.
CoinDesk reached out to LocalCryptos’ official Twitter account but did not hear from the team by press time. The website does not provide any contact information for the team.
Another non-custodial exchange using multisignature escrows is the decentralized marketplace Bisq. Like HodlHodl or LocalCryptos, it’s non-custodial, but the main difference is that Bisq does not have a web interface – its website only serves as a place where people can download the Bisq software and then run it on their own computers. This is probably the most decentralized option out there.
You also need to have some bitcoin already to start trading: You lock it as a security deposit to guarantee you won’t defraud your counterparty. The security deposit can be used to penalize users for violating trading rules, Bisq’s website says.
The arbitration of disputes is especially interesting on Bisq, as the marketplace is run by a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO), an entity that, at least in theory, has no leader. The Bisq DAO launched in April 2019, and since then, the platform has no longer been able to resolve disputes by releasing funds from escrow with its own key.
What’s left, then? If a buyer and a seller cannot resolve a dispute among themselves, they call a mediator, who must be approved by the DAO and lock some governance tokens, BSQ, as a guarantee they will judge cases fairly. (A mediator who misbehaves will forfeit their pledged BSQ.) Users are obliged to engage with the mediator by the trading rules. The mediator suggests a solution but cannot enforce it.
If users do not agree with the mediator’s solution, there is a last resort, which “is meant to be rare,” the Bisq dispute resolution rules say: arbitration. If the dispute escalates to arbitration, the disputed bitcoins in the multisig escrow are sent to the Bisq donation address.
That bitcoin is then used to buy the governance token, BSQ, on the market and burn it, supporting the value of the token. “This reduces BSQ supply, allowing for new BSQ to be issued as reimbursement for deserving traders through arbitration with minimal impact on BSQ supply.”
How? If you convince an arbitrator you’re right, “they will personally reimburse you,” Bisq’s dispute resolution page says. Arbitrators, in turn, are reimbursed by the Bisq DAO.
"If the arbitrator is convinced, they pay the user BTC out of their own pocket (then at some point afterward, the arbitrator requests BSQ from the DAO to be reimbursed for their BTC payment to the user),” said one of Bisq’s code contributors who asked not to be named.
However, if the disputed amount exceeds 0.5 BTC, users must ask the Bisq DAO directly to make them whole. “Because, as you might imagine, arbitrators would prefer to avoid making such large out-of-pocket outlays of BTC,” the contributor said. “In these cases, users are paid in BSQ, which they can then sell for BTC on Bisq."
As you can see, Bisq might be tricky to understand and use for people who don’t have some experience and knowledge of crypto, so it’s no surprise markets for some fiat currencies are a bit thin at the moment.
For example, on Jan. 19, I found zero offers to buy or sell bitcoin for the Russian ruble, zero offers for the Nigerian naira and one offer for the Iraqi dinar.
Read more: The Future for Unregulated Bitcoin Exchanges
Apps, vouchers and more
Some mobile crypto wallet apps also allow you to buy crypto with only your banking information and no further verification. Two examples are U.S-registered TrusteeWallet and Swiss Relai.
Relai works only for people with European bank accounts because to start trading, you need to provide your IBAN number, which is a bank account identifier only EU banks use. TrusteeWallet requires your bank card information and does not mention any geographical restrictions in its policies.
Similar to bitcoin ATMs, Azte.co, which has offices in Santa Monica, California, and London, sells bitcoin vouchers via a network of vendors scattered across the globe. To buy a voucher, you need to find the nearest vendor on the Azte.co website, which might be a store, cafe or other business that partnered with the firm. Vouchers are sold and printed on the spot by cashiers. To redeem bitcoin, you need to enter your voucher code and your wallet address on the website.
Most of Azte.co’s 2,125 vendors are concentrated in the U.K. and Europe, though there are locations scattered throughout the U.S., Canada, Mexico, South Korea and Kenya, according to the website.
There are more exotic ways to buy bitcoin, some of them easier than others. Eric Wall, chief investment officer of the crypto fund Arcane Assets, described his experiments buying bitcoin anonymously in a very instructive blog post in March 2020.
Among other methods, Wall mentioned buying bitcoin with gift cards from, say, Amazon or multiple other companies – offers like that can be found on custodial peer-to-peer marketplaces, such as LocalBitcoins or Paxful, or the non-custodial platforms mentioned above. Keep in mind that custodial platforms like LocalBitcoins and Paxful still require KYC to start trading, even though the sellers might not know your identity.
Wall notes that some offers on custodial marketplaces provide sellers’ contact information, so you can interact with them outside of the platform, which would essentially be more like a cash deal with a stranger from the internet.
But probably the most exotic way Wall tried out himself, successfully he said, was buying Old School Runescape gold, an asset in a 9-year-old online role-playing game. Players trade Runescape gold on the game’s forum for fiat and crypto.
In short, Wall was able to buy some (imaginary) gold from another player for a PayPal transfer, then sell it to someone else for bitcoin – but the full story is much more elaborate and entertaining.
Read more: Inside London's First Bitcoin Voucher Shop
Like anything in crypto (or life), buying coins without ID is all about trade-offs.
Face-to-face cash deals are by design more anonymous. However, there might be a higher risk of fraud.
On the other hand, online deals, when you pay your counterparty electronically, may have some safeguards established by the marketplace protocol, but your counterparty or the platform itself might see your payment details, which makes it less anonymous.
Another thing to keep in mind is that at this point in the crypto industry’s evolution, not all bitcoins are considered equal by everyone.
Some coins would be accepted by any exchange or vendor, but some might be blacklisted and blocked once they reach a regulated centralized exchange, such as Coinbase or Binance. This usually happens when the crypto can be traced back to known darknet marketplaces, ransomware proceeds or other criminal sources.
Whether you care about this or believe that all bitcoins are created equal, in-person cash deals provide a limited opportunity, if any, to check if the bitcoin you’re buying might be considered “tainted” by some of the major players in the crypto market.
On the other hand, marketplaces like HodlHodl and LocalCryptos allow you to see the address of your seller before making a purchase, after the funds are locked in escrow.
At this point, you can use some of the blockchain analytics tools available to retail users and check how risky your bitcoin would be considered by major crypto exchanges that use blockchain tracing tools.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to maintain a balance between your privacy, the amount of time and effort you’re willing to invest and your peace of mind.