Editor's note: This column has been updated to disclose the writer's advocacy of blockchain technology--the underpinning of all cryptocurrencies--and a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau warning about these investments.
Cryptocurrency (digital currency) is taking off this year. New millionaires are being made almost daily as Ethereum, Bitcoin, NEO, Litecoin, Ripple, Stratis, and other cryptocurrencies reach all-time highs. It is becoming somewhat of a modern-day gold rush.
Bitcoin is worth thousands of dollars. Ethereum is worth hundreds of dollars. For coins that were once worth only pennies, investors have made serious money in the past few years. It should be noted here that I am an advocate of blockchain technology.
Bitcoin might be the oldest, but it's not the only cryptocurrency on the block. In fact, the majority of people getting into cryptocurrency are flocking to Ethereum. Ethereum has had the most impressive gains this year after recently being the first cryptocurrency to be backed by major corporations such as Microsoft, Samsung, JPMorgan Chase, and others in what's being called the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance. Ethereum does for code and programming what Bitcoin did for financial transactions. For simplicity's sake, think of Ethereum like a more advanced and sophisticated Bitcoin backed and utilized by major corporations because of its technological advances and clear pathway to building a decentralized internet.
Editor's note: Bitcoin and digital currencies, as with any investment, may involve the risk of loss. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has warned that virtual currencies, including Bitcoin, carry "significant risk" to consumers.
One Ether (Ethereum's crypto token) was worth as little as $12 earlier this year, but the cryptocurrency is now worth multiple hundreds of dollars per coin with a total market cap well into the multiple 10s of billions. Ethereum is slowly but surely making gains on Bitcoin's market cap. Many spectators believe that "the flippening" will happen sometime this year, in which Ethereum becomes the most valuable (market cap) cryptocurrency in the world, overtaking Bitcoin in total value (total number of coins times price per coin).
Ethereum isn't the only new coin on the block, but it is definitely the most promising. Others to watch that I will explain and write about in future articles include NEO, TenX, Metal, Litecoin, and Siacoin. All these coins have something unique and technologically innovative about them.
How to Buy Your First Cryptocurrency Coin
Buying cryptocurrency is confusing for a lot of people. It's not a stock or a typical "investment." It's not like anything most people have ever seen or experienced. You don't get shares; instead you get digital coins or tokens. The coins are "better" than a paper dollar bill because they actually support a greater cause, as in Ethereum's case, to build a decentralized internet and host code and apps on a decentralized platform. And coins help "fuel" that cause, so to speak, without getting technical.
For most people in the U.S., Coinbase would be the easiest option to buy Ethereum, Bitcoin, or Litecoin (it doesn't support any others yet). After verifying your account, you can add a number of payment methods including credit or debit cards, U.S. bank accounts, or even wire transfers of funds. Other options for exchanges that will take U.S. dollars for coins are Kraken, and Gemini in the U.S. Typically you will need to verify your account with a driver's license and add other details to expand your buy limits. Since cryptocurrencies are "hard currencies," the exchanges don't want to risk getting ripped off, since you can't reverse a cryptocurrency transaction once it's done.
If you are looking for some of the newer coins like NEO that are making big movement but haven't made their way to the aforementioned exchange sites, you can look into Bittrex, Poloniex or Livecoin. You can transfer Bitcoin or Ethereum to these platforms from Coinbase and then exchange it for any other digital currency that you want.
If you are outside the U.S., here are a few options for exchanges that take your local currency: BTC Markets (Australia), Bitthumb or Coinone (Korea), CHBTC or Huobi (China), and QuadrigaCX (Canada.) You can find a full list on this page of where to buy Ethereum for your local currency.