Cryptocurrency is a new form of internet money with properties that suggest it can replace the traditional money we are currently used to. But for money to be useful, you need to be able to buy things with it, so what can you actually spend cryptocurrency on right now?
To understand what things you can spend cryptocurrency on, you need to understand that there are different categories of cryptocurrency with different intended use cases.
All cryptocurrency can be treated like an investment, similar to a tradeable share in a company on the Dow Jones of FTSE. It can be bought and sold with the intention of making a profit. We have a whole section on how to trade cryptocurrency.
But as constantly repeated, cryptocurrency functions as a form of digital money as well as an investment, but that is a very high level definition, within which there is more detail.
The two most significant cryptocurrencies are Bitcoin and Ethereum, both fulfilling the two functions - investable and spendable. However, Ethereum also functions as a platform on which you can build other projects, which themselves feature cryptocurrencies and their use cases are often very specific.
This is where the distinction between a coin and token lies. Coins essentially are intended for use as a form of money, and have their own blockchain.
Tokens are created for use as payment within a specific blockchain system.
A good way to understand tokens is to think of going to a Theme Park where you have to purchase special tokens to go on the rides, and the tokens don’t work anywhere else.
There is a little more complexity, in that cryptocurrency tokens also give the holder the right to vote on changes to the way the blockchain works.
Imagine playing an online game, where you collect tokens which can be used within the game itself to purchase things, but also as a way to participate in the game’s evolution.
So what this means is that you shouldn’t expect to be able to spend all cryptocurrencies as money; those that are classified as tokens are really designed for a narrow use-case rather than broad use as money.
Here are some examples:
Given the distinction between coins and tokens, it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that most of the cryptocurrency tokens out there aren’t widely used outside of trading or their specific blockchain ecosystem.
Even though cryptocurrencies that are intended to be used as money, they face a challenge in convincing merchants to incorporate them as a payment method.
Merchants will simply base their decision on demand, or where they see a cryptocurrency solving a specific problem for the consumer.
In the case of Bitcoin, which is by far the most popular cryptocurrency, the majority of activity is related to trading, rather than buying goods and services, largely because of how slow the confirmation process can be.
This is why we’ve seen Paypal offer customers the opportunity to buy/sell Bitcoin but not use it as a means of purchasing goods.
Merchants can get around the speed issue by reducing the number of confirmations they require or accepting Lightning Payments, which are instant and low cost. This does however require the consumer to understand Lightning payments and use a Lightning supported wallet. See a separate article on the subject.
Ethereum is the second most popular cryptocurrency after Bitcoin, and though it can be used as a means of buying things online, and is much faster than bitcoin, much of the usage is focused on trading and supporting those systems built on top of it, and Smart Contract execution for Defi and NFTs.
That being said let’s look at some real world examples where cryptocurrency can and is being used, starting with the earliest applications:
One of the first large scale uses of bitcoin was in Darknet markets such as the Silk Road. Used in conjunction with Tor browsers - which hide location - Bitcoin enabled the sale of illicit goods and services.
The original Silk Road was shut down in 2013 and its founder, Ross Ulbricht, given a life sentence with no parole, but several similar sites have replaced it utilising more privacy focused cryptocurrencies like Minero or Zcash.
Learn Crypto doesn’t support the use of Darnket sites, but they represent an important step in the evolution and usage of cryptocurrency. They provided a clear use for a censorship resistant monetary system with in-built privacy.
The payment process is one of the biggest choke points for gambling sites, from both the player and provider perspective. Many banks and card services won’t allow use with gambling sites - especially due to geographic restrictions - and those that do are expensive.
Some users of gambling sites don’t want their activity reflected on bank or card statements or find the process of adding payment methods tedious. Cryptocurrency fixes all these problems and was the first use case for Bitcoin through the site Satoshidice.
Gambling with cryptocurrency is arguably one of the largest growth sectors of the ecosystem with sites like Sportsbet.io putting the bitcoin logo in front of a global audience via the shirt sponsorship of Premier League team, Southampton.
In a very similar way to gambling, adult sites pay a premium for payment services, or find them blocked in their jurisdiction, and where available want to avoid the sites appearing on their statements.
Pornhub have been very open about their use of cryptocurrency, as reported by Coindesk.
As you can see from the early use cases cryptocurrency has been adopted by industries that are considered risky by traditional financial institutions and therefore charge a premium for servicing payments, or are subject to geographic restriction.
Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are borderless and permissionless solving the specific payment problem, though this doesn’t mean the user can avoid any relevant laws.
Other services work like a regular debit or prepaid card, giving you cash back in crypto on regular Visa purchases. Crypto.com is one of the leading examples of this, with rewards paid their own token - CRO.
Be aware that many of these debit card services face long waiting times for issuing cards.
You’ll also have to ‘stake’ crypto upfront, like a bond to give you access to the card features. That can lose value, the same as any cash-back earned.
If the card is pre-paid, you’ll need to top it up regularly, which can be a bit of a pain.
One of the biggest use cases for cryptocurrency is sending money overseas, often people working abroad sending it back to family. As this usually involves an exchange between currencies and banks the traditional process is very expensive and lengthy.
The global average cost of sending $200 in the first quarter of 2020 as reported by the World Bank
As remittance isn't generally time sensitive, bitcoin's confirmation time isn’t a barrier, while its store of value qualities make it more attractive than weak local currencies. If speed is important then you can always use the Lightning Network.
Bitcoin has proven an effective store of value, but it isn’t suited to small, time sensitive transactions. The Lightning Network, however, can enable fast and instant transactions, utilising Bitcoin blockchain. You can see the growing list of sites that accept Lighting here.
We’ve a separate articles on how to use the Lightning Network and how it solves Bitcoin’s scaling issue.
Non Fungible Tokens are one of the most popular new crypto use cases. They are unique tokens that represent ownership of a digital or physical item, the most common examples being art, songs, or sports media. This means that buying art, music, attending a gig or game, or getting exclusive access to events can all be bought via NFTs.
Here's a list of NFT marketplaces:
You can’t use cryptocurrency directly on Amazon, but you can use a service that accepts bitcoin as an intermediary, called Purse.io, illustrating that innovation is happening. Amazon may offer it in time, but here’s a list of big recognisable brands accepting cryptocurrency right now
There is a huge number of much smaller business, both online and bricks and mortar, that now accept crypto. We aren’t yet at a tipping point, but as the solutions to scaling of both bitcoin and ethereal gain traction, this could be sooner than you think.
On September 7th, 2021 El Salvador became the first country to make Bitcoin legal tender. This means that businesses in El Salvador are expected to accept Bitcoin which means you can already spend it in the biggest brands of all such as McDonald's and Starbucks.
El Salvador's population is 6.5million, so it is a small population. If more countries follow their lead then you'll quickly see more places emerging that accept Bitcoin because it will be mandated.
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