El Salvador making Bitcoin legal tender this year (the first country to ever do so) has definitely reopened the debate around the use of Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies as a form of payment. Whether Bitcoin has money properties — or if it is better as a store-of-value — is still a debated topic. But it is clear that today there is great demand in using Bitcoin to pay for goods and services.
A recent study by CryptoRefills suggests that 66% of “crypto-shoppers” think that cryptocurrencies are a method of payment. According to a survey by Mastercard, 40% of consumers polled in the Americas, Asia, the Middle East and Africa are planning to use digital assets to make a purchase in the next 12 months. In fact, this Dutch family went all in on Bitcoin back in 2017, when they sold all their assets to buy BTC for 900 U.S. dollars per coin (at the time).
This family of five is now safeguarding most of their crypto fortune in secret vaults across four different continents, and have traveled in more than 40 countries living solely off Bitcoin through a combination of bartering, Bitcoin debit cards and convincing retailers to accept the cryptocurrency.
Bitcoin is also an alternative solution for people coming from fragile and emerging economies. In fact, in many developing countries, people are often unbanked or underbanked — meaning they have limited access to traditional financing systems. But with an internet connection, these people can access and use Bitcoin to make purchases without passing through a traditional financial institution.
What Can You Buy With Bitcoin?
Although most online and offline retail stores still don’t accept Bitcoin as a payment method, there are a surprising number of businesses that have set up payment systems that do offer their customers a Bitcoin payment option.
Here are some of the places you can spend your Bitcoin. This is only a partial list, as Bitcoin and cryptocurrency grows in popularity, more businesses will start experimenting with cryptocurrency payments.
- Overstock – one of the biggest retailers for common household items with a wide selection of products accepts Bitcoin payments.
- Home Depot – the large home improvement chain in the United States lets you pay with Bitcoin.
- NewEgg – the electronic retail giant can take your Bitcoin for a wide range of products.
- Tesla – the company offered Bitcoin payments back in March, although it declared recently that it would stop the option to pay with Bitcoin because of its environmental impact.
- Marketplaces for cars – there are several car dealerships such as BitCars and AutoCoinCars which take your payment in Bitcoin.
- KFC – fried chicken chain accepted Bitcoin in their locations in Canada back in 2018.
- Just Eat – food delivery service allows Bitcoin as a valid payment method in France.
- Travala – the crypto-friendly travel booking platform lets you book your holidays, meaning you can pay for a hotel or book a flight using Bitcoin.
- Expedia – one of the largest online travel booking agencies in the world allows you to pay for millions of destinations worldwide with Bitcoin.
- Wikimedia Foundation – the nonprofit organization that runs Wikipedia accepts donations in Bitcoin.
How to Use Bitcoin If Your Store Doesn’t Accept Crypto
It is difficult to use Bitcoin for your everyday shopping needs if retailers don’t accept Bitcoin directly. You would have to convert your Bitcoin to fiat, and then send it to your bank account to cash it out in order to pay the retailer with fiat. This can be time consuming and costly due to cash out limits, exchange fees and transfer times. But there is a clever workaround to shop with Bitcoin — even at retailers that don’t accept it — by using Bitcoin to buy gift cards. Platforms like CryptoRefills allow you to buy gift cards using Bitcoin for some of the largest brands and stores such as Amazon, Uber, Spotify and thousands of other retailers.
Many gift cards can also be used in physical stores and retailers such as supermarkets, gas stations, clothing and sports stores, restaurants and food chains. Technically, by using gift cards, you can buy almost anything you need with Bitcoin. You can then redeem these gift cards at the time of your purchase at these retailers. Alternatively, Bitcoin-based debit and credit cards can be used at retailers that accept cards from the major networks such as Maestro, Visa and Mastercard. PayPal also recently announced that it allows its customers in the United States to buy, sell or hold Bitcoin. This means being able to use Bitcoin funds at merchants that accept PayPal.
How Do Bitcoin Purchases Work?
Paying with Bitcoin for products and services is as simple as sending an email to someone. An online store that accepts crypto payments will not ask you for your credit/debit card information. Instead, at the moment of the checkout, you will be asked to send a certain amount of Bitcoin to a Bitcoin address specified by the store. This means that besides owning some Bitcoin, you will also need a wallet software or service to access and transfer the funds. The store will usually ask you to submit the funds within a certain time frame, for example, 15 minutes. This protects the store from possible exchange rate volatility.
If you are paying from a wallet (not from an exchange) you will also be asked to set the fees for the transaction. These fees don’t go to the store: instead, these fees go to the miners to reward them for processing the payment and keeping the integrity of the Bitcoin blockchain intact.
Once the transaction has enough confirmations on the blockchain that guarantee that the funds have been securely transferred to the store’s address, the payment is complete. It can take a few minutes and, in some extreme cases, even some hours for the transaction to be confirmed on the Bitcoin blockchain. This is due to how the Bitcoin blockchain works: the higher the fees you pay, the faster the transaction can be processed.
If you are concerned about privacy, Bitcoin is a good option because you don’t need to give up personal financial information like bank or credit card data. If you are buying digital items or services, your email or mobile number will usually be sufficient to complete the purchase, while for physical products online, you will likely have to provide a name and address where you can receive the goods. If you are using Bitcoin inside a store, it is anonymous, just like cash.
Disadvantages of Paying With Bitcoin — and Possible Solutions
Despite the many advantages of being able to shop with Bitcoin, there are still some issues that likely prevent users from much stronger adoption, especially when it comes to day-to-day shopping.
The main issues users face when buying goods and services with Bitcoin are mainly:
- High transaction fees;
- Slow transaction processing;
- Exchange rate volatility.
Points 1 and 2 are strictly interlinked and we will look at them together.
As said above, Bitcoin payments require you to pay a fee to the miners to process the transaction. The fee to be paid is based on different factors such as the market value of Bitcoin and the Bitcoin network’s congestion.
The higher the fee, the faster the payment will go through. It is important to understand that this fee is not in any way linked to the amount that is being transferred. In other words, whether you are buying 10 dollars’ worth of mobile credit or a shiny Lamborghini, if you pay in Bitcoin, your processing fees will be the same.
The perception of fees varies depending on what you are buying. 10 U.S. dollars of fees might sound reasonable if you buy a $1,000 smartphone (the fee is 1%), but we can agree that paying 10 dollars in fees for a $20 of PlayStation credit is expensive.
The chart below compares the fees paid by CryptoRefills users between November 2020 and January 2021 in relation to the price of the goods and services they were purchasing. The three snapshots provided are based on the mempool size (the number of transactions awaiting verifications and confirmation).
According to this chart, the average (median to be precise) Bitcoin fees paid by shoppers in relation to the value of what they were buying was about 1.6% on the day the mempool was the lowest, and 27% when the mempool was the highest.
In some extreme cases, users paid more in fees than for the product itself. These are rare exceptions that occur for people buying products worth a few dollars.
The bottom line is that a direct Bitcoin payment can be very expensive and inconvenient if you are making a small purchase, and especially if you want the transaction to be processed immediately.
Possible solutions to the fee and speed issue are to use other cryptocurrencies such as Dash and Litecoin, which have much lower fees than Bitcoin. You can also consider paying directly from an exchange because they group many transactions together, so the fees will be cheaper. If you are still eager to pay with Bitcoin from your wallet, you should consider using Lightning Network (more about that later). Exchange rate volatility is also an issue, because most goods and services are originally priced in fiat value. If the exchange rate changes, so will the price in Bitcoin.
Between January 2021 and August 2021, Bitcoin was as low as $29,374 and as high as $63,503, compared to the U.S. dollar. This means that if as a consumer you wanted to purchase 100 U.S. dollars’ worth of goods on Amazon with Bitcoin, you would have paid 0.0034 Bitcoin on 01/01/2021 and 0.00157 on 04/13/2021.
Furthermore, Bitcoin price changes can be sudden, with two-digit appreciation or depreciation over the USD that can happen in minutes. Imagine shopping at your local store with a fiat currency and seeing the prices make huge bounces up and down.One solution for avoiding exchange rate volatility is to use stablecoins instead of Bitcoin. Stablecoins are cryptocurrencies, generally based on the Ethereum ERC-20 standard, that are pegged to the major fiat currencies. Today, the largest stablecoins by market cap are USDT, USDC, BUSD and DAI, which are all linked to the value of the United States dollar. Some stores do accept stablecoins; however, as with Bitcoin payments, stablecoin payments can be very expensive when transacted over the Ethereum network.One solution for “crypto experts” looking to shop with stablecoins is to use a high finality blockchain like Avalanche or layer 2 scaling solutions like Polygon on the services like CryptoRefills with close to zero fees and transactions processed in less than a few seconds. Less expert shoppers can use exchanges and integrated payment solutions within their exchange account such as Binance Pay to pay with stablecoins or other cryptocurrencies.
Paying With Bitcoin Using Lightning Network
The Lightning Network is a “second layer” payment protocol for fast and scalable payments. Put simply, it allows users to complete the payments immediately, and with close to zero fees.
In order to pay with Bitcoin using Lightning Network, you will need a Lightning Network enabled wallet like Éclair, Breeze or the Wallet of Satoshi. You will also need to open a “Lightning Channel” to transact with the store. New generation Lightning wallets like Phoenix might be more user friendly for the less expert users. CryptoRefills accepts Lightning Network payments and offers a step-to-step guide on setting up a Lightning wallet and buying products using Lightning Network. The LightningNetworkStores website offers a directory of stores accepting Lightning Network payments, ranging from e-commerce to physical stores, restaurants and other types of retailers that have adopted this new technology.
Bitcoin adoption as a payment method (its original intention) is increasing despite its price volatility. Businesses like PayPal and Overstock are paving the way in this direction by accepting Bitcoin directly.
It seems we still have a long way to go for full retail adoption of this payment method. However, since most top brands in the world offer gift cards, it is possible to use services like CryptoRefills to use Bitcoin to buy gift cards and then redeem the gift card for the payment.
Purchasing products with Bitcoin still presents some challenges. Transaction fees paid to miners and time to process the transaction are the top two issues.
However different solutions are emerging, such as using other widely accepted cryptos or paying with Bitcoin via the Lightning Network. Exchange rate volatility can also be an issue. Stablecoins such as USDT, USDC, and DAI can be a solution to exchange volatility, but it is important to consider ERC-20 token fees when transacting over the Ethereum network.
Crypto-funded debit cards and credit cards are also an option to reduce fees, complete transactions immediately and reduce exposure to exchange rates. However, these cards are usually only available to people who have access to the traditional banking and financial system.
According to different research, there are about two billion people in the world unbanked. This is a problem that Bitcoin, in the form of a peer-to-peer exchange, actually addresses, since many unbanked people have access at least to the internet and mobile phones.
As Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies grow in popularity, we believe there will be more businesses that will start accepting Bitcoin and experimenting with cryptocurrency for payments.