32 min read

In this article by Richard Caetano author of the book Learning Bitcoin, we will explore ways to safely hold your own bitcoin. We will cover the following topics:

  • Storing your bitcoins
  • Working with brainwallet
  • Understanding deterministic wallets
  • Storing Bitcoins in cold storage
  • Good housekeeping with Bitcoin

(For more resources related to this topic, see here.)

Storing your bitcoins

The banking system has a legacy of offering various financial services to its customers. They offer convenient ways to spend money, such as cheques and credit cards, but the storage of money is their base service.

For many centuries, banks have been a safe place to keep money. Customers rely on the interest paid on their deposits, as well as on the government insurance against theft and insolvency. Savings accounts have helped make preserving the wealth easy, and accessible to a large population in the western world.

Yet, some people still save a portion of their wealth as cash or precious metals, usually in a personal safe at home or in a safety deposit box. They may be those who have, over the years, experienced or witnessed the downsides of banking: government confiscation, out of control inflation, or runs on the bank.

Furthermore, a large population of the world does not have access to the western banking system. For those who live in remote areas or for those without credit, opening a bank account is virtually impossible. They must handle their own money properly to prevent loss or theft. In some places of the world, there can be great risk involved. These groups of people, who have little or no access to banking, are called the “underbanked”.

For the underbanked population, Bitcoin offers immediate access to a global financial system. Anyone with access to the internet or who carries a mobile phone with the ability to send and receive SMS messages, can hold his or her own bitcoin and make global payments. They can essentially become their own bank.

However, you must understand that Bitcoin is still in its infancy as a technology. Similar to the Internet of circa 1995, it has demonstrated enormous potential, yet lacks usability for a mainstream audience. As a parallel, e-mail in its early days was a challenge for most users to set up and use, yet today it’s as simple as entering your e-mail address and password on your smartphone. Bitcoin has yet to develop through these stages.

Yet, with some simple guidance, we can already start realizing its potential. Let’s discuss some general guidelines for understanding how to become your own bank.

Bitcoin savings

In most normal cases, we only keep a small amount of cash in our hand wallets to protect ourselves from theft or accidental loss. Much of our money is kept in checking or savings accounts with easy access to pay our bills. Checking accounts are used to cover our rent, utility bills, and other payments, while our savings accounts hold money for longer-term goals, such as a down payment on buying a house.

It’s highly advisable to develop a similar system for managing your Bitcoin money. Both local and online wallets provide a convenient way to access your bitcoins for day-to-day transactions. Yet there is the unlikely risk that one could lose his or her Bitcoin wallet due to an accidental computer crash or faulty backup. With online wallets, we run the risk of the website or the company becoming insolvent, or falling victim to cybercrime.

By developing a reliable system, we can adopt our own personal ‘Bitcoin Savings’ account to hold our funds for long-term storage. Usually, these savings are kept offline to protect them from any kind of computer hacking.

With protected access to our offline storage, we can periodically transfer money to and from our savings. Thus, we can arrange our Bitcoin funds much as we manage our money with our hand wallets and checking/savings accounts.

Paper wallets

As explained, a private key is a large random number that acts as the key to spend your bitcoins. A cryptographic algorithm is used to generate a private key and, from it, a public address. We can share the public address to receive bitcoins, and, with the private key, spend the funds sent to the address.

Generally, we rely on our Bitcoin wallet software to handle the creation and management of our private keys and public addresses. As these keys are stored on our computers and networks, they are vulnerable to hacking, hardware failures, and accidental loss.

Private keys and public addresses are, in fact, just strings of letters and numbers. This format makes it easy to move the keys offline for physical storage. Keys printed on paper are called “paper wallet” and are highly portable and convenient to store in a physical safe or a bank safety deposit box. With the private key generated and stored offline, we can safely send bitcoin to its public address.

A paper wallet must include at least one private key and its computed public address. Additionally, the paper wallet can include a QR code to make it convenient to retrieve the key and address. Figure 3.1 is an example of a paper wallet generated by Coinbase:

Figure 3.1 – Paper wallet generated from Coinbase

The paper wallet includes both the public address (labeled Public key) and the private key, both with QR codes to easily transfer them back to your online wallet. Also included on the paper wallet is a place for notes.

This type of wallet is easy to print for safe storage. It is recommended that copies are stored securely in multiple locations in case the paper is destroyed. As the private key is shown in plain text, anyone who has access to this wallet has access to the funds.

Do not store your paper wallet on your computer. Loss of the paper wallet due to hardware failure, hacking, spyware, or accidental loss can result in complete loss of your bitcoin. Make sure you have multiple copies of your wallet printed and securely stored before transferring your money.

One time use paper wallets

Transactions from bitcoin addresses must include the full amount. When sending a partial amount to a recipient, the remaining balance must be sent to a change address.

Paper wallet that includes only one private key are considered to be “one time use” paper wallet. While you can always send multiple transfers of bitcoin to the wallet, it is highly recommended that you spend the coins only once. Therefore, you shouldn’t move a large number of bitcoins to the wallet expecting to spend a partial amount.

With this in mind, when using one-time use paper wallet, it’s recommended that you only save a usable amount to each wallet. This amount could be a block of coins that you’d like to fully redeem to your online wallet.

Creating a paper wallet

To create a paper wallet in Coinbase, simply log in with your username and password. Click on the Tools link on the left-hand side menu. Next, click on the Paper Wallets link from the above menu. Coinbase will prompt you to Generate a paper wallet and Import a paper wallet. Follow the links to generate a paper wallet. You can expect to see the paper wallet rendered, as shown in the following figure 3.2:

Figure 3.2 – Creating a paper wallet with Coinbase

Coinbase generates your paper wallet completely from your browser, without sending the private key back to its server. This is important to protect your private key from exposure to the network.

You are generating the only copy of your private key. Make sure that you print and securely store multiple copies of your paper wallet before transferring any money to it. Loss of your wallet and private key will result in the loss of your bitcoin.

By clicking the Regenerate button, you can generate multiple paper wallets and store various amounts of bitcoin on each wallet. Each wallet is easily redeemable in full at Coinbase or with other bitcoin wallet services.

Verifying your wallet’s balance

After generating and printing multiple copies of your paper wallet, you’re ready to transfer your funds. Coinbase will prompt you with an easy option to transfer the funds from your Coinbase wallet to your paper wallet:

Figure 3.3 – Transferring funds to your paper wallet

Figure 3.3 shows Coinbase’s prompt to transfer your funds. It provides options to enter your amount in BTC or USD. Simply specify your amount and click Send. Note that Coinbase only keeps a copy of your public address. You can continue to send additional amounts to your paper wallet using the same public address.

For your first time working with paper wallets, it’s advisable that you only send small amounts of bitcoin, to learn and experiment with the process. Once you feel comfortable with creating and redeeming paper wallets, you can feel secure with transferring larger amounts.

To verify that the funds have been moved to your paper wallet, we can use a blockchain explorer to verify that the funds have been confirmed by the network. Blockchain explorers make all the transaction data from the Bitcoin network available for public review.

We’ll use a service called Blockchain.info to verify our paper wallet. Simply open www.blockchain.info in your browser and enter the public key from your paper wallet in the search box. If found, Blockchain.info will display a list of the transaction activities on that address:

Figure 3.4 – Blockchain.info showing transaction activity

Shown in figure 3.4 is the transaction activity for the address starting with 16p9Lt. You can quickly see the total bitcoin received and the current balance.

Under the Transactions section, you can find the details of the transactions recorded by the network. Also listed are the public addresses that were combined by the wallet software, as well as the change address used to complete the transfer.

Note that at least six confirmations are required before the transaction is considered confirmed.

Importing versus sweeping

When importing your private key, the wallet software will simply add the key to its list of private keys. Your bitcoin wallet will manage your list of private keys. When sending money, it will combine the balances from multiple addresses to make the transfer. Any remaining amount will be sent back to the change address. The wallet software will automatically manage your change addresses.

Some Bitcoin wallets offer the ability to sweep yourc private key. This involves a second step. After importing your private key, the wallet software will make a transaction to move the full balance of your funds to a new address. This process will empty your paper wallet completely.

The step to transfer the funds may require additional time to allow the network to confirm your transaction. This process could take up to one hour. In addition to the confirmation time, a small miner’s fee may be applied. This fee could be in the amount of 0.0001BTC.

If you are certain that you are the only one with access to the private key, it is safe to use the import feature. However, if you believe someone else may have access to the private key, sweeping is highly recommended.

Listed in the following table are some common bitcoin wallets which support importing a private key:

Bitcoin Wallet





This provides direct integration between your online wallet and your paper wallet.




This provides the ability to import and see your private key for easy access to your wallet’s funds.




This provides the ability to import your private key or “sweep” the entire balance.




This directly imports your private key. It may use a built-in address generator for change addresses.


Table 1 – Wallets that support importing private keys

Importing your Paper wallet

To import your wallet, simply log into your Coinbase account. Click on Tools from the left-hand side menu, followed by Paper Wallet from the top menu. Then, click on the Import a paper wallet button. You will be prompted to enter the private key of your paper wallet, as show in figure 3.5:

Figure 3.5 – Coinbase importing from a paper wallet

Simply enter the private key from your paper wallet. Coinbase will validate the key and ask you to confirm your import. If accepted, Coinbase will import your key and sweep your balance. The full amount will be transferred to your bitcoin wallet and become available after six confirmations.

Paper wallet guidelines

Paper wallets display your public and private keys in plain text. Make sure that you keep these documents secure. While you can send funds to your wallet multiple times, it is highly recommended that you spend your balance only once and in full.

Before sending large amounts of bitcoin to a paper wallet, make sure you are able to test your ability to generate and import the paper wallet with small amounts of bitcoin. When you’re comfortable with the process, you can rely on them for larger amounts.

As paper is easily destroyed or ruined, make sure that you keep multiple copies of your paper wallet in different locations. Make sure the location is secure from unwanted access.

Be careful with online wallet generators. A malicious site operator can obtain the private key from your web browser. Only use trusted paper wallet generators.

You can test the online paper wallet generator by opening the page in your browser while online, and then disconnecting your computer from the network. You should be able to generate your paper wallet when completely disconnected from the network, ensuring that your private keys are never sent back to the network.

Coinbase is an exception in the fact that it only sends the public address back to the server for reference. This public address is saved to make it easy to transfer funds to your paper wallet. The private key is never saved by Coinbase when generating a paper wallet.

Paper wallet services

In addition to the services mentioned, there are other services that make paper wallets easy to generate and print. Listed next in Table 2 are just a few:





This offers the ability to generate single wallets, bulk wallets, brainwallets, and more.

Bitcoin Paper Wallet


This offers nice, stylish design, and easy-to-use features. Users can purchase holographic stickers securing the paper wallets.

Wallet Generator


This offers printable paper wallets that fold nicely to conceal the private keys.

 Table 2 – Services for generating paper wallets and brainwallets


Storing our private keys offline by using a paper wallet is one way we can protect our coins from attacks on the network. Yet, having a physical copy of our keys is similar to holding a gold bar: it’s still vulnerable to theft if the attacker can physically obtain the wallet.

One way to protect bitcoins from online or offline theft is to have the codes recallable by memory. As holding long random private keys in memory is quite difficult, even for the best of minds, we’ll have to use another method to generate our private keys.

Creating a brainwallet

Brainwallet is a way to create one or more private keys from a long phrase of random words. From the phrase, called a passphrase, we’re able to generate a private key, along with its public addresses, to store bitcoin.

We can create any passphrase we’d like. The longer the phrase and the more random the characters, the more secure it will be.

Brainwallet phrases should contain at least 12 words. It is very important that the phrase should never come from anything published, such as a book or a song. Hackers actively search for possible brainwallets by performing brute force attacks on commonly-published phrases.

Here is an example of a brainwallet passphrase:

gently continue prepare history bowl shy dog accident forgive strain dirt consume

Note that the phrase is composed of 12 seemingly random words. One could use an easy-to-remember sentence rather than 12 words.

Regardless of whether you record your passphrase on paper or memorize it, the idea is to use a passphrase that’s easy to recall and type, yet difficult to crack.

Don’t let this happen to you:

“Just lost 4 BTC out of a hacked brain wallet. The pass phrase was a line from an obscure poem in Afrikaans. Somebody out there has a really comprehensive dictionary attack program running.”

Reddit Thread (http://redd.it/1ptuf3)

Unfortunately, this user lost their bitcoin because they chose a published line from a poem. Make sure that you choose a passphrase that is composed of multiple components of non-published text.

Sadly, although warned, some users may resort to simple phrases that are easy to crack. Simple passwords such as 123456, password1, and iloveyou are still commonly used with e-mails, and login accounts are routinely cracked.

Do not use simple passwords for your brainwallet passphrase. Make sure that you use at least 12 words with additional characters and numbers.

Using the preceding paraphrase, we can generate our private key and public address using the many tools available online.

We’ll use an online service called BitAddress to generate the actual brainwallet from the passphrase.

Simply open www.bitaddress.org in your browser. At first, BitAddress will ask you to move your mouse cursor around to collect enough random points to generate a seed for generating random numbers. This process could take a minute or two.

Once opened, select the option Brain Wallet from the top menu. In the form presented, enter the passphrase and then enter it again to confirm. Click on View to see your private key and public address. For the example shown in figure 3.6, we’ll use the preceding passphrase example:

Figure 3.6 – BitAddress’s brainwallet feature

From the page, you can easily copy and paste the public address and use it for receiving Bitcoin.

Later, when you’re ready to spend the coins, enter the same exact passphrase to generate the same private key and public address. Referring to our Coinbase example from earlier in the article, we can then import the private key into our wallet.

Increasing brainwallet Security

As an early attempt to give people a way to “memorize” their Bitcoin wallet, brainwallets have become a target for hackers. Some users have chosen phrases or sentences from common books as their brainwallet. Unfortunately, the hackers who had access to large amounts of computing power were able to search for these phrases and were able to crack some brainwallets.

To improve the security of brainwallets, other methods have been developed which make brainwallets more secure. One service, called brainwallet.io, executes a time-intensive cryptographic function over the brainwallet phrase to create a seed that is very difficult to crack.

It’s important to know that the phase phrases used with BitAddress are not compatible with brainwallet.io.

To use brainwallet.io to generate a more secure brainwallet, open http://brainwallet.io:

Figure 3.7 – brainwallet.io, a more secure brainwallet generator

Brainwallet.io needs a sufficient amount of entropy to generate a private key which is difficult to reproduce. Entropy, in computer science, can describe data in terms of its predictability. When data has high entropy, it could mean that it’s difficult to reproduce from known sources. When generating private keys, it’s very important to use data that has high entropy.

For generating brainwallet keys, we need data with high entropy, yet it should be easy for us to duplicate. To meet this requirement, brainwallet.io accepts your random passphrase, or can generate one from a list of random words. Additionally, it can use data from a file of your choice. Either way, the more entropy given, the stronger your passphrase will be. If you specify a passphrase, choosing at least 12 words is recommended.

Next, brainwallet.io prompts you for salt, available in several forms: login info, personal info, or generic. Salts are used to add additional entropy to the generation of your private key. Their purpose is to prevent standard dictionary attacks against your passphrase. While using brainwallet.io, this information is never sent to the server.

When ready, click the generate button, and the page will begin computing a scrypt function over your passphrase. Scrypt is a cryptographic function that requires computing time to execute. Due to the time required for each pass, it makes brute force attacks very difficult. brainwallet.io makes many thousands of passes to ensure that a strong seed is generated for the private key.

Once finished, your new private key and public address, along with their QR codes, will be displayed for easy printing.

As an alternative, WarpWallet is also available at https://keybase.io/warp. WarpWallet also computes a private key based on many thousands of scrypt passes over a passphrase and salt combination.

Remember that brainwallet.io passphrases are not compatible with WarpWallet passphrases.

Deterministic wallets

We have introduced brainwallets that yield one private key and public address. They are designed for one time use and are practical for holding a fixed amount of bitcoin for a period of time.

Yet, if we’re making lots of transactions, it would be convenient to have the ability to generate unlimited public addresses so that we can use them to receive bitcoin from different transactions or to generate change addresses.

A Type 1 Deterministic Wallet is a simple wallet schema based on a passphrase with an index appended. By incrementing the index, an unlimited number of addresses can be created. Each new address is indexed so that its private key can be quickly retrieved.

Creating a deterministic wallet

To create a deterministic wallet, simply choose a strong passphrase, as previously described, and then append a number to represent an individual private key and public address.

It’s practical to do this with a spreadsheet so that you can keep a list of public addresses on file. Then, when you want to spend the bitcoin, you simply regenerate the private key using the index. Let’s walk through an example.

First, we choose the passphrase:

"dress retreat save scratch decide simple army piece scent ocean hand become"

Then, we append an index, sequential number, to the passphrase:

"dress retreat save scratch decide simple army piece scent ocean hand become0"
"dress retreat save scratch decide simple army piece scent ocean hand become1"
"dress retreat save scratch decide simple army piece scent ocean hand become2"
"dress retreat save scratch decide simple army piece scent ocean hand become3"
"dress retreat save scratch decide simple army piece scent ocean hand become4"

Then, we take each passphrase, with the corresponding index, and run it through brainwallet.io, or any other brainwallet service, to generate the public address. Using a table or a spreadsheet, we can pre-generate a list of public addresses to receive bitcoin. Additionally, we can add a balance column to help track our money:


Public Address

















 Table 3 – Using a spreadsheet to track deterministic wallet addresses

Spending from a deterministic wallet

When we have money available in our wallet to spend, we can simply regenerate the private key for the index matching the public address.

For example, let’s say we have received 2BTC on the address starting with 1KdRGN in the preceding table. Since we know it belongs to index #2, we can reopen the brainwallet from the passphrase:

"dress retreat save scratch decide simple army piece scent ocean hand become2"

Using brainwallet.io as our brainwallet service, we quickly regenerate the original private key and public address:

Figure 3.8 – Private key re-generated from a deterministic wallet

Finally, we import the private key into our Bitcoin wallet, as described earlier in the article. If we don’t want to keep the change in our online wallet, we can simply send the change back to the next available public address in our deterministic wallet.

Pre-generating public addresses with deterministic wallets can be useful in many situations. Perhaps you want to do business with a partner and want to receive 12 payments over the course of one year. You can simply regenerate the 12 addresses and keep track of each payment using a spreadsheet.

Another example could apply to an e-commerce site. If you’d like to receive payment for the goods or services being sold, you can pre-generate a long list of addresses. Only storing the public addresses on your website protects you from malicious attack on your web server.

While Type 1 deterministic wallets are very useful, we’ll introduce a more advanced version called the Type 2 Hierarchical Deterministic Wallet next.

Type 2 Hierarchical Deterministic wallets

Type 2 Hierarchical Deterministic (HD) wallets function similarly to Type 1 deterministic wallets, as they are able to generate an unlimited amount of private keys from a single passphrase, but they offer more advanced features. HD wallets are used by desktop, mobile, and hardware wallets as a way of securing an unlimited number of keys by a single passphrase.

HD wallets are secured by a root seed. The root seed, generated from entropy, can be a number up to 64 bytes long. To make the root seed easier to save and recover, a phrase consisting of a list of mnemonic code words is rendered. The following is an example of a root seed:


To render the mnemonic code words, the root seed number plus its checksum is combined and then divided into groups of 11 bits. Each group of bits represents an index between 0 and 2047. The index is then mapped to a list of 2,048 words. For each group of bits, one word is listed, as shown in the following example, which generates the following phrase:

essence forehead possess embarrass giggle spirit further understand fade appreciate angel suffocate

BIP-0039 details the specifications for creating mnemonic code words to generate a deterministic key, and is available at https://en.bitcoin.it/wiki/BIP_0039.

In the HD wallet, the root seed is used to generate a master private key and a master chain code. The master private key is used to generate a master public key, as with normal Bitcoin private keys and public keys.

These keys are then used to generate additional children keys in a tree-like structure. Figure 3.9 illustrates the process of creating the master keys and chain code from a root seed:

Figure 3.9 – Generating an HD Wallet’s root seed, code words, and master keys

Using a child key derivation function, children keys can be generated from the master or parent keys. An index is then combined with the keys and the chain code to generate and organize parent/child relationships. From each parent, two billion children keys can be created, and from each child’s private key, the public key and public address can be created.

In addition to generating a private key and a public address, each child can be used as a parent to generate its own list of child keys. This allows the organization of the derived keys in a tree-like structure. Hierarchically, an unlimited amount of keys can be created in this way.

Figure 3.10 – The relationship between master seed, parent/child chains, and public addresses

HD wallets are very practical as thousands of keys and public addresses can be managed by one seed. The entire tree of keys can be backed up and restored simply by the passphrase.

HD wallets can be organized and shared in various useful ways. For example, in a company or organization, a parent key and chain code could be issued to generate a list of keys for each department. Each department would then have the ability to render its own set of private/public keys.

Alternatively, a public parent key can be given to generate child public keys, but not the private keys. This can be useful in the example of an audit. The organization may want the auditor to perform a balance sheet on a set of public keys, but without access to the private keys for spending.

Another use case for generating public keys from a parent public key is for e-commerce. As an example mentioned previously, you may have a website and would like to generate an unlimited amount of public addresses. By generating a public parent key for the website, the shopping card can create new public addresses in real time.

HD wallets are very useful for Bitcoin wallet applications. Next, we’ll look at a software package called Electrum for setting up an HD wallet to protect your bitcoins.

Installing a HD wallet

HD wallets are very convenient and practical. To show how we can manage an unlimited number of addresses by a single passphrase, we’ll install an HD wallet software package called Electrum.

Electrum is an easy-to-use desktop wallet that runs on Windows, OS/X, and Linux. It implements a secure HD wallet that is protected by a 12-word passphrase. It is able to synchronize with the blockchain, using servers that index all the Bitcoin transactions, to provide quick updates to your balances.

Electrum has some nice features to help protect your bitcoins. It supports multi-signature transactions, that is transactions that require more than one key to spend coins. Multi-signature transactions are useful when you want to share the responsibility of a Bitcoin address between two or more parties, or to add an extra layer of protection to your Bitcoins.

Additionally, Electrum has the ability to create a watching-only version of your wallet. This allows you to give access to your public keys to another party without releasing the private keys. This can be very useful for auditing or accounting purposes.

To install Electrum, simply open the url https://electrum.org/#download and follow the instructions for your operating system. On first installation, Electrum will create for you a new wallet identified by a passphrase. Make sure that you protect this passphrase offline!

Figure 3.11 – Recording the passphrase from an Electrum wallet

Electrum will proceed by asking you to re-enter the passphrase to confirm you have it recorded. Finally, it will ask you for a password. This password is used to encrypt your wallet’s seed and any private keys imported into your wallet on-disk. You will need this password any time you send bitcoins from your account.

Bitcoins in cold storage

If you are responsible for a large amount of bitcoin which can be exposed to online hacking or hardware failure, it is important to minimize your risk. A common schema for minimizing the risk is to split your online wallet between Hot wallet and Cold Storage.

A hot wallet refers to your online wallet used for everyday deposits and withdrawals. Based on your customers’ needs, you can store the minimum needed to cover the daily business. For example, Coinbase claims to hold approximately five percent of the total bitcoins on deposit in their hot wallet. The remaining amount is stored in cold storage.

Cold storage is an offline wallet for bitcoin. Addresses are generated, typically from a deterministic wallet, with their passphrase and private keys stored offline. Periodically, depending on their day-to-day needs, bitcoins are transferred to and from the cold storage.

Additionally, bitcoins may be moved to Deep cold storage. These bitcoins are generally more difficult to retrieve. While cold storage transfer may easily be done to cover the needs of the hot wallet, a deep cold storage schema may involve physically accessing the passphrase / private keys from a safe, a safety deposit box, or a bank vault. The reasoning is to slow down the access as much as possible.

Cold storage with Electrum

We can use Electrum to create a hot wallet and a cold storage wallet. To exemplify, let’s imagine a business owner who wants to accept bitcoin from his PC cash register. For security reasons, he may want to allow access to the generation of new addresses to receive Bitcoin, but not access to spending them. Spending bitcoins from this wallet will be secured by a protected computer.

To start, create a normal Electrum wallet on the protected computer. Secure the passphrase and assign a strong password to the wallet. Then, from the menu, select Wallet | Master Public Keys. The key will be displayed as shown in figure 3.12. Copy this number and save it to a USB key.

Figure 3.12 – Your Electrum wallet’s public master key

Your master public key can be used to generate new public keys, but without access to the private keys. As mentioned in the previous examples, this has many practical uses, as in our example with the cash register.

Next, from your cash register, install Electrum. On setup, or from File | New/Restore, choose Restore a wallet or import keys and the Standard wallet type:

Figure 3.13 – Setting up a cash register wallet with Electrum

On the next screen, Electrum will prompt you to enter your public master key. Once accepted, Electrum will generate your wallet from the public master key. When ready, your new wallet will be ready to accept bitcoin without access to the private keys.


If you import private keys into your Electrum wallet, they cannot be restored from your passphrase or public master key. They have not been generated by the root seed and exist independently in the wallet.

If you import private keys, make sure to back up the wallet file after every import.

Verifying access to a private key

When working with public addresses, it may be important to prove that you have access to a private key. By using Bitcoin’s cryptographic ability to sign a message, you can verify that you have access to the key without revealing it. This can be offered as proof from a trustee that they control the keys.

Using Electrum’s built-in message signing feature, we can use the private key in our wallet to sign a message. The message, combined with the digital signature and public address, can later be used to verify that it was signed with the original private key.

To begin, choose an address from your wallet. In Electrum, your addresses can be found under the Addresses tab. Next, right click on an address and choose Sign/verify Message. A dialog box allowing you to sign a message will appear:

Figure 3.14 – Electrum’s Sign/Verify Message features

As shown in figure 3.14, you can enter any message you like and sign it with the private key of the address shown. This process will produce a digital signature that can be shared with others to prove that you have access to the private key.

To verify the signature on another computer, simply open Electrum and choose Tools | Sign | Verify Message from the menu. You will be prompted with the same dialog as shown in figure 3.14. Copy and paste the message, the address, and the digital signature, and click Verify. The results will be displayed.

By requesting a signed message from someone, you can verify that they do, in fact, have control of the private key. This is useful for making sure that the trustee of a cold storage wallet has access to the private keys without releasing or sharing them.

Another good  use of message signing is to prove that someone has control of some quantity of bitcoin. By signing a message that includes the public address with funds, one can see that the party is the owner of the funds.

Finally, signing and verifying a message can be useful for testing your backups. You can test that your private key and public address completely offline without actually sending bitcoin to the address.

Good housekeeping with Bitcoin

To ensure the safe-keeping of your bitcoin, it’s important to protect your private keys by following a short list of best practices:

  • Never store your private keys unencrypted on your hard drive or in the cloud: Unencrypted wallets can easily be stolen by hackers, viruses, or malware. Make sure your keys are always encrypted before being saved to disk.
  • Never send money to a Bitcoin address without a backup of the private keys: It’s really important that you have a backup of your private key before sending money its public address. There are stories of early adopters who have lost significant amounts of bitcoin because of hardware failures or inadvertent mistakes.
  • Always test your backup process by repeating the recovery steps: When setting up a backup plan, make sure to test your plan by backing up your keys, sending a small amount to the address, and recovering the amount from the backup. Message signing and verification is also a useful way to test your private key backups offline.
  • Ensure that you have a secure location for your paper wallets: Unauthorized access to your paper wallets can result in the loss of your bitcoin. Make sure that you keep your wallets in a secure safe, in a bank safety deposit box, or in a vault. It’s advisable to keep copies of your wallets in multiple locations.
  • Keep multiple copies of your paper wallets: Paper can easily be damaged by water or direct sunlight. Make sure that you keep multiple copies of your paper wallets in plastic bags, protected from direct light with a cover.
  • Consider writing a testament or will for your Bitcoin wallets: The testament should name who has access to the bitcoin and how they will be distributed. Make sure that you include instructions on how to recover the coins.
  • Never forget your wallet’s password or passphrase: This sounds obvious, but it must be emphasized. There is no way to recover a lost password or passphrase.
  • Always use a strong passphrase: A strong passphrase should meet the following requirements:
    • It should be long and difficult to guess
    • It should not be from a famous publication: literature, holy books, and so on
    • It should not contain personal information
    • It should be easy to remember and type accurately
    • It should not be reused between sites and applications


So far, we’ve covered the basics of how to get started with Bitcoin. We’ve provided a tutorial for setting up an online wallet and for how to buy Bitcoin in 15 minutes. We’ve covered online exchanges and marketplaces, and how to safely store and protect your bitcoin.

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