There are two kinds of Bitcoin wallets: those that provide access to private keys and those that don’t. If you don’t know much about private keys, you might not see them as important because you seldom, if ever, encounter them in the wild. But we promise you that once you learn more about the purpose of this integral component of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, you won’t want to use a Bitcoin wallet without private key access ever again.
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What Is a Private Key?
A private key is a 256-bit number, commonly represented in hexadecimal. This is how a Bitcoin private key looks like:
Private keys play an essential role in asymmetrical cryptography, a cryptographic system that uses public keys, which may be disseminated widely, and private keys, which are known only to the owner. In the case of Bitcoin, your Bitcoin address is actually your public key. This is the address corresponding to the private key above:
Bitcoin addresses are derived from private keys using sophisticated cryptographic functions, but it’s impossible to reverse engineer them to reach the corresponding keys. And because private keys are 256 bits long, they contain 2256 different possible combinations of numbers, or approximately a 1 followed by 77 zeroes. Even with quantum computers of the future, it would take an unfeasibly large amount of resources to crack the 256-bit ECDSA (Elliptic Curve Digital Signature Algorithm) cryptographic algorithm, which Bitcoin uses to ensure that funds can only be spent by their rightful owners.
The problem is that cybercriminals don’t even bother cracking private keys—they simply attack the wallets that store them.
Most online cryptocurrency exchanges that provide wallet functionality do not give their users access to their private keys. This has several far-reaching consequences:
- Your coins are only as secure as the exchange itself.
- You can’t restore your coins if something happens with the exchange (remember Mt. Gox?).
- You can’t claim all the future forked coins unless the exchange decides that you can.
If you have access to your private keys, you can restore your entire wallet in no time and transfer all funds from it to another wallet without even entering any password.
Of course, if cybercriminals get their hands on your private keys, they can, and will, do the same, which is why you should go to great lengths to keep your private keys secure and in your control.
Listed below are 5 best Bitcoin desktop wallets in 2018 with private key access and many other excellent features to boot. With these wallets, you get the ease-of-use of an online wallet but with the added benefit of direct access to your private keys.
So many desktop wallets for Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are created by software engineers for technically-minded people. If you’ve ever used a piece of software that puts features first and the user second, you know how counterintuitive such software can be.
The Exodus wallet wraps solid engineering inside beautiful design, creating a feature-packed Bitcoin wallet for people from all walks of life. The creators of Exodus have designed a brand-new set of icons and used it to deliver a user experience that puts traditional Bitcoin wallets to shame.
Exodus supports multiple cryptocurrencies and is the first desktop multi-asset wallet with ShapeShift support, allowing you to instantly exchange cryptocurrencies with a click of the mouse. As you expand your cryptocurrency portfolio, Exodus automatically generates live charts for you, giving you a convenient overview of your assets.
To use Exodus, you simply download the latest release from the official website and install it as you would any other software. Exodus won’t ever ask you to create a user account or submit any personal information, and your private keys will always be visible only to you. For obvious reasons, Exodus is closed source software, but we believe that you shouldn’t let it stop you from enjoying it because it has been in development since 2015, and there has never been any reason to doubt the intentions of its developers.
Electrum is a popular multi-platform and multisig Bitcoin wallet with support for various hardware wallets, such as the Ledger Nano S, and third-party plugins. Electrum’s main claim to fame is its fast speed, which has been achieved using servers that index the Bitcoin blockchain.
With Electrum, you are always in total control of your private keys, and you can export them anytime you want. Should you ever look access to your private keys, Electrum allows you to recover your funds with a secret phrase. Because Electrum servers are fully decentralized and redundant, the wallet is never down or slow to respond.
We appreciate the fact that Electrum is available for Linux, Windows, macOS, and Android, and we also commend the developers for developing Electrum as open source software and publishing its source code on GitHub.
While Exodus is definitely more user-friendly than Electrum, its closed source nature may understandably put off those who believe that Bitcoin wallets should be open source, and Electrum is a great alternative with all of the most important features of Exodus, except for Shapeshift integration.
Developed by BitPay, a global Bitcoin payment service provider headquartered in the United States, Copay is a secure, open source, and multisig Bitcoin wallet with support for all popular operating systems and several advanced security features that should appeal to seasoned Bitcoin veterans and newcomers alike.
One huge advantage of Copay is its ability to store multiple Bitcoin wallets in one app. Thanks to Copay’s support for hierarchical-deterministic (HD) wallets, you can create new Bitcoin wallets just as easily on your mobile device as you can on your computer.
If you believe in Bitcoin as an alternative payment method, you’ll be happy to learn that Copay is one of the first bitcoin wallets to support the full Bitcoin Payment Protocol (BIP 0070-0073), securely verifying that your payment will go to the right place when you send money to a Payment Protocol-enabled merchant.
Copay explains in detail how its users can obtain their private keys on this support page. Essentially, you can either paste your BIP39 passphrase here, or use this handy online tool to decrypt your xPrivKey, which is your master private key.
Launched in 2011, Blockchain.info is a Bitcoin cryptocurrency wallet and block explorer service that provides data on recent transactions, mined blocks in the Bitcoin blockchain, and other useful and interesting information.
Back in 2014, Blockchain.info reached one million wallets, and it’s now on its way to 30 million, making it the most popular Bitcoin wallet out there. The tremendous popularity of this service can be attributed to, at least in part, to its commitment to users’ privacy and security. Even though Blockchain.info is a web-based Bitcoin wallet, it provides access to private keys. As such, users enjoy total control over their funds, but they can rest assured knowing their wallet is protected by several layers of redundancy and security.
Thanks to the excellent mobile app, Blockchain.info wallets are accessible from everywhere and from all mobile devices running iOS or Android. The app features advanced two-factor authentication and PIN protection, it supports instant exchanges between Bitcoin and Ether, and it can generate QR codes for receiving payments with a click of a button.
The Ledger Nano S is a hardware wallet with support for all BIP39/BIP44 cryptocurrencies, including Bitcoin and Ether. It connects to any computer via USB and provides very robust protection against malware that targets Bitcoin wallets, and also against physical attacks.
The Ledger Nano S isolates all sensitive operations within a state-of-the-art Secure Element that is further locked by a PIN code. A small but very readable OLED display shows transaction details for verification with a single tap on the side buttons of the Ledger Nano S. The requirement for physical input from the user makes it impossible for malware to steal funds from the wallet, and it also serves as an additional layer of protection against common user errors.
Many cryptocurrency wallets, including several of those listed on this list, are compatible with the Ledger Nano S, and Ledger Nano S users can even build their own applications using the FIDO Universal Second Factor authentication standard.