Bitcoin Private Key: An Easy-To-Understand Overview

Delton Rhodes
Delton Rhodes

Bitcoin Private Key: An Easy-To-Understand Overview
Table of Contents
Table of Contents

A Bitcoin private key is a vast number kept confidential and utilized for BTC transactions. This article delves into what a Bitcoin private key is and how it facilitates access to funds. Additionally, the piece highlights the distinctions between Bitcoin private key formats like hexadecimal, wallet import format (WIF), and compressed wallet import format (compressed WIF).

What is a Bitcoin Private Key?

In the introduction, we mentioned that a Bitcoin private key is essentially a 256-bit number. A 'bit' is a binary digit, which can only be a 0 or a 1, and is the smallest unit of data computers recognize. Thus, a Bitcoin private key can be represented by a string of 256 ones and zeros.

So, if a Bitcoin private key is just a 256-bit number, then can a private key be expressed in a 256-character string of ones and zeros? Indeed, it can. Here’s an example:


This is a bitcoin private key displayed in binary format. You might think of generating a bitcoin private key by flipping a coin 256 times, with heads being 0 and tails being 1, or vice versa. However, relying on coin flips is not recommended. Humans often fail to generate true randomness due to various factors like imperfect coin tosses or coin physical flaws.

For optimal security, utilize software or tools designed to create a bitcoin private key with high entropy. It's paramount to keep your bitcoin private key confidential. Be cautious of online lists of exposed bitcoin private keys, as their linked public addresses are compromised, making it rare to find bitcoin private keys with untouched funds.

While binary is one representation, bitcoin private keys have other formats. One is the decimal format. For example, the number “thirteen million” in decimal is 13,000,000. Using a converter, the bitcoin private key in binary can be translated to its decimal equivalent.


As you can see, the bitcoin private key is derived from an incredibly large number. In simple terms, this vast number underpins the security of Bitcoin. The bitcoin private key makes it exceedingly challenging to reverse-engineer from a Bitcoin address. key generation lets you create a randomized public key associated with its own private key.

Bitcoin Private Key Security

Bitcoin private keys are akin to bank accounts, but instead of a typical password, they're secured with immensely large numbers. If someone were to guess your Bitcoin private key correctly, they could access your BTC and potentially misappropriate your funds. But due to the sheer magnitude of these numbers, such an occurrence is almost impossible. To visualize: if every human tried guessing your Bitcoin private key 1 billion times daily for 100 years, the likelihood of success is roughly 1 in 3,512,469,265,893,923,428,170,004. Ponder that.

Now, you might ask about public keys and addresses, given they're public knowledge. Could they lead someone to your Bitcoin private key? The answer is no. It's nearly as improbable as someone randomly guessing your Bitcoin private key. The Bitcoin system ensures this with two security layers: Elliptic Curve Cryptography (ECC) and cryptographic hash functions

Part I: Elliptic Curve Cryptography

Bitcoin uses Elliptic Curve Cryptography, specifically the secp256k1 version of the Elliptic Curve Digital Signature Algorithm (ECDSA). The underlying math is intricate, but to grasp its significance, you don't need the specifics. It's how the ECDSA ensures the Bitcoin private key remains confidential.

As mentioned, a Bitcoin private key is a substantial numeric value. Multiplying this number with a preset "generator point" on the secp256k1 elliptic curve gives a corresponding public key. Each Bitcoin private key equates to one public key.

In simple terms, a public key is a curve point (y^2 == x^3+7). It consists of an x and y coordinate, combined (with a minor prefix for format).

Two main advantages are evident. Firstly, sharing the public key doesn't compromise the safety of the Bitcoin private key. Secondly, this Bitcoin private key can create digital signatures, allowing the network to verify its authenticity without exposing the Bitcoin private key. It's the foundation of most transactions.

Experts suggest that quantum computers might threaten ECDSA in the future. Hence, for enhanced security and a more user-friendly experience, we usually transact using addresses instead of public keys, providing another encryption layer to the public key. Let's delve deeper into the distinction between an address and a public key.

Part II: Cryptographic Hash Functions

Cryptographic hash functions generate a digital fingerprint of data. These functions possess crucial properties which make them invaluable.

Firstly, they are irreversible. An input produces an output, but deciphering the original input from the output using the bitcoin private key or otherwise is impossible.

Secondly, regardless of the input size, the output is a fixed-length, seemingly random string. An input of ten words or ten thousand words both yield a 64-character output.

Thirdly, consistent inputs yield consistent outputs. Using the same data with the same hash function repeatedly will always provide identical results.

Fourthly, the chance of two different inputs generating identical outputs is negligibly small. If such a case arises, the hash function is deemed compromised.

Moreover, it's essential for these functions to operate rapidly. Thus, with a secret input, verifying its corresponding output, or the hash, against a publicly-known hash is straightforward.

For enhanced security, Bitcoin addresses are preferred over public keys. When a public key undergoes two rounds of hashing, first with SHA-256 and then with RIPEMD-160, it produces what's called a "pubkey hash." As hash functions are non-reversible, having someone's pubkey hash lets you transact with them, but their bitcoin private key remains undisclosed.

To formulate an address from the pubkey hash, it's prefixed with a version byte (typically 0x00 for Bitcoin). This string is then hashed using SHA-256. The initial four bytes of this hash are attached to the end of the RIPEMD-160 hash, and the entire sequence is converted into a base58 encoded string, forming the address.

Such addresses invariably start with "1", "3", or "bc1", distinguishing them from both public keys and bitcoin private keys.

Think of an address as a means to safeguard a public key, even though public keys can be public. The bitcoin private key must be concealed. Using addresses not only adds an extra security layer but is also more user-friendly than public keys.

Cryptographic hash functions
Cryptographic hash functions are the foundation of blockchain security.

How Does A Bitcoin Private Key Work?

Let's examine how a Bitcoin private key is utilized in a transaction. Imagine Alice desires a latte from Bob's Coffee Shop priced at 0.0005 BTC. Her funds are safely stored in her wallet. To finalize her purchase, she shares her public key and a digital signature from her Bitcoin private key. Think of digital signatures as a one-time code for every transaction, proving Bitcoin private key ownership without revealing it. In this scenario, only Alice, knowing her Bitcoin private key, can generate this signature. Starting with 1 BTC, Alice generates a signature for the latte's 0.0005 BTC. This is then validated by the network, transferring the funds to Bob's Coffee Shop. The remaining 0.9995 BTC is untouchable to others. If Alice or anyone attempts reusing the signature, it's denied. Every transaction demands a distinct digital signature from the Bitcoin private key." Formats

As discussed, there are multiple formats in which the same private key can be expressed. The two formats we covered in the beginning of the article— binary and decimal— are almost never used. They are useful for generating a Bitcoin private key but most wallet applications use other formats. In particular, wallets typically use hexadecimal, wallet import format (WIF), and/or compressed wallet import format (compressed WIF).

Let’s take a look at these three most common private key formats.


Hexadecimal is a notation used in the bitcoin private key system, utilizing the numerical digits 0—9 and the letters A—F. This makes a bitcoin private key in hexadecimal format more readable. A bitcoin private key in binary or decimal can easily be transformed to hexadecimal. Here's that same bitcoin private key in binary and decimal mentioned earlier, now in hexadecimal.


WIF And Compressed WIF

The wallet import format (WIF) and its compressed version are the primary formats for a Bitcoin private key. They offer two significant advantages. Firstly, their shorter length minimizes copy/paste mistakes. Secondly, they utilize the base58Check code, enhancing error detection. From a user perspective, this makes Bitcoin private key management in the WIF format quite favorable. A Bitcoin private key in the base58Check encoded WIF starts with "5". In the compressed version, it starts with "K" or "L".

It's essential to clarify that the term "compressed WIF" doesn't imply compression of the Bitcoin private key itself, as these keys are neither compressed nor uncompressed. Interestingly, the "compressed WIF" is one byte longer than WIF. Its name stems from its function: directing software to derive a compressed public key. Conversely, the "uncompressed WIF" signals software to fetch an uncompressed public key.

Both versions of the Bitcoin private key, WIF and its compressed form, can interchange. This means one can derive either a compressed or uncompressed public key from both. Though, an initial conversion step might be needed.

With specific tools, conversion among different Bitcoin private key formats becomes straightforward. For example, using a given address in hexadecimal format, one might obtain specific results.

WIF Private Key:


Compressed WIF Private Key:

Bitcoin QR Codes
Creating QR codes for your public key and private key is widely supported by wallet providers.

More Bitcoin Private Key Formats

While the Wallet Import Format (WIF) and its compressed version dominate as standard formats for Bitcoin private keys, the cryptocurrency ecosystem witnesses a rise in alternative formats. These newer formats aim to address various user needs, improve security, and enhance usability. As the Bitcoin community continues to grow and diversify, understanding these emerging formats becomes crucial for every participant.

Mini Private Key

Like WIF, mini private keys utilize Base58Check encoding, which helps minimize typos and copy/paste mistakes. An important distinction is that mini private keys are generated from scratch; you can't reduce a standard-sized Bitcoin private key to its mini version. However, the conversion from a mini private key to a standard one is feasible. These mini versions are notably concise, often just 30 characters long, always commencing with an "S" for easy identification.


Bitcoin Improvement Protocol 38 (BIP38)

Bitcoin Improvement Protocol 38 (BIP38) offers a method to encrypt a bitcoin private key using a lengthy passphrase made up of recognizable words. This encryption allows for the safe sharing of the bitcoin private key with another party. Without both the bitcoin private key and the accurate passphrase, one cannot access the wallet's balance.

For instance, the address and the encrypted bitcoin private key can be imprinted on a tangible bitcoin, whereas the passphrase is kept separately or remembered. Even if someone knows the bitcoin private key, the assets remain safeguarded.

To clarify, using BIP38 means the holder needs the encrypted bitcoin private key and another passphrase to utilize a BTC wallet and transact. BIP38 can be seen as a kind of two-step verification where the user sets a unique, repeatable password. Like conventional passwords, it's wise to pick a passphrase hard for others to deduce.

A BIP38 bitcoin private key always starts with “6P” and appears in a certain format.


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