It’s understandable to have questions about the legality of using Bitcoin. The platform introduced a brand new paradigm away from the traditional regulators and regulations that govern fiat currency. Unlike illegal, counterfeit money, which is a blatant example of a “currency” that misrepresents itself as legal tender, Bitcoin is entirely different. Nevertheless, it operates in a seemingly gray area when it comes to regulation. However, many of these concerns boil down to misunderstandings or a lack of concrete rules that govern Bitcoin, rather than overt violations of the law.
The question surrounding the relationship between Bitcoin and the law really depends on how the digital currency is being used.
Ever since the now-defunct Silk Road gained notoriety, regulators have been concerned about Bitcoin’s semi-anonymity and decentralized nature. In the U.S., as well as in other countries, authorities fear that the platform could be used for money laundering and the purchase of illicit goods without being traced.
Not helping Bitcoin’s reputation with authorities was its prevalence as a payment service for the Silk Road, a digital marketplace where users could purchase illegal goods. Whether or not people use Bitcoin as a way to participate in expressly illegal activities doesn’t make the digital currency itself illegal. The illegality of the activity is the issue, whether it’s paid for in bitcoin, cash or gold. However, even when bitcoin is used for legitimate purposes, rules are a little more complex.
According to the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, as of 2013, using bitcoin to purchase well-natured goods and services is not illegal. However, those who mine bitcoins and trade them for traditional currency or operate exchanges on which bitcoins are bought and sold are labeled “money transmitters” and could be subject to special laws that govern that type of activity. To date, those laws have rarely, if ever, been enforced to crackdown against bitcoin use.
When it comes to taxation, the IRS views bitcoin and other virtual currencies as property for federal tax purposes, similar to stocks and bonds, and federal tax law dictates that purchasers and/or sellers must treat it as such.
In other places around the world, the legality of Bitcoin is viewed differently, but for the most part it remains relatively safe to use as long as it is not tied to illicit purchases or activities. Many countries have issued statements indicating that bitcoin and other digital currencies are not regulated and do not exist as officially sanctioned currencies: a status that could put users at risk but would not have them violating any laws. Bitcoin is outright illegal in some countries, such as Iceland.
Depending on where and how you utilize bitcoin, it is important to remain up-to-date on the latest regulations concerning the digital currency. As laws change across borders, governing bodies and, increasingly, as the platform gains popularity, questions about bitcoin’s legality will continue to be raised.