- Bitcoin (BTC)
Market cap: $706.2 billion
Year-over-year return: 113%
Roughly 14 years after its creation, bitcoin is still by far the most popular and valuable cryptocurrency in the world. Bitcoin was created by a mysterious person or group of people using the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, and its blockchain-based, decentralized transaction verification and public ledger system revolutionized how people think about digital security.
While bitcoin’s decentralization and transparency make it appealing to investors and users, critics have raised concerns about its energy-intensive proof-of-work consensus mechanism and pointed out difficulties in scaling the network. In addition, there are now several large-scale crypto projects that have higher transaction speeds than bitcoin and others that have blockchains with special designs to improve bitcoin’s functionality.
- Ethereum (ETH)
Market cap: $242.3 billion
Year-over-year return: 58%
Ethereum was one of the first altcoins, or alternatives to bitcoin. Ethereum was launched in July 2015 and is the most valuable crypto other than bitcoin. Ethereum’s blockchain was the first to introduce smart contracts, code that runs decentralized applications, or dApps. The ethereum blockchain is home to more than 1,400 applications and developer tools, and ether is the native cryptocurrency of the ethereum network. In 2023, ethereum completed its transition from a proof-of-work consensus mechanism to a much less energy-intensive proof-of-stake transaction verification system. Ethereum is now a greener investment than bitcoin, but its blockchain functionality is its key differentiator.
- Binance Coin (BNB)
Market cap: $38.5 billion
Year-over-year return: -9%
BNB is the cryptocurrency issued by Binance, one of the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchanges. BNB was originally created as a utility token built on the ethereum network that users could use to access discounted trading fees on the Binance exchange. But the token has since transitioned to Binance’s own blockchain. BNB can now be used for a wide range of transactions, applications and other use cases. Unfortunately, Binance’s U.S. market share tumbled in 2023 after the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission sued the exchange and accused the company of violating securities laws.
- XRP (XRP)
Market cap: $34.2 billion
Year-over-year return: 64%
XRP, created by Ripple, is a global payments network designed to be an alternative to the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications. SWIFT is the global system banks and other financial institutions use to transfer money. But Ripple claims its technology is faster, cheaper and more transparent than the SWIFT system. XRP is the native cryptocurrency designed for the Ripple network and XRP Ledger blockchain. XRP got a huge boost in July when a judge in the Southern District of New York ruled that the crypto is “not necessarily a security” in certain circumstances, potentially putting it outside the SEC’s jurisdiction.
- Solana (SOL)
Market cap: $26.3 billion
Year-over-year return: 320%
Solana was launched in March 2020. Like ethereum, its network supports dApps, smart contracts and non-fungible tokens. But solana’s unique, hybrid proof-of-stake and proof-of-history verification system makes it faster and cheaper than ethereum. Unfortunately, the solana network has been plagued by outages since its launch, undermining its credibility within the crypto world. The solana network was down for nearly 20 hours in February 2023. Fortunately for investors, solana’s price got a big boost from the XRP court ruling, and its triple-digit gain in 2023 makes it the best-performing crypto on this list.
- Cardano (ADA)
Market cap: $13.1 billion
Year-over-year return: 8%
Cardano is a decentralized proof-of-stake blockchain launched in September 2017 to be a more efficient system than bitcoin, ethereum or other proof-of-work blockchains available at the time. Cardano immediately had credibility among crypto enthusiasts because ethereum co-founder Charles Hoskinson founded it. Like ethereum, Cardano is focused on functionality and aims to be the platform of choice for dApp development and verifiable smart contracts. ADA is the primary cryptocurrency used on the network to facilitate transactions and run dApps. Cardano users can also use ADA for staking to help verify the network’s transactions and earn additional tokens.
- Dogecoin (DOGE)
Market cap: $10.6 billion
Year-over-year return: -15%
Dogecoin was created in 2013 as a parody of bitcoin, but the cryptocurrency has become a legitimate investment to many crypto traders because of its simplicity, its high-profile supporters and the online appeal of its shiba inu mascot. Dogecoin investor and Tesla CEO Elon Musk has repeatedly triggered volatility in dogecoin’s share price by mentioning or referencing the crypto. Musk is being sued by a group of dogecoin investors who allege he illegally manipulated its price. Billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban is also a dogecoin supporter and has praised the crypto for its potential as a medium of exchange.
- TRON (TRX)
Market cap: $9.3 billion
Year-over-year return: 103%
Tron is a cryptocurrency project launched in August 2017 with the long-term goal of using blockchain technology and dApps to decentralize the internet. The network has more than 177 million accounts and hosts the largest circulating supply of stablecoins. Tron’s network uses a delegated proof-of-stake verification system, and its native cryptocurrency is TRX.
TRX was originally an ethereum-based token but transitioned to its own blockchain in 2018. Tron specializes in decentralized entertainment, such as gaming and gambling applications, allowing content creators to sell directly to consumers. In March 2023, the SEC charged Tron founder Justin Sun with fraud and other securities law violations.
- Polygon (MATIC)
Market cap: $8.5 billion
Year-over-year return: -4%
Polygon is a platform that was launched in 2017 to connect and grow ethereum-compatible blockchains and related projects. Polygon was created to help the ethereum network’s scalability problems by handling transactions on a unique, ethereum-compatible blockchain. The Polygon network uses a modified proof-of-stake consensus mechanism to verify transactions. MATIC is the project’s native cryptocurrency and is used to secure and govern the network. Network users receive MATIC as a reward for staking their holdings to help validate transactions, and users also use MATIC to pay network transaction fees.
- Chainlink (LINK)
Market cap: $8.3 billion
Year-over-year return: 126%
Released in April 2021, LINK is a decentralized system of nodes that connects an on-chain smart contract to data and information from outside a blockchain. For those new to crypto lingo, smart contracts function similarly to paper contracts. That’s except for the fact that these digital contracts set up protocols on a blockchain. And one of the functions that Chainlink boasts is performing custom computations with different data and accessing many APIs.
*Market caps and pricing sourced from coinmarketcap.com, current as of 9:07 a.m. UTC on Nov. 15, 2023.
What is cryptocurrency?
Cryptocurrencies are typically decentralized and secured via large computer networks. Unlike the U.S. dollar and other fiat currencies backed by federal governments and central banks, cryptocurrencies function on their own based solely on their programming code. Transactions are verified and recorded on a transparent public ledger utilizing blockchain technology.
Cryptocurrencies are essentially private digital currencies. Investors and enthusiasts see crypto as an alternative means of completing transactions, a potential hedge against inflation, a store of value during periods of macroeconomic instability and a means of circumventing the traditional financial industry. Bitcoin and leading cryptocurrencies allow any internet user worldwide to complete financial transactions quickly and easily without relying on a bank or another financial intermediary.
How to buy cryptocurrency
Cryptocurrencies trade on exchanges, just like stocks and exchange-traded funds. However, not all brokers allow cryptocurrency trading, particularly in cryptos other than bitcoin and ethereum. The first step in buying cryptocurrency is identifying a broker or exchange offering crypto trading. Popular crypto brokers include Robinhood and SoFi. Leading cryptocurrency exchanges include Coinbase and Binance.
Once you’ve found a crypto broker or exchange, create and verify a trading account. You may be required to submit a copy of your photo ID, bank statement or other documents to confirm your identity.
When your account is open, you can deposit cash and buy your favorite cryptocurrency using its unique three- or four-letter ticker symbol, just like a stock. Some traders also store their crypto using a digital wallet to increase security.
Frequently asked questions (FAQs)
What are the top cryptocurrencies by market cap?
The top cryptocurrencies by market cap are bitcoin and ethereum, which have long been entrenched as the No. 1 and No. 2 cryptocurrencies. After that, a collection of cryptocurrencies jostle for position, although the third biggest is stablecoin tether (USDT).