Bitcoin has not only been just a trendsetter, ushering in a wave of cryptocurrencies built on a decentralized peer-to-peer network, but also has become the de facto standard for cryptocurrencies, inspiring an ever-growing legion of followers and spinoffs.

Key Takeaways

  • A cryptocurrency, broadly defined, is currency that takes the form of tokens or “coins” and exists on a distributed and decentralized ledger.
  • Beyond that, the field of cryptocurrencies has expanded dramatically since Bitcoin was launched over a decade ago, and the next great digital token may be released tomorrow.
  • Bitcoin continues to lead the pack of cryptocurrencies in terms of market capitalization, user base, and popularity.
  • Other virtual currencies such as Ethereum are being used to create decentralized financial systems for those without access to traditional financial products.
  • Some altcoins are being endorsed as they have newer features than Bitcoin, such as the ability to handle more transactions per second or use different consensus algorithms like proof-of-stake.

What Are Cryptocurrencies?

Before we take a closer look at some of these alternatives to Bitcoin, let’s step back and briefly examine what we mean by terms like cryptocurrency and altcoin. A cryptocurrency, broadly defined, is virtual or digital money that takes the form of tokens or “coins.” While some cryptocurrencies have ventured into the physical world with credit cards or other projects, the large majority remain entirely intangible.

The “crypto” in cryptocurrencies refers to complicated cryptography that allows for the creation and processing of digital currencies and their transactions across decentralized systems. Alongside this important “crypto” feature of these currencies is a common commitment to decentralization; cryptocurrencies are typically developed as code by teams who build in mechanisms for issuance (often, although not always, through a process called “mining”) and other controls.

Cryptocurrencies are almost always designed to be free from government manipulation and control, although as they have grown more popular, this foundational aspect of the industry has come under fire. The currencies modeled after Bitcoin are collectively called altcoins, and in some cases “shitcoins,” and have often tried to present themselves as modified or improved versions of Bitcoin. While some of these currencies may have some impressive features that Bitcoin does not, matching the level of security that Bitcoin’s networks achieve largely has yet to be seen by an altcoin.

Below, we’ll examine some of the most important digital currencies other than Bitcoin. First, though, a caveat: It is impossible for a list like this to be entirely comprehensive. One reason for this is the fact that there are more than 4,000 cryptocurrencies in existence as of January 2021. While many of these cryptos have little to no following or trading volume, some enjoy immense popularity among dedicated communities of backers and investors.

Beyond that, the field of cryptocurrencies is always expanding, and the next great digital token may be released tomorrow. While Bitcoin is widely seen as a pioneer in the world of cryptocurrencies, analysts adopt many approaches for evaluating tokens other than BTC. It’s common, for instance, for analysts to attribute a great deal of importance to ranking coins relative to one another in terms of market capitalization. We’ve factored this into our consideration, but there are other reasons why a digital token may be included in the list as well.

1. Ethereum (ETH)

The first Bitcoin alternative on our list, Ethereum is a decentralized software platform that enables smart contracts and decentralized applications (dapps) to be built and run without any downtime, fraud, control, or interference from a third party. The goal behind Ethereum is to create a decentralized suite of financial products that anyone in the world can freely access, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, or faith. This aspect makes the implications for those in some countries more compelling, as those without state infrastructure and state identifications can get access to bank accounts, loans, insurance, or a variety of other financial products. 

The applications on Ethereum are run on ether, its platform-specific cryptographic token. Ether is like a vehicle for moving around on the Ethereum platform and is sought mostly by developers looking to develop and run applications inside Ethereum, or now, by investors looking to make purchases of other digital currencies using ether. Ether, launched in 2015, is currently the second-largest digital currency by market capitalization after Bitcoin, although it lags behind the dominant cryptocurrency by a significant margin. As of January 2021, ether’s market cap is roughly 19% of Bitcoin’s size.

In 2014, Ethereum launched a presale for ether, which received an overwhelming response; this helped to usher in the age of the initial coin offering (ICO). According to Ethereum, it can be used to “codify, decentralize, secure and trade just about anything.” Following the attack on the decentralized autonomous organization (DAO) in 2016, Ethereum was split into Ethereum (ETH) and Ethereum Classic (ETC). As of January 2021, Ethereum (ETH) has a market capitalization of $138.3 billion and a per-token value of $1,218.59.

In 2021, Ethereum plans to change its consensus algorithm from proof-of-work to proof-of-stake. This move will allow Ethereum’s network to run itself with far less energy and improved transaction speed. Proof-of-stake allows network participants to “stake” their ether to the network. This process helps to secure the network and process the transactions that occur. Those who do this are rewarded ether, similar to an interest account. This is an alternative to Bitcoin’s proof-of-work mechanism, where miners are rewarded more Bitcoin for processing transactions.

2. Litecoin (LTC)

Litecoin, launched in 2011, was among the first cryptocurrencies to follow in the footsteps of Bitcoin and has often been referred to as “silver to Bitcoin’s gold.” It was created by Charlie Lee, an MIT graduate and former Google engineer.

Litecoin is based on an open-source global payment network that is not controlled by any central authority and uses “scrypt” as a proof of work, which can be decoded with the help of consumer-grade CPUs. Although Litecoin is like Bitcoin in many ways, it has a faster block generation rate and hence offers a faster transaction confirmation time. Other than developers, there are a growing number of merchants that accept Litecoin. As of January 2021, Litecoin has a market capitalization of $10.1 billion and a per-token value of $153.88, making it the sixth-largest cryptocurrency in the world.

3. Cardano (ADA)

Cardano is an “Ouroboros proof-of-stake” cryptocurrency that was created with a research-based approach by engineers, mathematicians, and cryptography experts. The project was cofounded by Charles Hoskinson, one of the five initial founding members of Ethereum. After having some disagreements with the direction Ethereum was taking, he left and later helped to create Cardano.

The team behind Cardano created its blockchain through extensive experimentation and peer-reviewed research. The researchers behind the project have written over 90 papers on blockchain technology across a range of topics. This research is the backbone of Cardano.

Due to this rigorous process, Cardano seems to stand out among its proof-of-stake peers as well as other large cryptocurrencies. Cardano has also been dubbed the “Ethereum killer,” as its blockchain is said to be capable of more. That said, Cardano is still in its early stages. While it has beaten Ethereum to the proof-of-stake consensus model, it still has a long way to go in terms of decentralized financial applications. 

Cardano aims to be the world’s financial operating system by establishing decentralized financial products similar to Ethereum as well as providing solutions for chain interoperability, voter fraud, and legal contract tracing, among other things. As of January 2021, Cardano has a market capitalization of $9.8 billion and one ADA trades for $0.31.

4. Polkadot (DOT)

Polkadot is a unique proof-of-stake cryptocurrency that is aimed at delivering interoperability among other blockchains. Its protocol is designed to connect permissioned and permission-less blockchains, as well as oracles, to allow systems to work together under one roof.

Polkadot’s core component is its relay chain that allows the interoperability of varying networks. It also allows for “parachains,” or parallel blockchains with their own native tokens for specific-use cases. 

Where Polkadot differs from Ethereum is that rather than creating just decentralized applications on Polkadot, developers can create their own blockchain while also using the security that Polkadot’s chain already has. With Ethereum, developers can create new blockchains but need to create their own security measures, which can leave new and smaller projects open to attack, as the larger a blockchain, the more security it has. This concept in Polkadot is known as shared security. 

Polkadot was created by Gavin Wood, another member of the core founders of the Ethereum project who had differing opinions on the project’s future. As of January 2021, Polkadot has a market capitalization of $11.2 billion and one DOT trades for $12.54.

5. Bitcoin Cash (BCH)

Bitcoin Cash (BCH) holds an important place in the history of altcoins because it is one of the earliest and most successful hard forks of the original Bitcoin. In the cryptocurrency world, a fork takes place as the result of debates and arguments between developers and miners. Due to the decentralized nature of digital currencies, wholesale changes to the code underlying the token or coin at hand must be made due to general consensus; the mechanism for this process varies according to the particular cryptocurrency.

When different factions can’t agree, sometimes the digital currency is split, with the original chain remaining true to its original code and the new chain beginning life as a new version of the prior coin, complete with changes to its code. 

BCH began its life in August 2017 as a result of one of these splits. The debate that led to the creation of BCH had to do with the issue of scalability; the Bitcoin network has a limit on the size of blocks: one megabyte (MB). BCH increases the block size from one MB to eight MBs, with the idea being that larger blocks can hold more transactions within them, and the transaction speed would therefore be increased. It also makes other changes, including the removal of the Segregated Witness protocol that impacts block space. As of January 2021, BCH has a market capitalization of $8.9 billion and a value per token of $513.45.

6. Stellar (XLM)

Stellar is an open blockchain network designed to provide enterprise solutions by connecting financial institutions for the purpose of large transactions. Huge transactions between banks and investment firms—typically taking several days, involving a number of intermediaries, and costing a good deal of money—can now be done nearly instantaneously with no intermediaries and cost little to nothing for those making the transaction.

While Stellar has positioned itself as an enterprise blockchain for institutional transactions, it is still an open blockchain that can be used by anyone. The system allows for cross-border transactions among any currencies. Stellar’s native currency is Lumens (XLM). The network requires users to hold Lumens to be able to transact on the network.

Stellar was founded by Jed McCaleb, a founding member of Ripple Labs and developer of the Ripple protocol. He eventually left his role with Ripple and went on to cofound the Stellar Development Foundation. Stellar Lumens have a market capitalization of $6.1 billion and are valued at $0.27 as of January 2021.

7. Chainlink

Chainlink is a decentralized oracle network that bridges the gap between smart contracts, like the ones on Ethereum, and data outside of it. Blockchains themselves do not have the ability to connect to outside applications in a trusted manner. Chainlink’s decentralized oracles allow smart contracts to communicate with outside data so that the contracts can be executed based on data that Ethereum itself cannot connect to. 

Chainlink’s blog details a number of use cases for its system. One of the many use cases that are explained would be to monitor water supplies for pollution or illegal syphoning going on in certain cities. Sensors could be set up to monitor corporate consumption, water tables, and the levels of local bodies of water. A Chainlink oracle could track this data and feed it directly into a smart contract. The smart contract could be set up to execute fines, release flood warnings to cities, or invoice companies using too much of a city’s water with the incoming data from the oracle. 

Chainlink was developed by Sergey Nazarov along with Steve Ellis. As of January 2021, Chainlink’s market capitalization is $8.6 billion and one LINK is valued at $21.53.

8. Binance Coin (BNB)

Binance Coin is a utility cryptocurrency that operates as a payment method for the fees associated with trading on the Binance Exchange. Those who use the token as a means of payment for the exchange can trade at a discount. Binance Coin’s blockchain is also the platform that Binance’s decentralized exchange operates on. The Binance exchange was founded by Changpeng Zhao and is one of the most widely used exchanges in the world based on trading volumes.  

Binance Coin was initially an ERC-20 token that operated on the Ethereum blockchain. It eventually had its own mainnet launch. The network uses a proof-of-stake consensus model. As of January 2021, Binance has a $6.8 billion market capitalization with one BNB having a value of $44.26.

9. Tether (USDT)

Tether was one of the first and most popular of a group of so-called stablecoins, cryptocurrencies that aim to peg their market value to a currency or other external reference point to reduce volatility. Because most digital currencies, even major ones like Bitcoin, have experienced frequent periods of dramatic volatility, Tether and other stablecoins attempt to smooth out price fluctuations to attract users who may otherwise be cautious. Tether’s price is tied directly to the price of the U.S. dollar. The system allows users to more easily make transfers from other cryptocurrencies back to U.S. dollars in a more timely manner than actually converting to normal currency. 

Launched in 2014, Tether describes itself as “a blockchain-enabled platform designed to facilitate the use of fiat currencies in a digital manner.” Effectively, this cryptocurrency allows individuals to utilize a blockchain network and related technologies to transact in traditional currencies while minimizing the volatility and complexity often associated with digital currencies. As of January 2021, Tether is the third-largest cryptocurrency by market capitalization, with a total market cap of $24.4 billion and a per-token value of $1.

10. Monero (XMR)

Monero is a secure, private, and untraceable currency. This open-source cryptocurrency was launched in April 2014 and soon garnered great interest among the cryptography community and enthusiasts. The development of this cryptocurrency is completely donation-based and community-driven. Monero has been launched with a strong focus on decentralization and scalability, and it enables complete privacy by using a special technique called “ring signatures.”

With this technique, a group of cryptographic signatures appears, including at least one real participant, but the real one cannot be isolated since they all appear valid. Because of exceptional security mechanisms like this, Monero has developed something of an unsavory reputation—it has been linked to criminal operations around the world. While this is a prime candidate for making criminal transactions anonymously, the privacy inherent in Monero is also helpful to dissidents of oppressive regimes around the world. As of January 2021, Monero has a market capitalization of $2.8 billion and a per-token value of $158.37.