There are 17.3 million bitcoins in circulation right now. Only 21 million bitcoins will ever exist which means there are just 3.7 million bitcoins left to be created, or “mined”. However, the question of how many bitcoins are there is much more complicated. Millions have been lost or stolen, making it difficult to pinpoint how many bitcoins are left.
21 million: maximum number of bitcoins that will ever exist
17.3 million: number of bitcoins currently in circulation
3.7 million: number of bitcoins left to be “mined.”
4 Million Bitcoins Are Lost Forever
Theoretically, 17 million bitcoins are out there already, but almost a quarter are gone forever. In the early days of bitcoin, millions were accidentally lost. They were forgotten on hard drives or lost on paper wallets. One man threw away 7,500 bitcoins on an old hard-drive. (People were much less careful about storing cryptocurrencies when they were only worth a few cents each).
It’s estimated that up to 3.79 million bitcoins are gone forever (almost a quarter of those currently in circulation). That’s $23.9 billion worth based on today’s price.
5 Million Bitcoins Are Held by a Handful of “Whale” Investors
Then there are the enormous hoards of bitcoin stashed away by early investors. According to Chainalysis, five million bitcoins belong to just 1,600 wealthy people. They’re known as “whales” because they own enough bitcoin to make a splash on the market when they buy or sell.
Among these whales, we know that Bitcoin’s founder, Satoshi Nakamoto is estimated to have nearly 1 million bitcoins in his digital wallet. And the Winklevoss twins own 1% of all bitcoin in circulation.
So if we take into account 4 million “lost” bitcoins and 5 million “whale” bitcoins, that only leaves about 8 million bitcoins left on the open market.
1 Million Bitcoins Are Stolen
But wait, what about stolen bitcoins? 850,000 bitcoins were stolen in the infamous Mt. Gox hack and at least 150,000 were taken in 2016 from the Bitfinex exchange. Many thousands more have been stolen in smaller heists.
While these coins are not lost, they are probably held by thieves and not circulating on the open market.
That leaves around 7 million available bitcoins. To put that into perspective, there aren’t enough freely available bitcoins for each person in New York.
Only 21 Million Bitcoins Will Ever Exist
One of the key features of bitcoin is that only 21 million can ever exist. This number is hard-coded into the system. We are scheduled to hit this hard-cap in the year 2140.
How does it work?
In simple terms, bitcoin is created by a process called “mining.” Without getting too technical, miners are responsible for processing transactions. They are rewarded with bitcoins for doing so.
Miners produce a “block” of transactions every 10 minutes. In return, they get 12.5 bitcoins.
This is how bitcoins enter circulation.
1,800 Bitcoins Are Created Every Day (For Now…)
If a block takes 10 minutes to process and miners get 12.5 BTC per block, that means 1,800 bitcoins enter circulation every day.
However, that number is set to get smaller and smaller over the next century due to a process called “halving.”
Bitcoin Creation Is Halved Every Four Years
When bitcoin was first created, miners were rewarded 50 bitcoins (BTC) for every block,
That reward is halved roughly every four years (after every 210,000 blocks mined).
It was first halved in 2012 (to 25 BTC) and then again in 2016 (to 12.5 BTC).
In other words, the supply of bitcoins will become increasingly limited.
After 64 halvings, we’ll hit the 21 million BTC cap. At this point, no more bitcoins will be created.
81% of Bitcoins Already Exist
Because of the halving system, the vast majority of bitcoins have already been created.
There are only 3.7 million bitcoins left to be mined, but it will take over 100 years to get create them.
What Happens When All Bitcoins Are Mined?
When we hit the 21 million cap, miners will no longer be rewarded directly for processing the blocks. Instead, they’ll be paid a transaction fee for each block they process.
In other words, miners will still receive a payment or incentive to maintain the blockchain.
How Does Bitcoin Supply Compare to Ethereum and Ripple (XRP)?
While the bitcoin supply is capped at 21 million, ethereum has no cap. There are already more than 100 million ethereum tokens in circulation. Having said, ether supply is capped at 18 million per year.
Ripple XRP, the third largest cryptocurrency, does have a hard cap of 100 billion, but they already exist. Every XRP token was created at once at inception, so they aren’t mined like bitcoin.
Conclusion: Bitcoin Supply Is Incredibly Limited
Bitcoin is scarce. Only 21 million will ever exist – a considerably smaller number than rival coins. Not only that, but millions are already lost, stolen, or hodled away by early investors.
Couple that with an ever-diminishing supply and there is simply not that much bitcoin left on the open market.