Coinbase review: still just for newbies? Or has it evolved into something better?
Coinbase has earned its staggering popularity through constant innovation, a growing list of coins, stability, security, and the most intuitive design in the business. Confounding fees and limited support are bummers, but aren’t enough to ruin the overall excellent experience.
- Crypto beginners
- Long-term investors
- Casual trading
Popularity is a funny, fickle metric.
Sometimes, things are popular because they’ve earned it. Five Guys, Adele, and Steven Spielberg all come to mind.
But sometimes, things are popular… just because they’re popular. There’s very little quality underpinning their popularity – just consumer awareness paired with market omnipresence.
I won’t point fingers, but I bet you can think of at least one restaurant, car, or celebrity that makes you wonder why the heck is _____ so popular? Don’t their fans know that there are much better options out there?
That brings me to Coinbase – easily the most popular online crypto marketplace. With 73 million verified users, Coinbase has a bigger population than the entire United Kingdom – and that’s before counting its 185,000 “ecosystem partners.”
Coinbase is unquestionably popular, and the global media coverage surrounding its 2021 IPO certainly blasted its brand awareness into the stratosphere.
But is Coinbase’s ongoing popularity earned? Is Coinbase truly an excellent, well-rounded crypto platform deserving of praise and patronage? Or is it overhyped?
In short, is Coinbase the Steven Spielberg of crypto exchanges? Or the M. Night Shyamalan?
To find out, let’s take a deep dive into the founding of Coinbase and how it stacks up today in terms of fees and features.
What is Coinbase?
Coinbase, at its core, is a cryptocurrency exchange platform. It’s a U.S.-based site and app where you can easily buy, sell, and trade Bitcoin and 100+ other cryptos.
Now, there are dozens of crypto exchanges out there these days (and surely more on the way), but Coinbase is objectively special. Not only was it one of the first, but Coinbase itself played an instrumental role in the growth and widespread acceptance of cryptocurrency.
Crypto and Coinbase grew up together
Coinbase was conceived when two avant-garde crypto evangelists met on Reddit.
“When Brian Armstrong and I started Coinbase in 2012, a bitcoin was worth $6 and only known by a few nerds on the internet” Fred Tweeted.
Despite crypto’s almost comical level of obscurity at the time, the two men still saw limitless potential. Everyone on Earth having their own digital currency? There’s gotta be a future in that.
The challenge, of course, would be to make it easy for the common person to convert fiat (aka government-issue) currency into crypto. That’s where Coinbase found its first guiding principle: to make crypto easy to use.
Following a successful pitch to Y Combinator, Coinbase secured its first round of funding and the two founders started work coding out the platform. At the time, they shared a two-bedroom apartment with another company.
Fun fact: Coinbase’s first hire, a recent grad from Vassar College named Olaf Carlson-Wee, was paid his entire $50,000 annual salary in Bitcoin. Back then, 1 BTC traded at roughly $13, so his first-year earnings are now worth north of $200 million.
Coinbase rapidly grew to 1,000 employees and 250,000 users by 2014 – a meteoric growth curve by any measure, but its founders never lost sight of their initial mission: to bring crypto to the masses.
To get there, the founders took a top-down approach. They began reaching out to and educating the likes of Dell, Expedia, Time, Stripe, and PayPal on the power and security of crypto, and their strategy worked. As these industry titans began dabbling in crypto, some even accepting it as a form of payment, crypto awareness and appreciation spread like wildfire.
Despite the world’s rising acceptance (or, at least awareness) of crypto, Coinbase’s ongoing survival was still hard-fought. After all, the company’s very foundations were built upon the ever-fluctuating price of Bitcoin, which is like operating a tattoo parlor on a fault line.
Case in point, when Bitcoin’s price collapsed over 80% from 2017 to 2018, over a third of Coinbase’s employees left.
But the faithful soldiered on, and in 2021, their efforts were beyond validated when Coinbase went public.
Coinbase went public in 2021 – and that’s a big honkin’ deal
Going public on the stock exchange is how we knight companies in this country. Not only do they have to be successful and well-liked; these companies must undergo the most intense regulatory scrutiny the SEC can muster and pass with flying colors.
So for a crypto exchange to go public is nothing short of monumental.
You see, Coinbase has had a rocky history with regulators. In 2016 the IRS more or less accused them of sheltering tax-dodgers (yep, crypto gains are taxable), and kicked the figurative doors down demanding over 500,000 user records. Rather boldly, Coinbase pushed back and only gave them 11,000.
It happened again right around the time of the IPO when the SEC began sending threatening letters to Coinbase to cancel their Lend program, which would’ve let users lend and borrow crypto for interest. In this case, Coinbase eventually bowed out and canceled the program’s development in September 2021.
So for the SEC to bless the Coinbase IPO during their messy relationship is nothing short of astounding. It’s also tremendously validating for the global crypto community, who waited with bated breath to see whether U.S. regulators would finally legitimize – or strangle – crypto’s future in the world’s biggest economy.
In short, Coinbase and crypto are inextricably linked. They grew up together and shared each other’s victories and losses. Therefore, when you support Coinbase, you support the concept of crypto as a whole.
How does Coinbase work?
In stark contrast to the company’s checkered history, Coinbase’s “how-to” is utterly simple and straightforward.
To start, you’ll head to Coinbase.com.
Right away you’ll notice that Coinbase is pretty generous with free crypto, and this won’t be the last time you’ll get some during this review!
If you know your crypto history, you’ll notice that the sample email in the “Sign Up” field is a nod to Bitcoin’s mysterious founder, Satoshi Nakamoto.
Read more: Who Founded Bitcoin, And Why?
Anyways, signing up for Coinbase isn’t rocket science. You’ll enter your name, email, verify your email, yada yada.
Soon, things get a little more nitty-gritty. In order for Coinbase to play ball with regulators and prepare your tax documents for you, you’ll need to submit your photo ID, SSN, and bank account information.
Curiously, Coinbase isn’t interested in your credit card info. That’s because most banks won’t let you buy crypto with a credit card, so you’ll be buying via debit only.
Once Coinbase verifies your info and ID (should take less than 24 hours, if not instant), you’ll be brought to your main dashboard.
Time to buy some crypto!
Click “Trade” in the left-hand menu and Coinbase will proudly display all of its “wares” before you. Here’s where you can browse all 100+ cryptos available to buy, sell, and exchange:
To buy some, simply click the “Buy” window and enter an amount in USD:
Once you click “Preview Buy”, Coinbase will break down what you’re buying, minus their fee.
Two things to like here:
- Coinbase doesn’t charge a fee on top of your buy amount – it bakes it into the price. Basically, it says “OK, you have a $100 budget for crypto this month, here’s how much BTC you can buy including our fees.”
- Every few seconds, Coinbase will automatically update the amount of BTC you’re buying based on the absolute latest market rate (remember, crypto is crazy volatile).
Once you start purchasing crypto, your new home base will be the Coinbase dashboard. Here, you can monitor your total portfolio value over time, see the value of individual holdings, and hop to other pages – all from one crisp, clean UI.
That’s all there really is to it! Including the time it takes for Coinbase to verify your ID, you can start building a crypto portfolio through Coinbase in a matter of minutes – and with no surprises or confusing steps.
Coinbase has had 10 years to refine their crypto-buying workflow, and it shows.
How much does Coinbase cost?
Registering an account with Coinbase is better than free since you’ll get $5 in free bitcoin for doing so.
Now, its regular transaction and spread fees are another story. In short, Coinbase’s fees are both high and hard to understand and are certainly one of the platform’s weakest features. But, for the robust features it does offer, some of these fees can be forgiven.Disclaimer: Personalized $5 reward offer is displayed after account creation. Limited time offer and while supplies last. Offer available to new users who have not previously verified their identification. Offer not available to new users who were referred to Coinbase through the Referral Program or who have previously opened an account using different contact information. Coinbase may update the conditions for eligibility at any time, in its sole discretion. See Terms and Conditions.
Coinbase charges two fees: one in plain sight and one entirely hidden.
The flat fee is based on the amount of crypto you’re purchasing, and scales unevenly based on the amount:
Trade amount Fee
Less than $10.00 $0.99
Between $10.01 and $25.00 $1.49
Between $25.01 and $50 $1.99
Between $50.01 and $200 $2.99
More than $200.01 $3.50 or more
As you can see, your flat fee on a trade could be anywhere from 1% to an eye-watering 50% on a single trade – and only reveals itself on the “Preview Buy” screen.
The spread fee, fee #2, is calculated in the background and automatically extracted out of the crypto you’re buying. It’s usually around 0.5%, and covers the risk that the price of an asset will rise during transaction processing.
Now, unlike the flat fee, Coinbase “hides” the spread fee in the price of the crypto. In the example below, it says the price of 1 BTC is $43,405.10.
To be clear, $43,405.10 is not the current market value of 1 BTC; it’s the price to buy 1 BTC on Coinbase.
Price = market value minus spread fee
Most crypto traders don’t have an issue with spread fees. They do, however, find issues with Coinbase’s lack of transparency surrounding them.
Basically, Coinbase’s answer to “what are your fees” is: “you know, some.”
The platform is frustratingly vague about their withdrawal fees, too. According to them, it’s 1% plus “standard network fees.” They go on to explain how network fees are impossible to predict, but come on.
I had to dig through Reddit to come up with an anecdotal average: roughly 3%.
Features of Coinbase
Buy, sell, and trade crypto
Coinbase’s bread and butter is the ability to buy, sell, and trade crypto. It’s all summarized pretty well in the crisp and simple “Buy” screen:
You’ve got “Sell” and “Convert” in the tabs at the top, a payment option at the bottom, and a calming blue “Preview Buy” button below.
Now, there was a time when Coinbase caught flak for having such a stingy menu of cryptos – only around a dozen or so, while competitors were offering 50+. Such a limited menu reinforced the reputation that Coinbase was just for noobs, and serious investors would quickly outgrow it.
But now that Coinbase offers over 100 cryptos, there’s much more room for investors to grow into.
Learn and earn
Remember earlier when I promised you’d earn more free crypto? To snag it while it lasts, head to Coinbase’s sweet “Learn and earn” page, accessible from the left-hand menu:
As the name implies, “Learn and earn” is where you can score free crypto just for learning about crypto.
Specifically, you’ll be watching short videos and taking quizzes on new cryptos like Fetch.ai and scoring a trickle of the crypto you just learned about as a reward:
Although Learn and earn isn’t super expansive (yet), it’s absolutely worth any new Coinbase user’s time. It’s also just a great place to learn about how and why new cryptos are created!
A separate resource from “Learn and earn”, Coinbase Learn is the platform’s vast and generous learning library.
You won’t get paid to consume these learning materials, but they’re worth your time nonetheless. Here, you’ll find concise, well-written articles on crypto 101 and related topics like decentralized finance, how to report crypto on your taxes, and more.
Coinbase Learn is a monument to how much Coinbase cares about crypto knowledge and awareness. Not many other exchanges have an extensive free library like this.
Coinbase, like other crypto exchanges, will let you buy, sell, and exchange cryptocurrencies. But if you want to store your crypto outside of Coinbase, you’ll need a digital wallet.
Thankfully, Coinbase offers one of those as well. You can think of it like your bank selling you a safe; it’s no longer in the bank, but it’s still secure – and you can withdraw from it more quickly and easily.
Coinbase Wallet currently holds 3.7 and 4.6 stars on the Play Store and App Store, respectively, with users lauding its usability but deducting points for its confusing/slow withdrawal process. Overall, however, it seems like a solid option.
Coinbase Pro is Coinbase’s “elite” dashboard for experienced, high-volume traders.
Unlike on some other exchanges, there’s no toggle on vanilla Coinbase to switch to Coinbase Pro. Parent company Coinbase Global seems to treat the two like completely separate platforms, and even gave Pro a completely separate fee structure.
But unless you’re already an active crypto day trader, you’ll be perfectly happy sticking with the simple, basic Coinbase. Pro deserves its own review, but I thought it at least deserved a mention here.
Earn interest on certain cryptos
Traditionally, one of the inherent drawbacks of a crypto investment has been the lack of passive income.
- Real estate generates rent.
- Certain stocks pay dividends.
- Crypto… just sits there until you sell it.
That’s all about to change soon with the rise of staking and lending, and Coinbase is offering you an early taste via a handful of interest-bearing cryptos:
Interest-bearing crypto is a rather interesting phenomenon since single-digit interest rates are typically associated with super conservative investments: savings accounts, index funds, etc.
But hey, if you’d like passive income from your ultra-high risk crypto investment, Coinbase can deliver!
Paid referral program
Coinbase’s generous referral bonus is worth a brief mention: if someone uses your referral code to buy at least $100 worth of crypto on Coinbase, you’ll both get $10 in free BTC.
Lastly, if you’re looking to give the gift of crypto, Coinbase can facilitate. Simply click “Send a gift” on the bottom of the left-hand menu, enter a recipient email address and a personal note, and your crypto is on its way.
Heck, Coinbase will even let you send a cute e-card with it, including the famous NFT Bored Ape:
The ability to “gift” someone crypto is actually a pretty neat feature. Remember: you typically need a wallet address to send crypto, so for Coinbase to require only an email address is pretty slick.
My personal take on Coinbase
I’ve never hesitated to recommend Coinbase to crypto newbies. In the oft-intimidating world of cryptocurrency investing, Coinbase offered the safest staging area.
For lack of a better phrase, I always felt that crypto beginners would be “taken care of” at Coinbase. Other, more complex crypto exchanges had a more exclusive vibe – like they demanded a certain level of crypto literacy just to register and start trading. Coinbase taught its users that initial level of crypto literacy, and I always admired it for that.
However, I soon noticed that about half of the folks I recommended to Coinbase quickly outgrew the platform and moved on. The fees were too high, the selection of cryptos was too low, and the simplified dashboard started to feel restrictive.
It’s as if they were abandoning their first sensei for holding them back.
But Coinbase has come a long way in the past couple of years, increasing their menu of available cryptos by 500%, improving security, expanding Coinbase Learn, and layering in more detailed analytics. It’s a much more robust platform than it used to be, and it’s significantly more future-proof than it was.
What this means for you and me is that Coinbase won’t become the Facebook of crypto – a titan past its prime, hemorrhaging users due to a lack of innovation.
Instead, I think Coinbase is moving in the right direction. It’s growing and adding new features while still keeping things simple (and staying in the regulators’ good graces).
All in all, I now feel more confident recommending Coinbase to a wider user base – newbies, but also long-term HODLers, casual investors, and pretty much anyone who’s not a day trader or seeking a social experience.
Who should use Coinbase?
Coinbase continues to be the single best crypto platform for beginners. Sure, its fees are a little high – but it’s worth it for the clean interface, intuitive design, and long-term stability of a publicly-traded company.
Plus, who else pays new users to learn about crypto?
Long term HODLers
On a similar note, Coinbase’s simplicity and stability make it a great platform for buying and holding crypto for the long haul. Low-frequency buyers will be the least affected by Coinbase’s high fees, and its clean interface makes it easy to quickly check your portfolio over morning coffee.
Who shouldn’t use Coinbase?
Although Coinbase’s menu has been greatly expanded to over 100 cryptos, advanced traders may still be turned off by the platform’s lack of nitty-gritty analytics and high fees.
This is especially true for big-ticket investors, since Coinbase’s high spread fees can eat hundreds of dollars out of a five-figure buy.
On the other end of the spectrum, anyone buying tiny amounts of crypto at a time ($10 or less) may want to steer clear of Coinbase, also. I hate turning micro-investors away from such a beginner-friendly platform, but Coinbase’s flat fees can absorb up to 50% of a tiny buy. The platform is really best suited for individual buys of between $200 and $1,000.
Pros & cons
- Superb interface — Coinbase has the cleanest and most intuitive crypto-buying experience in the industry (confusing fees notwithstanding).
- Over 100 cryptos to buy — In terms of menu size, Coinbase has gone full Cheesecake Factory with over 100 cryptos available for purchase.
- Beaucoup ways to earn free crypto — You’ll earn free crypto for signing up, referring others, setting up recurring buys, and even for taking micro-lessons about crypto.
- Safety and stability — Unlike some shady, foreign exchanges with mystery leadership, Coinbase is a publicly-traded, U.S.-based company that will likely be around for a long time.
- Extensive learning library — Coinbase has been teaching everyone from end-users to Fortune 500 executives about crypto since 2012, and you can read their best 101 materials for free at Coinbase Learn.
- High and confusing fees — For a platform dedicated to simplicity and transparency, Coinbase’s fees are both too high and too confounding. Even if their bottom line fees don’t change, the system needs to be much less opaque.
- Limited analytics — Coinbase’s analytics are getting much better, with live updates, trading activity, and price correlations listed, but other platforms go deeper.
- Limited customer support — In a somewhat silly farce, Coinbase claims you can contact them “in several ways” then lists email support tickets as the only option.
Coinbase vs. the competition
How does Coinbase stack up against its closest competitors?
Coinbase eToro BlockFi
Cryptos available for trade 140+ 27 13
Fees Up to $3.99 flat fee plus ~0.50% spread fee per trade 0.75% - 4.50% spread fee per trade No transaction fees
Special features Earn free crypto for learning, Coinbase Learn Automatically copy trades by seasoned investors using CopyTrader™ Earn up to 3.5% back in bitcoin on every purchase with the BlockFi Rewards Visa® Signature Credit Card
If you log into eToro from the U.S., you’ll only be getting a watered-down, regulatory-compliant version of eToro global. But despite its “lite” status, it’s absolutely worth checking out.
As an exchange, eToro shares more DNA with Instagram than with Robinhood. You can “follow” other traders, post on their walls, and even monitor their trading activity. Best of all, you can set your portfolio to automatically copy their trades using the neat CopyTrader™ feature.
Remember when we talked about the emergence of interest-bearing crypto investments? Well, BlockFi’s pièce de résistance is the BlockFi Interest Account (BIA).
Far surpassing the pithy 0.50% interest rates of a traditional savings account, a BIA can reach up to 9.5% APY. Rates accrue daily, pay monthly, and aren’t subject to many of the traditional “gotcha” fees of interest-bearing accounts.BlockFi Interest Account (BIA) Disclosure - BlockFI Interest Account (BIA) are no longer offered to new clients who are U.S. Persons or persons located in the United States. Existing clients that are U.S. persons or located in the United States will be unable to transfer new assets to their BIAs. “ The BIAs have not been registered under the Securities Act of 1933 and may not be offered or sold in the United States, to U.S. persons, for the account or benefit of a U.S. person or in any jurisdiction in which such offer would be prohibited.
Coinbase is the Steven Spielberg of crypto exchanges. Through passion, experience, and consistent dedication to its craft, Coinbase has earned both its IPO and ongoing popularity.
Are there areas for improvement? Sure. The platform’s confounding fee structure and lack of live support could be addressed. But even without them, it’s a rock-solid exchange where all but the most seasoned, demanding traders can flourish.
Featured image: Nadezda Murmakova/Shutterstock.com