Bitcoin taxes: Understanding the rules and how to report cryptocurrency on your return

Bitcoin taxes: Understanding the rules and how to report cryptocurrency on your return
Although used as a currency, Bitcoin is taxed like an investment, and you might be liable for any profits made when you sell or spend it.R.Tsubin/Getty Images
  • The IRS considers Bitcoin to be property rather than money, so transactions are subject to the same tax treatment as other investments.
  • Bitcoin taxes can be triggered by trading, exchanging, or simply spending the cryptocurrency, so documenting everything is essential.
  • Bitcoin is taxed at the special capital gains tax rate, which is often less than the ordinary income tax rate.

Bitcoin seems to be everywhere these days. From its mysterious origins in 2008, it has grown into a widely accepted currency, used for everything from investing to shopping to employees' wages.

But many Bitcoin users don't realize that buying/selling, exchanging, and even using Bitcoin to pay for things has tax implications. Yes, you read that last phrase right. In some cases, just spending your Bitcoin could be considered a profitable investment - and taxable.

From how exactly it's taxed to how to prepare for filing, here's what you need to know about Bitcoin taxes.

How Bitcoin is taxed

Bitcoin and its comrade cryptocurrencies (Ethereum, Ripple, Tether, and Litecoin) appeal to users because they are secure and provide a degree of anonymity. It's that anonymity, along with the growing value of cryptocurrency transactions taking place worldwide, that has increasingly drawn attention from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in recent years.

Since you can use Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies for everything from online shopping to donating to charity, you might assume the IRS treats cryptocurrency like cash. That assumption can get you into hot water.


According to IRS Notice 2014-21, the IRS classifies cryptocurrencies as property, not cash or currency. That means it treats Bitcoin transactions like sales of stocks and other investments. Purchasing cryptocurrency with cash and holding on to it isn't a taxable transaction, but selling, exchanging, or using it to purchase goods and services is.

For example, say you purchase 10 crypto coins for $10 (basically, $1 apiece) on December 1, 2020, and load them onto a cryptocurrency debit card. On December 20, 2020, that cryptocurrency is trading for $5 per coin, up from the $1 per coin you paid for it back at the beginning of December. On that day, you use your cryptocurrency debit card to pay for a $5 cup of coffee.

On your 2021 tax return, you are supposed to report a $4 short-term capital gain ("short-term" because it happened within one year). That's the $5 per coin value you received when you purchased the cup of coffee, minus your $1 per-coin basis (what you paid for it) in the cryptocurrency.

That's a level of record keeping that few taxpayers are willing to keep up with - if they're aware of the requirement at all.

Why is Bitcoin taxed?

According to a survey conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of Blockchain Capital, roughly 9% of American adults own Bitcoin. However, the IRS estimates that only a tiny percentage of them report crypto-related gains and losses on their tax returns.


In 2017, the IRS searched its database for the 2013 through 2015 tax years. It found:

  • 807 individuals reported cryptocurrency transactions in 2013
  • 893 individuals reported cryptocurrency transactions in 2014
  • 802 individuals reported cryptocurrency transactions in 2015

That discrepancy is why the IRS is making cryptocurrency taxes an enforcement priority in 2021. In fact, Form 1040 for the 2020 tax year includes a question about cryptocurrency on the front page. It asks whether you've received, sold, sent, exchanged or otherwise acquired a financial interest in any virtual currency.

If you check "no" to this question when you did, in fact, engage in cryptocurrency transactions, the IRS can consider that a willful attempt to avoid taxes, and you could face harsher penalties if the IRS uncovers your omission.

How to prepare and report Bitcoin tax filing

The IRS taxes Bitcoin as an investment. That means it's subject to the same tax rate of capital gains and losses that other financial assets are subject to when you sell any holdings in it, realizing a profit or loss.

Step 1: Gather information for Bitcoin tax reporting

For each transaction, you need to know the following:

  • The amount (in dollars) you spent to buy the cryptocurrency
  • The date you purchased (or received) them
  • The date you sold or exchanged the coins
  • The amount in dollars the cryptocurrency was worth when you sold it (or value you received in the exchange)

When you sell stocks, at the end of the year, your broker will send you a Form 1099-B that includes all of the necessary information to report those sales on your tax return. But don't expect the same service from a cryptocurrency exchange. Most crypto exchanges only send 1099 forms to customers with gross payments over $20,000 or more than 200 cryptocurrency transactions during the year.

However, you can typically generate reports through your cryptocurrency exchange platform that will include all buys, sells, sends, and receipts of cryptocurrency from the account. If all of your cryptocurrency transactions take place on one exchange, gathering the information you need for tax reporting should be relatively easy. If your cryptocurrencies are scattered across several exchanges, you'll need to download separate reports from each of them.

Step 2: Calculate your Bitcoin gains and losses

Once you have all of the information on your cryptocurrency activity during the year, you need to determine whether you incurred a gain or loss on each transaction. To do this, you'll need to decide which method you'll use to value the cryptocurrencies you sell. Your options are:

  • First-in-first-out (FIFO). The coins you purchase first are the ones you sell first.
  • Specific identification. You select which coins you're disposing of in each transaction.

The method you choose can greatly impact the amount of taxes you end up owing in a particular year.

Say you purchase 100 crypto coins for $1 each on January 1, 2021, and another 100 coins for $20 each on June 1, 2021. On February 1 of the following year, you sell 40 coins for $15 each.


Using the FIFO method assumes the 40 coins sold came from the January 2021 lot. As a result, you would have a long-term gain of $560. That's 40 coins at $15 each less 40 coins at $1 each, or $600 - $40 = $560.

Using the specific identification method, you could decide that the four coins sold in February of 2022 came from the lot purchased in June of 2021. In that case, you would have a short-term loss of $200. That's 40 coins at $15 each less 40 coins at $20 each, or $600 - $800 = -$200.

Some cryptocurrency exchanges provide a gain/loss report. However, these reports are typically only provided on the FIFO method, so you won't be able to benefit from using the specific identification method if you rely on them.

Step 3: Report your Bitcoin transactions

Capital gain transactions are reported on IRS Form 8949. The form is divided into two sections:

  • Cryptocurrencies held for one year or less go in the short-term section. Short-term gains are taxed at the same rates as ordinary income, with the top rate being 37%.
  • Cryptocurrencies held for longer than one year go in the long-term section. Long-term gains qualify for more favorable long-term capital gains rates, which cap out at 20%.

Include your totals from Form 8949. If you sold other non-crypto investments, report those on a separate Form 8949. Carry the totals from all 8949 forms to IRS Schedule D.


The financial takeaway

You might have figured that investing in Bitcoin could have tax implications, especially if you make a profit on it. But it might surprise you to know that just spending your Bitcoin could trigger that taxable profit.

Purchasing cryptocurrency with cash and holding on to it isn't a taxable transaction, but selling, exchanging, or using it to purchase goods and services is.

Tracking the ins and outs of cryptocurrency transactions can be challenging. If you own cryptocurrency and have many transactions, it's a good idea to talk to a CPA or other tax professional familiar with cryptocurrency tax reporting. They may be able to recommend software to help track transactions and ensure you're properly accounting for them on your tax return.

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