What is a Bitcoin Fork?


A cryptocurrency fork is an update to the software governing the distributed network that makes existing rules either valid or invalid — sometimes resulting in spinoff versions of Bitcoin.

🤔 Understanding a bitcoin fork

When it launched in 2009, Bitcoin was the first cryptocurrency. It was the first digital currency to be built on a blockchain, which is a system that records transactions across a distributed network to make them more secure. Eventually, the technology it was built on, slowed down, and fees got more expensive. Users wanted to update the Bitcoin protocol without messing up the original. A Bitcoin fork creates new rules for the currency to follow, without eliminating the previous ones. A “soft fork” involves minor changes to the protocol that remain compatible with the original, so no new currency results. Hard forks result in a new version of Bitcoin that is completely separate from the original.


Bitcoin Cash, which, as of October 2019, is number five on Coin Market Cap with respect to market capitalization — the total value of all coins in circulation, is the most successful hard fork of Bitcoin. Escalating costs on the Bitcoin network motivate people in the cryptocurrency community to create a hard fork to increase the block size. Thus, in July 2017, Bitcoin Cash was created.

The increase in block size means that the new cryptocurrency has lower transaction fees and faster transaction times. Many prominent figures in the cryptocurrency community, such as Roger Ver, an early investor in Bitcoin and Bitcoin-related startups, promoted Bitcoin Cash. Popular exchanges, such as Coinbase and Binance, not only support Bitcoin but also Bitcoin Cash.


Reaching a Bitcoin fork is like a “kayaker without protective gear hitting different branches in a river”...

One branch, the soft fork, has calmer waters, so the kayaker can continue down it without protective gear. The other branch, the hard fork, has more turbulent waters, and only kayakers wearing specialized equipment can enter.

Ready to start investing?
Sign up for Robinhood and get your first stock on us.
Sign up for Robinhood
Certain limitations apply

The free stock offer is available to new users only, subject to the terms and conditions at rbnhd.co/freestock. Free stock chosen randomly from the program’s inventory. Securities trading is offered through Robinhood Financial LLC.

Tell me more…

What happens in a fork?

Imagine you’re playing an online game with many people from all over the world. Then an administrator decides to change the rules. For the game to function, everyone needs to agree on the rules changing. If there is consensus, then the changes occur, and everything continues as usual. But if there isn't a broad consensus about the change, then two versions of the game emerge – one with the old rules and another with the new ones. Thus, there will be a fork in the game.

Cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin have programming governing the rules, similar to games, so different versions can be made too. Coders can take the publicly available source code and modify it as they see fit. Thereby, new versions of Bitcoin can be made to suit the needs of different people. Bitcoin forks have caused cryptocurrencies with similar names to come into existence. Bitcoin Cash (BCH), Bitcoin Gold (BTG), and many others are examples of forks.

What is a soft fork?

A good analogy for a soft fork is increasing the minimum driving age to 18 instead of 16. All the new people eligible to drive now that the driving age is 18 still qualified under the old rules.

Think of a soft fork as an update in the software which is backward compatible. Soft forks allow the new rules to play well with the old rules, so they don't create new cryptocurrency coins. In a soft fork, while past transactions are no longer valid, both the old nodes, “machines that mine cryptocurrency”, and new nodes recognize the new transactions. Successful soft forks require a majority consensus among nodes similar to a public vote.

Soft forks occur on Bitcoin by changes in its underlying blockchain governing code. They allow new use cases and are compatible with old versions.

What is a hard fork?

Andreas Antonopoulos, a popular YouTuber on cryptocurrency, explains the difference between a hard and soft fork through the following analogy: If they decided to add vegan dishes, it would only be a soft fork — Anyone vegetarian could still eat vegan. However, if a vegetarian restaurant chose to add pork to the menu, it would be a hard fork because the place could no longer call itself vegetarian.

The main difference between a soft fork and a hard fork is that data for hard forks not compatible with the older version. Think PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4. When new games come out, you need to buy the new PS4 console to play them; they won't work on your old PS3 system--this is an example of a hard fork.

In terms of blockchain technology, a hard fork is a profound change of the network rules. It makes previously valid blocks or transactions invalid or previously invalid transactions now valid. Every node or user is required to upgrade to the new version of the network software when a hard fork occurs. Technically, the prior version of the blockchain is permanently diverged in a hard fork. The newest version will not accept nodes running the previous network protocols.

A hard fork creates a new route in the blockchain. One path obeys protocols for the new, revised blockchain, while the other still follows old network protocols. After a while, people on the old chain will upgrade to the latest version because they realize their current version is irrelevant or outdated.

Why do cryptocurrencies fork?

There are many reasons why cryptocurrencies fork.

The table shown below summarizes the main differences between popular Bitcoin forks and gives some reasons of why these forks were created in the first place.

Table 1: Popular bitcoin forks

Forked CoinBrief Description of Differences
Bitcoin Cash (BCH)Permits blocks of 8 MB and didn’t adopt the SegWit protocol. SegWit is the method by which the block size limit on a blockchain increases by removing signature data from Bitcoin transactions. Basically, SegWit allows more transactions per second for Bitcoin.
Bitcoin Gold (BTG)This fork makes mining more decentralized by allowing basic graphics processing units (GPUs) instead of using more expensive and centralized ASIC based mining. Mining is how new cryptocurrency is generated.
Litecoin (LTC)Supports more transactions in less time.
Bitcoin Diamond (BDC)Increases privacy and lowers transaction fees.
Bitcoin SV (BSV)This fork solves scalability issues like the 1 megabyte limit for Bitcoin and the 8 megabyte limit for Bitcoin cash. Scalability refers to how the cryptocurrency is able to handle increasing traffic on its distributed network.

Similar to Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs), Bitcoin forks are a great way to raise money. But, nowadays, developers can also decide to fork Bitcoin for more selfish reasons to make a quick profit at the expense of the cryptocurrency coin holders. Any knowledgeable blockchain programmer can fork Bitcoin, since its source code is freely available. Everyone wants to get free coins, so people are always looking for information on the latest Bitcoin fork. When one group forks Bitcoin, all the original Bitcoin holders are entitled to new coins from the new fork -- so they would likely have more money in their pocket after a fork if they held the original crypto asset that was being forked.

If you say you are forking Bitcoin, you will get a lot of free attention because many cryptocurrency media channels are seeking to promote the newest Bitcoin fork.

One example of an advertised Bitcoin fork that turned out to be disingenuous is Bitcoin Platinum. A Korean teenager admitted that Bitcoin Platinum was a false coin he created to earn $5M Korean won ( about $4K).

Why should I care about a fork?

There are three reasons you might care about Bitcoin forks:

1) You may want to adopt the new rules and the new coin because you think it's better than the original Bitcoin. For example, the new rules might allow for more transactions per second or provide better security.2) The fork might have an impact on the community, adoption, and even price. For example, a fork might lower transaction costs for the community or make mining new cryptocurrency easier. 3) Disclaimer: We are not providing financial advice but people can profit from the fork by selling the new coins. Let’s go back to the online gaming analogy: Imagine your online game has been running for a very long time, and players have accumulated a considerable amount of points. Now, someone wants to change the rules but doesn't want everybody to lose their scores. Thereby, a new game with revised rules is created that will begin with all the players having the same amount of points as they did before the rules changed.

For example, if you had 100 points in the original game, you could join the new game and start with 100 points. You could even play both games in parallel and have 100 points in each. In a Bitcoin fork, if you already had 100 bitcoins before the fork, then you would have 100 of the forked coin, too. You can then sell new cryptocurrency and then convert it back again to the old coin for a small profit.

How do you claim coins from a fork?

Before, you claim new coins, please do a Google search on the most current checking sources for new Bitcoin forks! As a general guideline, if you expect free coins from an upcoming fork, be careful when claiming them. Never send Bitcoin to another Bitcoin wallet address or give away your private keys just because a newly forked cryptocurrency community has told you to. If the fork is legitimate, then the coins will be available based on your current holdings. Always research the fork yourself by not only visiting the new cryptocurrency website but also visiting reputable news organizations. Many new blockchains use the Bitcoin name to convince users they’re trustworthy, which isn't always the case.

Each new forked coin has a different claiming mechanism, but here are two general guidelines:

1) Familiarize yourself with the new forked coin Read a bit about a project before you take any steps to claim its cryptocurrency. Find out who the developers are, what their track record is, and how far along they are in their road map. Also, what have other publications written about them, and is there anything that makes them credible?

2) Transfer your coins to a new wallet If your coins are on a reputable cryptocurrency platform, you should automatically receive the new forked coins.

Once you claim your new coins, you can hold on to them or sell them through an exchange.

What are some past and upcoming bitcoin forks?

Since Bitcoin is open source, there have been many forks of its source code. Here is just a brief list of popular past Bitcoin forks.

Table 2: Popular past bitcoin forks

Release DateBitcoin Fork Name
2017-08-01Bitcoin Cash (BCH) / Bitcoin SV (BSV)
2017-10-24Bitcoin Gold (BTG)
2017-11-02BitCore (BTX)
2017-11-24Bitcoin Diamond (BCD)
2017-12-12BitcoinX (BCX)
2017-12-28Segwit2X (B2X)

Here is a list of upcoming Bitcoin forks.

Table 3: Upcoming bitcoin forks

Release DateBitcoin Fork Name
2019-09-30Bitcoin Zero (BZX)
2019-01-04BitcoinCash Zero (BCZ)
TBDBitcoin Origin (ORI)
TBDBitcoin Oil (BTCO)

Disclosure: Purchasing digital assets (such cryptocurrencies and associated derivative products) come with a number of risks, including volatile market price swings or flash crashes, market manipulation, and cybersecurity risks. In addition, digital asset markets and exchanges are generally not regulated with the same controls or customer protections available in equity, option, futures, or foreign exchange investing. These exchanges are also sometimes vulnerable to hacks in which digital assets are stolen.

Digital assets prices can change radically in a trading day and thus lead to significant and sudden financial losses. Under certain market conditions, you may find it difficult or impossible to liquidate a position quickly at a reasonable price.

Ready to start investing?
Sign up for Robinhood and get your first stock on us.Certain limitations apply

The free stock offer is available to new users only, subject to the terms and conditions at rbnhd.co/freestock. Free stock chosen randomly from the program’s inventory. Securities trading is offered through Robinhood Financial LLC.


Related Articles

What is a Cryptocurrency?
Updated March 08, 2021

You May Also Like

The 3-minute newsletter with fresh takes on the financial news you need to start your day.
The 3-minute newsletter with fresh takes on the financial news you need to start your day.

© 2021 Robinhood. All rights reserved.

This information is educational, and is not an offer to sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy any security. This information is not a recommendation to buy, hold, or sell an investment or financial product, or take any action. This information is neither individualized nor a research report, and must not serve as the basis for any investment decision. All investments involve risk, including the possible loss of capital. Past performance does not guarantee future results or returns. Before making decisions with legal, tax, or accounting effects, you should consult appropriate professionals. Information is from sources deemed reliable on the date of publication, but Robinhood does not guarantee its accuracy.

Robinhood Financial LLC (member SIPC), is a registered broker dealer. Robinhood Securities, LLC (member SIPC), provides brokerage clearing services. Robinhood Crypto, LLC provides crypto currency trading. All are subsidiaries of Robinhood Markets, Inc. (‘Robinhood’).