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What is a crypto token?

Crypto tokens are a central part of the crypto universe—but what is a crypto token, and how do they work? Discover the answers to these questions and more.

7 min read

The following statements do not constitute investment advice or any other advice on financial services, financial instruments, financial products, or digital assets. They are intended to provide general information. The following statements do not constitute an offer to conclude a contract for the purchase or sale of financial instruments and financial products or an invitation to submit such an offer and to buy or sell any particular digital asset. Cryptocurrencies are subject to high fluctuations in value. A decline in value or a complete loss are possible at any time. The loss of access to data and passwords can also lead to a complete loss.

  • Crypto tokens are like digital keys that work on specific digital ledgers. They’re different from digital coins, which are central to their own systems.
  • These tokens have various uses beyond just acting as money — they can represent things like access to a service, ownership of digital artwork, and more. Crypto tokens are often controlled by digital contracts.
  • They’re important because they make it easier to buy, sell, or prove ownership of almost anything online in a clear and secure way.

The world of crypto uses a whole lot of jargon, from cryptocurrencies to crypto coins—not to mention crypto tokens. But what does “token” mean, exactly? And what is a crypto token specifically? 

In the simplest of terms, tokens are digital assets. They operate off the back of a pre-existing blockchain, rather than being an innate, integral part of one, as most cryptocurrencies currently are. They can be used in many ways—like if you want access to a product or service (via utility tokens), if you want to buy and sell digital artworks (via non-fungible tokens), or even if you want to speculate on the price of coffee (via commodity tokens).

What is a crypto token? A deeper dive

So, what is a token? Technically, you can call any cryptocurrency a token. But in practice, this isn't how people usually use the word nowadays. Instead, it’s used to describe any currency except Bitcoin or Ethereum. Or, it’s used to describe digital assets that run on the basis of pre-existing blockchain infrastructure. This last definition is the one we'll explore more in this article. 

Let’s take a closer look at what tokens are and how they work. Speaking in very general terms, crypto tokens are created to fulfill a particular purpose. This purpose is up to the organization or individual who brought the token into being, and can be anything from raising money to enabling access to services. These tokens are decentralized, act as a medium of exchange, and use cryptographic signatures for the purposes of security and record-keeping, much like other crypto assets. But, there are some key differences. 

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Crypto tokens vs. cryptocurrencies—what’s the difference?

Tokens and currencies are very similar (both function decentrally, for example), but they differ significantly when it comes to their structure. Cryptocurrencies are an in-built part of the blockchain itself (the cryptocurrency Ethereum, for example, is an inextricable part of the Ethereum blockchain). Whereas tokens are not an in-built part of a particular blockchain, and their behavior is instead regulated by smart contracts, which are software protocols that determine how transactions take place. 

Crypto tokens vs. crypto coins—what’s the difference?

Coins, like Bitcoin or Litecoin, share certain similarities with tokens—they both represent value and can be used in transactions. But what are the differences between crypto tokens and coins? As subdivisions of cryptocurrencies, coins are native to the blockchain in question, whereas tokens function off the back of a blockchain. Coins are essentially a digital representation of the currency in question, but tokens have a much wider definition, since they can represent any asset of value.

Crypto tokens vs. altcoins—what’s the difference?I

f we want to explore the difference between crypto tokens and altcoins, we first need to understand what an altcoin is. Altcoins, which stand for “alternative coins”, are any cryptocurrencies other than Bitcoin—and there are almost 14,000 altcoins, as of May 2024. The difference between crypto tokens and altcoins, then, is the same as the difference between tokens and coins generally. Namely, that coins and altcoins have their own blockchain, but tokens run on a coin's blockchain instead of their own.

Examples of crypto tokens

Now that we’ve covered some distinct differences, let’s look at some examples of crypto tokens. One well-known example is an Ethereum-based token like DAI, which is a stablecoin pegged to the US dollar. Unlike cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin that operate on their own blockchain, DAI runs on the Ethereum blockchain and is designed to maintain a stable value. This makes it useful for transactions and savings without the volatility often associated with other digital currencies.

Other examples of tokens include:

  1. Tether (USDT): A digital token that's pegged to the value of a US dollar, which stabilizes its value. It's like having a digital version of a dollar bill on various blockchains.
  2. CryptoKitties: These are unique, collectible digital cats that you can buy, sell, or breed on the Ethereum blockchain. CryptoKitties are like digital Pokemon cards, but with the proof of ownership recorded on a blockchain.
  3. Decentraland (MANA): This is a virtual real estate token. Owners can buy, sell, or develop virtual land and environments in the Decentraland universe. It's like having a piece of property in a video game world, but with real-world value.

How do crypto tokens work?

So, we’ve got a sense of what a token is. But how do crypto tokens work? To understand tokens, you need to first understand the blockchain. This blockchain links (or “chains”) together “blocks” of transactions, recording information. The rules that govern each token are set out in a smart contract, essentially a program which is stored on the blockchain in question. This blockchain also logs the transactions undertaken with this token.

Let’s illustrate this with an example. Say you’re an organization looking to raise capital by means of an initial coin offering (ICO). Every investor who puts money into your enterprise receives tokens, specifically utility tokens, in exchange for their investment, which are stored in their crypto wallet and regulated via a smart contract. Down the line, investors can exchange these tokens for services or products offered by the company in question—which, in this example, might even include the opportunity to swap them for fractions of the cryptocurrency in question.

What are the different types of crypto tokens?

What is a utility token?

Utility tokens are the most common form of crypto token. Their primary function is granting holders access to a product or service. This is why utility tokens are often used during an initial coin offering—new enterprises looking to raise money can offer investors utility tokens. These utility tokens can be used however the company in question determines, such as to purchase goods or services it provides.

What is a security token?

Unlike utility tokens, which are usually used like a gift card to purchase a product or service, security tokens are linked to ownership of assets that already exist. Each security token represents a fraction of a tradable asset, such as a car, a painting, a share or real estate. Security tokens enable transactions involving these assets to be recorded on the blockchain, so holders can trace them.

What is a commodity token?

Commodity tokens, like security tokens, are a kind of crypto token that’s backed by specific, pre-existing assets. While security tokens can theoretically be linked to almost anything that has value, commodity tokens can only be based on the type of assets known as “commodities” – think things like coffee, oil, or gold. This enables commodities transactions to be processed and stored on the blockchain.

What is a non-fungible token?

Non-fungible tokens represent digital assets. They’re a way for people to own, and record their ownership of, assets via the blockchain. The “non-fungible” part of their name means that the tokens aren’t mutually interchangeable—if you own one, that token represents ownership of one specific, unique non-interchangeable asset, such as a specific piece of art. NFTs have hit the headlines with some jaw-dropping sales, so it’s worth finding out more about what an NFT is.

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Why do crypto tokens matter?

We’ve answered the question “what is a token?”, and looked at how crypto tokens work, but why are they so important? Crypto tokens can be used to represent almost any asset in the world in digitized form, logging all the transactions involving that asset on the blockchain. This is a new and important way of recording ownership and creating transparency, which is only just beginning to be explored. 

FAQs about crypto tokens

What's the difference between a cryptocurrency and a token?

The main difference between a token and a cryptocurrency is that tokens don't have their own blockchain. They're non-native assets and need to use the infrastructure of another blockchain.

How can I buy a cryptographic token?

It depends on the type of token you want. If it's a utility token linked to an initial coin offering (ICO), it's best to buy it directly from the company launching the ICO. Otherwise, you may have to use a specialized platform, such as Mettalex (for commodity tokens) or INX (for security tokens).

Can I create a crypto token?

You can—but first you’ll need to think about the approach you want to take! To create a token, you first need a blockchain to run it on. A large number of tokens are now based on the ERC20 standard, which uses the Ethereum blockchain as a basis. There are lots of how-to guides online, but a heads up that having a bit of tech know-how will go a long way!

Is Bitcoin a crypto token?

Not exactly. While all cryptocurrencies are technically tokens, people don't usually count Bitcoin as a token but rather as a coin, which means it’s native to the blockchain that it’s built on. Tokens, on the other hand, in the sense we've been talking about here, function within pre-existing blockchains. In fact, one blockchain can house many different tokens—with Ethereum’s blockchain currently home to just shy of half a million of them.

What are other examples of cryptographic tokens?

There are literally hundreds of thousands of tokens, and new ones are created every day. Since the definition of a token is so broad, they can be used in many different ways. For example, Huobi tokens function as a blockchain-based loyalty points system for purchases within the Huobi Global System, while Status tokens allow holders to access services offered by the Status communication network.

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