On-Chain vs. Off-Chain Transactions
Learn the difference between on-chain and off-chain transactions, why they’re used, and how you can use them to your advantage in day-to-day transactions.
What are on-chain and off-chain transactions?
On-chain: On-chain transactions are recorded directly on the Bitcoin blockchain and permanently stored within it. These transactions are transparent and secure, robustly enforced through the network's consensus rules. Since the Bitcoin blockchain is the most secure cryptographic ledger, on-chain transactions represent the highest level of trust and security regarding digital assets. In other words, on-chain transactions are the most secure way to transfer funds.
Off-chain: Off-chain transactions occur outside the Bitcoin blockchain, typically through a third party or scaling layer, like the Lightning Network. While transactions take place off the blockchain, they will eventually settle on the Bitcoin blockchain, with the transaction details and amounts recorded in a block. Exchanges will often use off-chain transactions to manage the large amounts of money flowing through them, as it reduces congestion on the existing Bitcoin network.
The benefits of on-chain transactions
As discussed, the critical benefit of on-chain transactions is their security. All Bitcoin transactions are permanently stored and distributed across millions of nodes worldwide, making them virtually impossible to tamper with or reverse.
Another benefit of on-chain transactions is settlement finality. Once a transaction is recorded on the Bitcoin blockchain, it can't be reversed, an ideal property for a payment system. Unlike SWIFT, the world's leading international payments network, Bitcoin transactions are usually faster (10 minutes vs. several days) and much more cost-efficient. In addition, settlement finality provides a high level of trust between parties, as the transaction cannot be reversed, a trait especially useful in international money transfers.
The benefits of off-chain transactions
Off-chain transactions often incur much lower fees and wait times than those on the Bitcoin blockchain, making them a popular option for small and frequent transactions. In addition, because off-chain transactions don't require immediate on-chain settlement, they are often much more malleable, allowing users to make changes until the point of settlement.
Off-chain transactions can take several forms. For example, two users may agree to swap private keys to an existing wallet instead of transferring funds or using a third-party or coupon-based interlocutor. A coupon-based interlocutor in cryptocurrency trading is an entity that provides a service to facilitate the trading of digital assets between two or more parties. An exchange, broker, or another third party may provide the service. The terms and conditions of the service may vary, but the service provider will typically charge a fee for each transaction.
The most exciting and innovative off-chain solution in the Bitcoin world is the Lightning Network, a scaling layer built on top of the Bitcoin blockchain that enables fast, low-fee transactions. The Lightning Network is a two-way payment channel between two parties, allowing them to exchange funds without recording every transaction on the Bitcoin blockchain. This makes it ideal for micropayments and other use cases that require quick, low-cost transactions.
Overall, off-chain transactions can offer a variety of advantages over on-chain ones when it comes to cost and speed.
Disadvantages of on-chain transactions
The critical disadvantage of on-chain transactions is their cost and speed. Because miners must generate a block to add a transaction to the blockchain, users must pay miner fees for their transactions to be included in the next block. This fee can vary greatly depending on network conditions and can become quite expensive during periods of high demand.
Additionally, users must wait for their transaction to be added to a block with on-chain transactions. Depending on network conditions, this can take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour or more. This makes on-chain transactions impractical for small payments requiring near-instant settlement.
However, for large transactions that require a high level of security, on-chain transactions are the best option.
Disadvantages of off-chain transactions
The main disadvantage of off-chain transactions is their lack of finality. As discussed, on-chain transactions provide ultimate trustlessness and cannot be reversed. Off-chain transactions, however, can be reversed if they have not been settled on the blockchain. For example, an exchange may reverse a transaction to correct an error, or a malicious actor could attempt to change a transaction for their gain. In the future, more services may implement reversible off-chain transactions, but funds are typically final when using the Lightning Network.
Off-chain transactions with a third-party provider also carry a counterparty default risk, as the third party is responsible for facilitating and settling the transaction. For this reason, it is essential to conduct due diligence when selecting an off-chain transaction provider.
- On-chain transactions are more secure than off-chain ones but can be slow and expensive.
- Off-chain transactions offer faster settlement and lower fees but lack the total finality and security of on-chain transactions.
- The most popular off-chain solution for Bitcoin is the Lightning Network, which allows users to exchange funds without recording every transaction on the blockchain. The Lightning Network offers revolutionary low-fee, near-instant transactions.
- When using a third-party provider for off-chain transactions, it is essential to conduct due diligence and ensure that the provider is trustworthy and reliable.