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Guite to private keys and seed phrases

Is A Seed Phrase The Same As A Private Key? The Ultimate Guide To Private Keys And Recovery Seed Phrases

Are seed phrases and private keys the same? Are they different? We have all the answers.

If you would like to know the answer to these common questions:

  • Is a seed phrase the same as a private key?
  • Is the private key the same as the recovery phrase?
  • What do you do with a seed phrase?
  • What is the difference between the private key and the seed words?

Below you will find a simple but complete answer. We will not dive deep into technical aspects of blockchain, instead, we will stick to the most important information you need.  

Summary: /TL;DR/

  • Seed phrases and private keys are true access keys to your cryptocurrency wallets and accounts. They are sort of a “password” that authorize you as an owner of your blockchain “accounts” and wallets.
  • Private key is usually an access key to just one address (account), while seed phrase is an access key to the whole wallet, which can hold multiple addresses.
  • Wallets use recovery seed phrase as both access key and instruction to set up all addresses (accounts). Wallets always create the same set of addresses and private keys from a given seed phrase.
  • Seed phrases are made of words from a carefully chosen list of 2048 words. Seed phrases can be 12-24 words long. The words are taken randomly from the list.
  • Both seed phrases and private keys use state-of-the-art encryption so it is virtually impossible to crack them by hackers.
  • If your seed phrase backup is lost or destroyed, you will not be able to get your funds back, ever. This is why it is important to protect your seed phrase with a solid crypto backup.
Bitcoin charts

 What it is all about? Why should I care?

Private keys and recovery seed phrases are both crucial elements of bitcoin, cryptocurrencies, and blockchain in general. They are both important blockchain security features that work together with blockchain technology and proper encryption techniques to guarantee the safety of your wallets and coins.

In essence seed phrases and private keys are true access keys to your cryptocurrency wallets and accounts. They are sort of a “password” that authorize you as an owner of your blockchain “accounts” and wallets. With them, you have full access to the funds but without them, you can lose access to your funds forever. However, it is important to know that although similar, they are not the same and we provide all the details below.

It is important for the safety of your crypto funds to know how seed phrases and private keys work and how to use them. Getting confused about these key blockchain features can put you at risk of losing all your crypto holdings.

We will do our best to provide a full explanation and provide lots of knowledge while avoiding difficult technical terms.

Similarities of seed phrases and private keys

How access keys numbers can be shown?

All blockchain addresses (the “accounts” where your coins are stored) have dedicated access keys.  With Bitcoin, Ethereum, and other cryptocurrencies these access keys have a form of a very large number. Cryptocurrencies use 256bit numbers which are very big – up to 77 figures long.

In our normal – decimal numbers our access key (random example) is this number:
15692029237316 193423570985008 4879078532689846 65640564039457554 006913129639935

The above number – our access key – can be written differently, depending on the use.
In binary (which is computer’s language) it would look like this:
111111111100011101011110001110000 101001101011011111110000010101111 100101110011010111110110111100111 010110110011100000001010000010011 000110011011110110110001000101011 111111110000101000101011110111100 100111100110010110010111111011100 000101111110111111111111

As you can see, it could be hard to write down or input into your wallet software both of those. Remember that getting even one character wrong means a risk of losing all your crypto money.

Binary code

Private keys – hex form of access key number

This is the reason why inventors of Bitcoin had decided to use something in between – a format that would be easier to use by humans while still easily readable by computers – the hexadecimal (hex) number.
Our access key would look like this in hex:
ffc7 5e38 535b f82b e5cd 7dbc 75b3 80a0 98cd ed88 affc 28af 793c cb2f dc17 efff

The above is what the private keys look like. It is because the private key is your access key translated into hex. In essence, they are a different representation (a different form) of your access key number that we mentioned earlier.

The access key in this form is a bit easier to read and write down than binary numbers or even normal numbers, it is however still rather hard. This is the reason why people governing Bitcoin decided to make life easier for everyone and translate access keys into more accessible to us – humans.

Mnemonics – an access key made easier for humans

Somewhere around 2013, smart people around Bitcoin invented a way to translate access key numbers into words. Just words no fuzz – no hex, no binary, no absurdly large numbers. We as humans are naturally good with words. It is much easier to read, write and correct mistakes with normal words than some weird, seemingly random string of letters and numbers.

This is how the mnemonic phrase came to life. You translate the very big number into words, much easier to use – the same level of security.

With a mnemonic phrase system our access key number would look like this:
sewn forgery poorly armament surra pastor stoicism prog rupee panoply resigned worthy menses rehash acumen randy capping linkage reversal gilbert pygmy cozen snoopy pit

This is how seed phrases look like (somewhat) because they use a mnemonic system – a way of converting numbers into words. However, they use a dedicated mnemonic system (BIP39), which we will discuss further.

Similar or different?

In summary – seed phrases and private keys are similar in some ways because they both are a way of writing down crypto access keys. Private keys use a hexadecimal (hex) system and seed phrases use a mnemonic system.

However, they are also very different things when it comes to function. Seed phrase and private keys are not the same. They serve different purposes in blockchain and crypto – they are not interchangeable. Below we will describe the differences and function of both seed phrases and private keys when it comes to Bitcoin, cryptocurrencies, and blockchain in general.

Key on keyboard

Private keys

What is a private key?

A private key is your access key to the given bitcoin (or other cryptocurrencies) address. The address is an “account” where given coins are stored. To gain full access to the bitcoin address you need to show the correct access key – a private key.

As we said earlier, this private key has a form of hex (hexadecimal) number, which is a different way of presenting very large numbers. The hex numbers are easily recognized by computers while still manageable by humans. The private keys usually look like this:
ffc7 5e38 535b f82b e5cd 7dbc 75b3 80a0 98cd ed88 affc 28af 793c cb2f dc17 efff

With the private key you “prove” that you are an “owner” of your bitcoin address (account) and can have full access to this address. This means doing transfers and withdrawals from the address.

How do private keys work in a wallet?

Nowadays private keys are used as access keys just for individual addresses (accounts). So if you have just one Bitcoin (or another cryptocurrency) address, you probably will have just a private key as an access key. If you have a paper wallet with just one address (account), you will have just a private key as a backup and access key.

However, if you are using a wallet that can store multiple addresses (accounts) possibly of multiple cryptocurrencies, the wallet itself is usually protected not with a private key but with a seed phrase. This type of wallet is nowadays the most popular one, so you probably use one. Please read further to learn about seed phrases.

(note that old multi wallets can be protected just by private keys without a seed, or even something different. Back in the day, there were many standards of access keys and seeds.)

This kind of multiple address wallet will act as a master wallet for all cryptocurrency addresses (accounts) inside. The wallet itself will create and store private keys to each individual address (accounts) so you don’t have to write them all down. You just need one master access key which is what seed phrase is. This is the same whether you use a software wallet, hardware wallet or even wallet on crypto exchanges like Coinbase.

Bitcoin dollar bills coins

Seed phrase – all you need to know

What is a seed phrase?

A seed phrase is a master access key to your cryptocurrency wallet (or blockchain wallet in general). This is also a backup of your wallet in case you forget the regular password or pin, your computer or hardware wallet is broken or lost. The seed phrase is in essence both access key and instruction for the wallet on how and which accounts to set up.

The recovery seed phrase would look like this:
wedding cheese renew regular anger forum pelican deer shrimp tray denial fabric unique silver victory rain mistake write limit cart copper visa undo forget

So normally you probably use a login and password or pin code to access the wallet, but it is only to stop unauthorized users from logging into the wallet. The seed phrase is much more than that.

How do seed phrase work in a wallet?

The seed phrase not only grants you full access to your addresses (accounts) and funds. It also is a way for a wallet to know what addresses (accounts) on the blockchain you had.

The wallet algorithms work that way, that from a given seed phrase they always create the same set of addresses (accounts) where you store cryptocurrency or tokens. At the same time, the wallet will also create access keys to each individual address (the private keys) and protect them inside. It always creates the same set of addresses and private keys from one seed phrase. So if you will set up another wallet with the same seed phrase, it will create an identical copy of the first one. This is called a deterministic wallet, and almost all modern wallets work this way.

What happens when you input your seed phrase into the wallet? The wallet uses algorithms to calculate all addresses (and private keys) for every supported cryptocurrency or token from your seed phrase. This is why these wallets are called deterministic wallets because your seed phrase tells the wallet what addresses can be created.

The wallet can only create one set of addresses from a given seed phrase. This is also why the recovery phrase is called a seed phrase. The wallet can use the seed phrase to sprout/create all other addresses and info. Wallets can create a set of hundreds of addresses and private keys just from this one seed phrase.

hardware wallet bitcoin

(Please note that not all wallets use the same way of address creation, so seed phrases are not truly universal. The situation above is relevant inside the same type of wallets. We will cover this topic in future articles.)

What does the seed phrase look like? How it is generated?

Seed phrases usually have a form of mnemonic phrase which is a bunch of words. Nowadays almost all wallets use one common way of creating seed phrases – the BIP39 standard.  The recovery seed phrase would look like this:
wedding cheese renew regular anger forum pelican deer shrimp tray denial fabric unique silver victory rain mistake write limit cart copper visa undo forget

The seed phrase is basically a master access key in a word format (we described this in detail above). It is easy to read and write for humans and also accessible for computers thanks to clever IT engineering.

Bitcoin enthusiasts developed a special way of creating the seed phrases and a special set of words to choose from. Seed phrases use a list of words that is defined in the BIP39 standard. BIP39 wordlist has 2048 carefully chosen words. There are no similar words to avoid errors and each word can be identified by just 4 first letters. Here you can get a pdf printout of BIP39 wordlist.

There are 2048 words on that list to achieve an insanely high number of possible combinations. It guarantees the same ultrahigh level of security (256bit) as with other features of bitcoin and blockchain.

Seed phrase and private keys safety

To guarantee that no one else can guess your seed phrase, it uses some very clever tricks and very big numbers (like truly big). As we said earlier, bitcoin and blockchain in general, use 256bit encryption with 256bit numbers.

These 256bit numbers are big – up to 80 figures long (2^256), and the number of all possible access keys is bigger than there are grains of sand on Earth. In fact, it is much bigger than that. There are more possible combinations of a 24-word seed phrase than there are atoms in the known universe, or at least comparable to that. It is almost impossible to grasp something that big with our human brain.

This fact makes finding someone else’s keys impossible even with all supercomputers. It would take supercomputers decades to sweep through even a very, very tiny portion of all possible combinations which makes it not worth the time and cost. Remember – the number of combinations is mind-blowing big. This is also true for private keys because they also use 256bit encryption techniques so they are as hack-resistant as seed phrases.

Burning paper

Seed phrases are virtually non-hackable and this makes them very secure. However you have to store a backup of your seed phrase, so you can restore your wallets if it brokes down or get stolen. The most popular way of storing seed phrases is by writing them down on a piece of paper. Paper is fragile though and can be easily destroyed by water or fire. You can also easily throw it away by mistake.

This is why it is so important to protect your seed phrase with stainless steel crypto backups. You should use one of the most resilient metal backups like Coinplate Alpha or Grid. They are made of ultra-thick slabs of premium-grade stainless steel, and you can mark your seed phrase permanently within just a few minutes. Coinplate stainless backups are designed to last decades. They are waterproof, fireproof, and rust-resistant

Seed phrases are ultra-secure against hacks because they use state-of-the-art encryption. But you should remember that it also means that if your seed phrase backup is destroyed, you will not be able to get your funds back, ever. If you are serious about your bitcoins, Ethereum, NFTs, or other cryptocurrency you should take proper care of your seed phrase and secure it with stainless crypto backup like Coinplate.

Coinplate Alpha marking

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