Cryptocurrency is a Capital Asset
The IRS has clearly stated that cryptocurrency (aka virtual currency) is a capital asset like property. And therefore, the buying and selling of it for profit results in short-term capital gain if held for under one year, and long-term capital gain if held for over a year. Short-term capital gain rates are based on your regular income tax bracket, while the long-term capital gains rate is 15-20%, depending on income level. IRS Notice 2014-21.
So, for example, let’s say I bought 10 Bitcoin in June 2017 for $25,000 US dollars when the price of Bitcoin was approximately $2,500. I decide that in December 2017 that I would like to sell my Bitcoin. The price is now approximately $16,500 per Bitcoin, so my holdings are now worth $165,000. As a result, my $25,000 investment has generated a taxable profit of $140,000. Since I owned the Bitcoin for less than one year, the income will be short-term capital gain income and I will pay at my regular federal rate.
If I instead held the cryptocurrency until July 2018, then I would have long-term capital gain and would be paying tax at a much lesser rate.
Any realized gain from the cryptocurrency profit is taxable. This is the case if you exchanged Bitcoin for other cryptocurrency, or for goods or services. In this instance, you take the value of the Bitcoin in US dollars at the time of the exchange for other property and treat whatever gain you have when that Bitcoin was exchanged (at the value of the other property) as your taxable gain. Let’s say you bought 10 Bitcoin in 2015 for $250 per Bitcoin for a total purchase price of $2,500. You decide to exchange one Bitcoin, valued at $16,500 in December 2017, for 17 Ethereum valued at approximately $500 per Ethereum. Your gain on the Bitcoin being exchanged is the value of the Ethereum, $16,500, minus the cost of the Bitcoin, $250, for a long-term capital gain of $16,250.
Cryptocurrency mining is the process of using servers and other computers to verify the blockchain and transactions that are the backbone of the cryptocurrency. This IRS has stated that income from cryptocurrency mining, whether received in dollars or cryptocurrency, is taxable as regular income. Consequently, if you have engaged in the cryptocurrency mining business or are otherwise self-employed doing cryptocurrency mining then the income you received is taxable at your ordinary income rates and it will also be subject to self-employment tax.
Retirement Accounts and Cryptocurrency
Retirement accounts such as IRAs and 401(k) can own Bitcoin and other cryptocurrency. This requires a self-directed IRA or 401(k) and some careful structuring. For a more detailed discussion on this topic, check out my prior article and video here. When gains are made from the sale of cryptocurrency, whether for US dollars or other cryptocurrency, there is no tax owed on the gain. And, if you use a Roth IRA or Roth 401(k), there will be zero tax owed when you pull the funds out at retirement. For traditional IRAs and 401(k)s you pay tax when you withdraw the funds at retirement and these distributions, as is the case for all traditional IRA or 401(k) distributions, are subject to tax at your ordinary income tax rate at the time of distribution.
If your self-directed IRA or 401(k) is invested into cryptocurrency mining, as opposed to holding cryptocurrency for investment, then the income from such mining activities will likely cause unrelated business income tax.