Bitcoins, the online currency built on cryptography and beloved by libertarians, could be available for purchase through specialized ATMs in the United States this year.
At least two firms have plans to ship out Bitcoin ATMs to American cities in the coming months. Robocoin, the Las Vegas-based firm rolling out the world’s first Bitcoin ATMs in Canada this fall, plans to ship 12 to 15 of the units by the end of the year. “We are working on deals right now in the U.S. that should deliver in December or January. Los Angeles, Florida, NYC, Austin, to name a few,” Robocoin CEO Jordan Kelley told TIME in an email.
Bitcoins are “mined” by solving algorithms that require an enormous amount of computing power. There is no central authority, like the U.S. Federal Reserve, governing the production and exchange of the currency. People can easily transfer coins, a Bitcoin transaction can’t be rescinded, and, crucially, it is largely anonymous. Bitcoin is kind of like cash for the Internet.
So what, you may wonder, is the point of an ATM for a digital currency? Think of it more like a vending machine or currency exchange counter: Rather than just offering withdrawals or deposits, the Bitcoin ATM allows a user to buy Bitcoins in exchange for cash. The machines also offer some real-world convenience—like traditional ATMs, you can take dollars from the ATM by trading in your Bitcoins.
The Silk Road, an online black market exchange for contraband goods, like illicit drugs, operates on Bitcoin, and law enforcement officials have expressed concern about the use of the currency to facilitate this and other illegal activity, including money laundering. The Bitcoin ATM may not raise those concerns because it actually rolls back some of the anonymity that, in part, made the currency famous. Robocoin’s systems will request a government issued ID from the user, use facial recognition software to match a photo of them taken at the machine to that on the license, and use a palm scanner to further authenticate the user’s identity.
And there are many fully lawful applications for the currency—the website Bitcoin.Travel features a map of places where Bitcoins can be spent a brick-and-mortar establishments like a vacation villa in South Carolina, a liquor store in Oklahoma and a law office in San Diego. “The reason people want to own bitcoin is because of the underlying principles of bitcoin, not necessarily to maintain anonymity,” Kelley told TIME. “It’s a truly democratic programmable money, a currency that is not owned by a central authority, but owned by the people.”
Nonetheless, according to Kelley, regulatory compliance hurdles in the United States are significant, and more stringent than in other countries. Registering as a “Money Service Business” with the federal government, according to Kelley, is fairly straightforward, but the patchwork of licensing regulations unique to each U.S. state is where things get more complicated.
Another firm, Lamassu, told TIME it has 15 bitcoin ATMs shipping out over the next several weeks to 13 countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, China, Brazil, France, Denmark, Finland, Slovakia, and the U.S. “The first US machines will be in Atlanta, GA,” Lamassu CEO Zach Harvey told TIME in an email. “The ones shipping in November will be on the west coast. There is a lot of interest from entrepreneurs in California, but due to California’s extreme financial regulatory requirements, they may choose to set up in Washington or other states. Same goes for New York.”