Have you ever given the way in which debit-card transactions are being processed a thought? Probably, you’ve never had to — the transaction is completed instantaneously, and if not, that’s because you’ve run out of money or the payment processor has gone off.

However, things work a little differently in the blockchain realm. Unlike traditional payment instruments, Bitcoin isn’t backed by a bank that confirms the transaction and ensures the designated recipient gets your coins.

Because of that, there can be several reasons why your Bitcoin transaction stays unconfirmed for hours or even days on end, as well as a few legit solutions — non all of which are technical — to help you get out of the Bitcoin limbo. However, to diagnose the root cause of your stuck coins, first of all, you’ll have to get the big picture of how virtual currencies flow from the blockchain network to your wallet.

Man making an angry expression in front of laptop

Who Does a Bitcoin Transaction Work? 

Each portion of Bitcoin you have in your crypto wallet has its own address that serves as proof of ownership. Thus, if you want to send some bitcoins to your friend Peter — regardless of the purpose of your transfer – technically, you’ll have to assign a new Bitcoin address for your coins. By clicking the Send option, you’re initiating the transfer, but you should know that wallets aren’t those that facilitate the transaction confirmation. 

In fact, you’re sending a request to the blockchain network for miners to verify, validate, and record the transaction, after which Peter will have his “package” delivered to his wallet address. The Bitcoin mining process consists of solving complex math tasks that generate new blocks added to the network chain, hence the name blockchain. Your transaction won’t get confirmed until the miners create the next block.

After you receive the first confirmation (you’ll see soon that some transactions require multiple confirmations), the transaction can’t be tampered with. Due to its immense popularity, the Bitcoin blockchain has become quite large, so the process of verifying a single transaction does take some time. There is high variability in the transaction timescale, so it’ll be really helpful to learn to what extent mining fees can determine the priority of pending transactions. 

Transaction Times

Roughly said, a new block is created every ten minutes, and hence, it’s the average time for the block to get confirmed by the Bitcoin network. In reality, everything between a minute and an hour is generally accepted as a normal timespan for a single confirmation. An important thing to remember is that one confirmation is usually not enough for a successful transaction, especially for a large-scale BTC payment over $1,000. These thresholds go up in the same line as the trade’s size. In general, six confirmations is the golden standard for someone (e.g. a retailer) to consider your transaction safe. 

Reasons for Unconfirmed BTC Transactions

Three key factors determine the processing time of a single transaction at a given time.

Network Congestion

Network congestion refers to the number of transactions the blockchain can process in a day against the number of requested transactions. It goes without saying, the higher the transaction traffic, the longer the load time because of the limited number of hash power and the limited amount of transactions that a 1MB block can store. 

For example, in June 2021, all miners in China closed down, and in just a few weeks, the total traffic rate fell by over 55% from the top peak recorded a month earlier.

Transaction Fees

Regardless of the cryptocurrency exchange whose services you use to acquire your bitcoins, transaction or miner fees are charged directly by the network to cover the miners’ reward. The difference is that some exchanges allow you to set your own fees while others calculate them for you based on the current network load. What matters is that miners always prioritise transactions with higher fees. If you chose the lowest possible fee amount, it’s literally possible for you to wait “forever” for your transaction to be completed. This was the case amid the first BTC boom back in 2017, when priority transactions reached up to $50, with mining pools completely stranding low-fee orders.

To sum up, you’ll need an hour (six confirmations per 10 minutes) to make a successful Bitcoin transaction, provided it’s in the waiting line for the next block. There were times when users would wait for 7-8 days before their transaction could see the light of day. However, today’s market has developed to the extent that it can offer you instant BTC purchases but at unreasonably high fees.

Well, at least, now you know it isn’t a classic rip off on account of added convenience but the retailer’s algorithm that adjusts the fee based on the current load. However, keep in mind that the required confirmations depend on the exchange or the wallet processing the transaction. In most cases, one confirmation is considered enough for smaller transactions. However, the majority of Bitcoin wallets won’t facilitate the transaction until it has been confirmed at least three times. For example, Coinbase requires at least 3 confirmations to consider the BTC transaction complete, while Binance looks at the type of transaction and requires 1 block confirmation for deposits and 2 block confirmations for withdrawals.

Complex Equations

Finally, miners need time to solve advanced math equations to confirm a transaction and create a new block as a result. The difficulty level of these equations depend on the transaction hash value, and hence, the more complicated the value, the longer the processing time you can expect. 

How to Unstuck an Unconfirmed BTC Transaction?

Depending on the reason why your BTC got stuck on the network in the first place, there are a few methods that can work out for normal flow. Now that we’re aware of the causes for such delays, you should consider all possible scenarios to fine-tune the final solution. 

Wait for the Transaction

Network overload is the most common reason for unconfirmed incoming transactions, so it wouldn’t hurt to wait a few more hours or days until the blockchain opens a room for new transactions. However, there were some periods when the Bitcoin network took weeks or even months to re-gain processing capacity but note that those were rare incidents in the overall BTC flow.

It can also happen that due to an increase in traffic, the network might forget your transaction and, in such cases, some wallets like MyCelium allow you to delete the old transaction and create a new one — just don’t expect that the network will re-consider the fees you paid with the original transaction. The Bitcoin blockchain isn’t a human-run organisation, so no single transaction can be modified in reverse. Nobody can guarantee that the re-created transaction won’t be accidentally or deliberately rebroadcasted by the sender, recipient, or intermediary. 

The most reasonable first-aid measure for unconfirmed transactions is to do nothing (at first). In fact, the biggest mistake users can make in such cases is to actively rebroadcast the transaction. 

Finally, it’s definitely possible to track your transaction. All you have to do is insert the transaction ID and trace it with a reliable block explorer such as Blockchain.com and Bitcoin Block Explorer.

Replace by Fee (RBF)

This is the most common yet not the most cost-efficient practice to un-stuck your bitcoins, only if the original transaction is labelled as RBF allowed. The Replace by Fee method enables you to replace the low-fee transaction with a “more expensive one” and get higher priority in the blockchain waiting queue. However, not all Bitcoin wallets support this feature, as the RBF protocol will revert every unconfirmed transaction. That’s why the Bitcoin Cash system has fully removed this option describing it as unnecessary and harmful.

The RBF operation is performed via the double-spend method even if the transaction isn’t categorised as RBF. Namely, nodes and miners should ignore higher-fee double-spend transactions, and you can use this practice in your favour by doing exactly so — make a double-spend transaction on purpose with the help of specialised software. This method is very likely to work because your transaction will either end up unnoticed or be deliberately taken with priority by shrewd miners in order to earn higher fees.

Child Pays for Parent (CPFP)

If the reason for your delay is the low-set fees, then you can take advantage of the CPFP method. That is to say – you can “free” the stuck transaction by creating a new one with higher transaction fees and using the funds from the original parent transaction.

Reasonably, miners will go for the more price-attractive transaction, but it would be impossible to validate it until the parent transaction is confirmed. In other words, you’ll use the newly-created transaction as bait in a legit manner. This technique will make miners handle the original transaction first if they want to take the higher transaction fees that are attached to the second transaction.

Remember that you can try this method only after your transaction has been unconfirmed for more than four hours and only if all inputs of the transaction have been confirmed and put in the mempool. Among popular Bitcoin wallets, you will find CPFP support on Electrum or MyCelium.

FAQ 

How to make a fast Bitcoin transaction?

Bitcoin ATMs or BATMs are one of the fastest methods to make a successful BTC transaction. They enable fast purchases of Bitcoin and other popular cryptos like Ethereum (ETH), Litecoin (LTC), and Bitcoin Cash (BCH), making sure that your transaction is always prioritised on the blockchain network. However, you should know that even though you won’t spend more than a few minutes in front of the teller machine, your BTC transaction won’t be finished in less than an hour. Another catch is that BATMs are perhaps the most expensive markets for Bitcoin purchases, with an average commission between 10%-20%. 

Can I have my BTC transaction confirmed in less than 10 minutes?

Technically, it’s possible to finish a single BTC transaction in less than 10 minutes but that’s usually not the case. 

Is it possible to speed up confirmation times?

Remember that speeding up can happen only when your transaction is part of the upcoming block. Some wallets do offer options for cost increases, and they can help a great deal in such a case. Originally though, you couldn’t speed up confirmation times.

A Few Words Before You Go…

The length of processing times is a dragging pain in the BTC reality and perhaps one of its most critical drawbacks, as a 60-minute average is an intolerable timespan for a successful trade in such a highly dynamic world. If you don’t belong to one-off users who’d accept a ridiculously high fee for added convenience, then it needs quite a mastery to be able to adjust the right transaction fee against the current traffic and complete your transaction in a reasonable time.

The biggest step towards fixing this issue is launching wallet addresses in a SegWit format that separate the transaction signatures. Hence, the transaction occupies less data on the Bitcoin network. However, more experts lean towards the side that SegWit is a shallow solution to Bitcoin’s deeply rooted issues, mostly because its implementation isn’t easy, and it’s almost impossible for all wallets to shift fully to this format.

Finally, Bitcoin did make its way to global acceptance as a heavily-transferrable instrument, but it won’t be surprising if slow transactions jeopardise its unparalleled position in the near future.