The companies behind the world’s bitcoin ATM networks say their market is alive and well.
Matias Goldenhörn, director of Latin America operations at the ATM
operator Athena Bitcoin, told CoinDesk that such ATMs are “becoming a
real alternative to banks” for diverse users in emerging markets.
“The machines have proven resilient to the price fluctuations,” he said.
Indeed, Coin ATM Radar estimates there are now 4,213 cryptocurrency ATM
machines deployed worldwide, most of which strictly offer bitcoin,
compared to roughly 471 machines worldwide in January 2015. Now that
some of these machines also include support for a wide array of digital
assets, they offer a conduit for participation in broader cryptocurrency
markets without relying solely on web-based exchanges.
Jorge Farias, a Venezuelan expat and CEO of the Panama-based startup
Cryptobuyer, told CoinDesk that demand for bitcoin ATMs to support
cryptocurrencies like dash and flash is largely driven by sponsored
educational initiatives in Latin America – some of which literally give
away small amounts of crypto to prospective users in emerging markets
like Venezuela, which is currently roiled by crippling financial and
That’s why Farias is preparing to open Venezuela’s first bitcoin ATM in
Caracas in early February, which will include support for other
cryptocurrencies as well. The machine is already operational. But Farias
said for safety reasons it’s important for the current unrest and
surging demand for bitcoin to settle down slightly before the public
Moe Adham, cofounder of the crypto ATM retailer BitAccess, told CoinDesk
such multi-asset machines provide near-instant liquidity for
cryptocurrencies that were otherwise difficult for many users to
“If you earn some other cryptocurrencies through one of these
decentralized networks, you can cash it out,” Adham told CoinDesk,
“The bitcoin ATM industry is kind of coming into its own now. … We
can provide access to different cryptos with bitcoin as the settlement
This combination of market demand and new technical capabilities has
allowed ATM machines to become an anomaly in the broader industry: a
sector where usage and profits are actually growing.
Although the majority of bitcoin ATMs are currently located in North
America, demand from Latin American markets is growing at a breakneck
pace, operators say.
According to Goldenhörn, Athena Bitcoin earned $3 million in net profits
in 2018, after installing 25 new machines in Latin America, in part
because of the Venezuelan diaspora in Colombia and Argentina spreading
awareness of how unbanked people can still use bitcoin ATM machines.
“In the U.S., our clients predominantly use our machines to buy
bitcoin,” Goldenhörn said. “In Colombia for example, it’s the other way
around, people use the ATM to withdraw cash.”
Several of these machines are located inside Latin American Walmart
Superstores. If Athena Bitcoin is able to raise a $7 million Series A
round – for which the Chicago-based startup is currently fundraising –
then Goldenhörn said the plan is to deploy up to 150 new bitcoin ATMs
across Latin America in 2019. And his company isn’t the only startup to
recognize the opportunity in the region.
When inflation rates in Argentina rose above 46 percent in 2018 – not to
mention Venezuela’s staggering economic crisis – Farias raised an
undisclosed amount from South African venture capital firm Invictus
Capital to launch a new sector of his business with six bitcoin ATMs in
Farias aims to build a transnational network by working with Lamassu and
General Bytes as manufacturing partners and the e-commerce giant
MercadoLibre for prime locations, since MercadoLibre has branches across
Latin America that allow people to deposit cash for store credit and
transfer credits or fiat value to cryptocurrency wallets.
In 2019, Cryptobuyer plans to open 10 more ATMs in Argentina, 10 in
Mexico and 10 in Venezuela, since Farias said inflation boosted demand
for bitcoin access among local unbanked communities.
“The focus right now is on Mexico and Argentina, which have major
immigrant populations from Venezuela,” Farias said. “This lady of 65
years came to one of our [Panama] locations one day with a piece of
paper, a QR code printed, and she said to use that her son in Venezuela
said with this paper I can send him money.”
For small transaction amounts, this remittance methodology appears to
fly under the scope of money transmission regulations in Panama.
However, Farias admitted his team is often in contact with local
regulators because the compliance landscape could shift in the near
“They allow us to work because there isn’t a specific regulation right
now, so we are always looking out for new regulations,” he said.
Meanwhile, BitAccess will soon roll out support options for up to 70 tokens across its product lines.
BitAccess co-founder Adham told CoinDesk that aside from bitcoin,
ethereum, litecoin and tron saw the most demand from operators and
users. He also added that 2018 was the first time his company –
originally founded in 2014 – noticed ATM usage was decoupling from the
bitcoin’s market volatility.
“The price was decreasing but demand was increasing month over month,”
Adham said, speaking of an uptick that has lasted since July 2018.
For example, demand and usage related to BitAccess machines grew more
than 9 percent in November 2018, despite bitcoin’s market price sinking
below $6,000. Plus, the average buy and sell amounts have both remained
relatively constant since March 2018 – around $100 and $250,
BitAccess’ 242 machines are predominantly located in North America and
Europe, with four machines located in Vietnam. Sellers with a more
international client base, like the Switzerland-based retailer Lamassu,
have also noticed demand is growing more quickly in Asia, the Middle
East and Latin America.
“Singapore has been very popular with us, Malaysia as well,” Lamassu CEO
Zach Harvey told CoinDesk. “Israel as well, we probably had only one
bitcoin ATM until 2018. Now we have 20 machines in Israel.”
But as more people use bitcoin ATMs to convert cash and transact across
borders, the opaque regulatory landscape presents ever-steeper hurdles.
Last October, Indian police arrested the co-founder of the Indian
exchange Unocoin after the company opened a multi-asset cryptocurrency
ATM in Bangalore. Unocoin co-founder Sathvik Vishwanath, who has since
been released because he did not break any particular law, told CoinDesk
that police confiscated the machine because it was unclear whether
operators required a license.
“We await the judgment regarding the lifting of this restriction by the
Supreme Court,” Vishwanath said, adding that he expects a ruling by the
end of February.
Such regulatory complexities are compounded by questions about whether
certain cryptocurrencies classify as unregistered securities according
to local laws.
In Adham’s case, he said that although BitAccess is merely a retailer
and responsibility lies with owners and operators, his company still
worked with legal counsel to review tokens and make sure ATM machines
only supported assets that were already accessible on other platforms in
“Then the question of securitization is very scary,” Adham said, adding:
“There’s not anyone who is entirely certain of where the cards are
going to fall on this. … Are there other reputable companies that are
offering these tokens? And do they have clearly listed statements about
why they are listed?”
Both Harvey and Goldenhörn said they also have to take a unique approach
to compliance in each jurisdiction and created a legal review process
for both themselves and their partners, even if the burden of
responsibility eventually falls on another operator or landlord.
“These systems, which started out as very simple, are becoming very,
very complex,” Harvey said, noting that Lamassu machines offer the
ability for operators to support ethereum, bitcoin cash, zcash, litecoin
and dash. “Depending on which jurisdiction you’re in, there are
All things considered, Adham said that his company was “cash flow
positive” for the past four quarters and growing demand creates economic
incentives to innovate in this space.
“I don’t think that compliance is the No. 1 hindrance,” he said. The
biggest challenge, in his mind, is finding and targeting sources of real
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