Why a Top Cryptocurrency Exchange is Technically Illegal in New York City

Cannot operate within a New York zip code.

Flickr / anieto2k

Regulation appears to be coming to the world of cryptocurrency, as online exchanges in China and South Korea have recently been shut down as government regulators rush to ban or at least minimize illegal coin mining.

And here in the United States, particularly in the state of New York — the home of Wall Street and the country’s finance capital — the state seems to be as strict as ever about granting cryptocurrency exchange platforms the legal status to operate.

To date, the New York Department of Financial Services has approved just six firms for virtual currency charters or licenses, while denying those applications that did not meet the department’s standards. What’s odd is that Binance, one of the most popular exchanges this side of Coinbase and perhaps the fastest growing on the planet, has never even applied for the license.

“DFS has not received an application for a license from Binance,” the department confirms to Inverse.

The New York DFS further confirms it “has granted licenses to bitFlyer USA, Coinbase Inc., XRP II and Circle Internet Financial, and charters to Gemini Trust Company and itBit Trust Company.” Coinbase and Ripple, two of the largest exchanges in the market, were issued licenses to operate in New York back in May 2016.

Obtaining a BitLicense boosts the status of a cryptocurrency exchanges, but it doesn’t come cheap: The application alone costs $5,000, with no guarantee of it actually being issued.

Where does this leave Binance, which is currently the fastest growing cryptocurrency exchange in the world, when it comes to New York’s institutional investors?

“The laws in New York state are that if you’re engaging in exchange activities, you need to apply for BitLicense,” Aaron Wright, a professor at Cardozo School of Law in Manhattan and expert on crypto law, tells Inverse. “You have to fill the application and attest to the state before operating.”

So far, it doesn’t appear the department has enforced the rule, but that doesn’t change the fact the exchange and its New York users are at risk. DFS reserves the right to cease the operation, though so far any shutdowns have been voluntary on the part of crypto startups in response to the regulations.

“Some exchanges choose to just ban users from that state,” Wright explains, though the BitLicense law’s broad language makes it difficult to enforce in the wake of cryptocurrency’s explosion.

The rule applies to anyone in New York exchanging or “in custody of” — in other words, trading coins — on behalf of another party. This would include financial firms on Wall Street buying and selling coins.

The lack of BitLicenses being given out isn’t necessarily to prevent New York from becoming the cryptocurrency hub it was once projected to be.

“The original concern was consumer protection,” he says, not to launch crackdowns, as we’ve seen across Asia. The idea was to try to protect residents participating in crypto activity.

Most recently, in November 2017, the regulator issued a BitLicense to Bitflyer, a Japanese exchange specializing in trading and selling bitcoin.

“As New York’s financial services regulator, DFS’s mission is to encourage innovation while protecting markets and consumers,” the DFC’s Superintendent Maria Vullo said of the license approval back then. “As the virtual currency market expands, New York will continue to support technological innovation while enforcing strong state-based regulation.”

Binance’s BitLicense status may not hurt it in the short run. However, Wright notes that blockchain-based technology needs to comply with government regulations in order to be taken seriously by businesses.

For now, Binance users in New York seem to be able to trade without issue.