CEXs Explained: Understanding Centralized Cryptocurrency Exchanges

Peter Zoltan
| Editor:
Joseph Kennedy
April 8, 2024
7 min read

Centralized cryptocurrency exchanges (CEXs) like Binance and Coinbase offer a convenient entry point into the world of cryptocurrencies. For many people, these platforms offer a user-friendly experience similar to traditional stock exchanges, allowing you to buy, sell, and trade various digital assets with ease. 

While CEXs hold significant advantages for convenience and beginner accessibility, understanding the difference between centralized and decentralized exchanges (DEXs) is useful knowledge. Put simply, when using centralized exchanges, you entrust the platform to manage your funds and facilitate trades. This is notable different from DEXs, where users maintain complete control of their cryptocurrency assets. 

Binance is the leading CEX by many metrics and boasts millions of users worldwide. Source: Binance

How CEXs Work

At their core, CEXs act as intermediaries between buyers and sellers of cryptocurrencies. Unlike decentralized exchanges, where trades are executed directly between users (peer-to-peer), CEXs maintain control over funds and manage the transactions through their platform. This centralized model enables CEXs to offer a user-friendly experience that draws in many newcomers to crypto.

Understanding Order Books

The heart of a CEX is its order book. An order book is essentially a live record of all open buy and sell orders for a particular cryptocurrency pair (e.g., BTC/USDT). When a buyer's bid price matches a seller's asking price, the exchange automatically executes the trade. The depth of an order book determines the liquidity of a market – more orders mean tighter spreads between the buyers' prices and sellers' prices.

An example of a CEX order book. Source: Bitmart

Market Makers: Ensuring Liquidity

Market makers play a crucial role in maintaining smooth trading on CEXs. These can be individuals, professional firms, or even the exchange itself. They strategically place both buy and sell orders at close intervals across a range of prices, providing liquidity to the market and ensuring there's always a counterparty for your trades. Market makers help tighten bid-ask spreads, reducing slippage (the difference between the expected and executed price of a trade).

Here’s an example:

  • A market maker may place a buy order for 1 BTC at $25,000 and a sell order for 1 BTC at $25,010. This narrows the gap between buyers and sellers, allowing traders to execute their orders more quickly and at prices closer to the current market value.

Market makers earn profits via the bid-ask spread and sometimes through incentives offered by exchanges. In return, they provide the essential service of facilitating smooth trading and reducing price volatility for other users on the exchange.

Account Creation and KYC

To utilize a CEX, you typically need to create an account and go through KYC (Know Your Customer) verification. This usually involves providing personal identification from regulated entities, such as a national ID card, a driving license, or your passport. The level of KYC check required varies depending on the platform and your jurisdiction. In some cases, you may also need to provide proof of address and a source of funds. 

Depositing & Withdrawing Funds on CEXs

Once verified, you can deposit funds into your exchange account. Most major CEXs support both fiat currencies (USD, EUR, etc.) and a range of cryptocurrencies. 

Deposits and withdrawals often incur fees and processing times can vary depending on the method and the currencies involved. It’s advised to familiarize yourself with both the deposit and withdrawal options available on a CEX before you sign up, to avoid depositing funds that you cannot later easily withdraw.

Advantages of CEXs

Centralized exchanges offer several distinct benefits that have made them a popular choice for crypto trading, particularly among beginners and those prioritizing convenience:

  • Ease of Use: CEXs often boast intuitive interfaces and streamlined onboarding processes. This design resembles familiar online banking or trading platforms. Buying, selling, and trading crypto on a CEX can be a relatively straightforward experience for those new to the space.
  • Fiat Onramps: Most major CEXs allow you to purchase cryptocurrencies directly using fiat currencies (USD, EUR, etc.). This is often done through credit/debit card deposits, bank transfers, or third-party payment providers. These fiat gateways provide a crucial entry point for many people purchasing their first cryptocurrencies.
  • Liquidity: Due to their large user bases, CEXs enjoy deep liquidity pools on popular trading pairs. This means larger orders can be filled easily without drastically impacting the market price. Additionally, tighter bid-ask spreads mean potentially less slippage on your trades.
  • Additional Features: Many CEXs offer a variety of features beyond basic spot trading, including:some text
    • Margin Trading: Borrowing funds to amplify potential returns (and risks).
    • Derivatives: Futures and options contracts for advanced hedging and speculation.
    • Staking: The opportunity to earn interest on certain cryptocurrencies.
    • Lending/Borrowing: Platforms where users can lend their crypto to earn interest or take out loans.

It's important to note that feature availability varies between different CEXs. Combining these factors makes centralized exchanges attractive options for new and experienced crypto traders.

Disadvantages of CEXs

While CEXs offer advantages, it's essential to weigh the accompanying tradeoffs:

The Custodial Risk of Centralized Exchanges

Perhaps the most significant drawback of a CEX is that when using it, you don't directly control your cryptocurrency. The phrase “Not your keys, not your crypto” originates from this understanding. When you deposit funds into an exchange, you essentially give up custody of your private keys. This means the exchange holds and manages your crypto on your behalf. 

Unfortunately, this custodial relationship between your funds and the CEX creates the risk of loss due to hacks, security failures, or even internal mismanagement by the exchange itself. History is rife with examples, such as Mt. Gox, Cryptopia, and, more recently, the collapse of FTX, which highlight the dangers of trusting centralized entities with your funds.

Security & Regulatory Risks

  • Hacks and Exploits: CEXs, as large repositories of cryptocurrency, make attractive targets for hackers. Although security measures have improved in recent years, attacks remain a risk.
  • Regulatory Uncertainty: Cryptocurrency regulations vary significantly between jurisdictions and are constantly evolving. This can lead to sudden operational changes, asset freezes, or even full shutdowns of exchanges depending on the regulatory environment.

CEX Fees

CEXs operate as businesses, and they generate revenue through fees. These can include:

  • Trading Fees: Charged on each trade you execute.
  • Deposit/Withdrawal Fees: These may apply when moving funds in/out of the exchange.
  • Other Fees: Inactivity fees, margin trading fees, etc.

These fees can accumulate, especially with active trading. Be sure to understand a platform's fee structure before using it.

Popular CEXs

Leading centralized exchanges process billions of dollars in cryptocurrency trading volume every week. Let's take a brief look at three of the most popular CEXs in the market:

Binance: The world's largest cryptocurrency exchange by trading volume, Binance boasts a massive selection of cryptocurrencies and an array of advanced trading features. It's known for its relatively low trading fees, two quality native blockchains ecosystem (Binance Smart Chain and BNB Chain), and popular native tokens (BNB, BUSD, and BSC).

Coinbase: Coinbase stands out for its user-friendly interface and emphasis on regulatory compliance. It's a great choice for beginners seeking a streamlined experience. While its selection of cryptocurrencies is smaller than some competitors, it includes a unique "Coinbase Earn" program for educational rewards.

Kraken: A well-respected, security-focused exchange, Kraken offers a variety of crypto assets and suits both novice and experienced traders. It's known for its responsive customer support and commitment to regular security audits, both helping to build user trust.

The leading CEXs regularly clock over $1 billion in 24-hour trading volume. Source: CoinGecko

Final Thoughts on CEXs

CEXs remain a crucial part of the cryptocurrency landscape. They offer accessibility, liquidity, and, often, an array of features valuable to both new and experienced traders. However, it's essential to remember that centralized exchanges involve a tradeoff: convenience in exchange for full custodial control of your cryptocurrency holdings. 

Always research an exchange thoroughly, understand the risks, and never store more funds on a CEX than you're comfortable potentially losing. As the crypto industry evolves, the balance between centralized and decentralized solutions will continue to be a point of discussion and innovation.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this blog is for informational purposes only and does not constitute financial advice. Cryptocurrency markets are highly volatile; always conduct thorough research and invest at your own risk.

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