Lost private keys can be a nightmare scenario for a blockchain wallet owner. Here's what you can do if it happens—and how to prevent it in the first place.
Lost private keys are a nightmare scenario in blockchain, stripping you of your ability to import or restore your wallet onto new devices or software wallets.
We wish we could tell you that when you lose the private key to your blockchain address or crypto wallet, it's an easy, straightforward process to recover it and easily regain access to your funds...
<Morgan Freeman voice> We wish we could tell you that, but private key security is no fairytale world. </Morgan Freeman voice>
So what can you do if you lose your private key(s)?
The actions available to you depend on exactly how much/what you've lost.
If you've lost your private key but still have the hardware wallet and remember the PIN, there's still hope. Transfer your cryptocurrency from the hardware wallet to a blockchain address (or addresses) that you DO hold the private key to.
Do note that this could be a lengthy process. Although hardware wallets can hold multiple cryptocurrencies from different blockchains in one place, you will need to make sure you don't send any of your cryptocurrencies to addresses on different blockchains (i.e., you can't send ERC-20 tokens to a BTC address or BTC to a NANO address).
If you've lost both your seed words AND your device or PIN code, you have several options (NB: we never said they're good options).
You could find yourself a nice comfortable blanket, snuggle up inside it, and have a good cathartic sob session. We all make mistakes; there's no shame in crying.
You could use the time previously devoted to blockchain and cryptocurrency to volunteer in the community, start exercising, or take up a new hobby. Knitting is very in right now.
If you specifically lost the private key AND forgot the PIN code to your hardware wallet, you could:
Or, you could take basic, sensible safety measures to prevent private key loss in the first place.
When it comes to ensuring maximum blockchain wallet safety, getting a hardware wallet is only half the battle. Here's what else you can (and should) do.
Write: Carefully copy down your private key, or, preferably, mnemonic phrase by hand, offline! Storing it electronically or online risks having your private key exposed. Trusty ol' pen-and-paper is always the safest bet with private keys—and for extra long-term piece of mind, use a permanent ink and acid-free paper.
Confirm: Only send a tiny amount of crypto to the address it generates, before deleting the account from your device, and then import to the same device using the private keys you wrote down, to ensure you copied correctly.
Copy: Once you've confirmed that you copied down your private key correctly (i.e., by restoring the same wallet you previously sent the minuscule amount of crypto to), make additional copies of your private key/seed words to hide in different places, so events like natural disasters don't risk you losing all access to your private keys.
Hide: Hide the copies of your private key in different, discrete locations. If you're struggling to come up with a foolproof place, check out our guide on where to hide your hardware wallet for some inspiration.
Laminate: For an extra layer of certainty, lamination/sealing and keeping paper out of direct sunlight is advised to avoid environmental degradation or bleaching.
Use Your Own Paper: Although all hardware wallet companies provide cards for you to write your private key on, it may be advisable to copy yours down on a non-branded card or paper to avoid the list carrying a direct link to cryptocurrency.
Go Metal: If you're willing to invest a bit more in the safety of your private key, you can move beyond paper and look towards alternatives like Cryptosteel or Billfodl that store your seed words on metal sheets resistant to fire and extreme conditions.