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How to Recover Bitcoin From Old Storage Formats

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Since the number of different Bitcoin wallet formats only continues to grow, it goes without saying that more people are likely to forget what format they used to store their BTC ten years or more ago!

This guide provides a complete overview for anyone who may have found some old BTC in an obsolete storage format. Don’t give up – there’s still hope you may be able to recover that precious digital gold!

Security Precautions

You should always make at least one backup before performing any of the methods described in this guide. Make sure you’re not working with the original copy of your BTC storage format, as you run the risk of losing what you’re hoping to recover permanently. And when in doubt before doing something – don’t do it.

Don’t trust anybody with your private keys unless you trust that person holding an equivalent amount for you in cash. Don’t rely on your Windows clipboard, as malware can change your BTC address to an alternate one, and checking only the first few characters isn’t guaranteed to catch this.

Malicious websites may try to have you download a compromised wallet – ensure you’re downloading your wallet from the official source, and verify the installer’s signature, or checksum, before installing any downloaded exe’s.

Finally, don’t expose large amounts of BTC by storing it in a hot wallet. A good practice to follow in ensuring utmost security is to assume your system is compromised and act accordingly.

Note: Before attempting to recover your funds, you should already know where to send them after recovery.

Determining a Compatible Wallet

If you have the private key, you can choose from any BTC compatible wallet to import it – Electrum, for example, is an excellent choice. However, if the private key is in the “wrong” format, head to bitaddress.org so you can convert it to WIF or WIF Compressed.

Note: Go offline before entering your private keys into any of the tools listed in this guide.

If you don’t have a private key, you can determine a compatible wallet based on filenames, such as:

  • wallet.dat – this file is for a Bitcoin Core compatible wallet.
  • default_wallet – Electrum compatible wallet. Electrum.
  • bitcoin-wallet-backup-YYYY-MM-DD – Example: bitcoin-wallet-backup-2015-12-31 – use the Bitcoin Wallet, available on Google Play. 

Finally, if you don’t have a private key or a filename, the only recovery method left is by using a seed phrase, otherwise known as a mnemonic phrase, usually 12 to 24 words long.

  • 12-word examplethrive jump wheel calm eyebrow order ankle raven fee narrow diamond adult. 

Use Electrum or this Mnemonic Code Converter to extract all private keys.

  • 24-word example: party describe tunnel brother explain laugh hello have short wood bird desk liar pole neck push wine tooth young mean grain join cheap aisle

Hardware wallets, such as Trezor and Ledger, usually use 24 words. Use the original hardware wallet or the Mnemonic Code Converter to extract all private keys.

Note: A common mistake is using the words in the wrong order if they’re formatted like this, for example:

  • 1 5
  • 2 6
  • 3 7
  • 4 8

If you don’t remember the correct word order, you can use the Mnemonic Code Converter mentioned earlier to extract all private keys. For missing or incorrect words, try seedrecover.py.

Reminder: Remember to use these tools offline!

Further Recovery Methods

Armory Root Key: 18 “words” consisting of 4 letters each

  • 18 four-letter word example: eoaj gghu ruaf ghwe jnrh ftuu hweu aeun agkg tudt waja gunn oawg jkwh dhei hjdn itar naoj

Use Armory to recover your BTC using your 18 four-letter word seed phrase.

Master Private Key:  111 characters, starting with “xprv” (legacy addresses starting with “1”), “yprv” (backward-compatible SegWit addresses starting with “3”), or “zprv” (native SegWit addresses starting with “bc1”).

  • Master private key example: xprv9xyQEZakyfuyCRGF1moJNatpGDAgMS4hgctAgWU4RNw664qCz6agreZParHx6G24td48SZKnmK8 ppSVMvmyBuTy9L4poDhwgm9aR9GukgQW

Use Electrum > create new wallet > enter seed.

No Wallet?

If you can’t find your wallet.dat for whatever reason, you can try these options after ensuring you’ve made a backup of the entire partition where you suspect it to be stored.

  • Pywallet can search for private keys on an entire partition, even with the wallet file deleted.
  • Findwallet can search for a renamed wallet file, but not a delete one.

Beyond Recovery

Use this information at your own risk. At all times, think before each action, especially when you’re dealing with private keys. For future backups, make sure to keep all information needed to recover your funds.

And when in doubt – don’t do it!

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