While virtual currencies like Bitcoin are gaining popularity, there is still lack of clarity on how they should be taxed. Many buyers of cryptocurrencies, therefore, don’t pay on the gains they make on selling them.

Software developer Pawan Bharti recently sold Bitcoin worth Rs 55,000 after his investment doubled. “Neither my friends nor I am aware that we need to pay on these gains,” said Bharti. He is planning to invest the money in fixed-income instruments.

Tax experts, however, say that investors are obliged to pay tax on their gains in virtual currencies. “What investors don’t realise is that the Income Tax Act may not cover the taxation of virtual currencies specifically,” said Archit Gupta, chief executive officer, ClearTax. “But there are provisions that cover all kinds of income and gains.” The definition of capital assets under Section 2 (14) is broad enough to include any investment in crypto currencies.

The taxation of virtual currencies will depend on the purpose for which an individual buys it, say experts. If a person has purchased a virtual currency to pay for goods, then there should be no tax. It’s as good as cash in the wallet that one uses for transactions. But the use of virtual currencies for such payments is less common. Most people buy it to make a profit on price changes.

Any profit arising out of the sale of virtual currencies can be construed as capital gains, according to tax experts. “Accordingly, the capital gains tax will be applicable depending upon the holding period of such investments,” said Suresh Surana, founder, RSM Astute Consulting Group.

If these are held as an investment for three years or more, the gains will be considered as long-term capital gains. The investor will need to pay 20% tax after considering indexation benefit. If an individual sells it within a shorter time period, the gains will be treated as short-term capital gains. The profit will be clubbed with the investor’s income and he will have to pay tax depending on his income tax slab.

If the transactions in bitcoins are substantial and frequent, it could be said that the individual is trading in bitcoins. The tax treatment would then change and the gains made would be considered as business income. It means the tax is payable according to the applicable slab rates of the investor. There is no clear definition of what constitutes “frequent” transactions. Tax experts say it would vary from case to case. If it is a business income, the investor would also need to pay advance tax, failing which there would be a penalty.

What many don’t realise is that the authorities can easily track the transactions in virtual currencies. “All virtual currency exchanges onboard customer after complying with the KYC [Know Your Customer] requirements. There’s also a banking trail to all transactions,” said Saurabh Agrawal, co-founder and CEO of Bitcoin exchange Zebpay.

If you have not paid taxes on Bitcoin transactions, then the income tax authorities may send a notice asking you to explain the gains reflected in your bank account. The assessing officer will then give an opportunity for you to revise the returns and pay applicable tax.

In case you have losses, tax experts say don’t set them off or carry them forward. Many expect Central Board of Direct Taxation to notify rules on taxation of virtual currencies soon.

Bitcoin debut on stock exchange

Bitcoin made its debut on a major bourse on Sunday, opening at $15,000 per unit at the Chicago board options exchange.

Around 11:20 GMT, the price of the currency had risen to $15,940 dollars on a futures contract scheduled for settlement on January 17 according to data provided by the Chicago board options exchange. This was still far short of its highs of $17,000 on other non-regulated online platforms last week.

The Cboe website was down at the time of the debut.

This article first appeared on Business Standard.