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Polkadot Protocol Information

This page serves as a high-level introduction to the Polkadot protocol with terminology that may be specific to Polkadot, notable differences to other chains that you may have worked with, and practical information for dealing with the chain.


  • Token decimals:
    • Polkadot (DOT): 10
    • Kusama (KSM): 12
  • Base unit: "Planck"
  • Balance type: u128


Polkadot conducted a poll, which ended on 27 July 2020 (block 888_888), in which the stakeholders decided to redenominate the DOT token. The redenomination does not change the number of base units (called "plancks" in Polkadot) in the network. The only change is that a single DOT token will be 1e10 plancks instead of the original 1e12 plancks. See the Polkadot blog posts explaining the details and the results of the vote.

The redenomination took effect 72 hours after transfers were enabled, at block 1_248_326, which occurred at approximately 16:50 UTC on 21 Aug 2020. You can find more information about the redenomination here.


In Polkadot (and most Substrate chains), user accounts are identified by a 32-byte (256-bit) AccountId. This is often, but not always, the public key of a cryptographic key pair.

Polkadot (and Substrate) use the SS58 address format. This is a broad "meta-format" designed to handle many different cryptographic schemes and chains. It has much in common with Bitcoin's Base58Check format such as a version prefix, a hash-based checksum suffix, and base-58 encoding.

See the SS58 page in the Substrate documentation for encoding information and a more comprehensive list of network prefixes.

Do not use regular expressions (regex) to validate addresses

Always verify using the prefix and checksum of the address. Substrate API Sidecar provides an accounts/{accountId}/validate path that returns a boolean isValid response for a provided address.

Relevant SS58 prefixes for this guide:

  • Polkadot: 0
  • Kusama: 2
  • Westend: 42


Polkadot supports the following cryptographic key pairs and signing algorithms:

  • Ed25519
  • Sr25519 - Schnorr signatures on the Ristretto group
  • ECDSA signatures on secp256k1

Note that the address for a secp256k1 key is the SS58 encoding of the hash of the public key in order to reduce the public key from 33 bytes to 32 bytes.

Existential Deposit​

Polkadot, and most Substrate-based chains, use an existential deposit (ED) to prevent dust accounts from bloating chain state. If an account drops below the ED, it will be reaped, i.e. completely removed from storage and the nonce reset. Polkadot's ED is

, while Kusama's is. You can always verify the existential deposit by checking the [chain state]( for the constant `balances.existentialDeposit`.

For more information about the existential deposit visit the dedicated section in the Accounts page.

Likewise, if you send a transfer with value below the ED to a new account, it will fail. Custodial wallets should set a minimum withdrawal amount that is greater than the ED to guarantee successful withdrawals.

Wallets and custodians who track account nonces for auditing purposes should take care not to have accounts reaped, as users could refund the address and try making transactions from it. The Balances pallet provides a transfer_keep_alive function that will return an error and abort rather than make the transfer if doing so would result in reaping the sender's account.

The existential deposit is a property of the Relay Chain

Your account on the Relay Chain has no direct impact on parachains as you have seperate accounts on each parachain. Still, parachains are able to define an existential deposit of their own, but this is seperate to that of the Relay Chain ED.

Existential deposit for Statemint

The Statemint parachain has a lower existential deposit (0.1 DOT) than the Relay Chain (1 DOT) as well as lower transaction fees. It is highly recommended to handle balance transfers on Statemint. Statemint integration is discussed in the next page of the guide.

Free vs. Reserved vs. Locked vs. Vesting Balance​

Account balance information is stored in AccountData. Polkadot primarily deals with two types of balances: free and reserved.

For most operations, free balance is what you are interested in. It is the "power" of an account in staking and governance, for example. Reserved balance represents funds that have been set aside by some operation and still belong to the account holder, but cannot be used.

Locks are an abstraction over free balance that prevent spending for certain purposes. Several locks can operate on the same account, but they overlap rather than add. Locks are automatically added onto accounts when tasks are done on the network (e.g. leasing a parachain slot or voting), these are not customizable. For example, an account could have a free balance of 200 DOT with two locks on it: 150 DOT for Transfer purposes and 100 DOT for Reserve purposes. The account could not make a transfer that brings its free balance below 150 DOT, but an operation could result in reserving DOT such that the free balance is below 150, but above 100 DOT.

Bonding tokens for staking and voting in governance referenda both utilize locks.

Vesting is another abstraction that uses locks on free balance. Vesting sets a lock that decreases over time until all the funds are transferable.

More info:

Extrinsics and Events​

Block Format​

A Polkadot block consists of a block header and a block body. The block body is made up of extrinsics representing the generalization of the concept of transactions. Extrinsics can contain any external data the underlying chain wishes to validate and track.

The block header is a 5-tuple containing the following elements:

  • parent_hash: a 32-byte Blake2b hash of the SCALE encoded parent block header.
  • number: an integer representing the index of the current block in the chain. It is equal to the number of the ancestor blocks. The genesis state has number 0.
  • state_root: the root of the Merkle tree, used as storage for the system.
  • extrinsics_root: field which is reserved for the Runtime to validate the integrity of the extrinsics composing the block body.
  • digest: field used to store any chain-specific auxiliary data, which could help the light clients interact with the block without the need of accessing the full storage as well as consensus-related data including the block signature.

A node creating or receiving a block must gossip that block to the network (i.e. to the other nodes). Other nodes within the network will track this announcement and can request information about the block. Additional details on the process are outlined here in the Polkadot Spec.


An extrinsic is a SCALE encoded array consisting of a version number, signature, and varying data types indicating the resulting runtime function to be called, including the parameters required for that function to be executed.

Extrinsics constitute information from the outside world and take on three forms:

  • Inherents
  • Signed Transactions
  • Unsigned Transactions

As an infrastructure provider, you will deal almost exclusively with signed transactions. You will, however, see other extrinsics within the blocks that you decode. Find more information in the Substrate documentation.

Inherent extrinsics are unsigned and contain information that is not provably true, but validators agree on based on some measure of reasonability. For example, a timestamp cannot be proved, but validators can agree that it is within some time difference on their system clock. Inherents are broadcasted as part of the produced blocks rather than being gossiped as individual extrinsics.

Signed transactions contain a signature of the account that issued the transaction and stands to pay a fee to have the transaction included on chain. Because the value of including signed transactions on-chain can be recognized prior to execution, they can be gossiped on the network between nodes with a low risk of spam. Signed transactions fit the concept of a transaction in Ethereum or Bitcoin.

Some transactions cannot be signed by a fee-paying account and use unsigned transactions. For example, when a user claims their DOT from the Ethereum DOT indicator contract to a new DOT address, the new address doesn't yet have any funds with which to pay fees.

The Polkadot Host does not specify or limit the internals of each extrinsics and those are defined and dealt with by the Runtime.

Transaction Mortality​

Extrinsics can be mortal or immortal. The transaction payload includes a block number and block hash checkpoint from which a transaction is valid and a validity period (also called "era" in some places) that represents the number of blocks after the checkpoint for which the transaction is valid. If the extrinsic is not included in a block within this validity window, it will be discarded from the transaction queue.

The chain only stores a limited number of prior block hashes as reference. You can query this parameter, called BlockHashCount, from the chain state or metadata. This parameter is set to blocks (about seven hours) at genesis. If the validity period is larger than the number of blocks stored on-chain, then the transaction will only be valid as long as there is a block to check it against, i.e. the minimum value of validity period and block hash count.

Setting the block checkpoint to zero, using the genesis hash, and a validity period of zero will make the transaction "immortal".

NOTE: If an account is reaped and a user re-funds the account, then they could replay an immortal transaction. Always default to using a mortal extrinsic.

Unique Identifiers for Extrinsics​

Transaction Hash is not a unique identifier

The assumption that a transaction's hash is a unique identifier is the number one mistake that indexing services and custodians make. This error will cause major issues for your users. Make sure that you read this section carefully.

Many infrastructure providers on existing blockchains, e.g. Ethereum, consider a transaction's hash as a unique identifier. In Substrate-based chains like Polkadot, a transaction's hash only serves as a fingerprint of the information within a transaction, and there are times when two transactions with the same hash are both valid. In the case that one is invalid, the network properly handles the transaction and does not charge a transaction fee to the sender nor consider the transaction in the block's fullness.

Imagine this contrived example with a reaped account. The first and last transactions are identical, and both valid.

00x01Account A0Transfer 5 DOT to BAccount A reaped
10x02Account B4Transfer 7 DOT to AAccount A created (nonce = 0)
20x01Account A0Transfer 5 DOT to BSuccessful transaction

In addition, not every extrinsic in a Substrate-based chain comes from an account as a public/private key pair; Substrate, rather, has the concept of dispatch β€œorigin”, which could be created from a public key account, but could also form from other means such as governance. These origins do not have a nonce associated with them the way that an account does. For example, governance might dispatch the same call with the same arguments multiple times, like β€œincrease the validator set by 10%.” This dispatch information (and therefore its hash) would be the same, and the hash would be a reliable representative of the call, but its execution would have different effects depending on the chain’s state at the time of dispatch.

The correct way to uniquely identify an extrinsic on a Substrate-based chain is to use the block ID (height or hash) and the extrinsic's index. Substrate defines a block as a header and an array of extrinsics; therefore, an index in the array at a canonical height will always uniquely identify a transaction. This methodology is reflected in the Substrate codebase itself, for example to reference a previous transaction from the Multisig pallet.


While extrinsics represent information from the outside world, events represent information from the chain. Extrinsics can trigger events. For example, the Staking pallet emits a Reward event when claiming staking rewards to tell the user how much the account was credited.

If you want to monitor deposits into an address, keep in mind that several transactions can initiate a balance transfer (such as balances.transferKeepAlive and a utility.batch transaction with a transfer inside of it). Only monitoring balances.transfer transactions will not be sufficient. Make sure that you monitor events in each block for events that contain your addresses of interest. Monitor events instead of transaction names to ensure that you can properly credit deposits.


Polkadot uses weight-based fees that, unlike gas, are charged pre-dispatch. Users can also add a "tip" to increase transaction priority during congested periods. See the transaction fee page for more info.


Parity's integration tools should allow you to deal with decoded data. If you'd like to bypass them and interact directly with the chain data or implement your own codec, Polkadot encodes block and transaction data using the SCALE codec.

Runtime Upgrades​

Runtime upgrades allow Polkadot to change the logic of the chain without the need for a hard fork. A hard fork would require node operators to manually upgrade their nodes to the latest runtime version. In a distributed system, this is a complex process to coordinate and communicate. Polkadot can upgrade without a hard fork. The existing runtime logic is followed to update the Wasm runtime stored on the blockchain to a new version. The upgrade is then included in the blockchain itself, meaning that all the nodes on the network execute it.

Generally there is no need to upgrade your nodes manually before the runtime upgrade as they will automatically start to follow the new logic of the chain. Nodes only need to be updated when the runtime requires new host functions or there is a change in networking or consensus.

Transactions constructed for a given runtime version will not work on later versions. Therefore, a transaction constructed based on a runtime version will not be valid in later runtime versions. If you don't think you can submit a transaction before the upgrade, it is better to wait and construct it after the upgrade takes place.

Although upgrading your nodes is generally not necessary to follow an upgrade, we recommend following the Polkadot releases and upgrading in a timely manner, especially for high priority or critical releases.

Transaction Version Upgrades​

Apart the runtime_version there is also the transaction_version which denotes how to correctly encode/decode calls for a given runtime (useful for hardware wallets). The reason transaction_version is separate from runtime_version is that it explicitly notes that the call interface is broken/not compatible.

The transaction_version is updated in the cases mentioned in the Substrate docs. So when a new transaction version is introduced (during a runtime upgrade), it indicates a breaking change to transaction serialization. In that case, any custom application/tool that constructs & signs transactions should also be updated in order to be compatible with the new transaction version. It is the responsibility of the maintainers of the custom application/tool to keep up with the transaction_version updates. However, if you do not want to keep monitoring these changes yourself, you can also use the txwrapper-core tool that handles these breaking changes for you and allows you to construct transactions using the function names and chain metadata.

Smart Contracts​

The Polkadot Relay Chain does not support smart contracts.

Other Networks​

Besides running a private network, Polkadot has two other networks where you could test infrastructure prior to deploying to the Polkadot mainnet.

Kusama Canary Network: Kusama is Polkadot's cutting-edge cousin. Many risky features are deployed to Kusama prior to making their way into Polkadot.

Westend Testnet: Westend is Polkadot's testnet and uses the Polkadot runtime.

Other F.A.Q.​

Can an account's balance change without a corresponding, on-chain transaction?

No, but not all balance changes are in a transaction, some are in events. You will need to run an archive node and listen for events and transactions to track all account activity. This especially applies to locking operations if you are calculating balance as the spendable balance, i.e. free balance minus the maximum lock.

What chain depth is considered "safe"?

Polkadot uses a deterministic finality mechanism. Once a block is finalized, it cannot be reverted except by a hard fork. Kusama has had hard forks that had to revert four finalized blocks in order to cancel a runtime upgrade. Using a finalized depth of ten blocks should be safe.

Note that block production and finality are isolated processes in Polkadot, and the chain can have a long unfinalized head.

Do users need to interact with any smart contracts?

No, users interact directly with the chain's logic.

Does Polkadot have state rent?

No, Polkadot uses the existential deposit to prevent dust accounts and other economic mechanisms like locking or reserving tokens for operations that utilize state.

What is an external source to see the current chain height?