What is an ERC-20 token?

An ERC-20 token is an Ethereum network asset representation, like company shares, reward points, or cryptocurrency. It's a standard for compatibility and app development.

Previous Section Recap
[In the previous section, we covered smart contract inheritance](). Thanks to inheritance, any contract you write can "inherit" or "derive" specific functionality from an already written contract! That's super powerful and inheritance is widely used to power some of the most functional aspects of the web3 space today.

Here are some inheritance important terms for you to internalize as you become an expert smart contract developer:

  • Multiple Inheritance: A contract can inherit from two or more contracts
  • Base Contract: In a smart contract inheritance chain, the contract all other contracts inherit from
  • Parent Contract: The contract being inherited from
  • Child Contract: The contract inheriting from another contract
  • Derive: The child, or inheriting class, derives from the parent

ERC-20 Tokens Overview

An ERC-20 token is a representation of some sort of asset on the Ethereum network. These could be anything:

  • shares in a company
  • reward system points
  • voting rights
  • cryptocurrency
  • lottery tickets
  • on-chain Chuck E Cheese tokens
  • anything you can think of!

This is what has made Ethereum a popular choice for many different use cases across industries - anyone can tokenize any asset.

Importance of the ERC-20 Token Standard

A key point to understand here is that ERC-20 is a technical standard! 💡


Can you imagine the chaos it would be if every time someone wanted to create a new token, they would create a new variation, containing different variables and methods, every time? This would be the equivalent of creating a different electrical plug 🔌 every time you created a new consumer appliance (ie. microwaves, toasters, etc).

The main use of the ERC-20 standard is to increase the compatibility of the ecosystem. Exchanges like Uniswap are then able to build incredibly powerful applications because they create an infrastructure that supports the ERC-20 interface; this then triggers developers who use the ERC-20 standard to develop, instant compatibility with Uniswap and many other dApps! 🤝 Integration otherwise would be a nightmare.

ERC-20 Token Smart Contract

At the base level, an ERC-20 token smart contract simply uses a mapping to keep track of fungible tokens: any one token is exactly equal to any other token; no tokens have special rights or behavior associated with them.

This makes ERC-20 tokens useful for things like a medium of exchange currency, voting rights, staking, and more... 🗳

In the last section, we also defined a simple Token contract:

contract Token {
    mapping(address => uint) public balances;

That's easy enough and as we covered in 5.1 - Mappings, the $DAI smart contract (which follows the ERC-20 standard!) is basically powered by a mapping that looks exactly the same.

ERC-20 Token Interface

As we covered above, ERC-20 defines a common interface so that any application can use them in a standard way.

This simplifies and eases developers’ tasks, because they can proceed with their work, knowing that each and every new project won’t need to be redone every time a new token is released, as long as the token follows the rules.


This means you can build an app with full knowledge of the ERC-20 token standard and it immediately becomes compatible with any users and builders that are also using ERC-20! 🤝

The interface consists of a number of functions that must be present in every implementation of the standard, as well as some optional.

An ERC-20-compliant token contract must provide at least the following:

  • name, symbol, and decimals are all optional fields
  • totalSupply defines the current circulating supply of the tokens
  • balanceOf will return the balance for a particular user
  • transfer which is the bread and butter, transfer from one account to another
  • approve, transferFrom and allowance are methods for other contracts moving your funds

In solidity, the ERC-20 interface looks like this:

pragma solidity 0.8.4;

interface IERC20 {

    function totalSupply() external view returns (uint256);
    function balanceOf(address account) external view returns (uint256);
    function allowance(address owner, address spender) external view returns (uint256);

    function transfer(address recipient, uint256 amount) external returns (bool);
    function approve(address spender, uint256 amount) external returns (bool);
    function transferFrom(address sender, address recipient, uint256 amount) external returns (bool);

    event Transfer(address indexed from, address indexed to, uint256 value);
    event Approval(address indexed owner, address indexed spender, uint256 value);

In Solidity, you can inherit an interface into your own smart contract. Inheriting an interface means you must define all the methods declare on the interface. This means you can create an ERC-20 compatible smart contract in a flash by simply inheriting the interface via the is keyword. ⚡️ Here is an example of a sample contract inheriting the interface displayed above:

contract MyContract is IERC20 {
    // BOOM, your contract is ERC-20 compatible!

ERC-20 Data Structures

There are two important data structures used by the ERC-20 token standard that we should review:

  1. balances: mapping of token balances, by owner. Each transfer is a deduction from one balance and an addition to another balance.
  2. allowances: mapping of allowances/delegate spending. This is a nested mapping in which the primary key is the address of the token owner which maps to a spender address and the amount delegated to spend.

The allowances mapping will be further covered in a later section! 🧙‍♂️

ERC-20 transfer

In ERC-20 compatible smart contracts, there are two ways to change balances:

  1. transfer: A call to the transfer method is a straightforward call to the contract’s transfer function, taking just one simple transaction.

  2. approve-transferFrom: This way of transferring tokens is covered further in the next section! 👀

Suggested Reading


Thanks to standards like ERC-20, the developer ecosystem can build compatibility in a flash. ⚡️ Are you ready to code up the ERC-20 token standard from scratch? Not just that, you'll also be deploying your very own token to the Göerli test network. LESSSGOOOO! 🔥

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