Tap Or Scan Here To Pay: Know Your Mobile Payment Apps

Image courtesy of Mike Mozart

Mobile wallets and payment apps: they’re supposed to make it simpler and easier to pay for stuff, or at least let us grab lunch when we’ve forgotten our wallet. Yet there’s now a wide variety of payment apps out there, including systems that are only for one brand of phone (Samsung Pay, Apple Pay) or only for one retailer (Walmart Pay). Which can you use for what purpose? Which is compatible with ancient smartphones?

Why are some retailers and consumers so excited about mobile payments? While adoption has been slow, there are advantages for everyone in using mobile wallets. For merchants, mobile payments offer faster checkout (once shoppers in general figure out how to use mobile payment terminals) and integration of loyalty and rewards cards right inside the mobile app. That allows stores to collect more information about you and your shopping habits.

Some systems (see CurrentC below) also offer merchants the very tempting possibility of avoiding credit and debit card processing fees by extracting mobile payments right from customers’ bank accounts.

For consumers, mobile payments don’t just offer the possibility of being able to buy lunch even if you forgot to bring your wallet to work, even if that is a useful selling point. Mobile payments also offer a measure of security that plastic cards and even chip (EMV) cards don’t. Mobile payments in stores use a system called tokenization that means the system the merchant never has your actual card number, which is one defense against having your information harvested in a data breach.

Most banks here in the US have elected not to require customers to type in a PIN when making credit card purchases, which means anyone who finds your card if you drop it on a sidewalk can make purchases with it. Signatures aren’t secure: no one at my bank is going to notice whether a thief scrawls “Larrrro Nrrtrrr” differently than I do. Mobile payments are only accessible with a password, PIN, or thumbprint.

Note: This information is current as of today, February 2, 2016. For all we know, there could be three new mobile payment systems announced by the end of the day. We aren’t listing apps that individuals use to send money to each other: that might be a topic for a future post.

Android Pay

Who owns it? Google, the company behind the Android operating system, runs Android Pay.

How do I fund it? You add your credit or debit card from a participating bank, then make purchases using a virtual version of the cards.

How does it work? Android Pay uses near field communication, which not all Android phones have. You unlock your device — using a PIN, password, or fingerprint — then hold your phone up against the NFC reader on a payment terminal. After a moment, you receive an indicator that the payment was successfully processed. A receipt for the transaction is sent later via email.

Where can I use it? You can use it to pay for things within apps on your phone, and also in a wide variety of real-life stores and even some vending machines. Most of the major mobile phone carriers (AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon) accept payments through the service, too.

Apple Pay

Who owns it? Apple. It’s exclusive to the iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch, though you can’t use iPads to make purchases in stores.

How do I fund it? You add your credit or debit card from a participating bank, then make purchases using a virtual version of the cards.

How does it work? When making purchases in stores, Apple Pay uses NFC. The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus and newer have this capability, and people with slightly older phones can make payments using an Apple Watch. Hold your phone up to the receiver and confirm using your thumbprint or PIN, and the transaction will go through using your default card.

Where can I use it? A wide variety of national retailers accept it: for example, Apple Stores (of course), Best Buy, Kohl’s, Macy’s, McDonald’s, Panera, RadioShack, Sephora, Toys”R”Us, and Walgreens/Duane Reade. You can also use it anywhere that you see an Apple Pay or contactless payment logo on a door or payment terminal.


Who owns it? Merchant Customer Exchange, a coalition of retail chains that includes companies like 7-Eleven, Best Buy, CVS, Hobby Lobby, the Gap family of stores, Lowe’s, Sears Holdings, Target, and Walmart. Merchants originally had to agree to remain loyal to CurrentC, but after those agreements expired, many have started to accept other mobile payment systems. Oh, and the system was hacked even before it was rolled out.

How do I fund it? CurrentC allows gift cards and store charge cards, but they currently plan to only use ACH, direct debits from your checking account. This lets merchants get around credit and debit card fees.

How does it work? It works by generating a QR barcode for payment on the cashier’s screen, which the customer scans using the CurrentC app. The app is secured with a passcode. This system makes it available on older phones than NFC payment options, but less convenient to use.

Where can I use it? Columbus, OH. No, really: that’s the beta test market. You can download the app for iOS and Android now, but good luck finding a place to use it outside of Columbus.


Who owns it? PayPal, and you can use their payments app to make online payments, pay people you know, and make payments in participating stores by “checking in” using the app.

How do I fund it? With your PayPal account, which can be funded using your checking account, credit or debit cards, or the balance from money that other people or companies send you. PayPal prefers that you use your checking account or have a balance, though, so they don’t have to pay fees.

How does it work? The process in a real-life store is confusing, and involves checking in using the app, which you can do while not physically inside the store.

Where can I use it? We have no idea. Their service to locate participating merchants is down.

Samsung Pay

Who owns it? Electronics giant Samsung, and it’s available only to users of some models of Galaxy S5 and S6 phones.

How do I fund it? You add credit or debit cards to your Samsung mobile wallet. You can see on this page whether your bank or credit union participates.

How does it work? Similar to NFC competitors Android Pay and Apple Pay, but the service has some advantages that make Samsung Pay more appealing to Galaxy owners, who would also be able to use Android Pay. You can use Samsung Pay on just about any modern credit card terminal: the phone emits a magnetic signal which the card reader can recognize as the same as a card swipe. The app unlocks with a thumbprint.

Where can I use it? On pretty much any card reader that doesn’t require you to physically slide a card through, meaning that merchants don’t have to sign up or buy the equipment to accept NFC payments.

Walmart Pay

Who owns it? Walmart, which was originally a leader of the coalition behind CurrentC.

How do I fund it? You add credit cards, debit cards, prepaid cards, or Walmart gift cards to your wallet within the app.

How does it work? Like CurrentC, you scan a QR code at the register to start a payment session. The Pay module is part of the Walmart app, which the company says 22 million people already have and use.

Where can I use it? Walmart, naturally.

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.