I’ll be honest, the first time I heard people were buying Starbucks drinks with their phones, I was skeptical. After all, do we really need to depend on our phones for even MORE things?
But then I started going to the gym, carting two kids around, and manhandling a cart full of groceries while also taking work calls and managing a WFH schedule on my phone. (Plus letting random people touch my credit card suddenly became super yucky.)
And just like that, now I understand the purpose of a digital wallet. It frees us from lugging around cash, credit cards, and debit cards. It’s more secure. Unlike the Starbucks app, a good mobile wallet can be used just about anywhere. And it’s contact-free.
If you’re thinking of taking the leap, here are the best digital wallets out there right now.
iPhone and Mac users, people concerned with privacy
Android users, people who like to track their transactions
People who don’t like banks, crypto users
Friend-to-friend transactions, crypto users
People who live in India or Brazil
People who want to use their existing banking app
The best digital wallets
One of the most convenient things about Apple Pay is that it’s native to all iOS devices. So if you use an iPhone, Mac, or Apple Watch, chances are you already have it. And if you have an Android phone... too bad. You don’t get to use Apple Pay.
Nearly every major banks are compatible with Apple Pay, including Bank of America, Chase, Ally Bank, Capital One, American Express, and more. Just add your credit cards, debit cards, and bank accounts to your wallet. You won’t pay any fees to use the wallet.
Apple Pay also works seamlessly with Apple Cash, so you can do money transfers straight from your digital wallet app or Messages. And it’s not just for paying friends back — Apple Pay works at 85% of U.S. retailers.
Like all things Apple, security is a big deal for Apple Pay. Card information isn’t shared with merchants or stored on your device. Transaction info isn’t even stored or used by Apple, except for fraud prevention and legal reasons.
Google Pay combined the former Google Wallet with Android Pay. Like Apple Pay, you can keep credit cards and debit cards in your Google Pay account so you can pay with a tap. You can also use it to keep loyalty cards, gift cards, and tickets.
One of the big differentiators is that Google positions itself as giving you insights into your spending patterns. You can even link it with Google Photos, presumably to track your receipts.
The nice thing is that Google allows you to earn cashback rewards, which Apple doesn’t do. However, it might be a bit of a trade-off in terms of privacy. Google states it won’t sell your personal info to third parties, but presumably, your data will be used in some way by Google itself. Because yes, it is keeping it.
Google Pay is available for Android devices as well as Apple. But you need an Android phone to use it in stores. You can send money to a phone number or email address, and most major cards and banks are compatible with Google Pay.
Many people use PayPal to sell stuff on eBay or transfer money between friends, or even buy or sell Bitcoin. If you have the app, you can also use it to buy things in a store. However, it won’t transfer money automatically to your bank account; you have to do it manually.
One of the big new things in finance is “buy now, pay later” (BNPL). And PayPal is getting in on that with Pay in 4. It integrates with your existing PayPal account and lets you pay for big online purchases in four smaller payments. They don’t charge interest for this or do a hard credit check.
The downside to PayPal is to buy stuff in stores; you need to open your PayPal app and scan the seller’s PayPal QR code. This seems overly complicated when you compare to Google or Apple’s “tap-to-pay” feature.
You don’t necessarily need a bank account to receive money in PayPal, which is probably why it’s so popular (hello, no annual fees!). Also, it’s worth noting that PayPal is investing pretty heavily in blockchain technology, so be on the lookout for an even more cryptocurrency-friendly environment.
Of course, if you want to transfer funds to a bank or pay with a credit card, you’ll need to add those accounts in the app. (The bank must be in the U.S.) PayPal is compatible with both Android or Apple.
Samsung Pay works like Google Pay. You can tap to pay in-store, make online payments, and earn cashback rewards. You can also store your credit and debit cards, loyalty cards, and gift cards.
One interesting addition to the list of Samsung features is the CommonHealth Vaccine Pass, which can keep a digital version of your COVID-19 vaccination inside the Samsung Pay app.
Samsung also offers similar security features as Google Pay. Authentication options for purchases include scanning your iris or fingerprint or typing in a PIN.
The nice thing with Samsung is that it’s compatible with PayPal for in-store purchases, so you have more payment options. And if you want to connect other cards, they support over 1,000 banks. (But you have to have a Samsung phone to use it.)
Like PayPal, Venmo seems to be branding itself as a non-banky way to handle your money. You can trade cryptocurrency. And you can personalize payments to friends with emojis or notes or even make your payments public if you want.
You can set up your paychecks to be direct deposited into your Venmo account up to two days early. This makes paying for stuff even easier because you don’t need to wait for any transfers.
On the bright side, Venmo does have low merchant fees compared to some credit cards (1.9%+$0.10 of the payment). So while it’s not the lowest out there, you could definitely save your favorite shops some money by choosing this payment method over a traditional card like American Express.
Unfortunately, like PayPal, there is a significant drawback in paying in-store: no tap-to-go. You have to open the app and scan a QR code to pay.
Just like a store credit card, Walmart Pay only works at Walmart. You can download the app to your phone, connect your credit cards and debit card, then use your app to pay at the store.
Like Venmo and PayPal, Walmart Pay uses a QR code to complete your payments. So when you go to check out, you don’t tap your phone to pay. You scan a QR code.
Another downside is you can’t connect a bank account directly to Walmart Pay. So, it’s not as versatile as the other digital wallets because it’s only for spending money at Walmart. For example, you don’t receive money from friends.
That said, it does save your Walmart receipts, and you can connect Walmart Gift Cards. So for frequent Walmart shoppers who want a touchless experience, it may make sense.
Imagine if you are chatting with a friend and need to pay them for something. You could do that on the spot in the app. You could also check your payment status and previous transactions.
To send or receive money using WhatsApp, you can add a debit card or prepaid card to your account. Then send money to anyone on your contact list using the chat, or send money using a QR code to someone who isn’t a contact.
WhatsApp promises to serve small businesses well. That’s because customers who ask a question about a product in WhatsApp will also pay for that product in the same chat.
Right now, WhatsApp Payments is available in Brazil and India but keep it on your radar. It promises no transaction fees, and you can send money directly from one bank account to another.
With Zelle, you can send or receive money using only an email address or phone number. Zelle is really interesting because you don’t necessarily need to download a separate app. Just use the service already embedded within your existing bank’s app.
Payments work between different banks, too. So if you’re trying to send money to someone who uses another bank, that’s okay! If your recipient isn’t enrolled in Zelle, they receive a message explaining how to get it.
Unfortunately, because it’s tied to a bank account, you can’t pay someone with a credit card or gift card. It has to be a debit card linked to a U.S. bank account.
On the upside, though, if your bank account doesn’t offer Zelle yet, you can use Zelle’s app to send or receive money. There’s no fee to send money to friends, and they should get their money directly in their bank account in a few minutes.
Best digital wallets comparison
$0 fee to pay retailers, 3% fee to send money to someone using a credit card
Extra privacy, use with iPhone 8 (or later) or Apple Watch Series 3 (or later), tap-to-pay
$0 fee to pay retailers, $0.41 or 1.5% to send money to friends using debit card
Cashback rewards, links to Google Photos, tracks transactions, tap-to-pay
$0 fee to pay from linked bank accounts, 2.9% + $0.30 fee to send money using credit or debit
Buy now, pay later program in select states, cryptocurrency exchange, QR code scan
Cashback rewards, vaccine record, use with PayPal, tap-to-pay
$0 fee pay from linked bank accounts or debit cards, 3% fee to send money using a credit card
Direct deposit, connects payments to a social feed, QR code scan
Save receipts, QR code scan
$0 fee to pay retailers
Send and receive money in a chat
Already exists in your banking app
What is a digital wallet?
A digital wallet is much like a physical wallet—except you pay for things using software (like a mobile app or smartwatch). You can store your payment information, loyalty information, and coupons in digital wallets. Some use Near Field Communication chips (NFC) for tap-and-go payments. Others use QR codes.
Where can I spend money in a digital wallet?
Depends on the merchant. It’s a growing industry, though, so expect that more and more places you shop will adopt this payment method soon.
Are digital wallets safe?
Typically, yes. Some digital wallets are safer than paying with cash or plastic. Security features that keep financial information safe could include biometric scans, pins, SSL technology and/or Device Primary Account Number (DPAN), depending on the wallet.
Why you should (or shouldn’t) use a digital wallet
Digital wallets are the future, baby. You can make mobile payments using multiple payment methods. They’re convenient and (mostly) safe from fraudsters and germs. They’re expected to be used for one-third of in-store transactions by 2024.
And yes, if you’re obsessed with travel rewards or cashback rewards, you can still get your credit card points when you use a digital wallet. Digital wallets make it easier to optimize your rewards because you can store multiple cards in there and use them wherever you get the most rewards for that card—no fat wallet required.
So the sooner you jump aboard the digital wallet train, the more comfortable you’ll be in 2024.
The bottom line
C’mon, you know you want to be able to leave the house with only your phone in your pocket. The only real downside is that some retailers may not accept digital payment from mobile devices. But if you’re willing to be on the cutting edge of personal finance, and you have an iPhone, Apple Pay is a pretty good bet. Otherwise, go with Google Pay.
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