I have never paid for anything with my phone before. Coffee, transit tickets, groceries, clothes—I typically pay for all of those things with cash or card.
When Samsung announced Samsung Pay, and then Google announced it would essentially rebrand Google Wallet as Android Pay, I realized that I had to change my shopping habits. It wasn’t easy. I’d fluctuate from feeling anxious at the beginning of the transaction to feeling extreme elation once it was successful. Every mobile payment experience was an emotional one.
Paying with my phone through Samsung Pay and Android Pay now feels a little more commonplace. However, even though I’ve become more confident about using either out in the wild, there have been too many situations that have left me feeling like I still can’t completely leave my wallet behind.
My first mobile payment
My first mobile payment experience was with Samsung Pay, which is easy to set up. You just place your credit or debit card on the table and scan it in using the rear-facing camera on your phone. Afterwards, Samsung Pay asks you to verify the security code on the back of the card and, depending on your bank, enter in a security code to verify that you are who you say you are.
Like Android Pay, Samsung Pay uses NFC, but it can also pay for things using a technology called Magnetic Secure Transmission (MST), which Samsung acquired when it bought LoopPay. MST utilizes a magnetic coil located on the inside of the back of the device to emulate a physical card’s magnetic stripe swiping through a swipe reader. The problem is that not many store clerks are aware that this sort of technology exists.
My first transaction with Samsung Pay was at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. I figured I’d try it out with a robot instead of a real person, so I went for a pricey bottle of Dasani at an Internet-connected vending machine.
I swiped up from the bottom of the Lock screen on the Galaxy S6 Edge+ I was wielding, swiped to the left to select the debit card I wanted to use, and then scanned my fingerprint on the Home button to start the transaction. The app gave me about 15 seconds to hold up the phone to the card reader. I did as instructed and the transaction was flawless. The whole thing happened in under a minute.
The experience ramped me up enough to ask a clerk at one of the airport gift shops if she wouldn’t mind holding my phone up to the credit card machine behind the counter when it was time to pay for a mug I was buying for my Dad. She gave me an annoyed look that suggested she clearly wasn’t interested in honoring my request, so I put the phone back in my bag and whipped out my debit card instead.
Two days later, I took Samsung Pay out on a spontaneous shopping trip after work near the Westfield Mall in downtown San Francisco. I went to Forever 21 first. Again, I used to swipe-up-and-fingerprint method to begin paying for two tank tops. As I held the phone up to the credit card reader, the clerk warmed me that Forever 21 doesn’t accept mobile payments. “That’s okay,” I told her. “This uses magnets.” Immediately after I said this, the phone chirped back to confirm that the transaction had gone through. Success! The clerk on the other side of the counter went wide-eyed, and then exclaimed, “I had no idea we could even do that!”
I went to H&M next, Sweden’s third-best import (after IKEA and ABBA, of course). I found a nice work shirt for my fiancé. I brought it up to the counter to pay for it and, again, used Samsung Pay’s nifty Lock screen shortcut to start the transaction. The clerk reminded me that the Swedish Clothing Empire does not take mobile payments. I explained to her that I was in the beta program for Samsung Pay and that I was trying it out. She seemed fine with my experimentation, despite the line that was forming behind me. Then, as the receipt popped up to confirm that the transaction had been successful, the customer behind me remarked, “I guess you learn something new every day!” I was learning how to use Samsung Pay.
My first mobile payment snafu
Banana Republic is where I eventually hit a snag in my impromptu shopping trip. The company uses brand new EMV-enabled credit card readers that allow you to insert your card all the way or swipe it through. Again, I performed the swipe-up-and-fingerprint dance like with the last few transactions. I held the card up to the side of the machine where you’d typically swipe a card. The phone vibrated and then chirped, as if to accept the transaction, but then the credit card reader flashed an embarrassing “DECLINED” on the screen facing me. I asked the clerk to let me try the transaction once more and, again, it chirped that was working, and then denied the payment method. I had no idea what went wrong.
I gave up and took out a different credit card than the one associated with the Samsung Pay app to pay for my items, but I felt defeated. It’s always embarrassing to have a card declined—even virtually. Eventually, I learned that my bank had put a hold on my account for suspicious activity. I called the next day to request that they release the hold, but not without asking the bank representative to explain what activity flagged my card in the first place. The representative told me that three mobile payment transactions in a row within two hours seemed like unusual behavior for my account, especially since I was paying from a phone number that wasn’t mine. (Verizon Wireless wasn’t in the Samsung Pay beta, so Samsung loaned me an AT&T-variant of the GS6 Edge+ to use for this article.)
Fortunately, this isn’t a common occurrence, because it’s unlikely you’d pay with a phone with a different number than the one you have associated with your bank account. I learned that banks have specialized categorization for mobile transactions, too, along with metadata attached detailing which app you used to pay for something. My bank eventually removed the hold and I went back out into the shopping wilderness. I then used Samsung Pay at both CVS Pharmacy and at Daiso, a Japanese dollar store, without a hitch.
I like Android Pay better
After all the excitement with Samsung Pay, it was time to switch to Android Pay. It uses NFC, so if you don’t have an NFC-enabled phone, you won’t get much use out of the app. And, since Google acquired Soft Card earlier this year, three of the four major carriers already support Android Pay. All you have to do is download it from the Google Play Store.
I didn’t start my mobile payment excursion with Android Pay because I didn’t expect it to be accepted at as many places. I was soon surprised to learn that a majority of the big box shops and small businesses I frequented accept NFC payments—they just don’t openly advertise it.
I started with Android Pay at two of my favorite places to shop in San Francisco: a clothing store called Ambiance in Noe Valley, and the ever-eclectic Green Apple Books in the Inner Richmond. Both stores have NFC-enabled credit card machines and both transactions went off without a hitch. I turned on NFC from the Quick Settings, fired up the app from my Home screen (no special Lock screen shortcut here, unfortunately), tapped on my debit card at the top of the app screen, and held it up to the credit card machine. There was no chirp or vibration to alert me the transaction had gone through, however; instead, I had to look to the clerk’s face for confirmation, and then wait for the receipt to start printing.
It was difficult to find an NFC-enabled payment terminal once I headed back out toward the suburbs, though. I live in a relatively small town populated by family-owned coffee shops, antique stores, and hair salons, so it was a drag finding a place that took Android Pay outside of major retailers.
So, why did I like Android Pay better? Because it just works. I know that’s the marketing spiel of Samsung Pay, but my experience showed that it was not always the case. In one situation—which you can watch in the video attached above—I was trying to buy dry shampoo from a blow dry salon, and though the magnet in the card reader saw the GS6 Edge+ as a credit card, the transaction wouldn’t stick. The receptionist had no idea what to do, and I had no idea what to do, so I just left without any product. Neither of us could troubleshoot the problem and I realized I should have just whipped out my credit card in the place.
NFC is more straightforward. If a retailer accepts it, you’ll see the NFC symbol stamped on top of where you’re supposed to hover your phone. And if something goes wrong, chances are that the clerk on the other side has already been briefed on common issues—or at the very least, they can call on a manager who has.
How secure are mobile payments?
Both Samsung Pay and Android Pay shield your credit card number from the merchant by way of tokenization. Special one-time use codes are swapped between your phone and the reader, preventing the merchant from ever even getting your credit card number. If they're hacked, you've got nothing to fear, because they don't have your card number. My bank also shows the phone number associated with each transaction so that I know which device I used to pay for something.
Returning items with either Samsung Pay or Android Pay is exceptionally easy—assuming the transaction went off without a hitch in the first place, though you have to use the same payment app and card you used for the original transaction because of the tokenization. The returns seem to take longer to process with the bank, however. I am still waiting for a return I did at Green Apple Books to be processed on my account.
The verdict is still out
Samsung Pay and Android Pay are both supposed to offer a log of transactions you’ve made throughout a card’s lifecycle within their respective applications. Unfortunately, neither of the apps offered that. It’s possible that this not not a feature my bank supports just yet. Regardless, my only indicator of a successful mobile transaction was a paper receipt.
This is just another example of why mobile payments are not the utopian way to pay for things just yet. There’s still so much work that needs to be done before they’re as commonplace as hailing a ride with an app, for instance, or paying a friend back for dinner with an app like Venmo.
Samsung still needs to educate retailers and small shops on what MST actually is before it goes full-fledged with its mobile payments advertising campaign. Also, while Android Pay can store loyalty cards and gift cards—and Samsung Pay will, eventually—it won’t store transit payment cards, like the Bay Area’s Clipper card. Some Mom and Pop shops, like a costume shop in my small town, still do credit card imprints, too, so unless you live near a bigger city, you might have a tough time finding a store that even takes mobile payments.
Over the coming year, chip-and-pin credit cards will become the norm, and stores will update to EMV-enabled card readers to support them. Most of these credit card terminals will also support NFC. By the time these machines become more mainstream, store clerks won’t be so freaked out about people paying with their phones, and customers and retailers alike will become less frustrated about this new technology infiltrating our lives. But for now, you’ll have to keep taking your wallet along with you as backup.