Mobile payment systems want you to swap your wallet for a phone.

Rather than carrying around cash and cards, just tap your phone to pay. Currently, the three most established systems are from Apple, Samsung and Google, although some wearables from brands like Garmin and Fitbit also offer their own payment systems.

So how do Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and Google Pay compare and which one is best?

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Mobile payments comparison

Samsung Pay Apple Pay Google Pay
Compatible devices Samsung Galaxy S9, S9 Plus, Note 8, S8, S8 Plus, S7, S7 Edge, S6 Edge Plus, Galaxy Note 5, Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge, Gear S2 and S3 Apple iPhone X, iPhone 8/8 Plus, iPhone 7/7Plus, 6/6 Plus, 6S/6S Plus, SE, Apple Watch, MacBook Pro with TouchID, iPad 5th/6th generation, iPad Air 2, iPad Pro and iPad Mini 3 and 4 Android phones with NFC and HCE support running KitKat (4.4) or higher
Availability (see note below) 24 countries worldwide 27 countries worldwide 18 countries worldwide
Authentication Fingerprint, PIN or iris FaceID or fingerprint Fingerprint, PIN, pattern or password
Where can you use? Works with NFC, magnetic stripe or EMV terminals, in-app purchases Works with NFC terminals, in-app purchases and web purchases in Safari Works with NFC terminals and in-app purchases
Cards Credit, debit, loyalty and gift cards Credit, debit and loyalty cards Credit, debit, loyalty and gift cards
Which banks? Wide variety of banks: full list here; PayPal Wide variety of banks: full list here Wide variety of banks: full list Youhere; PayPal

With regards to availability, once you’ve added your cards to one of these mobile wallets you should be able to use them in any country that accepts contactless payments, as long as you would normally be able to use your physical card in that location. In the case of Samsung Pay, that also includes any terminal with a magnetic card reader.

samsungpay-s8-2

When you make a transaction with Samsung Pay, you’ll see a transaction notification pop up.


Lexy Savvides/CNET

Technology and availability

Apple Pay and Google Pay use NFC, or near-field communication, to power contactless payments. Just tap your phone to a compatible terminal and the transaction is complete.

Samsung Pay uses NFC and a technology called magnetic secure transmission (MST). When you hold the phone against any terminal, it emits a signal that simulates the magnetic strip on a card.

This means it works with pretty much all terminals, without the merchant having to update their point of sale systems. The one situation where MST won’t work is when you need to insert a card into a slot, like at a gas station.

Offline payments are also supported on all three platforms, so you can make a limited number of transactions if you have no cell or Wi-Fi signal.

Advantage: Samsung Pay

Security

Mobile payment systems use a method called tokenization to keep card details secure. Once you add your cards to the app, it generates a virtual account number and your real card number is never given to the merchant. When you tap your phone to make a payment, it sends the tokenized card number and a cryptogram that acts like a password. The card network then verifies and processes the payment.

Apple requires you to authenticate using TouchID (fingerprint), FaceID or PIN before a payment can go through.

Samsung requires an iris scan, fingerprint or PIN to confirm purchases.

But Google Pay only needs your phone to be unlocked with fingerprint, password, pattern or PIN before transactions can go through.

If you lose your phone, all three allow you to remotely wipe the device which will also remove all your card details.

Advantage: Apple Pay (though TouchID is still more convenient than FaceID)

google-pay-on-three-screens

The Google Pay interface on a phone.


Google

Other ways to pay

You’re not only tied to the phone. Here’s how you can also use them:

  • Apple Pay: Apple Watch (in stores); on the iPad and Mac (for online purchases).
  • Google Pay: on some Android Wear watches.
  • Samsung Pay: Gear Fit, S2 and S3 (but MST support is only on the Gear S3).

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Apple Pay is available for browser payments in Safari, and you’ll need to authenticate with your fingerprint or FaceID. You can do this from an iPhone or iPad; a MacBook Pro with fingerprint support; or a Mac and verify with an iPhone or Apple Watch.

Google Pay offers browser payments as well in Chrome, Safari and Firefox, but not many online stores use it yet.

Samsung Pay and Google Pay work on the 340,000 sites that use Visa Checkout, if you’re shopping from your phone.

All three services also work when checking out in several apps.

Advantage: All three

apple-pay-cash

Check your Apple Pay Cash balance through the Wallet app.


Jason Cipriani/CNET

Peer-to-peer payments

Apple Pay and Google Pay are the only two services that let you pay friends. Samsung Pay does not currently have a peer-to-peer option.

With Apple Pay Cash, you can send money to contacts with Apple IDs through iMessage. Unfortunately, that means you’re cut off from anyone who doesn’t have an Apple device. Money can be stored on your virtual card in the Wallet app or you can withdraw to your bank account. Apple Pay Cash is only available in the US for now.

You can pay any phone number or email address from the Google Pay Send app or desktop interface. The app works across Android and iOS devices. Like Apple Pay, you can keep a balance or withdraw to your bank account.

Google Pay Send is available in the US, or via pay.google.com for UK users.

Advantage: Google Pay

Which one wins?

Ultimately, choosing one of these payment systems is tied to your ecosystem and availability in your location. For Apple users, your only choice in the real world is Apple Pay, while Android users must use Google Pay. Samsung owners can choose between Samsung Pay or Google Pay — you can have both on your phone, but you will need to set one as the default and change that setting if you want to use the other.

For sheer compatibility across the widest range of terminals, Samsung Pay wins because of MST technology. But paying in supported apps and websites is most seamless with Apple Pay, and Google Pay offers the most flexible way to pay friends, regardless of what phone they use.

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