This story was originally published and last updated .
If you're less than excited to whip out our credit cards or touch a PIN pad at the store, you're not alone: contactless payments are on the rise in America, especially right now. You might have heard about one or both of the major contactless payment providers on Android, Google Pay and Samsung Pay, but you might be familiar with what makes each distinct. While both do offer the same basic tap-to-pay NFC functionality, there are some differences in their ease of use, support for alternate contactless payment standards, and in the apps themselves. Here's how to figure out which one is best for you.
If you've got an Android phone, you can use Google Pay. However, you need NFC to make mobile payments with the app. There are still some budget phones that lack an NFC chip (like the Moto G, bizarrely), but most phones have them. If you can check that box, using Google Pay is easy. You need a secure lock screen or biometrics like fingerprint scanning set up on your device, but there are plenty of reasons you should have that regardless of your mobile payment usage. After unlocking, just tap your phone on the payment terminal, and your preferred card will beam over.
The setup process and the app itself are faster and less annoying than Samsung Pay. Plus, Google Pay works with almost any card in the US. Most of the newly added banks these days are smaller local networks and credit unions, and they just keep on coming. At this point, there are so many supported banks that it's becoming hard to find ones that aren't listed. Google Pay also has support for membership cards, gift cards, and even transit passes in a few places. Some airlines have added plane tickets, too.
The most notable drawback of Google Pay is that it only works at stores that have NFC enabled on the payment terminals. That used to be exceedingly rare, but it's gotten more widespread in the last few years, especially in the US. The good news is that NFC-enabled terminals will usually understand your card without any additional button presses or PIN codes. The low failure rate means mobile payments can actually save you time.
NFC payments are, despite what you may hear, highly secure. As long as your phone's lockscreen is set up in a reasonably difficult-to-bypass way, NFC is actually more secure than using a physical credit card. That's not just because of the extra authentication layer, but because your true credit card number is not stored on your phone at all with NFC payments. Instead, a virtual card number is assigned to you, which is what the card reader sees when you use tap-to-pay, making your real card number much harder to compromise as the point of sale level.
To use Samsung Pay, you will, of course, need a Samsung phone. Maybe you already have one, or perhaps you're thinking about buying one and Samsung Pay looks like a good selling point. You might prefer Samsung's option to Google's because it can work on almost any payment kiosk. Samsung's flagship phones use MST (Magnetic Secure Transmission) technology to push the magnetic stripe data from your card to the terminal. It also supports NFC and can transmit via both standards at the same time.
After adding your card (Samsung Pay supports almost as many cards as Google), you can initiate a payment from the lock screen or home screen with a swipe up gesture. Samsung has an extra security step to make a payment, but it's easier to switch between multiple cards than it is with Google. However, some non-NFC payment terminals behave oddly when you beam over magstripe data with MST. They won't know what kind of card you "swiped," and you'll have to either put in a PIN code or process as credit. One option might work fine, but the other will come up denied, and it's hard to know which is which.
Additionally, Samsung pay does occasionally seem to struggle with some NFC terminals, perhaps because of the simultaneous MST/NFC transmission. In our experience, it's also just a little slower to use: there's an extra step to launch it, and it seems a bit less responsive than Google Pay, which is almost always instant the moment you put it over the NFC reader. Finally, while the MST tech for old terminals is a great bonus (and could definitely tip the scales for the right person), it doesn't play nicely with dip-style readers that require a fully-inserted card to process a transaction. These kinds of readers are the ones you'll find at places like gas stations, ATMs, and some public transit kiosks.
Like Google Pay, Samsung Pay has support for gift and membership cards. Samsung also offers numerous discounts and special deals, but it can end up being a bit spammy. Odds are you won't care about most of the retailers offering discounts in the app, and Samsung even pushes promo notifications sometimes. You can disable the various deal and partner notification channels, but the app itself still has what amount to ads all over the place, which is kind of disappointing.
Which should you use?
If you don't already have a Samsung phone, Samsung Pay isn't a good reason to buy one. The proliferation of NFC technology means you'll get plenty of use out of Google Pay, and the app is more enjoyable to use. Even if you do have a Samsung phone, Samsung Pay might not be worth your time. The constant promotional offers are annoying, and MST isn't as important as it once was. It's also more likely to fail than NFC, and at that point it probably won't save time versus using a physical card. If your Samsung phone doesn't have MST, then it's not even close—Google Pay is the better option.