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NFC payments first came to Android way, way back in 2011 with a little disaster called the Nexus S 4G. This WiMAX 4G phone was the only device that did NFC payments at the time because carriers had their fingers in everything. Thankfully, things aren't as restrictive anymore. You can make contactless payments with any Android phone containing an NFC chip, but you might have more than one option. If you've got a Samsung phone, you can choose between Samsung's own payment platform or Google Pay. While both do offer the same basic tap-to-pay NFC functionality, there are some differences in their ease of use 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, which recently got a completely new app with reward features. 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. Older Samsung phones have a technology called MST (Magnetic Secure Transmission) to push the magnetic stripe data from your card to non-NFC terminals, but the S21 series does not, and I wouldn't hold your breath for future support. Samsung has moved away from that—the S21 family dropped support for MST in the US. Samsung Pay also supports NFC, but this kills one of the major advantages Samsung had versus Google Pay.
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. You can also switch between cards from this UI. Samsung has an extra security step to make a payment compared to Google, though. In our experience, the app also seems a bit slower to recognize NFC readers than Google Pay, which is almost always instant the moment you put it over the terminal.
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, not unlike the redesigned Google Pay app.
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 Samsung has dropped the MST tech from its latest phones. The Google Pay app is also more enjoyable to use, even after the recent redesign.
Even if you do have a Samsung phone, Samsung Pay might not be worth your time. Google Pay is even easier to use if you're running Android 11 thanks to the new power menu. Just long-press the power button, and you'll get (among other things) access to all your verified cards. Right now, it's not even close—Google Pay is the better option.