Katherine Boehret

Google Mobile App Aims To Turn Phones Into Wallets

Would you rather leave home without your wallet and be penniless all day, or leave your phone at home and be out of touch all day? Many people would rather be penniless. If only phones could be used to pay for things, it would be easier to leave a wallet behind.

Enter Google Wallet, the search engine’s answer to this problem. This mobile app uses a chip in the phone so it can be waved in front of payment stations to buy things. Users set it up by registering a credit card to the phone or loading a Google Prepaid Card with a credit card. A four-digit password enables payment transactions. Google Wallet is rolling out this week to Sprint’s already available, $50 (after $50 mail-in rebate and with a two-year contract) Nexus S 4G phones by way of an Android operating-system software update.


A phone with Google Wallet and a payment terminal.

I’ve been trying Google Wallet in Washington, D.C., and Palo Alto, Calif., and I find it delightfully easy to use. Though still in its infancy, it isn’t hard to imagine digital payments catching on and becoming commonplace. But there are plenty of caveats.

Google Wallet works only with phones with an NFC (near field communication) chip, which allows secure digital transactions over a short distance. In Japan, millions of cellphone users have been using mobile wallets with NFC chips, but the technology has been slow to catch on in other countries. For now, the Nexus S 4G is the only phone in the U.S. that works with Google Wallet, though more phones are expected soon.

Paying with Google Wallet is possible only at stores that offer MasterCard PayPass. In Washington, D.C., near my office and home, these included Sunoco, McDonald’s, CVS and Papyrus; other stores include Home Depot, 7-Eleven, Best Buy and OfficeMax. A MasterCard PayPass finder is built into the app and displays nearby locations where PayPass works. These can be viewed on a map, in a list or filtered by category. For now, only 150,000 merchants have the equipment in stores to use PayPass.

Citi MasterCard is currently the only credit card that can be directly added to Google Wallet, but the Google Prepaid Card can be loaded with other credit cards. Google said it will also work with Visa, American Express and Discover cards, but couldn’t say when.

Several other companies are planning their own digital-payment solutions. Last week, PayPal said it would launch pilot programs at the end of this year for a cloud wallet, usable by entering a phone number and a PIN at the register. Square has launched Square Card Case, a free app available on Android and iPhone that works on the idea of paying with virtual tabs, like starting a tab at a bar. Both ideas from PayPal and Square would avoid the need for phones with NFC chips.

Next month, Google Wallet will let people register their store loyalty cards and gift cards in the app so a Wallet purchase at CVS, for example, would recognize my CVS ExtraCare card. Registering a gift card from, say Macy’s, saves the trouble of carrying the card at all times. (Currently, only American Eagle Outfitters allows loyalty cards and gift cards with Google Wallet in some of its New York stores.)

People also will be able to search for more store coupons on Google’s search engine and click to add them to their Google accounts for synchronizing with Google Wallet.

My first Wallet purchase was at CVS, where I picked up two boxes of tissues and a pack of AA batteries. I waited in the checkout line in anticipation of paying with just a casual wave of my phone. But when the checkout person asked if I had the CVS loyalty card, I still had to dig the card out of my wallet to swipe it for discounts. Once that was done, I waved my phone at the payment terminal, entered my four-digit security code and walked away.

When I bought lunch at McDonald’s, a woman nearby was in awe of my wave-to-pay method and said she couldn’t wait to get it. At 7-Eleven, the man working the register seemed startled by how quickly I paid for a bottle of water, especially after the guy in front of me had spilled several coins and bills on the counter to pay. I used my Google Prepaid Card at CVS and used my registered MasterCard at McDonald’s and 7-Eleven. Each card is represented in the app with an image of a credit card. My Citi MasterCard was the right blue hue and even had my name on it, with just the last four digits of the card number visible.

I added my Citi MasterCard to Google Wallet by entering my credit card information and creating a nickname for the card. After waiting a few seconds for the app to verify my information with Citi, an on-screen message said my card had a $100 limit, but that I could activate my full credit line using a code sent via text message to my cellphone number. This also allowed me to see more data about my account like my last statement balance, current balance and the last payment due date.

If a phone’s screen is in sleep mode, a user must wake it in order for transactions to work. This step was purposely added so people don’t unknowingly buy something when they walk by a PayPass terminal. The four-digit security code has an adjustable time-out period that can last for as little as one minute or as long as 30 minutes. I adjusted my code time-out to 15 minutes and was able, in two tests, to swipe my phone without entering the code.

Google Wallet can’t hold your driver’s license or other official forms of identification, so even if it takes off and works everywhere, you’ll still have to carry your license with you.

Write to Katherine Boehret at katie.boehret@wsj.com.

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