Samsung Pay makes mobile payments slightly less of a mess

It's not their fault. Mobile payments are crazy complicated.

I’m a big fan of using my mobile phone to pay for things in stores. I’ve been intrigued by the concept of since it was first promised with the introduction of NFC technology, and I’ve gotten hooked on it in practice, too. This is due partly to convenience. I’m usually carrying around a bottomless bag filled with all of the crap and gadgets I use throughout the day, and digging out my wallet seems like an extra step when I have my phone (or smartwatch) in hand.

There’s also the security element. At some places, both the action and the encryption of tap-to-pay give more peace of mind than sliding my card over and over again through a janky payment terminal.

But that’s not to say tap-to-pay has totally arrived. Despite the introduction of new mobile payment services from well-known tech brands over the past year — Apple Pay, Android Pay and now Samsung Pay — there are still lots of places in the US that don't accept tap-to-pay transactions. And that’s just on the point-of-sale side. There are also still banks that don't support certain mobile payment apps, and mobile devices that don't offer the necessary technology.

Samsung Pay

That's where Samsung Pay comes in. It officially launched in the US last Monday, and I've been using it since then.

Well, "using it since then" is an overstatement — since I encountered some of the abovementioned roadblocks. But I've attempted a half-dozen purchases at different merchants using Samsung Pay on a Galaxy Note 5, and when it worked, it worked well.

The difference between Samsung Pay and some of the other mobile payment solutions is that Samsung uses a technology called magnetic secure transmission, or MST. MST was developed by a company called LoopPay, which Samsung acquired earlier this year. With MST, your payment info is transmitted via magnet, and better yet, it’s tokenized every time you use it, which creates an additional layer of security. (The Verge’s Dieter Bohn has more on this here.)

Samsung Pay

But this matters beyond just transmission tech. Unlike NFC technology, MST is supposed to work with old card readers — in fact, Samsung says that it should work with more than 80 percent of existing credit card readers across the US. So, not only do merchants not have to get new payment machines in order to work with the latest mobile payment tech (even though, let’s face it, they’ll all have to eventually), but also you should be able to walk into your local mom-and-pop shop to buy something and have a good chance of effectively using Samsung Pay. It also works with NFC terminals.

Samsung Pay is currently available on Galaxy S6, Galaxy S6 Edge, Galaxy Note 5, and Galaxy S6 Edge+ smartphones. That limits users a bit in comparison to, say, Android Pay, but similarly Apple Pay can only be used on newer Apple devices. You’ll also need to have a MasterCard, Visa or AmEx issued by Amex, Citi, Bank of America or U.S. Bank to use Samsung Pay. A total of 10 credit cards can be added to the app, and eventually that will include loyalty cards. On the carrier side AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and U.S. Cellular support it.

That certainly covers a lot of consumers, but I happen to use a bank that doesn’t support the service and a wireless carrier that’s not in that group, so I tested Samsung Pay using a loaner phone and a $50 prepaid U.S. Bank card. (For what it’s worth, my bank doesn’t yet support Android Pay either, so I had to request a new card from an issuer I haven’t used in years to set that up.)

Samsung Pay

Actually using Samsung Pay to pay wasn’t dissimilar from using other tap-to-pay apps. After opening the app I entered in a pin or used my fingerprint to authenticate, and the transaction occurred almost as soon as I tapped my phone to the terminal. People behind the register sometimes gave me strange looks or straight-up attitude — all that good stuff. I did have to swipe up from the home screen to pull up the digital bank card, one tiny extra step — with Apple Pay my digital wallet pops up as soon as I bring the phone close to an NFC payment machine — but that’s still more convenient than pulling my wallet out.

The most surprising part, for me, was how much of a crapshoot it was to use Samsung Pay at those non-chain stores where Samsung says the tech should work. I had success using it at Walgreen’s pharmacy and Whole Foods, as expected. (I thought I successfully paid at a CVS self-checkout terminal, but then the terminal indicated that CVS doesn’t accept contactless payments — no surprise there.) I went to a local cafe, a bagel shop, and later to a small juice bar in San Francisco. When I tapped my Samsung Pay-ready phone to each of their older terminals, and it didn’t work. The juice bar was actually using a Square payment terminal, which is supposed to work with Samsung Pay — and still it didn’t work.

It did work at a small independent bookstore near me, but as I started to pay the woman behind the register said knowingly, "Oh yeah, we work with Apple Pay," which tells me that was an NFC terminal.

Samsung Pay

I wish I could say I experienced the magic of MST, where I walked up to some ancient-looking terminal and it actually worked with Samsung Pay, but I haven't yet. It worked pretty much the same, for me, as Android Pay and Apple Pay have; sometimes stores accept them, and sometimes they don't.

Also — and this is where I veer into wearable fangirl territory — neither Samsung Pay nor Android Pay work in a smartwatch form factor yet, because of the MST / NFC technology these apps require (though Samsung will add NFC-based mobile payments to the Gear S2 smartwatch when it rolls out). I actually enjoy paying for things with the Apple Watch when I’m wearing it. Sure, there was a hump of self-consciousness to get over when I first started using it for payments, but it’s even
more convenient than using a smartphone. The thing is sitting on your wrist! To me, that’s a differentiator.

Still, Samsung has made things technically easier with Samsung Pay. In my real-life experience, it wasn’t yet a pay-everywhere kind of thing. But it’s a complicated labyrinth of players in the mobile payments space, and it just goes to show that until everyone’s on board, we’ll just have to keep tapping and trying.

Photos by Vjeran Pavic