It's time to do away with all the confusion: Android Pay, Google's second major attempt at figuring out the mobile wallet, is launching today. Well, it's starting to. Google says the new app will begin its rollout slowly with a small batch of users before reaching most Android phones (with NFC) running Android 4.4 KitKat or above within the next week. If you already have Google Wallet installed on your device, you'll soon be seeing an update that morphs that app into Android Pay. Google has re-released Google Wallet as a separate app now focused strictly on payments between friends and family like Square Cash and Venmo. Loyalty programs, gift cards, and offers previously stored in Wallet will now automatically move over to Android Pay.
Just like Apple Pay and Samsung Pay, Android Pay allows you to make contactless payments using your smartphone at participating retailers. Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and Discover cards from banks including Bank of America, US Bank, PNC, and others can be added to Android Pay starting today. Citi and Wells Fargo will begin supporting the platform within the next few days. Similar to Apple, Google says it'll be adding to the roster of banks and compatible credit / debit cards "all the time." One thing to note: if you’ve been using Google Wallet to tap and pay, there’s a chance that you’ll lose that ability with Android Pay until your individual bank is supported. This owes to the product's security measures; Android Pay is safer to use, but it requires involvement from Google's partners instead of linking any old debit card to your account.
Google's list of participating banks is shorter than Apple's, but more are coming
Since Android Pay and Apple Pay both take advantage of NFC technology, the list of stores and restaurants accepting Google's app resembles what we initially saw from Apple; McDonald's, Subway, Whole Foods, Walgreens, Rite Aid, Staples, GameStop, and others are taking Android Pay right away, with more retailers due in the weeks to come.
Google says that for right now, Android Pay will be limited to tap-to-pay purchases at physical stores. The other half of the platform, which allows consumers to buy things within Android apps, isn't yet ready to launch. That'll be coming "later this year," but Google isn't specifying exactly when.
Google and Apple also share a similar approach to security with their mobile wallet platforms. Android Pay uses tokenization to keep your actual credit or debit card number hidden from merchants. Instead, they see a virtual account number, and Google says your sensitive payment data is stored securely on compatible Android devices — but the company couldn't tell me exactly where. Samsung insists its own payments solution is both more versatile (true) and more secure than Android Pay. Recent transactions (plus a merchant's address and phone number) are listed for easy reference, and if you've lost your phone and are concerned about fraudulent payments, Android Device Manager can reset your password or wipe the device remotely.
Tinkerers should also be warned that installing custom ROMs on Android devices or unlocking a smartphone's bootloader may render it incompatible with Android Pay. Specifically, Google told me that Android Pay is "not designed to work on rooted devices."
Android Pay will come preloaded on phones
One thing Google can count on is major support from three major US carriers. Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile will soon preload Android Pay on all smartphones running Android Lollipop and above. (Sprint customers are free to download and install Android Pay, but it won't come on phones out of the box.) That's a pretty significant benefit for Google in the mobile wallet war against Apple and Samsung. Retail workers at carrier stores have been trained to help customers get familiar with Android Pay upon purchasing a new phone. One carrier may even cut out or delay Samsung's option; Verizon Wireless continues to remain silent about whether or not it will support Samsung Pay when it launches in the United States later this month.
But if Android Pay is the payments platform you're getting behind, you'll be able to try it starting today. Google says it "would prefer" that users wait for the app to appear in Google Play before getting started, but nothing's stopping you from manually sideloading Android Pay onto your phone right now.