ZDNet editors pick the products and services we write about. When you buy through our links, we may get a commission.

Safe shopping: Your best options for NFC and contactless payments

These are the leading electronic payment systems you can use to avoid paying by cash or credit card.

It's April 2020, and we're living through a global pandemic. For the most part, we are stuck in our homes, practicing social distancing. While delivery services are an option for some of us, there are times when at least one member of the household has to go out to buy critical food and supplies and makes purchases at retailers -- and that requires paying for goods in person. 

We also may find it necessary to settle IOUs with friends and family, and to pay other vendors and businesses for services, whether it be in person or remotely. In all of these cases, physical contact through using paper money, even passing a physical credit card or check, is less than desirable. 

Here are some electronic payment systems you can use to avoid using greenbacks, or plastic.

Disclosure: ZDNet may earn an affiliate commission from some of the products featured on this page. ZDNet and the author were not compensated for this independent review.

Payment apps that use NFC

Near-Field Communications, or NFC, is a technology built-in to many modern families of mobile devices, such as the iPhone, the Samsung Galaxy, Google Pixel, and many other Android smartphones. NFC, introduced in 2002, allows contactless data transfer between mobile devices and can to emulate a credit card for payments at POS terminals in retail stores.

NFC lets the user pass their smartphone device over a payment terminal at a retailer in order to complete the purchase, provided that a supported  "e-Wallet" platform is used. Keep in mind, however, that NFC still requires you get relatively close to the payment terminal and the person running it, and may even require you physically interact with a keypad or virtual keypad/screen to initiate a transaction -- so wear gloves or have the employee initiate the transaction on your behalf, and if you have to touch the terminal, do not touch your face, and wash your hands immediately afterward. 

Be sure you maintain safe distances when using it, or shop where there is a plexiglass barrier between you and the retail employee.

Apple Pay

The preferred payment method of the Infinite Loop

applepaycompat.jpg

Apple Pay is an NFC technology that is supported by iPhones beginning with the iPhone 6 and the first-generation iPhone SE. Retail POS terminals that support Apple Pay require the use of Apple Wallet, which is a built-in iOS application used to store your credit/debit account numbers. Credit cards are added to the Apple Wallet using an enrollment process, and users can select the credit/debit account of choice during the time of the credit card transaction. In addition to the iPhone, NFC is also supported by Apple Watch and can use cards added within Apple Wallet.

View Now at Apple

Apple Cash

Like greenbacks, but fruit-flavored

iphone-x-apple-pay-cash.jpg
(Image: Apple)

Apple Cash is a virtual cash card that can be loaded with cash directly from your bank using a debit card, and it maintains a separate cash balance from your bank account. In addition to being used as an NFC payment mechanism through Apple Pay, it can send or receive cash to and from other people with iOS devices using the Messages app. Apple Cash is also accrued as a daily cashback award when purchases are made using Apple Card. In addition to debiting cash from your bank, cash can be transferred back to your bank if desired with a simple one-click process.

View Now at Apple

Apple Card

Don't leave home. But if you do...

apple-card-side-vendor1.jpg
(Image: Apple)

Apple Card is a full-blown virtual credit card that is completely integrated into Apple Wallet with its own dedicated app for categorized views of charges and expense tracking. Apple Card can be added and applied for using a simple enrollment process within Apple Wallet. Payment of the balance is made with a single click linked to your bank account.

The card uses tokenization technology developed in concert with Goldman Sachs so that all transactions are encrypted, and the credit card number itself is never recorded at the terminal. In addition to its primary virtual use, it also has a physical card option, made out of titanium alloy, which has no card number printed on it. Should the card number be stolen, the end-user can instantaneously change it within the app. The card has a daily cashback rewards program (as Apple Cash), with no annual fees.

View Now at Apple

Samsung Pay

If you need to use an old POS terminal

samsungpaymoneytransferimage3.jpg
Image: Samsung

This is currently the second most popular NFC payment solution, built-in to Samsung phones. As with Google Pay and Apple Wallet, it is a complete e-wallet solution for paying with credit and debit cards with an integrated rewards program. It also has a cash payment balance similar to Apple Pay Cash and Google Pay.

Samsung Pay is strictly an NFC-based or MST (Magnetic Secure Transmission) payment solution for retail POS transactions. MST (only works on Samsung devices) is useful for terminals that do not support NFC as it is the older magnetic stripe reading technology, but is not as reliable a connection. 

Samsung pushes a lot of promotional offers that some people find annoying when they use the app, so you may not find this solution as compelling as Google Pay unless you encounter MST terminals that you want to use.

View Now at Samsung Pay

Google Pay

For the Androids and everyone else in your life

2020-04-22-at-5-07-55-pm.jpg

Google Pay is an NFC technology that is supported on a wide variety of Android devices and incorporates a built-in e-wallet (formerly Google Wallet) for enrolling debit and credit cards for electronic payments. As with Apple Cash, Google Pay also has a separate cash balance. In addition to its use for contactless payments at POS terminals that support it, it can also be used to send money using the Google Pay Send facility, which is transmitted via email or text message, where the recipient claims it. Unlike Apple Pay and Apple Cash, anyone can receive money from Google Pay. To claim transactions over $2,500, you'll need to add a bank account and claim the money to it. 

View Now at Google

Google Card

Because even Android users deserve an obnoxious credit card

google-card.jpg

While this product doesn't currently exist, it is widely expected to be released soon, perhaps as early as the current quarter. Based on current leaked information about this product, it is likely to have almost identical functionality to Apple Card, with virtual and physical cards, including a cashback rewards program that would feed into Google Pay, but for Android devices. Google's launch banking partners for Google Card are expected to be Citi and Stanford Federal Credit Union.

View Now at Google

Dedicated payment apps for cash

These are dedicated third-party apps offered in the App Store or in Google Play that are used to transmit cash from one person to another and to businesses that support them as a method of payment.

Cash App (by Square)

Anonymity, virtual debit card, and Bitcoin

cash-web-and-app.jpg

Cash App is tied into your bank account through an enrollment process for debiting funds, and similar to the way Apple or Google Pay cash balances work, it maintains its own cash balance separate from your bank account. The payment is made directly to other Cash app users, using an alias, so transactions can be done with more anonymity. Cash App has a facility for purchasing and transacting in Bitcoin and has a virtual debit card number that can be used with any payment system that can take Visa. Fund exfiltration is done directly to the bank account. 

View Now at Cash

Venmo (by Paypal)

Even paying friends can be a social experience

venmo-screenshot-iphone-feed.png

Venmo is tied into your bank account through an enrollment process for debiting funds, and similar to the way Apple or Google Pay cash balances work, it maintains its own cash balance separate from your bank account. The payment is made directly to other Venmo users, and user authentication is performed using Facebook or email accounts. Venmo also has a physical debit card option, like Cash App. There is a distinct social networking aspect to the app, which shows you a feed of your friends' payment activities. You may or may not find this desirable. Fund exfiltration is done directly to the bank account. It offers a virtual ATM function to debit the cash out of the bank account, as part of the MoneyPass network. Venmo is set up primarily as an IOU payment system, whereas PayPal itself is set up for transacting with small businesses. 

View Now at Venmo

Differences between Cash App and Venmo

Similar, but not entirely the same

venmovscash.png

Similarities between Venmo and Cash App:

  • Both Cash App and Venmo maintain separate balances from your bank account, and you can transfer the money back to your bank.
  • Both have physical and virtual debit cards as an option
  • Both of these systems have transaction fees for "cashing out" to your bank if you want funds to be available instantly.
  • With Cash App, Standard speed transfers, which take from one to three business days, are free. For instant transfers, funds are available immediately, and you pay a fee of 1.5% of the total deposit amount, with a minimum fee of 25 cents.
  • Standard Venmo transfers are free and the money will usually be available in one to three business days. Instant Venmo transfers, which typically hit your account within minutes, cost 1%, with a minimum fee of 25 cents and a maximum charge of $10.

Differences between Venmo and Cash App:

  • Venmo has a distinct social networking aspect to its user experience
  • Cash App is more anonymous in how it functions with user aliases
  • Cash App can transact in BitCoin
  • If you are primarily interested in an app that will allow you to quickly pay friends and family, and you make frequent ATM withdrawals, Venmo may be your best choice. Because Venmo's debit card is part of the MoneyPass network, you won't have to ever pay ATM fees if you stay in-network. 

Zelle (by Early Warning Services)

It's your bank

zelle.jpg

Zelle was founded in 2017 by Early Warning Services as a private financial services company owned by Bank of America, BB&T, Capital One, JPMorgan Chase, PNC Bank, US Bank, and Wells Fargo. For Chase bank holders, the service used to be known as QuickPay.

Zelle is different from both Cash App and Venmo as it doesn't use a separate balance for holding the money you'll be moving with the app. In fact, in most cases, you won't be using a Zelle app at all; it works integrated with your existing banking app. There are currently dozens of major banks and credit unions that are part of the Zelle network. If someone already has a bank account, they can receive money via Zelle.

Using Zelle, funds are drawn directly and deposited directly into your bank account -- no credit cards are used. And while Zelle doesn't charge fees for using its service, certain bank or credit union fees may still apply.

View Now at Zelle

Facebook Pay

Because you totally trust these guys with your money

facebookpay.jpg

Facebook Pay allows you to use Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp to send people money on those services. Linked payment methods include the debit card of your choice or an existing PayPal account. The service has no fees associated with it, and payments are deposited (and withdrawn) directly from your debit card. 

View Now at Facebook