What Is a Mobile Wallet?

What Is a Mobile Wallet?

A mobile wallet stores credit card or debit card information on a mobile device like your phone, a tablet, or smartwatch. Mobile wallets are a convenient way for you to buy things online or in stores that are set up to take payments through the wallet. They may also be more secure than physical payment cards because of the technology they use to protect your account information.

Key Takeaways

  • Mobile wallets are apps for storing financial information and other documents such as credit cards, bank information, and even driver's licenses.
  • Many smartphones come loaded with their own mobile wallets, but there are also other mobile wallet apps you can download.
  • Mobile wallets use near-field communication technology, which requires you to be near a payment terminal at the cash register when paying for something in person.
  • Mobile wallets use many layers of encryption and security to ensure that transactions are safe.

Understanding a Mobile Wallet

A mobile wallet is either a built-in feature or an app that can be installed onto smartphones. A mobile wallet stores credit card, debit card, coupon, or reward card information and can connect directly to bank accounts. 

Often the terms "mobile wallet" and "mobile payments" are used interchangeably, but there are slight differences between them. Three of the main mobile built-in wallets are Apple Wallet, Google Wallet, and Samsung Wallet. These apps store your payment card information but can also hold other documents such as event tickets, vaccination records, or airline boarding passes. They are integrated with their respective payment services (Apple Pay, Google Pay, and Samsung Wallet), which are used to make payments. You as a user may not even notice the difference between, say, Apple Wallet and Apple Pay.

When you make a payment in a store, restaurant, or other retail space like a movie theater, the payment app uses a technology called near-field communication (NFC), which uses radio frequencies to communicate between devices. NFC uses the personal identification format created for the user to communicate the payment information to the merchant’s point-of-service (POS) terminal. The information transfer is usually triggered when the user waves or holds an NFC-enabled mobile device over the store’s NFC reader.

Let's say you've set up Apple Pay with your debit card information and want to use it to buy a meal at McDonald's. You would hold your phone next to the reader that the McDonald's employee hands you, which would use NFC technology to communicate with your phone.

Apple Pay would open using a verification method such as face recognition or a passcode, and then ask you to click a button to confirm payment through the default payment method you have stored with the app. (You could also tap the app to use a different card you've stored in the app.) The payment information is sent through NFC technology.


Your debit card information is never stored on the device. Instead, when you sign up for the service, the card information is encrypted and stored on a secure chip. When you make a purchase, Apple uses a token—a unique, randomly-generated number that can be mapped to your original data. If a thief should get hold of the token, it would be totally useless to them.

Available Mobile Wallet Apps

Today, most smartphones and mobile devices are equipped with NFC technology. iPhones have Apple Wallet and Apple Pay, Android phones are often equipped with Google Wallet and Google Pay, and Samsung Galaxy phones are preloaded with their proprietary Samsung Wallet, which includes Samsung Pay. Besides what comes preloaded on smartphones, mobile wallets from other companies have also become very popular.

Some apps developed by third parties include:

  • PayPal. The online payment platform is available for download on both iOS and Android devices. Fees vary for PayPal—check to see if your payment method has fees attached.
  • Google Pay. Google Pay comes loaded on many Android phones, but it's also available for download on Apple (iOS) phones.
  • Venmo. Venmo started as a peer-to-peer app but is slowly making a foothold with retailers as well. Venmo does charge a 3% fee for any purchases made with a credit card linked to the platform. Transactions that draw from a bank account are free.

Benefits of Mobile Wallets

Fraudulent activities, such as identity theft, are harder to initiate with mobile wallets. Though a user’s credit card can easily be stolen or duplicated, smartphones are not so easy to steal. A smartphone that is stolen may be hard to access if there is an access password, fingerprint check, or facial recognition installed.

As discussed above, mobile wallets don't store your card information on the phone, and use encryption and tokenization for secure transactions.

Using a mobile wallet can be faster than using a chip card for a payment. And because mobile wallets are a digitized version of physical wallets, almost every valuable card stored in a physical wallet can also be stored in a mobile wallet, such as a driver’s license, Social Security card, health insurance cards, loyalty cards, hotel key cards, and bus or train tickets.

Digital Wallets vs. Mobile Wallets/Payments

"Digital wallet" is another term used interchangeably with "mobile wallet" or "mobile payments." However, though they both store payment information, they are implemented differently. Digital wallets are mostly used for online transactions and may not necessarily be used on mobile devices. Mobile wallets are used by people who would rather not carry a physical wallet when making in-store purchases. For this reason, these wallets have to be used on mobile and easy-to-carry platforms.

Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, and Google Pay are examples of mobile payments that can be installed on a handheld or wearable device. A regular PayPal account is a form of a digital wallet, but when used in conjunction with mobile payment services and mobile devices, it functions as a mobile wallet.

Is a Digital Wallet the Same as a Mobile Wallet?

Though digital wallets and mobile wallets are very similar, they aren't the same. Digital wallets are typically for online transactions, whereas mobile wallets are tied to a smartphone or wearable device. Both connect to bank accounts and credit cards for purchasing on the go.

Can I Use Apple Pay on an Android Phone?

Most smartphone makers use proprietary mobile wallets on their phones. Only iOS devices may use Apple Pay, just as only Samsung phones can use Samsung Pay. For universal use, download a third-party mobile wallet like PayPal or Venmo.

Can I Use My Mobile Wallet on My Smartwatch?

Many tech wearables are now capable of using mobile wallets. Depending on the device, it may come preloaded with a mobile wallet, such as Apple Pay on an Apple Watch.

The Bottom Line

Mobile wallets allow people to use their phones to pay for everyday services. With complex encryption and security features, using a mobile wallet can actually be safer than using a physical card. Most phones now come preloaded with the company's mobile wallet app, but there are options, such as Venmo, that work with all phone brands.

Article Sources
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  1. MyCreditUnion.gov. "Mobile Payments and Mobile Wallets."

  2. NFC.org. "How Near Field Communication Works."

  3. Apple. "Make Purchases Using Apple Pay."

  4. Apple. "Apple Pay Security and Privacy Overview."

  5. PayPal. "Digital Wallet."

  6. Google Pay. "About Google Pay."

  7. Venmo. "Fees."

  8. Samsung. "Samsung Pay: What Is It, Where Is It, and How to Use It?"

  9. Apple. "Devices Compatible with Apple Pay."

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