Chip & Win: Which Mobile Payment System is Best?

By Tom Pritchard on at

The mobile payment market is small, but it's still grown quite a lot over the past few years. There are still enough services to make it a little bit tricky when it comes picking the one that's right for you. But how can you decide? It all depends on which phone you have for starters, and even then you'll have to do a chunk of research to figure out what's what. Well we took care of that to save you the hassle, and this is what we found.

Testing Methodology

It goes without saying that pretty much all mobile payment systems function in virtually the same way. All of them, barring Tesco, utilise NFC and contactless card machines to record transactions and pay for all the things you want to buy. So the testing criteria are all rather simple: do they work the way they're supposed to, how easy is it to pay for stuff in a hurry, how secure is it (or, more specifically, how easy is it for a random person to use your device to go on a shopping spree), what are the entry criteria, and can it do something useful that other payment options can not.

Points will be awarded to systems that offer extra security, extra features, and are simple enough that a braindead goldfish could work it out. Points will be taken away from systems that are awkward to use, insecure, deliberately restrictive, or refuse to go above and beyond the call of duty.

First Place: Vodafone Pay

With the likes of Apple Pay, Android Pay, and the rest out there, some of you might be asking why Vodafone is throwing its hat into the mobile payment ring. Who knows, really, but at least its taking things a step further rather than mimicking what's already out there. Vodafone Pay offers quite a bit that other mobile payment services don't even come close to.

The main perk is that the SIM card itself is capable of contactless payments, so your phone doesn't even need to be switched on to buy things. Like any good contactless card your spending is limited to £30 per transaction, and all you need to do is slap your phone against the card machine as normal. This seems pretty basic, but it also comes with a very useful feature: the contactless SIM doesn't need power. Your phone could be switched off, have NFC disabled, or completely run out of juice, and you can still buy the things you need - provided there's a contactless card machine lying around.

Now with that in mind, you might wonder why you should even bother with the Vodafone Wallet app, aside from the fact you need it to manage your payment methods. The thing is, Vodafone Pay offers something that no other mobile payment system offers: you can use it to pay for transactions totalling more than £30. You just need a PIN to verify your identity, and Vodafone doesn't specify an upper limit. Alright, so that doesn't make it much different than using a regular credit card, but it's not like Apple and Android Pay are any different to a standard contactless card you get given by the bank

The other big bonus is that Vodafone Pay lets you pay for things using your PayPal account. Since PayPal's own OneTouch  has yet to launch mobile payments in the UK, that makes Vodafone the only mobile payment system that lets you use PayPal. That way you don't even need to give Vodafone your credit card information, just access to your PayPal account. It's a weird roundabout way of doing things, but if you already have an account and want to keep your card details on as few servers as humanly possible, this option is available to you. Plus, like Apple and Android Pay, Vodafone Pay lets you store your loyalty cards in the app - automatically scanning it whenever you pay for things. It seems you need the phone and NFC switched on to be able to do this, however.

Despite all that good, Vodafone Pay does come with a number of restrictions that severely limit its use. For starters, the whole thing is only available on Android, so sucks to be you Apple users. Secondly you'll need a contactless Vodafone SIM card in your phone, so you'll need to change networks if you're not already a customer - those of you who already are will likely need a new SIM card to take full advantage of it. Don't even think about using a dual SIM phone either, since those variants aren't compatible.

Finally it's not universally available, and you'll need a Visa, Mastercard, or PayPal account. Not that this should be a problem, given how common all three of them are.

So why first place? It should be obvious really, but the main reason is that Vodafone Pay actually lets you spend beyond the £30 limit currently imposed on contactless payments, which makes it a lot more useful in everyday life. Need to buy a sofa, or end up with a weekly shop that costs £30.15? No problem! Yes you need to enter a PIN and verify your identity, but that's no different from a credit card. The other reason is because it doesn't cripple you when you run out of battery. It's pretty ingenious that Vodafone have merged contactless and SIM card tech together, and that means your phone is a contactless card of sorts - regardless of whether you played a bit too much Candy Crush on the train home from work.

It's just a shame that those contactless SIM cards aren't available for iPhones. That would be a clever way to get around Apple's NFC monopoly.

Second Place: Apple Pay

The first major player in the world of mobile payments, provided you ignore the fact Google Wallet came before it. Google certainly does, at any rate. While mobile payments are quite similar, there's an awful lot Apple manages to get right - hardly surprising the extra time it's had to improve its services.

Setting up Apple Pay is pretty simple. You have your Apple ID and, presumably, TouchID all sorted out already, with the app functioning as little more than an input form for your card details. You have the choice of letting the app scan the details directly from your card, or you can enter them manually. Whichever you choose, once everything has been verified your card gets stored inside the Apple Wallet app ready to be used whenever you need it. Apple Wallet can also be used to store shop-specific loyalty cards, automatically giving you points when you go there and pay with your phone.

Unlike Android devices, the iPhone's NFC cannot be deactivated by the user. While that certainly isn't going to do your battery life any favours, it does mean Apple Pay is ready to go whenever you need it. All you have to do is hold your phone up to the contactless payment sensor, and verify you are who you say you are. If your phone is unlocked, Apple Pay will load up automatically - much like other services. You can still access Apple Pay if the device is locked, though you will need to hit the home button twice to bring up the payment screen.

Apple Pay's biggest benefit is sadly also its main weakness. The fact of the matter is, every time you want to buy something, Apple Pay requires that you confirm that it's actually you making the transaction. That means reentering your PIN, or using the TouchID scanner - even if the phone is already unlocked. From a security perspective, this is great. It means even the morons who don't password protect their phone get some sort of security when it comes to payments.

That being said the extra security makes it more inconvenient, since you have pass the check while your phone is over the payment sensor. So if you want to, say, pay for the London Underground, you'll need an extra second or two before the barriers recognise your payment. There will be lots of silent judgement coming your way, and maybe some quiet tutting. Android Pay, on the other hand, will work automatically - provided NFC is on and the phone is unlocked. So it's more convenient for quick purchases, but it's only as secure as your lockscreen. But there is something Apple Pay has that nobody else has: the option to pay for stuff online and within apps.

Provided you're using Safari on a Mac or iOS device, and the outlet in question accepts Apple Pay payments, you can make paying a little bit more secure. That means no handing over your credit card information, and no signing up for a PayPal account. It's not a universal thing yet, since this initiative was only launched at the tail-end of last year, but it's a nice extra and gives you a bit more peace of mind when it comes to shopping online. Just remember to have your phone handy if you have a Mac without TouchID, because you're going to need to do the security confirmation before everything goes through.

The final points to note are that Apple Pay stores all your recent transactions inside the Wallet app for easy access, and that it can easily be linked to your reward cards. Adding your reward cards to Apple Wallet means you can collect points while using Apple Pay, which is rather handy - even if it only saves you a second or two each time.

Apple Pay isn't that different from other mobile payment systems, particularly Android and Vodafone Pay. But the subtle differences are what gives it an advantage over the competition. It doesn't have quite as many exciting new things as Vodafone Pay, but by going after PayPal and stepping into the world of online shopping, Apple has given Apple Pay the boost it needs to stay ahead of most of the competition - particularly Android. Plus, if you're an iOS user, it's certainly the best option for you. bPay and PayQwiq may have apps in the iTunes App Store, but they're nowhere near as convenient.

You can check which UK banks support Apple Pay here.

Third Place: Android Pay

Android Pay isn't that much different to Apple Pay, which is hardly a surprise. Apple and Google do love to pinch each ideas from one another, after all. It's the obvious default payment option for Android users, though unlike their fruit-powered brethren it's definitely not the only mobile payment system capable of turning your phone into a proper payment method. NFC has been openly accessible on Android devices for quite some time, and it's unlikely Google is going to turn round and pull the plug anytime soon.

There isn't really that much to Android Pay. You enter your card details, and provided your bank has signed up to the whole thing you can then get your phone setup to behave like a very bulky credit card. But without the chip-and-PIN, naturally. If you've ever used Apple Pay, you're not going to find anything particularly special about Android Pay. It's the same basic system, and has the same £30 limit as any other contactless payment method. It just happens to have the green robot logo instead of a half-eaten cyanide-laced piece of fruit.

The only places Android Pay really differs from Apple are in terms of security and online shopping. While it's possible to use Android Pay within certain apps (a list of which are in the main app's settings menu), you can't use it online. This means that while some retail sites offer the extra security of using Apple Pay, you can't do the same if you're on Android. Anyone signed into Chrome with their Google account will find that their Android Pay cards are automatically saved to help avoid typing in your card details every time you want to buy something (you just need to enter the CVV number for verification). But if you don't want to hand over your card details to any old site, you're going to have to use PayPal.

From a security perspective, Android Pay is only as secure as your phone. While Apple Pay asks that you verify your identity before every single transaction, Android Pay is accessible anytime your phone is unlocked. While this makes things more convenient, if you're a buffoon who doesn't lock their phone Android Pay is no more secure than any old contactless card.

Android Pay is, simply put, a very barebones operation. Not that this is bad, but all it has are contactless payments and loyalty card support. Barring a few apps that support its payment system, there's nothing to make Android Pay stand out from the crowd. If you're an Android user that can use Android Pay, and can't use Vodafone's system instead, then you're not going to go wrong here. It works, and the fact that it works whenever your phone is unlocked makes it slightly more convenient. Yes this does mean you sacrifice some security, but provided your phone has a secure lockscreen it's still one step up from an ordinary contactless credit card.

Android Pay is fine, but if given the fact any old company can utilise Android's NFC capabilities it means any old company could swoop in and steal away a chunk of its userbase. If Google wants to stop that from happening, it's going to have to step up its game a little bit in the near future.

You can find out which UK banks support Android Pay here.

Fourth Place: Barclays bPay

Barclays customers will likely have already heard of this, since it appeared to be the main reason the bank didn't sign onto Apple and Android Pay when they were first launched in the UK. Why would it let those guys have a slice of the action if it didn't have to? Enter bPay, which has been going around for a few years now, and is available on Android and iOS.

The main benefit of bPay is that it's quite a versatile payment method, and the closest thing to using a regular contactless card. Naturally you need to make sure your virtual wallet is kept topped up (automatically or manually), but the fact that it doesn't rely on any advanced technology is a plus. Batteries run out, but having a separate contactless device will ensure it continues to be useful regardless of how much Pokémon Go you've been playing.

In simple terms, bPay uses a contactless chip, not much bigger than a full-size SIM card, that's stored inside something else. Said something else can be one of many things, including:

  • Various stickers
  • A keychain
  • A watchstrap loop
  • One of two wristbands

So unlike the rest, you have a lot more options. There's no need to pull out your phone every time you want to buy a coffee, unless you really want to. In fact, it barely qualifies as a 'mobile payment' at all. But there is an app for managing everything, and it does mean you can ditch your wallet, so we'll let it slide for now.

One major point here, however, is that bPay doesn't function like other mobile payment services. While the likes of Android and Apple Pay are tethered to your cards, bPay connects your card to its own digital wallet. Setting this up is pretty simple, and provided you have a Visa or Mastercard you shouldn't run into any problems. Unless it's pre-paid, in which case you'll discover that it won't work. The maximum balance you can have at any given time is £200, with an optional automatic top-up system that adds a pre-set amount of money anytime your balance falls below a certain level. The maximum you can add in any 24 hour period is £400, and it means you don't have to keep such a close eye on your balance.

If, for whatever reason, you decide you don't like bPay anymore, your remaining balance will be refunded and added back to your assigned card - though it takes up to 24 hours for the refund to come into effect. You also get an email notification every time an automatic top-up happens, so you won't wake up one morning and find that your bank account is empty.

This virtual wallet means you can top up as much or as little as you like, which could be a useful tool to curb your (or someone else's) spending at certain points in time. Like, for instance, you're going out to get drunk and don't want to overspend, or you have a child that you don't trust with cash or unrestricted access to a credit card.

At first glance it's clear that bPay doesn't have much in the way of security, but the fact that it has a PIN-protected virtual wallet, rather than full access to your tethered cards, means that there's a limit to how much damage can be done. Provided, of course, that you haven't got automatic top-ups enabled (though email notifications should give a clue that something strange is happening). Although it is worth mentioning that transactions can leave you with a negative balance, but once you're in the red it won't let you add any more charges until you top up again.

The biggest problem with bPay is that the cost of entry is higher than the others. Sure mobile payments require some sort of smartphone, and those can be upwards of several hundred pounds, but the app itself is free to use as and when you want. bPay's contactless gadgets cost real money. £15 to £32 worth of money, depending on the gizmo you decide you want. While it's probably not that unreasonable for Barclaycard to not want to lose money on every person that signs up, it still feels a bit stingy. You also can't use bPay for online payments. You are given some card details when you activate a device, but this is designed to let people see their Transport for London travel history and doesn't have all the necessary information for online transactions.

bPay works quite well, and isn't a bad option if you're not interested in actually using your phone to make payments out in the big bad world. It's certainly different, and not in a way that limits your spending options like Tesco's PayQwiq. Provided you can get over the fact you need to pay for one of its devices, bPay should be a great alternative to your wallet. Unfortunately that entry fee can't be ignored, which is why it's so low down on this list.

Fifth Place: Tesco PayQwiq

PayQwiq is unique among mobile payment systems, since it doesn't use NFC to interface with a card machine. Instead you pay for things by scanning an on-screen barcode at any Tesco cash register. Unfortunately this system means it's not a universally accepted method of payment, making it useless anywhere other than Tesco. The upside is that this makes the system open to iOS users, since Apple won't let anyone else officially get their hands the API for NFC on iOS.

But, that whole Tesco thing means PayQwiq is linked up to your Clubcard (if you have one), and every single purchase you make will automatically add Clubcard points to your account. Much like a Clubcard credit card, but on your phone and not quite as useful. But then again, since it doesn't rely on contactless payment systems, PayQwiq offers a spending limit of £250 - rather than the usual £30.

Set up is the only thing about PayQwiq that's anything like the other payment systems in this list. While you need to be logged into your Tesco account, adding your card of choice can either be entered using the phone's camera or by manually filling out a form. You also have to set up a four digit security PIN, which needs to be entered every time you want to open the app. This offers an extra bit of security to the proceedings, regardless of how secure you keep your phone. Unfortunately it's not possible to use a pattern or fingerprint scanner to unlock the app, so try to pick a PIN that isn't too easy to guess. If it's 1234, you might as well hand your credit card over to random people in the street.

PayQwiq has a reasonable amount going for it, such as the £250 spending limit and the fact that it ditches NFC. But the serious downside is that it only works at one single retailer. If you want to shop anywhere other than Tesco, you're going to have to find a different way of paying. So it kind of defeats the whole purpose of having an payment app if you're stuck using it in a single place. If you shop at Tesco a lot, then you've got a lot less to worry about, but it is an issue.

Wildcard: The Contactless Card

When it comes down to it, when it comes to contactless payments the mobile offerings can't really hold a candle to the humble credit/debit card. Looking at all of these different payment methods, aside from Tesco's PayQwiq they're all damn near the same. You hold something up to the card machine, which uses NFC to take your information and pay for the transaction. The downside to a mobile payment being that you often have to keep your device charged up, and your spending is limited to £30 a go. Again Pay Qwiq is the exception, but that restricts all your shopping to Tesco.

Given how ubiquitous the credit card system has become over may, many years, the contactless card doesn't really have those issues. Yes contactless payments are restricted to the £30 limit, but you can always pay for more with the regular chip-and-PIN system that we're all accustomed to. Plus a credit is literally one of the thinnest objects people carry on their person. So thin, in fact, that we have to put them inside something bigger to keep them safe. Plus they can be used for online transactions without limitations.

The only downside is the security factor, since credit cards don't have much protection if someone else gets their hands on it. Especially with contactless and online payments that don't require PIN authentication for the transaction to go through. There are measure in place to protect you if you do have your card stolen, but it's a huge hassle. So it's a mixed bag, and like the rest it's up to you to decide whether the positives outweigh the negatives.

Notable Mentions

Samsung Pay

Samsung Pay is that one payment method that's been promised to us Brits for years, but still hasn't managed to arrive. It's a bit of a shame, since Samsung Pay actually shows some level of innovation in how it operates. Rather than interfacing with contactless card machines, Samsung Pay wirelessly beams the payment information to a credit card machine's magnetic strip reader - meaning retailers don't actually need anything more than a basic card machine.

Naturally this is mainly suited for countries without where the old-fashioned, barely secure, swipe-and-sign systems are most common (like the US), since businesses don't have to make any changes to how they operate. Whereas in places like the UK, widespread adoption of chip-and-PIN means magnetic card payments are rare.

That doesn't stop Samsung Pay from being pretty damn impressive, and would mean Samsung owners could use mobile payments any place that has a card machine - regardless of whether the business has coughed up the cash for a contactless reader. It's just a shame it still hasn't arrived, and that means I couldn't actually test it.

PayPal OneTouch

PayPal's OneTouch was originally designed to let you skip the whole login process when you're shopping online. While that is available in the UK, users in the US also get to use OneTouch on their phones when shopping in the real world. It's not all that different to typical contactless payment systems, but the obvious bonus being it relies on your PayPal and doesn't limit you to a single mobile network. It hasn't arrived in the UK yet, and there's no word on when it will, but keeps your eyes open in the near future.