What is Google Pay and how does it work?

Closeup of somebody paying with Google Pay at checkoutImage: Closeup of somebody paying with Google Pay at checkout

In a Nutshell

If you’re looking for an app that supports peer-to-peer, in-store and online payments, Google Pay should be on your list of options — but the app works best for Android users.
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A contactless payment method like Google Pay can be a quick and convenient alternative to cash or credit cards, but it’s primarily for Android users.

Google Pay allows you to make in-app, in-store and online purchases as well as pay and receive payments from others with your smartphone. It also provides multiple layers of security to protect card and bank account data and guard against phishing and malware.

If you’re an Android or Google user, you may wonder whether Google Pay app is a good option for you. Let’s take a closer look at what Google Pay is, how it works, how secure it is, and the pros and cons.

What is Google Pay?

Google Pay is a mobile wallet similar to Apple Pay or Samsung Pay and is most accessible for Android. You can use Google Pay to pay for items when checking out online, making purchases in stores that accommodate contactless payments, paying for in-app purchases on your phone, or sending and receiving payments from other people.

Google introduced Google Pay in 2018 as a revamp of both its legacy Google Wallet payment system and Android Pay. In 2022, Google relaunched an updated Google Wallet app for Android phones that works in tandem with Google Pay and allows users to store virtual credit cards, debit cards, loyalty cards, keys, tickets, passes, IDs and even proof of vaccination.

How does Google Pay work?

As long as your bank accounts, debit cards and credit cards support Google Pay, you can link them to your account to pay others or make online or in-store purchases. But while you can download and use Google Pay on both iPhones and Androids for online purchases, contactless in-store purchases are only available on Android phones. You also must be 18 or older and have a Google account.

When someone pays you or you receive cash-back rewards, your money is stored in your account balance within the app, which you can transfer to your bank account. After verifying your identity, you can access the money in your account balance to make purchases or pay a peer.

Pay or receive payments from an individual or a group

Similar to Venmo or Zelle, Google Pay allows you to send or request payments from other people via its mobile app. In the app, you can search for people by their name, email address, phone number or even using a QR code. You then have the option to start a chat, pay that person or request a payment from them.

To pay or receive a payment from someone, they must also have the new Google Pay app. If someone doesn’t have Google Pay, the app gives you the option to invite them to join.

You can also split a bill among several people by selecting multiple contacts in the app. If you don’t want an even split, you can edit the exact amount each person will pay.

Before you can pay someone from your account balance, you have to add money to your Google Pay account. You can add funds from a synced bank account after verifying your identity. Money you receive from friends also goes into your account balance, which can be later transferred to your bank account if you’d like.

Pay in stores

To use Google Pay for in-store payments, you need to use an Android phone. When you check out at the store, you can pay by unlocking your phone, placing the back of the phone near the payment terminal and following the instructions on the screen.

This feature also allows you to access loyalty cards and gift cards, use flight or event tickets or pay for train or bus tickets. Plus, you can earn rewards on eligible purchases and find offers or discounts from businesses on the app.

Make in-app purchases or shop online

You can use Google Pay to make purchases with your credit card in apps and on websites that support Google Pay. Simply select the Google Pay icon when you checkout and choose your payment method. Depending on the app or website, you may also need to enter your shipping address.

To change which card you use in Google Pay, click “Payment methods” and then either edit a current card you have on file or add a new one. If a card is expired, you can easily update it by tapping “Fix” next to the card.

Google Pay also recommends turning on password protection to help prevent unwanted or unintentional in-app purchases.

Is Google Pay safe?

Google Pay claims to be a safer method of payment than cash or physical credit cards for a number of reasons.

  • Virtual account number — Instead of seeing your real card number, merchants only receive a virtual account number provided by Google Pay.
  • Encrypted data — Google Pay encrypts your data to protect your cards and accounts from phishing or malware.
  • Fraud alert — Google Pay uses artificial intelligence to identify and alert you of fraud and phishing risks. It also sends you alerts when you pay someone who’s not on your contact list.
  • Extra login security — To open the app or pay someone, you must provide a pin, pattern or biometric. But these requirements vary by country.
  • Turn on personalization — Though Google Pay can personalize your experience in the app based on your transaction history, this isn’t the default setting. Instead, you can turn on personalization for three months to see if you like it.
  • Private transactions — Payment transactions between you and another person are only visible to the two of you.
  • Google Find My Device — If you misplace your phone, you can lock it remotely, log out of your account and erase your data with Google Find My Device.

Pros and cons of using Google Pay

Before deciding whether to use the app, you may want to weigh the advantages and disadvantages to using Google Pay.

Pros of Google Pay

  • It’s free to download and use the app. But if you transfer money out of your account balance with a debit card, you’ll pay a fee.
  • Google Pay is more than a peer-to-peer payment app. It also lets you purchase items online and in stores.
  • The app provides multiple levels of security. This helps to protect users’ data and privacy and to guard against fraud and malware.
  • Google Pay offers cash-back rewards for purchases at select businesses. These are in addition to any credit card rewards or loyalty programs you already use.
  • You can search for specific purchases and digital receipts in your transaction history. You can also link your bank account, Gmail account and Google Photos to expand your search.

Cons of Google Pay

  • The app was designed primarily for Android and Google phone users. Contactless payment with Google Pay in stores is only available for Android phones. Other features of Google Pay are available for iPhone and iPad, but you must have iOS 12.0 or higher, a valid U.S. or Singaporean phone number, and a Google account.  
  • You can only add a credit or debit card to Google Wallet if the credit card company or your bank supports contactless payments. If your card or bank doesn’t allow Google Wallet, you’ll likely need to find another payment app.
  • Not all in-person stores accept contactless payment. If a merchant doesn’t support Google Pay, you’ll have to use another payment method.
  • Google Pay in stores is only available via mobile app. If your device breaks or loses battery while you’re out shopping, you’ll need to use another form of payment.
  • Not all smartphones can support Google Pay. In order to use the app, your phone must meet the security standards for contactless payments, and it must have NFC (near-field communications) technology — you can check this by going to settings app of your Android and typing NFC in the search bar. Some older smartphone models may not have these features.

Other payment options

Google Pay isn’t the only way to send money or use a contactless payment. If you have an iPhone and want to take advantage of contactless payment, you might consider using Apple Pay, which lets you use credit or debit cards and also works for in-store purchases. A money-transfer app like Venmo can help you send and receive payments from friends, and it’s mostly free to use — but if you use a credit card, you’ll pay a 3% fee for each purchase.

Zelle is another peer-to-peer payment method to consider — if your bank provides it — but it doesn’t allow you to use credit cards. Lastly, if you have a Samsung phone, you may want to look into Samsung Pay, which is accepted at millions of stores.

About the author: Jenny Rose Spaudo is a freelance writer and content strategist specializing in finance, technology and real estate. Her writing has appeared in Business Insider, Credit Karma, GOBankingRates and more. Visit jennyroses… Read more.