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I am currently planning my trip to the US. I already have some money in cash, traveler checks and a visa card. But I have a Nexus 4 smartphone which has Near Field Communication (NFC).

Can I pay with my smartphone in Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania)?

I have seen the following apps:

I'm especially thinking about paying with my smartphone instead of using the credit card because I think it is cheaper (I have to pay a "currency transaction fee" with my credit card).

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I'd check the T&Cs of those apps carefully - they may well have their own FX related fees that kick in if you pay in a currency other than the one you fund in –  Gagravarr May 6 at 21:59
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pay for what? Are you expecting answers that cover every retail environment, places that charge admission, toll booths, and so on? –  Kate Gregory May 6 at 22:03
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3 Answers 3

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There is currently little consumer demand in the U.S. for NFC payments, for a number of reasons:

  • Magnetic card swipe readers are ubiquitous; in D.C., I can use them not only at gas station pumps and for Metro tickets, but in vending machines and parking meters, and even in almost every mom-and-pop shop.

  • There is a standards battle underway between Google Wallet, ISIS, LevelUp, Square, and other players which has divided the small market. Vendors and consumers alike are waiting.

  • Apple has not gotten behind the technology, meaning it is not available on the most popular and arguably the most aspirational brand of devices without obtaining a hardware accessory.

  • All mobile phone-based NFC payment technologies are newish, and not without their kinks. To relate an anecdote, in the time it took my co-worker to show off paying at the drugstore with his new phone— to retrieve and unlock it, hold it up to the reader, be recognized, and receive the payment approval— I could have retrieved my credit card, swiped, and put it away three or four times.

As such, mobile phone-based NFC payments are very rarely accepted by independent establishments, and even some major chains are giving up on it for now; Best Buy and 7-Eleven have withdrawn their NFC offerings.

If you do want to use NFC, there are a growing number of options, but they are mostly with large chains. ISIS is accepted at McDonald's and CVS; Google Wallet is accepted at Walgreens and Five Guys; Square is accepted at Starbucks; and so on. The backers of the different NFC networks are striving mightily to promote them, so they will have web pages devoted to listing supporting vendors; for example, you search can search by city or postal code for local ISIS and Square merchants, including vending machines.

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Sure, you can pay with your phone, for some things. But not very many things.

Paying by phone is still not very common in the USA. Even in San Francisco, where Square is probably most popular, it's nowhere near common enough that you can get through a trip with it. Even at places that accept Square, usage is so low that employees aren't sure what you're talking about when you say you want to use it.

The most common pay-by-phone outlet in the USA is Starbucks. All Starbucks stores accept Square. Well, most. You'll see the Starbucks name at airports, but those are usually not run by the parent company, and Square won't work there.

It's probably not cheaper anyway. I'd expect that Square (or others) will just charge your credit card in USD anyway, so you'll still end up with foreign transaction fees.

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I would not plan on using your smartphone as a method of payment in the US. You will find some places in large cities that accept such forms of payment, but it is not very common.

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