Phones

Google Wallet: The Complete FAQ

Google's hoping you're ready to put your money where your phone is.

Yeah--you read that right. Google announced the launch of a new mobile payment system called "Google Wallet" on Thursday. The service lets you store your credit cards inside your smartphone, then use the device to make contact-free payments. All you do is wave your phone in front of a special sensor, and--hocus pocus!--the payment is made.

Google Wallet isn't magic, though (hey, this isn't Apple we're talking about). It uses something called Near Field Communication to let your phone communicate wirelessly with sensors at stores' checkout lanes. Support for Near Field Communication, or NFC, is built into Google's Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) operating system. A phone also needs the right hardware to be able to put it to use.

Now, I know: This all sounds a bit wacky. The whole mobile payment concept, after all, is new and uncharted territory for most of us. That's why I've put together this massive Google Wallet FAQ. Read on, and get answers to all your burning questions.

Who can use Google Wallet?

Anyone with a compatible phone. To start, the service will support only Google's Nexus S 4G phone on Sprint. Google says, however, it'll be working to add more devices as time moves on. The service is also being offered only in the United States as of now.

So if I have any other phone, I'm just out of luck?

Nexus S 4G smartphone
Nexus S 4G smartphone
Not necessarily. As reported by TechCrunch, Google is working on a special kind of sticker that will allow non-NFC-compatible phones to access the Google Wallet service. It'll reportedly be a more limited experience than you'd get on a fully supported phone, but it'll at least let you make basic credit card payments.

What about non-Android phones?

Google has yet to mention anything about support for phones outside of its Android operating system. According to IDG News reporter Nancy Gohring, Google representatives at Thursday's Wallet event "did not respond to a question about whether other kinds of phones are welcome on the platform."

Will Google Wallet work right now?

Whoa there, Nelly--not yet. Today was just an announcement. Google says it's field-testing the Google Wallet technology right now and will release it publicly "soon."

Will Google Wallet work with any credit card?

Not exactly. At launch, Google Wallet will integrate only with Citi MasterCards. The service will also have a built-in "Google Prepaid Card" that can store money added from any other credit card. (Google even gives you a free $10 credit on the prepaid card when you first sign up.)

Google says it's "working quickly" to add more credit card options into the service and plans to eventually support "all the cards you keep in your wallet today."

Will Google Wallet work with any other kinds of cards?

In some cases, Google Wallet can store loyalty cards--store memberships and the likes--and gift cards, too. Google envisions the Wallet program one day handling things like driver's licenses, hotel keys, and even concert tickets, too.

Will most stores accept Google Wallet as a payment?

"Hundreds of thousands" of businesses are already set up to do it, according to Google. The reason: Google Wallet uses MasterCard's PayPass system to accept transactions on the merchant end, and that system is already fairly widely deployed across the U.S. You can find a list of places in your area that'll work with Google Wallet.

So how exactly will I make a Google Wallet payment?

When you're in a store that supports MasterCard PayPass, you'll type in a PIN and wave your phone in front of the PayPass terminal when it's time to pay. It's just like swiping a credit card--except, you know, without the actual credit card or swiping motion.

Will I get a receipt?

Yep--just like normal. Later this year, though, Google is planning to tack on a new feature that'll let stores send receipts electronically right back through the Wallet application.

What if I'm in an area where I get bad reception?

Doesn't matter--Google says no network connection is needed to make a Google Wallet payment.

What if my phone's battery dies?

If your battery dies, you're out of luck. The phone has to be powered on in order for Google Wallet to work.

Will Google Wallet cost me anything to use?

Nope, not a thing (aside from the emotional cost of strangers' stares as they look at you in bewilderment).

There is one exception, though: If you opt to use the Google Prepaid Card part of the service, you may eventually run into fees. Google says adding funds onto that card will be fee-free "at least until the end of 2011"--which makes it sound like some type of cost might be in the cards, so to speak, at some point down the line.

Will my Citi MasterCard automatically work with Google Wallet?

Probably, but you can double-check to be sure. Any card added to Google Wallet will also have a $100 payment limit at first; you'll have to get an authorization code from Citi to activate your full credit line.

Next: More Google Wallet FAQs, including privacy and security concerns

Security Concerns

Okay, wise guy, what about security? Is this thing actually safe?

Believe it or not, by most measures, it's safer than carrying a physical credit card in your pocket. Google Wallet stores your account info encrypted on a special chip inside your phone. The chip is completely separate from the rest of the phone's hardware and isn't connected to the operating system, either. Google says only authorized programs like the Google Wallet app can access the chip--and if someone tries to hack into it, it'll automatically self-destruct (take that, James Bond!).

I'm still not convinced. What if another program somehow gains access?

Here's what Google says about that:

"Both the Android platform and the Secure Element [chip] are designed to prevent this from happening. Android enforces strict access policies so that malicious applications wouldn't have access to data stored by Google Wallet. Even Google Wallet itself has very limited access to the [chip] and cannot read or write data from its memory. There are multiple levels of protection for data stored on the [chip] and it is protected at the hardware level from snooping or tampering."

[Read Tony Bradley's report: Can You Trust Your Data to Google Wallet?]

If someone else had my phone, then, could they go on a wild shopping spree with my account?

Probably not. First of all, you have to enter a PIN in order to make any payment, so having the phone by itself wouldn't be enough to access your accounts. If you were to lose your phone or somehow get unauthorized charges, it'd work the same way it would with a regular credit card: You'd call your banking company and they'd suspend the account. Any unauthorized charges would be handled the same way they would be if they happened with regular ol' plastic.

According to the crew from GigaOm, Google can also remotely wipe your financial info from your phone if the need arises.

How about that snooping thing? What's to stop someone from using some sort of gizmo to lift my data from my phone when I'm walking around?

Near Field Communications
Near Field Communications
Google says a phone's NFC capability is only activated when its screen is powered on, so a transmission wouldn't be possible when the device is idle in your pocket. On top of that, data can only be transmitted when you enter your PIN. All in all, it'd probably be easier for someone to look at the numbers printed on your plastic card than to get them out of your phone.

Will Google be collecting data on me when I use Google Wallet?

The G-gang promises it won't be playing the role of big brother. Google says it receives no data about purchases and records only the time and type of card used in each transaction. That information is stored locally on the phone, and you can always remove it (along with your account info) anytime you want.

Does Google get any of the money I pay?

Negatory; Google takes no cut from purchases made through its Google Wallet system.

Then what is Google getting out of this?

Good question. For one thing, Google Wallet allows Google to add value into its existing products and services, like Android. Compelling features draw in more users, which is what Google is ultimately after.

Google Wallet also integrates with a variety of other Google services, thanks to a component called Google Offers. Google Offers allows you to find virtual coupons to store on your phone, within the Wallet app, and then use when you check out at businesses.

Notably, you find those offers by using Google's official Offers website--currently being beta tested in a handful of cities--or by clicking on relevant links in other Google products like Maps, Latitude, and search. Everything brings you back to Google, and that's where Google stands to benefit the most.

Tell me more about this Google Offers thing.

Google Offers
Google Offers
Once Google Offers launches for your city, you'll be able to go online and seek out coupons for retailers in your area. It looks like Google will also offer an option to get coupons in your email each day (ouch, Groupon).

When you check out at a store, you'll just show the virtual coupon to the cashier to get the discount or deal. At certain businesses, you'll be able to redeem the coupon wirelessly using the Google Wallet technology. A bunch of stores are already on-board with this, including such places as American Eagle, Bloomingdale's, Jamba Juice, Macy's, Subway, and Walgreens.

I run a business. How can I learn more about Google Wallet and/or Offers from a merchant perspective?

You can contact the Google Wallet gang by emailing wallet-b2b@google.com.

Aren't you getting tired of answering questions about Google Wallet? What is this, question number 70 or something?

Number 263, actually--and yes, now that you mention it, I am a bit bushed.

Well, what should I do if I have more questions?

Direct them to my personal assistant, Clippy. Or just scream loudly; that always seems to work for me.

JR Raphael is a PCWorld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. You can find him on Facebook or on Twitter.

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