Guide to Mobile Wallets: What They Are and How They Work

By Sheryl Nance-Nash · February 03, 2023 · 9 minute read

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Guide to Mobile Wallets: What They Are and How They Work

A mobile wallet can be a great way to pay for things as you go through your day without having to carry an actual, potentially cumbersome wallet with you. Instead, an app holds digital versions of your credit, debit, loyalty, and ID cards, allowing you easy access when needed.

But you may wonder which of the mobile wallet options are best, how safe these transactions are, and whether it wouldn’t just be better to slip your debit card in your pocket on most days.

Read on to learn more, including:

•   What is a mobile wallet?

•   How does a mobile wallet work?

•   How do you set up a mobile wallet?

•   What are the pros and cons of a mobile wallet?

What Is a Mobile Wallet?

A mobile wallet is just what it sounds like: It’s a virtual wallet that lives on your mobile device (aka your cell phone). It can store credit cards and charge cards, as well as debit, loyalty, and store card information. This allows you to quickly and easily pay for goods and services with your smartphone, smartwatch, or another mobile device. No more digging through your bag or backpack for your “real” wallet and fishing out the right piece of plastic.

Mobile wallets (sometimes called digital wallets) can go a step further, too. You can also stash insurance cards, ID, coupons, concert tickets, boarding passes, and hotel key card information in them. Some digital wallets also enable you to send money to friends, as well as receive payments.

You may also be able to use your mobile wallet instead of a physical card at some ATMs for contactless withdrawals.

💡 Quick Tip: One way to add your debit card to your mobile wallet is by accessing your online checking account via your preferred banking app and following the instructions in-app.

How Does a Mobile Wallet Work?

Here’s how a mobile wallet works:

•   You install the app and type in your personal and payment information, which is securely stored. (Unique identifying numbers are used for your details vs. your actual card or account information.)

•   When you are ready to make a payment with the mobile wallet, a technology called NFC (near-field communication) kicks in. This allows the two devices (your mobile wallet and the vendor’s reader) to communicate. Typically, you will wave your device over the merchant’s terminal or tap your device against it.

•   As the two devices communicate, your transaction will likely go through. Funds will transfer, and you will usually be pinged with a confirmation.

What Is the Best Mobile Wallet App?

The major mobile wallets are:

•   Apple Pay

•   Google Pay

•   Samsung Pay

These may come already installed on mobile devices. Although they differ in layout, these mobile wallet apps have the same basic function that allows you to pay with a phone tap.

Other ways to make payments on the go include mobile wallets you can download from app stores, including wallets from banks and merchants such as PayPal, Walmart, and Starbucks.

Deciding which mobile wallet is best will largely depend upon your own personal needs, which options are compatible with your device, how you like to manage your money, and what your financial goals are. A couple of points to keep in mind:

•   When choosing a mobile wallet app, be aware that a mobile wallet offered by your credit card company may only be accepted at certain retailers.

•   Merchant wallets will typically only work in that merchant’s store or online. For instance, the Starbucks wallet will only work at Starbucks. Enjoy that latte, but don’t expect to buy new boots at the mall with it.

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Setting up and Using a Mobile Wallet

Here’s how to set up most of the major mobile wallet apps; it’s usually quite simple:

•   You launch the app (it may be pre-installed on your device), take a photo of your card or enter its information (such as your credit card number), and follow the step-by-step instructions.

•   This process is then repeated for all other cards entered. Generally, even if you load up several credit cards into your mobile wallet, only one of them will be your default payment option. That card will be the one that is used to process a purchase. If you want to use a different card, you may need to change the default card before you make the transaction.

•   Beyond credit and debit cards, the app may also walk you through configuring peer-to-peer payments like Apple Cash or Google Pay fund exchanges. You may also be able to link your PayPal account.

•   You may be able to import retail-store rewards cards, as well as museum or library memberships cards, event tickets, and airline boarding passes. This may involve scanning a QR code or selecting the “add to wallet” button in an email or a text message from the issuer.

•   When you are ready to pay for purchases using your mobile wallet, you’ll want to make sure the merchant accepts mobile money. These businesses can typically be identified through a contactless payment indicator (usually a sideways Wi-Fi symbol).

•   To pay, open your digital wallet app if necessary, hold the phone near the wireless reader or tap your device against the terminal. This will authorize the payment. Your phone’s screen will typically confirm the transaction.

Are Mobile Wallets Safe?

Overall, mobile wallets are considered to be safe. Here’s why:

•   Unlike cash, which can be stolen, and credit cards, which can be copied, the card information you load into a mobile wallet is encrypted. That means that your actual card or account numbers are never shared with the merchant.

•   In order to make a payment, you typically have to unlock your device and also type the passcode or use your fingerprint or face recognition to unlock the mobile wallet. Or you may be able to unlock an iPhone with a double-click of a button and then authenticate with Touch ID or Face ID.These steps may be simple but they add layers of security.

•   In the case of theft, it’s not possible for anyone to use a mobile device to make a payment without providing the required security credentials.

These safeguards actually make mobile wallets more secure than carrying physical credit cards and cash, which can easily be compromised.

Pros and Cons of Using Mobile Wallets

Is a mobile wallet right for you? Here are some key pros and cons you may want to consider.

Mobile Wallet Pros

Here are some of the upsides of using a mobile wallet.

They’re convenient. If you’re out and about without your wallet or bag, you can still make purchases, as well as use your coupons and rewards cards. You may also be able to get cash at an ATM or check a book out of the library, all from your mobile device. What’s more, they’re often allow for a contactless payment, meaning they can be extra quick and easy.

They’re secure. Mobile wallets provide a layer of security you don’t get with cash or using a debit or credit card. Your payment information is saved in one protected, central location. Card numbers are never stored in the app itself but are instead assigned a unique virtual number. This protects your money even if your smartphone is lost or stolen.

They can help you track your spending. A mobile wallet can help you track and better manage your spending. All of your transaction information is stored in the app so it’s easy to see how much you’re spending and where each week. You might even wind up using a credit card more responsibly.

Mobile Wallet Cons

There are also some downsides to mobile wallets to be aware of.

They’re not accepted everywhere. There are still some industries where cash is the only currency accepted. Even in businesses that do take credit, not all of them accept mobile wallets. To accept a mobile wallet, businesses need to have payment readers that take NFC payments, and not all of them have these terminals. This can cause a problem if a mobile wallet is all you have on hand.

Your phone could die. Cell phones often run out of battery life, and if you’re without a charger, that handy mobile wallet will no longer exist. That can put a crimp in your shopping plans or become a major problem if you have important documents such as train passes or concert tickets stored in your mobile wallet.

You may end up overspending. The use of mobile wallets can be similar to that of using a credit card. Because cash isn’t physically leaving your hands, spending can feel less real, which can be a cause of overspending. If you have spending issues, a mobile wallet can make it easy to spend mindlessly and swipe or tap too often.

The Takeaway

A mobile wallet is a digital way to store credit, debit, ID, and gift cards so that purchases can be made using a mobile smart device rather than a physical card.

Mobile wallets can help simplify your financial life. They allow users to make in-store payments without having to carry cash or physical credit cards. They’re easy to use and have hefty safeguards.

However, they aren’t universally accepted. It’s worth your while to determine whether the retailers you frequent accept them to help determine if a mobile wallet is a good option for you.

Looking for more convenient ways to manage your money? With a SoFi Checking and Savings bank account, you can spend and save in one convenient place, earn a competitive annual percentage yield (APY), and pay no account fees. You can also track your weekly spending, pay bills, and send money to friends right from your smartphone using the SoFi app.

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4 Tips for Using Your Mobile Wallet

To keep your mobile wallet safe and smooth transactions, keep these tips in mind:

  1. Do your research before downloading payment apps. Look for reliable brands/companies, many positive reviews, and a significant number of downloads. Avoid untested apps; they could be a kind of scam and contain spyware or malware.
  2. Know how to remotely lock and locate your phone in case it gets lost or stolen. Check your phone’s device manager capabilities before you find yourself in an emergency situation.
  3. Always have appropriate locking technology. Carrying around a phone that doesn’t lock means you could be risking loss.
  4. Review your credit and debit card statements. Make sure those purchases are yours. While mobile wallets are secure, problems can occasionally arise, and you want to be alert.


How many places support mobile wallets?

While there isn’t a precise tally of how many retailers and other businesses support mobile wallets, a recent study found that there are 1.35 billion registered mobile money accounts globally, indicating significant adoption of and acceptance of this technology.

Do mobile wallets support all debit/credit cards?

Each mobile wallet will have its own policies, but most credit cards from major banks are supported by, say, Google Pay. Small business credit cards may also be added, and possibly some debit cards, especially those from established banks. You may find, though, that prepaid cards are not supported.

Will mobile payments replace cash?

According to a 2022 study by GSMA, the global mobile money industry saw a 31% increase in processing transactions, up to $1 trillion in value. While this might indicate that mobile payments are on track to replace cash completely, that may not happen soon or perhaps even ever: Some sources say cash still accounts for 85% of all consumer payments around the world.

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