Reviews

Google Pay Review: A Feature-Rich Digital Wallet with Cash-Back Offers

Google Pay Review
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These days, most people have multiple credit cards and bank accounts linked to numerous online vendors, web extensions like Capital One Shopping and mobile payment apps. 

And while these connections facilitate quick payments and can help you save money, they also make it harder to secure your finances and track your spending.

If you use Truebill for budgeting, Cash App for transfers and Rakuten for cash-back shopping, you may find yourself wishing all these aspects of your financial life could have a single, centralized home. 

That’s exactly the goal of the newly-reimagined Google Pay, which blends the features of the former Android Pay and Google Wallet apps into one convenient solution. 

In this Google Pay review, we’ll delve into exactly how the service works, the features it offers, how it stacks up against the competition, and whether it’s worthy of a spot on your phone’s home screen.

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The latest version of Google Pay offers a major step forward for Android users who don't have access to Samsung Pay, but the app's wide range of features don't provide as much value as stand-alone budgeting, cash-back and P2P payment services.

Pros:
  • Allows you to add credit/debit cards, loyalty cards and gift cards to your digital wallet.
  • Makes it easy to see your entire transaction history with a specific merchant.
  • Gives you above-average control over privacy settings and how your data is used.
Cons:
  • There are fewer cash-back offers than going directly through a site like Rakuten, and the rates aren't as generous.
  • You can only send money to other people who have Google Pay.
  • There's a hefty 1.5% fee for instant transfers from a debit card into your Google Pay balance.

Our Take

Before we get into the details, here’s our overall assessment of the app and its features. 

Google Pay certainly offers a lot of mobile payment and money management features all in one place, and if you’re looking for a way to consolidate the array of cards in your wallet — credit cards, gift cards, and store loyalty cards among them — Google Pay is a good option.

However, while Google Pay offers a wide variety of features, many of them don’t go very deep.

For instance, the cash-back deals are nice, but Google Pay doesn’t have nearly the number of vendors as a browser extension like Capital One Shopping or a cash-back portal like Rakuten.

Similarly, it’s great that the app can track your purchases (as we’ll discuss below), but the data it collects isn’t actionable enough to build a budget from it. 

Another downside is the 1.5% fee Google charges for debit card transfers. Since other P2P apps like Venmo and Cash App don’t charge for this, it may be worth it to download a separate app for person-to-person money transfers to avoid the fee.

With all of this in mind, our view is that Google Pay has the potential to become a best-in-class financial management tool — but it’s not there quite yet.

For iPhone users, the features and functionality currently available don’t provide enough value to migrate away from the Apple payment ecosystem.

For Android smartphone users who do not have access to Samsung Pay (for example, because your phone is a Google Pixel), it’s a major step forward from current offerings and may be worth a download. 

Google Pay Screens
Google Pay’s updated design.

Google Pay: The Basics

Financial technology has evolved a lot in recent years, and at an exponentially increasing pace. 

As each piece of our everyday lives — bank accounts, credit cards, debit cards, phones, and billing — has gone digital, corresponding apps and websites have popped up like gophers. 

Keeping track of each one independently is like playing “Whack-A-Mole” with each element of your personal finances. 

Google Pay attempts to solve this problem by being a one-stop-shop for all things that meet at the crossroads of money and technology.

It aims to be the Swiss army knife of mobile money management, allowing you to use tap-to-pay terminals with your credit and debit cards, track your transactions, earn points for them, and link up your loyalty accounts — all in one convenient phone-based dashboard. 

This free app has most of the features you need in your everyday monetary life, from budgeting to contactless payment to splitting the dinner bill.

But as we’ll discuss below, not all of those features are fully developed yet.

History and Recent Changes

Google Pay (also known as G Pay) emerged from two distinct apps: Android Pay (which launched in 2015) and Google Wallet (which was released in 2011). 

As of 2018, these tools merged under the Google Pay umbrella, with Google Pay Send as an interim solution for peer-to-peer payments (think of it like an alternative version of Venmo). 

In January 2021, Google Pay Send was retired and peer-to-peer payments were built into a new version of Google Pay.

Google Wallet

Google Wallet started as a mobile payment app that allowed you to store credit and debit card information on a mobile device.

When you visited a vendor’s payment card reader, you’d use Google Wallet to transmit your card’s credentials using near-field communication (NFC) technology (now also referred to as contactless payment or tap and pay).

Google Wallet was compatible with both in-store and online vendors. If you’re an iOS user, it was basically the same thing as the Apple Wallet.

In 2013, Google Wallet added the ability to send money via Gmail for users in the United States and the UK. This was the beginning of its foray into the peer-to-peer money transaction space. 

Google Wallet also began to store non-monetary transaction info, like store loyalty and rewards information. 

These were huge advantages, but Google Wallet only worked on a small number of Sprint and MetroPCS phones.

Android Pay

In 2015, Google acquired the intellectual property of the NFC app Softcard and received support from AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon for Google Wallet.

Aiming to compete directly with Apple’s mobile payment platform (Apple Pay), Google consolidated the features of Wallet and Android pay into what is now Google Pay. 

Google Pay Features

Google Pay includes the features of many popular money apps: the peer-to-peer abilities of Venmo and Cash App, the security layer of PayPal, the NFC capability of Android Pay, and the cash-back offers of Rakuten. Let’s dive into each of these offerings.

#1. Digital Wallet

Just like your physical wallet, Google Pay can store much more than just credit cards. You can load store loyalty cards, bank accounts, and gift cards in this mobile payment app, as well as some transit cards, university IDs, and even boarding passes.

You can also link your PayPal account with Google Pay.

Here’s an example of what the Wallet looks like on an Android device.

Google Pay Digital Wallet
Example of the Google Pay wallet on an Android smartphone.

Once you link a debit or credit card to Google Pay, you can use the NFC (tap to pay) feature to use the card at any contactless payment terminal. Just unlock your phone to pay (use your fingerprint or your security pattern); there’s no need to open the app itself. 

When I used Google Pay for the first time, I was shocked at how fast it was — it took less time for the transaction to complete than swiping my physical credit card.

Google Pay automatically pulls in any passes (like airline boarding passes or event tickets) associated with your linked cards. That means no more worrying about if you forgot your ticket or pass at home — a scannable copy is always on your phone.

In addition to paying for merchant transactions, you can carry money in a Google Pay balance — as you would with Venmo, Cash App or PayPal. You can load this money from a bank account, debit/credit card (though there are fees for this) or receive it from a peer-to-peer payment.

Note that you cannot use the funds from your Google Pay balance to pay for transactions at tap-to-pay terminals.

#2. Cash-Back Offers

Google Pay has teamed up with Rakuten to offer cash-back rewards at a fairly large group of merchants — though notably, not as many as are available by going directly through Rakuten. These rewards stack on top of any credit card rewards and/or store loyalty points. 

Note: You do not need a Rakuten account to get cash-back through Google Pay — it’s simply the service that powers the offers you’ll find in the app.

When you’re in the app, just swipe left to the “Explore” section to locate these offers; the vendors come up in a long list (as shown in the screenshot below).

Google Pay cash-back offers list on an iPhone.
Google Pay cash-back offers list on an iPhone.

You can also search for offers at individual stores by name.

Note that cash-back offers must be activated prior to purchase, and to claim them, you must pay for your purchase with a linked credit or debit card. 

The cash-back rewards you earn are real money, stored in your Google Pay balance, and are usually credited within five business days, according to the company.

#3. Peer-to-Peer Payments

Google has rolled the peer-to-peer payment feature of the former Google Pay Send app into the new Google Pay app. Unfortunately, it’s much less robust than other P2P options on the market. 

You can deposit money from your checking account into your Google Pay balance, or send money directly from that checking account to someone else. You can also create a group, then split a charge among the members — which is ideal for roommates looking to split rent or friends going out for a meal. 

However, all recipients must have the Google Pay app; gone are the days when all you needed for compatibility was an email address or phone number. 

Previously, Google didn’t charge any fees for peer-to-peer payments, in keeping with the standard set by other mobile apps like Venmo, Zelle and Cash App.

However, as of January 2021, Google will charge a 1.5% fee (or a minimum of $0.31) to transfer cash into Google Pay from a debit card or vice versa. 

The fee occurs because debit card transactions are considered instant, whereas bank account transactions take 1-3 business days. But considering the fact that competitors don’t charge a fee for debit card transactions, this is a big bummer for Google Pay users. 

#4. Built-In Digital Bank Account

Google has teamed up with 11 banks and credit unions to create Plex, a fully digital bank account that links with Google Pay.

It offers many of the same features of other online bank accounts such as Chime Bank (like no monthly fees, free in-network ATM transactions and no overdraft fees), while seamlessly integrating with the money management features available in the app. 

While Plex has yet to be released, there are rumors that will also include some form of AI-powered, actionable data for users, such as data that provides insights into their spending patterns and financial behavior. 

The human psychology angle of spending is one the personal finance world has known about for ages, but has yet to influence much of how bank accounts operate.

If your Plex account reminds you that you tend to spend a lot eating out on the weekends, or that you’ve exceeded your budget for Amazon purchases this month, that tailored data could improve your overall financial picture.

You can get on the waiting list for Plex when you download the Google Pay app. 

#5. Centralized Transaction Hub

Another tool Google Pay offers is a list of your transactions. This aggregation can help you keep track of your spending. Google Pay breaks down your spending by week and shows you where your money is going. 

You can also easily view your transactions at a specific merchant. Just search the merchant by name and you’ll be taken to a screen that lists all of your interactions with the entity.

While these insights are certainly helpful, they lack true money-saving power that you’d see in other transaction aggregators like Truebill and Trim. Unlike those two apps, Google Pay doesn’t help you cut your expenses — it only displays them. 

Additionally, Google Pay simply doesn’t have the tools to categorize purchases, split transactions, or track net worth like Personal Capital or Mint. So while the transactions feature is nice to have, it doesn’t reach wide or deep enough to be a true budgeting tool to school your financial decisions.

Related: The best budgeting apps available today.

#6. Add Gift and Loyalty Cards

If you’re like me, you usually have a healthy supply of half-used gift cards in your wallet left over from birthdays or merchandise returns. They generally stay forgotten in the depths of your wallet, and the amount left on the card is always a mystery.

Here’s yet another problem solved by Google Pay. You can load all your gift cards into the app and consolidate them in one place. Once you scan or enter the numbers on the gift card, the balance automatically populates, so you’ll know exactly how much is on the card.

You can also load loyalty cards into Google Pay, so those won’t kick around your purse either. Tap on the credit card symbol in the upper right corner of the app to add gift cards or loyalty cards to your account. Just tap your phone to a mobile payment terminal and Google Pay will sync your purchase with your rewards account. 

One major downside to using gift and loyalty cards with Google Pay is they aren’t great for use online. I tried to use my Walgreens loyalty card and an Old Navy gift card, but neither vendor accepts Google Pay for online purchases, so I would have to enter the card information manually to use it on their websites. 

Still, it’s nice to have a repository for the various cards, and hopefully we’ll see more interoperability between Google Pay, vendor websites, and linking reward/loyalty cards in the future.

#7. Other Miscellaneous Perks

Google Pay offers a few other fun features in the app, and with the way fintech is going, you can expect to see more perks like these in the future.

Gas Prices 

If you allow Google Pay to know your location, you can check for gas stations near you, along with current prices. This can be helpful on road trips, though when I tried to use this it only picked up one of the two gas stations in my town. You can also use Google Pay to pay at the pump from your phone.

Order Food

You can order takeout or have food delivered from Google Pay’s “Discover” section. This is Google’s competing offering to GrubHub, UberEats and DoorDash. The app even estimates how long before you get your food! Google Pay charges a 7% service fee for this feature.

Coupons

While the absence of a need for clipable coupons (or even an extra app for them) sounds great, the scope of this feature is currently very limited. I only found coupons for grocery items in Target at the time of this writing, but I expect other vendor partners to offer more coupons eventually.

Related: How to save money at the grocery store.

Referral Bonuses

Refer friends to download Google Pay with a quick text message. If your friend downloads the app and makes a purchase, Google rewards you and your friend with money in your Google Pay balance. (This is a limited-time promotion and could change in the future.)

Fees

The Google Pay app is free to download, and most of the features it offers are free as well. 

Transferring money into or out of your Google Pay balance is generally free also. The only fee they charge that stands out is the 1.5% fee for instant transfers (which has a minimum of 31 cents). 

It’s worth noting that debit card transactions (into or out of the Google Pay balance) count as instant transfers and will trigger the fee, whereas transactions directly through a bank account will not.

Other competing P2P payment apps (Venmo, Cash App) don’t distinguish between debit card and bank account transactions, but they often do charge a fee for instant transfers. 

Security 

Though it may sound odd, paying with cards in a digital wallet can be safer than their physical counterparts. Why? Each time you give a vendor your credit card information, you open yourself up to the potential for fraud. 

Digital wallets like Google Pay, on the other hand, use a tokenization system, giving the vendor a randomly generated string of numbers (or token) instead of your actual card number. 

On its own, the token is useless to anyone who finds it, but Google uses the token to tie the transaction back to your card. 

Because of this, tokenization is actually safer than encryption because (although difficult) encryption can be mathematically reversed, whereas tokenization cannot.

Additionally, your phone must be unlocked for Google Pay to work, so your biometric or passcode provides an additional layer of security. Anyone who stole your phone would have to unlock it to access Google Pay.

Privacy

As privacy concerns and lawsuits surrounding Google (and big tech in general) continue to mount, naturally you’ll want to know what Google does with the data it collects in Google Pay before you decide to use it.

Google Pay actually gives you a decent amount of control over your privacy and asks you during your first use which features you want to be turned on.

If you turn on “Personalization,” the app will use the transactions, forms of payment, and loyalty cards to curate the offers you see. 

Google Pay also has an option to try turning this on for three months with a prompt to ask you if you want to keep it on down the road. 

Additionally…

  • You can opt out of sharing that you use Google Pay with vendors.
  • There’s an option to share info about your creditworthiness and personal info with other Google companies, but blessedly this is off by default. 
  • Location data can be turned on and off, though certain features like “Order Food” and “Get Gas” require you to have it on to function well.

Google states in the Google Pay privacy policy that your personal information won’t be sold to third parties or shared publicly. The policy also states that transaction data will not be shared with the rest of Google for the purpose of targeting ads. 

While Google seems to be somewhat aware of the privacy concerns of users, the company still heavily relies on ad and affiliate marketing revenue. The privacy options reflect this, but they can always be turned off without a huge loss in the app’s functionality.

Google Pay FAQ

Are there any differences between the iOS and Android versions?

I downloaded the Google Pay app on an iPhone and a Samsung phone, and while I’m not a developer, I couldn’t find any discernible differences between the two apps. 

Who can send and receive payments?

Google has recently changed its peer-to-peer payment options. Previously, you could send money to anyone with a phone number or email address; the recipient just had to claim the funds in 14 days, or the money would be returned.

With the January 2021 relaunch, recipients must be Google Pay users in the US.

Google has also retired the ability to pay with the web app pay.google.com.

Does Google Pay offer a physical debit card?

Currently, Google Pay does not offer a physical debit card. As Google Wallet was retired, the physical debit cards associated with that app disappeared as well, and Google has not yet offered a replacement. 

So if you want to get cash from an ATM or use your Google Pay balance at a non-NFC payment terminal, you’re stuck with old-fashioned cards or cash — for now. 

The Google Plex online bank accounts rolling out later in 2021 will have a physical debit card you can request.

How fast are transfers in and out of Google Pay?

Transferring cash from your bank account to Google Pay takes one to three business days. In my experience, if you request the transfer late in the day, plan on four business days. Transfers to and from a debit card are usually instant, but they come with a 1.5% fee.

Rewards typically come across instantly (at least they did for me), though Google notes it can take up to three business days to do so. 

Does Google Pay accept prepaid cards?

Credit and debit cards play well in the Google Pay sandbox, but with prepaid debit/credit cards, it can be hit and miss. Some prepaid cards work, while others don’t. 

There doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason as to which ones are compatible, but one consistent trend is that if the card works on one digital wallet (Apple Pay, Samsung Pay or Google Pay), it’s likely to work with the others as well. 

If you’re wondering about a particular prepaid card, here’s a handy list to check if yours is compatible with Google Pay. 

Can Google Pay cash checks?

Google Pay doesn’t have any mobile deposit feature at present. Google may add this once Plex accounts become a reality later in 2021.

Can Google Pay be used on Amazon?

No, Google Pay isn’t a supported payment option on Amazon. Amazon has a competing mobile payment platform, Amazon Pay, so this isn’t much of a surprise. 

Can Google Pay be used internationally?

Yes, with an asterisk. Not all features of Google Pay are available to every country. For instance, there’s a long list of countries that support the app for contactless payments and rewards accounts, but only residents of the U.S. and India can use it to send money to friends and family. Check Google Pay’s support page for more info on how you can use Google Pay in your country. 

Google Pay Summary

Digital wallets like Google Pay offer unprecedented security and convenience.

Part peer-to-peer money app, part transaction tracker, part cash-back extension, and part NFC payment capability, Google Pay offers a ton of features to make your monetary transactions quick, safe, mobile and cataloged. 

The new edition of Google Pay launched just recently (January 2021), so some of the features aren’t as fleshed out as we’d like. The coupon and cash-back aspects would be much more compelling with a longer list of vendors, and the insights given by tracking your spending are marginal at best.

However, with Plex accounts coming online later this year and continuing updates, we hope to see more robust features from Google Pay in the future.

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Jenni Sisson is a freelance writer and editor focused on personal finance, technology and entrepreneurship. A serial side hustler, Sisson has started businesses selling maple syrup, teaching piano lessons, transcribing medical records, selling on eBay, mystery shopping and more. You can read more of her work on her blog, Family Size Finance.

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