Samsung Galaxy S3 contactless NFC payment tested in UK shops

The Samsung Galaxy S3 is testing contactless payments. Read on to find out how it works and how I got on in real shops.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Expertise Films, TV, Movies, Television, Technology
Richard Trenholm
6 min read

I just bought a milkshake with my phone. That's right: I strolled into McDonald's, whipped out my Samsung Galaxy S3, placed it on the card reader for a moment and strode off with a tall drink of chocolatey brain freeze, all thanks to Visa's NFC payment app.

Visa is trying out phones that do NFC contactless payments during the London 2012 Olympics. Every Olympic athlete is issued an S3, and every Olympic venue is filled with tills where you can pay without typing a PIN or handing over grubby cash.

Visa representatives are currently traversing the globe heading to running tracks, swimming pools and twirly-ribbon training bunkers, delivering S3 phones to the world's top athletes -- and me. Read on to find out how it works and how I got on my first day of contactless payments with the S3.

Paying for stuff

Paying for stuff with the S3 is a breeze. Simply place the phone against the Chip and PIN terminal by the till to pay for your transaction and you're done, no PIN required. The till wirelessly talks to the phone, and you don't even have to wake up your phone.

You don't need to type in a PIN unless you've set your phone to always ask for a PIN for security reasons. Touching your phone is quicker than sticking your card in the reader and typing a PIN -- when it works.

The money comes from any debit credit or card you specify. Simply associate your credit or debit card with the Visa Contactless Payments app and every time you touch the phone on a till, that card is charged. You don't even need to have the associated card with you at the time.

If you live in London it's just like touching your Oyster card to the ticket barrier to walk into the underground station. Or if you work or study in an office or college with a swipe card, it's just like touching your card to the reader that opens the doors to let you in. The only difference is, it's a phone, not a plastic card -- and let's face it, most of us are less likely to forget our phones than we are a piece of plastic.

Setup and security

Install the Visa Contactless Payment app on your phone and you can set up a debit or credit card. I had to complete a quick registration process typing in the details of my chosen card, but when it's made available to the public Visa plans to let you call your bank and ask them to enable your phone, so they can send settings to your phone over the air.

That's more secure than sending a card in the post, but then I am speaking as someone who once had a new debit card intercepted in the post and used to empty my bank account. It didn't take long, obviously.

During the setup, you set a PIN of at least four digits. You then have the choice of setting your phone to automatically pay for stuff, or asking you for a PIN every time. If you opt for automatic payments, all you have to do is touch your phone to the till. If you opt for the added security, it's the same but you type the PIN into your phone at the same time.

Should you lose your phone, calling your network and cancelling the SIM blocks the payment app. Or you can call the bank and have phone payments temporarily stopped. As payments are currently capped at £20, the worst a thief can do is eat a hearty lunch before you have time to block the phone -- and the bank insures any losses anyway.

Using the app

You don't need to open the app to pay for something at the till: the phone does it automatically. When you do open the app, it tells you more about your balance and what you've spent so far.

The app can automatically check your balance every now and again over Wi-Fi or 3G, or you can manually update. If you associate the phone with a pre-paid card -- which is what I have on my S3 -- then it simply counts down the pre-paid balance.

The app then tells you your balance and shows you your transaction history -- which is another thing a plastic card can't do.

So the technology is secure, and the app is simple to use. But the big question is whether contactless tills are widespread enough to make it worthwhile.

Who does contactless payments?

You can tell which shops work with contactless payments by the little sideways Wi-Fi-style icon on the till. Many tills work with contactless cards -- look for the icon on newer credit or debit cards -- and you can spend up to £20 at a time. Visa plans to increase that limit eventually so you can buy bigger items with your phone, but for the moment the plan is to ease us in with small items like buying lunch.

There are around 140,000 contactless tills in the UK, mostly at national restaurant and snack chains such as McDonald's, Subway, Eat, Crussh, Pret, Caffe Nero, Nando's and Greggs.

Other chains accept payments in selected branches. Supermarkets including Tesco, Waitrose, Spar and Aldi are trying it in some shops. Selected Costa Coffee and Burger King branches will do you a latte or a Whopper without needing to get your wallet out.

And it's not just food: all Paypoint outlets and the Post Office also accept contactless payments for your bill payments or posting stuff. On the high street, some branches of Superdrug, Boots and WHSmith accept wavey-pay. Some smaller retailers also have NFC tills -- the independent chemist down the road from CNET Towers, for example. You can also use it on the M6 toll road.

You can see your nearest shops, restaurants and pubs that accept no-card payments on a map at the Visa website.

Further down the line, Visa is upgrading London Transport ticket machines and barriers to accept contactless phones, so you can store Oyster credit on your phone. Buses will follow after the Olympics.

Of course, once you've found a place that accepts contactless payments, there's no guarantee the staff will be au fait with phone payments, but in the big chains you should be okay. The McDonald's server pouring me my milkshake didn't bat an eyelid, and Pret staff were very helpful, even though it wasn't working.

When can I use it?

It's not available to the public just yet, but this is the first time we've seen proper real-world testing, so it's not far off. Visa says it has certified 12 phones for contactless payments, and most new phones have NFC built-in. Visa also told us that a UK bank is launching an NFC app in time for the Olympics, but couldn't tell us who.

It's about time: contactless payment in phones has been talked about for years. Other alternatives include Barclaycard PayTag.

But does it work?

We're trying out the S3 with contactless payments between now and the Olympics, checking out how well the app works, how easy it is to use, and how well shop staff deal with this new-fangled technology.

In the day since I got the S3, I've attempted contactless payments three times. I was able to by a £1.69 milkshake in McDonald's and a £1 chocolate bar in Crussh, but an £11 lunch for a colleague and I in Pret didn't work, even though we tried two different readers. This may have been a blip -- we'll know when we spend more time with the phone -- but it seems as though you need to have your wallet with you just to be on the safe side.

Is contactless payment a good idea? Would you use your phone to pay for things? Tell me your thoughts in the comments or on our Facebook page.

Editor's note: Rich Trenholm saw the Samsung Galaxy S3 with contactless payment at a Samsung and Visa event in London. Visa has loaned an S3 and provided credit in the payment app to be used at contactless tills, but the company had no input into the content of this article.