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Facebook's WhatsApp kicks off payments service in India

Millions of people in India can now begin to make payments through the popular messaging app.

Screenshot by Sareena Dayaram/CNET

WhatsApp has rolled out a free payment service in India today, in a move that takes the popular messaging app a step closer to "super app" status in the world's second largest internet market.

"People can safely send money to a family member or share the cost of goods from a distance without having to exchange cash in person or going to a local bank," the Facebook-owned company wrote in a blog post published on Friday in India.  

"This secure payments experience makes transferring money just as easy as sending a message."

WhatsApp began testing its digital payments service in 2018 with a limited number of users, and had since been awaiting regulatory approvals for a broader rollout. India's largest digital payment processor granted WhatsApp approval on Thursday, but limited the initial rollout to 20 million users. 

The service allows people to connect their bank accounts to the app and send money to others. According to the company, the payment service will be made available in 10 Indian regional languages via the latest versions of WhatsApp for iOS and Android. WhatsApp has built its payment service on top of a payment infrastructure known as UPI, which was collectively developed by some of India's largest banks.

With the addition of a digital payments feature, WhatsApp enters a crowded playing field occupied by entrenched rivals including Walmart's PhonePe, Google Pay, and Alibaba-backed Paytm. Still, it takes WhatsApp closer to its lofty goal of becoming a "super app" in the world's second largest internet market, where it has amassed more than 400 million users. 

So-called super apps aren't part of the tech landscape in the United States, but there are several competing ones in Asia including China's WeChat, Singapore's Grab, and Indonesia's GoJek. A super app is essentially an all-in-one mobile app that offers a vast array of features and services that are often used in daily life, including ordering food deliveries and booking a ride. 

Earlier this year, WhatsApp rolled out a similar digital payment feature in Brazil, only to later suspend it.