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I recently decided to switch current accounts. It was a fairly painless process, thanks to the current account switching service. My direct debits transferred without me having to do anything; my new debit card arrived in the post after a few days.

One of the conditions of switching was that the account at my old bank would be shut down. My old account was shut down on 26 January and my debit card was cancelled; but I still hadn’t received the PIN number for my new debit card. The PIN was lost in the post and my new debit card couldn’t be used to make payments1.

Luckily, my new bank supports Apple Pay; it’s a new way to pay without needing a PIN number. So I had a way to pay for things despite the current account switching snafu, and I had the opportunity to run an interesting experiment. Could I get away with only paying for everything on Apple Pay until my PIN eventually arrived in the post?

Setting up Apple Pay

Setting up Apple Pay is relatively straight forward. You open the Wallet app on your iPhone, take a photo of the front of your card, and enter the 3 digit verification code on the back.

My bank asked me to validate that it was really me trying to set up the card too. I had to attempt this twice.

The first time, I had to call the bank. This was the first time I’d ever called this bank, so they needed to send me a code in the post. When I received that, I could register the card for payment. This was a few days before my old account was closed, so I could afford to wait.

The day after, I decided to chance it and try setting up the card again. This time, I was presented with an SMS verification option. I received the text message, popped in the code, and voila; Apple Pay set up complete2.

A new - and constrained - way to pay

Apple Pay set up completed, I was now faced with living within a few constraints.

First, I could only pay in shops that supported contactless card payments. Given that I live and work in central London, this turned out to be a bigger problem than you might expect.

Second, because Apple Pay in the UK is based on the same rules that apply to contactless card payments, I could only spend up to £30 in a single transaction3.

Surviving on Apple Pay

I’ll spoil the suspense up-front: my experiment failed. It was actually impossible to survive for what turned out to be 9 days using only Apple Pay.

That being said, I learnt some interesting things about how contactless payments are integrated into our retail experiences right now - and where they need to rapidly improve.

Actually paying for stuff

Despite the process being near identical to using a contactless card, paying for stuff using Apple Pay was actually pretty fun. I’ve not had the usual shocked reactions you get when people see you using new technology, which are always a socially-awkward delight, but it’s filled me with small moments of joy whenever Apple Pay worked exactly as it needed to.

There’s a little more peace of mind paying with Apple Pay. With contactless cards, there’s always a twinge of doubt that you might accidentally trigger a payment on the wrong card - or get card clash. Apple Pay only authorises a payment when it can verify your finger print or device passcode, so there’s no chance of an accidental payment; which is nice.

The most disconcerting part of paying for Apple Pay is it’s speed. Every time I paid using Apple Pay, the phone processed the payment, and there was - what can only be described as - a pregnant pause whilst the contactless terminal caught up. It’s similar to the delays between using contactless versus Oyster on the London Underground; the latter is much, much faster4. The lag experienced using Apple Pay doesn’t happen when using contactless payment cards in stores. This delay does introduce a small moment of panic to an otherwise smooth process, as you hope your payment actually went through.

The meal deal is off

Surviving my week-and-a-bit with Apple Pay was much harder than expected, in part, because of Sainsbury’s. It’s probably my most shopped-in supermarket; I go there pretty regularly to get lunch because there’s a store directly under my office. Not during this experiment though because - amazingly - Sainsbury’s still doesn’t accept contactless payments. In fact, I think it’s now the only major supermarket not to accept contactless. So the £3 meal deal was off.

This wasn’t the worst thing in the world - I work in an area filled with Pret A Manger, Wasabi, EAT and other food outlets - but it did mean the cost of lunch spiralled in this 9 day period.

Sainsbury’s wasn’t the only place that didn’t have contactless over the period of my experiment, but it’s surprising that after several years of contactless being in circulation that I had a much more limited selection of options available to me.

Signals

No one knows how to react to Apple Pay because no one understands the signals. When you’re paying with contactless, you tend to have your debit or credit card in hand, ready to pay. That’s usually a pretty easy signal for retail staff to pick up on that you want to pay by card - either by PIN or by contactless. With Apple Pay, you get no such luck.

Most of the time, I ended up standing at a till waiting for things to happen. Cashiers don’t know that you’re waiting to pay by contactless; they just think you’re holding your phone. I ended up saying “can I pay by contactless?” a lot.

When things go wrong

Twice during my experiment I found myself unable to pay for things.

The first was in Caffe Nero, whose Internet connection had gone down and weren’t accepting contactless card payments. Of course, without a PIN for my card, I couldn’t get cash out either; so my latte and pain au chocolat stayed in the store, unconsumed.

The second was at the Black Penny, at team breakfast. Their contactless terminal wasn’t working, so a colleague had to pay for my breakfast and I had to transfer her the money afterwards through online banking.

These two experiences highlighted the problems with Apple Pay and contactless payments right now. A payment method needs to be reliable and constantly available. If it’s not, you’re faced with a scenario where you literally can’t eat or drink. Until our banking technology infrastructure is robust, I suspect this will hinder the total adoption of cashless payments.

Social dilemmas

Perhaps the most panic inducing moment of my 9 day experiment was preparing for date night.

My boyfriend informed me - with short notice - that I’d need to wear a shirt for dinner that night. I was wearing a shirt, but I was also wearing a pair of trainers - which would have been a bit of a faux pas. In central London, and with no time to get home and change, I needed to buy new shoes.

How hard is buying nice shoes from Covent Garden on a £30 budget? Turns out, it’s near impossible. I ended up buying a pair of £60 shoes from Zara that were reduced to £29.99.

Date night saved, but a close call.

Living with contactless is hard

If there’s anything I’ve learnt from this experiment it’s that going cashless and contactless is hard.

Contactless payment options still aren’t ubiquitous enough and card payment technology still isn’t robust enough. It’s next-to-impossible to take the plunge to go cash-free; having back-ups isn’t just a luxury, it’s a necessity.

Not to worry though - I have my PIN now, and everything’s back to normal.

  1. For those of you thinking I could just use contactless on my new debit card: I couldn’t. Contactless debit cards only work after you’ve validated them with a PIN number. Once every 10 transactions you have to re-enter your PIN to prevent fraud. 

  2. I also set up Apple Pay on my Apple Watch. The process is fairly similar but you do it through the Watch app instead of through Wallet. 

  3. In the US, where they still don’t widely have Chip and PIN, this restriction doesn’t exist. Any store that supports Apple Pay can take payments of any amount. 

  4. Part of the reason that contactless took so long to introduce on the London Underground was that TfL found the speed of NFC technology - which contactless cards are based on - to be much slower than the RFID technology found in Oyster cards.