A digital wallet is a smartphone app that lets you make encrypted, contactless debit or credit card transactions without using your physical cards.

Benefits: You can keep multiple cards in your digital wallet and select which one you want to pay with (or you can use your default card). You can store coupons, train passes, gift cards, insurance cards, frequent-flier ­credentials, your AAA card and more. The card numbers aren’t stored directly in your phone—and your real account numbers aren’t transmitted during the transactions.

Three market leaders have emerged—Apple Pay, Google Pay and Samsung Pay. New phones come with these apps installed, but you can download a digital wallet from the app store even if you have an older phone.

Important: Make sure your phone is capable of contactless payments—search in your Settings for “NFC,” the acronym for “Near-Field Communication.” If your phone does not support this technology, you may be able to use a digital wallet but the functionality will be limited.

To pay via digital wallet at a restaurant or other business: Look on the payment device at the cash register for the NFC logo (see right)—it looks like four vertical wave symbols and a hand holding a card at the edge.

To use the app: Open the digital wallet app, and hold your phone a few inches away from the vendor’s payment device. Some vendors require you to scan a QR code, so you’d open your camera app and scan the QR code. (Samsung Pay works with or without NFC—you can hold the phone up to a traditional magnetic card-swiping machine.) Then you authenticate your ID on your phone (using a fingerprint, iris scan, PIN or face recognition), select which card you want to pay with and hover your phone above the reader.

There are different set-up instructions for each of the apps…

Apple Pay: Open the Wallet app. Look for the plus sign at the top right. Tap it, then tap “Continue” and follow the prompts to add each card that you want to appear in the wallet. Your financial institution or credit card company may send you a onetime code via text or e-mail that you will have to enter or may ask you to download its app.

Google Pay: Open the app, and select your Google account. (You may wish to allow the app to use your location so that it can alert you when you’re at a business that accepts Google Pay.) Google already may have some of your credit card information from online shopping you’ve done. If so, it will suggest cards to be added to your wallet. Simply verify the information for those. You’ll also be prompted to add additional cards. Hold each card up to the camera window, and when prompted, verify the details and then accept the terms of service. You’ll be prompted to choose whether to have your verification code texted or e-mailed to you. Submit the verification code.

Samsung Pay: Open the app, and sign in to your Samsung account. You’ll be prompted to set up a PIN for the app and perhaps one or more biometric authenticators—a fingerprint or eye scan. Tap the three-line memo icon on the top left and then tap “Cards” and then “Add card,” and follow the instructions to add and register your card. Once Samsung has confirmed your account information with each card issuer, you’ll receive a onetime code that you must enter.

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