I miss a lot of things about the four years I spent living in Beijing - my Chinese friends, the food, the language, and going around with a digital wallet. For years people in China have been paying using their smartphone and there was no need to go out with a credit card. I've been back in Israel 18 months with my iPhone and yesterday Apple Pay finally arrived and I could go out without my credit card.
I went out to give it a try. The start was disappointing. I tried time and again to connect my CAL credit card to the Apple Pay digital wallet app but just got the answer that the operator does not support the service. I tried updating versions, turning my iPhone on and off, and even throwing it into the air, but to no avail. Looking on social media, I discovered that I wasn't the only one with problems, although MAX credit card holders were getting along just fine.
Phoning CAL customer service didn't help and I was told I would have to wait several hours for assistance. A call to the CAL spokesperson did solve the problem. It seemed I needed to first download an app from CAL and then connect to Apple Pay.
So I dashed out onto the streets of Givatayim, without my credit card, and headed for the supermarket assuming everything would be fine. I took a bottle of Coke Zero out of the fridge in the supermarket and cautiously approached the cashier and touched my iPhone onto the screen.
The iPhone explained to me politely that I wasn't doing it right. It turns out that with an iPhone 12, you have to press twice on a button on the side to open the app. Then the app opens after facial recognition, not so easy when you are wearing your mask in the store, so instead you need to put in your code. Only then do you touch your phone onto the screen. After three tense seconds I received approval. NIS 8 paid and I am free to go. My first Apple Pay transaction has been successfully completed.
Thrilled by my unexpected achievement, I head for various other stores. As of March 2021, 60% of payment terminals in Israeli businesses were smart terminals, which are able to allow payment by a digital wallet like Apple Pay. A brief tour of the neighborhood stores finds that that figure is just about accurate. The local SuperPharm store has a smart terminal but for some reason the cashier insists I sign for the transaction even though there is no need and that slows me down somewhat. Even so it is only a few seconds and I'm out.
The neighborhood bakery accepts my Apple Pay and for NIS 10 I'm away with burekas. I successfully buy a basket of grapes for NIS 25 but the hardware store and the delicatessen, where they sell excellent pickles, are both suspicious about my Apple Pay. "Why didn't you just bring your credit card?" the salesman asked me angrily.
But I am unable to buy one of Oved's legendary sabich (fried eggplant and hard boiled eggs topped with tahini, amba and parsley) sandwiches, which would have made my day - the best sabich on the planet. The cashier says they only take cash.
While in China you need to scan a QR code in the store to use local apps like Ali Pay, Apple Pay is faster and more convenient. Because Apple controls both the software and the hardware, it makes matters much easier. Two presses of a button, facial recognition (or a code if you are wearing a mask) and touching the phone onto the screen. Apple keeps no record of the transaction so that after the payment no trace of the transaction is left on your phone.
The fact that in advance it is hard to know if a store is able to let you pay with Apple Pay means you're still going to have to keep your real wallet with you, or at least a credit card. According to Bank of Israel instructions, all businesses in Israel (except gas stations) must be equipped to accept digital wallets and have EMV terminals by July 2021. Good luck in persuading Oved to accept digital wallets for his sabich.
One problem with Apple Pay, compared with rival digital wallets like Bank Hapoalim's Bit or CAL's own app, is that using iPhone makes me a captive customer. Apple does not allow external apps to connect to its NFC chip, which allows swift payment by touching the phone onto the screen, meaning I can only use Apple Pay. It's not a bad option but takes away my ability to choose.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on May 6, 2021
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