Oct 7, 2022 - Technology
Column / Signal Boost

The walletless future is closer than ever

Illustration of a wallet shape filled with binary code

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

On a recent trip to Seattle, I learned how tantalizingly close we are to being able to ditch our wallets.

Over two days, I managed to take two flights, check into a hotel room and pay for meals — all from my phone. Everything worked, but there were some asterisks involved.

Why it matters: We all forget our wallets some times, and many of us would like to leave them behind permanently, if possible.

How it happened: I thought I left my wallet at home. I realized this only after passing through airport security — otherwise I probably would have rushed home to get it.

  • I pay for Clear, the privately operated "speed your way through the security line" service, which meant I only needed my irises (or fingerprints) and my boarding pass.
  • I did some quick calculations and realized that I might be able to get through this short trip without a wallet. I wasn't renting a car, and Clear also operates in Seattle's airport for my return trip.

The big question mark was my hotel. But I was staying at a Hilton, which offers the ability to use your phone as a key — and, just as important in this context, to skip the usual check-in process requiring a driver's license and credit card.

  • Full disclosure: I did figure out I had my wallet with me during the San Francisco-to-Seattle flight. But I decided to shove it back in my backpack to see if I could avoid using it for the whole trip.

The big picture: While my experience relied on my Clear account and being a frequent hotel-goer, there are developments on the way that will make this document-free experience possible for far more people.

  • Most notably, Apple is beginning to allow people to store digital versions of their driver's license. (This is only available in Arizona and Maryland right now, and only certain airports are set up to accept such IDs.) More states are coming, and Google is working to support a similar capability in Android.
  • Government agencies are also moving toward more modern forms of identity, including U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, which is increasingly using biometrics rather than paper forms or kiosks to identify international travelers at airports.
  • A growing number of infrastructure providers are tapping the NFC chip on phones to allow access to buildings that previously would have required a physical key card.

Yes, but: Many of these conveniences come at the expense of sharing even more data — including highly personal biometrics — with third parties.

  • If the last few years have taught us anything, it's that companies aren't always good at safeguarding our data.
  • On top of all that, high-tech replacements for wallets and keys raise both privacy and equity concerns, especially if they are not thoughtfully designed.

Be smart: If you want to go walletless, or even just be better prepared for the day you forget yours, some prep work can help.

  • I already have my ATM and credit cards stored in Apple Pay, and I store photographs of my family's vaccine cards and health insurance cards in my phone. (Just putting them in a separate album in Photos makes them easy to find.)
  • A picture of your passport and driver's license, while not valid as an official substitute, can also help in many situations.
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