Late last year some of the biggest banks in the U.S. announced plans to team up on a real-time person to person payments network to rival the likes of PayPal, Venmo and Square Cash. The new venture is dubbed Zelle and it’s ready begin rolling out to millions of mobile banking customers this month.
The service will be available as a new feature within banks’ own official apps and websites, but a standalone Zelle app is also coming further down the road.
It works similar to other person-to-person payment services in that all you need to send money to someone is their email address or phone number. But a key difference is that the system is backed by over 30 of the U.S. biggest banks, which are able to deposit funds "in minutes" into a friend's bank account, whereas Venmo and Square Cash normally take up to one day unless you pay an instant transfer fee.
The move comes as traditional financial firms are eager catch up with Silicon Valley upstarts that have proven popular with consumers and to dispel their industry’s image as slow.
To ensure funds are delivered instantly at no extra cost, banks are agreeing to back each other’s transfers, even if the actual funds haven’t formally settled on the back end.
“Fragmentation has been frustrating for consumers. Inconsistent experiences, have made it difficult to send and receive money between banks,” said Paul Finch, Chief Executive Officer, Early Warning Services. “Zelle unites the financial community behind a single, real-time P2P payments experience for millions of consumers. Together, we are removing friction from finance, allowing money to move seamlessly between accounts in minutes. This will create a viable alternative to checks and cash.”
The New York Times reports that when banks began experimenting with simpler person-to-person transfers, they hoped to charge for the convenience of moving their cash around electronically. But they ultimately had no choice but to match the free price tag of money transfer startups.
For reference, Venmo alone handled payments of $17.6 billion in 2016, while the banks in Zelle’s network collectively processed $55 billion in person-to-person transactions last year.
It remains to be seen if banks manage to make person to person transfers as seamless as their competitors. Venmo, for its part, is already working to enable instant withdrawals this year, which would match one of the biggest advantages that Zelle has over it.