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Which countries are closest to a cashless society?

In many countries, the use of cash has been declining for years, with the Covid-19 pandemic accelerating the process as people turned to card payments and digital transactions instead. Let’s look at the countries closest to becoming cashless societies.



In general, the Nordic countries lead the way for cashless payments. Arguably, this is because Nordic populations have high trust in institutions, such as banks, and an openness to new digital technologies including amongst older generations.

According to data from the World Bank, Norway is the European country closest to a cashless future:

Norway’s shift to a cashless society isn’t without concerns: in 2021, its finance ministry asked Oslo’s Financial Supervisory to devise a plan to ensure that banks still offer cash to customers. This followed a consumer backlash to many Norwegian banks denying that it was their responsibility to do so.



Sweden was the first European country to issue banknotes. Ironically, it looks to be one of the first to get rid of them. Sweden’s move to a cashless society is encouraged by law and in Sweden, a merchant can legally refuse cash payments. Most Swedish banks don’t handle cash transactions in-branch and ATMs are not particularly common (with only 32 per 100,000 people, which is low compared to other countries. Bulgaria, for example, has 91 per 100,000 people). In addition:

  • Over 98% of Swedes own a debit card
  • Sweden is one of the top countries for mobile payments



The Bank of Finland has predicted that Finland will be entirely cashless by the end of 2029. Similar to its Nordic neighbours:

However, not all Finns are fully on-board with the idea of a cashless society. 61% don’t believe in the concept of a cashless future, 13% are unsure about it, and only 26% believe that going completely cashless would be beneficial for Finnish society.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong is heading towards a near-cashless society with forecasting from the Financial Services Development Council of Hong Kong predicting that cash will account for no more than 1.6% of point-of-sale transactions by 2024. This would be the lowest proportion in the Asia Pacific region, and down from 9% in 2019. While the most popular online payment method in 2019 was using a credit card, digital wallets are projected to take the top spot by 2024.

As with elsewhere, the decline of cash is being driven by the rise of e-commerce. It has also been driven by the HK$36 billion in ‘consumption vouchers’ issued by the government in the aftermath of Covid to stimulate the economy. Retailers reported the scheme achieved its intended effect – of boosting consumer spending in areas from fast food to gadgets and luxury items – as well as encouraging the use of payment channels such as AlipayHK, WeChat Pay HK, and Tap & Go.

Hong Kong was one of the first places in the world with a cashless payment system, when it introduced the Octopus card in 1997. Initially used for public transport, the Octopus is now used in a range of retail outlets.

While advanced, Hong Kong has lagged behind the rest of China in digital payments. In mainland China, digital cashless payment is so common that it has prompted the People’s Bank of China to ban businesses from refusing cash payments. But Hong Kong has proved more resistant. While retail has embraced cashless payments, other important parts of the economy – from wet markets to taxis – have resisted. Barriers to cashless include a deep-rooted cash culture, an older population reluctant to adopt new technologies, and the fear of ‘Big Brother’ snooping on transactions.



What about closer to home? A recent report from software recommendation engine Capterra showed that more than 50% of UK consumers use digital wallets. The main reason given is convenience since digital payments allow people to leave the house without a bulky wallet. The same survey showed that almost half (48%) who use digital wallets regularly use them to store plane, train, or bus tickets, while a third use them to store event tickets or loyalty cards. Capterra says that 86% of digital wallet users have started using them since the outbreak of the pandemic.

While the UK is considered among the most cashless countries in the world, it’s important not to underestimate how relevant cash remains. Research from fintech platform Abound shows that up to 65% of UK customers withdraw cash on a regular basis and more than 90% of those surveyed had used an ATM in the last six months. Only about 5% of the population is living completely cash free.

Also to research by Merchant Machine, in the UK, payments break down as follows:

  • Card payments make up more than half (51%) of transactions
  • This is followed by those made by digital wallets (32%)
  • Bank transfers make up 7%
  • Buy Now, Pay Later is also 7%
  • And cash is just 1%

The decline of cash takes on a self-reinforcing dynamic – i.e., fewer people use it, which means banks feel able to close more ATMs, which in turn reduces the use of cash – and so on.


Cashless societies present a challenge for inclusion and privacy

Cashless societies throw up issues of inclusion. For example, although the UK indexes highly for the number of people with a bank account, it’s estimated that there are over 1 million unbanked individuals in the UK, mostly those on low incomes. Older people are more likely to use cash and it’s possible that, as the cost of living continues to bite, we will see customers stick to cash as a way of managing spending. The decline of cash threatens to leave left-behind individuals even further behind.

Another significant obstacle to a fully cashless payment ecosystem is privacy concerns. Cash transactions provide ­anonymity, which would be lost if payments were to become completely cashless. With digital currencies, both the issuer and controller can track usage. Digital wallets can be disconnected if breaches are suspected or detected. Cash is also a tangible asset, which eases ­consumers’ concerns of doomsday scenarios or bank account seizures. For some users, these concerns will act as barriers to a fully cashless future.


Every country is different – and not all countries are going cashless

As always, consumer behaviours and preferences vary by country. Even within Europe, there’s significant variation in financial behaviours. For example, in 2019, Austrians withdrew an average of €140 per week while Norwegians withdrew an average of €35. Data from 2020 shows that 96% of the Icelandic population used online banking compared to only 9% in Romania. Getting your payments strategy right is essential for international e-commerce success – and consulting a Local In-Market Expert will ensure you navigate consumer preferences in your target markets.

Remember, not all countries are heading in a cashless direction. Whilst many countries in Europe, North America, and the Asia Pacific region are, countries outside these regions continue to rely on cash.


Most popular digital wallets globally

📱 Digital wallet 📈 Number of users (as of 2022)
Alipay 1.3 billion
WeChat Pay 900 million
Apple Pay 507 million
Google Pay 421 million
PayPal 377 million
Paytm 333 million
PhonePe 300 million
Samsung Pay 140 million
Venmo 52 million
Cash App 36 million

Source: FinTech News

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