The pandemic, cash and retail payment behaviour: insights from the future of payments database

BIS Working Papers  |  No 1055  | 
06 December 2022



The Covid-19 pandemic has altered retail payment behaviour around the world. Cash withdrawals and cash use declined, even though microbiological research indicates that physical banknotes and coins are not any more likely to transfer infections than other regularly touched surfaces. A transition to digital payments, such as contactless card payments and digital payment apps, occurred rapidly. What implications do these changes have for the future of cash and digital payments, and how have they varied across economies?


We assemble and make available for research a novel "Future of Payments" database. We use it to document a number of salient patterns of retail payment behaviour during and after the pandemic. A core dataset is available at a monthly or even higher frequency for 18 countries over the period from end-December 2019 to end-December 2020, and an extended dataset for up to 95 countries over the period from September 2019 to June 2022. Data cover five topical areas: (i) cash in circulation and cash withdrawals; (ii) payments collected from two global card networks; (iii) payment app downloads and use; (iv) internet search interest and central banks' work on central bank digital currency; and (v) internet search interest in cash and Covid-19 transmission, proximity to ATMs and online shopping.


We demonstrate that the pandemic was linked to a number of significant changes in payment behaviour, only some of which persisted. First, we show that cash in circulation, use of card-not-present transactions and downloads of payment apps all spiked when the pandemic was more severe (ie during strict lockdowns, periods of restricted mobility and periods with higher numbers of new cases). Second, we provide evidence of geographical heterogeneity. Economies where more people used mobile devices before the pandemic experienced less dramatic changes during the acute stage. Notably, some changes have not persisted past the pandemic's acute phase. In some countries, card-not-present transactions even dropped below pre-pandemic levels once lockdowns ended, while the contactless ratio generally remains above pre-pandemic levels.


The Covid-19 pandemic has been a shock to retail payment behaviour. How have the changes differed across countries? What do they imply for the future of cash and digital payments? We assemble a new "Future of Payments" database on retail payment behaviour for up to 95 countries over September 2019 to June 2022. We compare this with measures of the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic, using variation in the timing of waves of cases, changes in mobility and lockdown measures across countries. We find that card-not-present payments, payment app downloads and the volume of cash in circulation all rose in weeks of more stringent lockdowns. Changes were less pronounced in countries with higher mobile penetration. However, recent data suggest that some effects reversed once lockdowns were eased, and mobility rebounded.

JEL classification: E42, I18, O32, O33

Keywords: retail payments, cash, Covid-19 pandemic, digital innovation