Circle’s bitcoin app now lets you send cash

Circle founder and CEO Jeremy Allaire.
Circle founder and CEO Jeremy Allaire.

At dinner with friends at a restaurant that won’t split the check? No cash on hand? A new app lets you beam your money across the table.

Circle, available for free download on Android phones and iOS devices, is made by a Boston company of the same name.

Mobile money transfer apps are getting popular — among them giant PayPal’s Venmo, and Square Cash. They all work similarly: Create a profile with an e-mail address, link bank account or credit card info, and tap-tap-tap to send a payment to a friend on the same network.

But among them, Circle is unique, because it didn’t begin as a way to take US dollars from your pocket and put them into your friend’s. Until this week, you could only use the app to send people bitcoin, the virtual currency. In fact, the dollar-transfer function of Circle is just one step toward the company’s grand plan – to make international money transfers easier, using bitcoin as an engine .

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The first step is in place: If you want to send bitcoin to someone in Argentina, it’s free to do that using Circle. But not many people use bitcoin because transacting requires some technical savvy, and also because it’s notoriously volatile. (One bitcoin is currently worth around $230, down from a high of more than $1,200 in 2013.)

The new cash transfer feature is a way to attract new customers. After that, Circle plans to allow customers to make free international transfers — dollars to euro or yuan, and back. That could tap into a huge market: immigrants and workers abroad who send money to family in their home countries through clunky exchanges and transfers, which typically charge a fee.

A bigger user base is a first step to Circle’s profitability. Like many consumer tech companies, Circle is using investor funding to test the field. The free product will build a core group of users, the reasoning goes, after which the firm will offer a paid premium version.

For now US users can give the app a spin. You can send dollars or bitcoin to anyone with a bitcoin wallet; if the receiver is accepting dollars, they too must have an account with Circle. You can enter your bank account details or link the app to a debit or credit card, and transfers are supposed to take place instantly.

Two-factor authentication is mandatory each time you sign into the app, adding a layer of security.

Circle can take up to a day or two to verify new users. And brand-new accounts start out with a spending limit of $300 per month, which allows the company to gauge new customers’ trustworthiness. Use the app a while and the limit will go up.

Circle won’t reveal how many transactions are currently being carried out, or how many users it’s collected. But Circle vice president of marketing Josh Hawkins does say they have customers in 100 countries so far.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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