However, NFC can do a lot more than just handle mobile payments. Here’s the low-down on all things NFC.

These days, almost every Smartphone and wearable are NFC technology equipped. The NFC scanner on your phone is probably on right now, whether you know it or not. You shouldn’t panic, though, because your phone’s NFC chip is only a passive scanner and won’t do anything unless you hold it up to another NFC device or tag. It quietly runs in the background until it’s needed, much like many other functions on your Smartphone. However, it can also be utilized to unlock a ton of awesome features that can simplify your life. You’ve already utilized the NFC feature on your phone if you’ve ever used Apple Pay, Google Pay, or Samsung Pay.

What is NFC?

NFC stands for Near Field Communication. It’s a technology that enables devices such as phones and smart watches interchange small bits of data with other devices. It also has the ability to read NFC-equipped cards over relatively short distances.

What can NFC do on my phone?

Like with most new technologies, NFC had a number of applications that were never very successful. For example, Google developed Android Beam as a concept for data sharing amongst cell phones. The business quickly discovered, though, that most consumers didn’t want to keep their phones close to one another for the duration of the time it needed to send images and videos via a rather sluggish NFC connection. Fast Share, which was eventually called Nearby Share, replaced it since it made use of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi and provided a greater range and faster transfer speeds.

Once the initial excitement of having NFC built into smartphones calmed down a bit, companies began focusing on the more practical applications for which this contactless technology was much better suited. For instance, payment cards and security tags had already been using RFID for years, and since NFC was built on the same foundation, it turned out to be a near-perfect fit to integrate those features into smartphones and smart watches.

Mobile payments

Not surprisingly, the most popular use of NFC has turned out to be mobile payments. While most of Europe and Canada were already using physical contactless payment cards, the idea had never really taken off in the United States. Hence, when Apple came along with Apple Pay in 2014, it was downright revolutionary. To be fair, Google’s mobile payment solution actually pre-dated Apple’s by a couple of years, but the iPhone maker put a much stronger push behind marketing Apple Pay and getting banks and credit card companies to sign on. The result was that mobile payments began to take off in a really big way.

Even in those countries where contactless cards had already become the norm, Apple Pay and Google Pay offered something that physical cards couldn’t: significantly better security and privacy. While anybody who gets their hands on your physical credit or debit card can tap it as easily as you can, a mobile payment card requires that you unlock your smartphone before you can use it. This generally means entering your passcode or using your fingerprint scanner or facial recognition features. This also allowed merchants and banks to remove transaction caps for authenticated mobile payments since there was less risk of fraud from a stolen credit or debit card.

Today, mobile payments work from just about any modern smartphone that supports Apple Wallet, Google Wallet, or Samsung Pay, and also any Apple Watch and many Wear OS smartwatches. In fact, Apple has offered NFC mobile payments in its wearables since the first Apple Watch was released in 2015.

Generally, all you need to do is hold your phone or watch near the payment terminal and then confirm the transaction by following the instructions on the screen. Smartphones will require that you authenticate yourself with a password or biometric feature; smartwatches usually don’t require this extra step as they can detect that you’re still wearing your watch, and you’ll already have unlocked it when you first put it on.

Accept payments from credit and debit cards

Since it offers two-way communications, NFC can also be used to turn your smartphone into a mobile terminal for accepting payments from contactless credit and debit cards. Third-party companies like Square have offered mobile readers for a few years now, but these are no longer as necessary thanks to Apple’s recent Tap to Pay on iPhone initiative.

We haven’t yet reached the point where you’ll be able to use this to exchange money with friends and family, but it’s a great feature for small businesses and independent merchants, especially those who regularly set up shop at trade shows and expositions or travel to customer’s homes and offices.

Reload fare cards

Although Apple and Google are working hard to integrate transit fare cards into their respective mobile wallet apps, not every transit agency is ready for this. Many still use physical cards that aren’t (yet) compatible with Apple Wallet or Google Wallet. However, some provide their own apps that can be used to quickly reload a fare card using the NFC chip on your phone.

These apps typically require you to make a payment via a credit card or debit card for the amount you want to add to your fare card. Once that’s confirmed, you’re prompted to hold the physical fare card against the back of your phone so that it can update the card with the new amount. In this case, your smartphone acts like a mobile version of the physical card reloading machines you’ll find at transit stations, saving you a stop during your commute to add more money to your transit fare card.

Digital drivers licenses

Now that your smartphone’s digital wallet can hold everything from payment cards to concert tickets, the only thing that’s really keeping you from leaving your physical wallet at home is the need to carry your personal identification. Thankfully, that’s slowly changing. Apple and Google have introduced secure digital ID card technology, and state governments are slowly embracing it.

Of course, this isn’t just about putting a physical picture of your digital ID on your smartphone. There has to be a way for officials to validate this ID, and the best way to do that is with an NFC reader. The technology is still in its early stages, but the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is on board with NFC terminals at a few airports that can read digital ID cards from those states that offer them.

Best of all, the technology lets you see exactly what information is being requested from your ID and securely choose — via biometric authentication — whether you want to share it or not. When support for digital IDs has been fully rolled out, you’ll be able to use it to present proof of age at retailers and event venues without the need to disclose more personal information like your address or phone number.

Unlock doors in your home, office, or hotel

NFC can also be used to store digital keys that can unlock everything from your front door to your hotel room. For your home, you’ll need a compatible smart lock; however, many of the readers used in office campuses and hotels already use NFC. This means that you may soon be replacing your security card at work with your smartphone or smartwatch, and if you’re staying at one of the supported hotel chains, you’ll be able to have your room key delivered straight to your device without needing to go anywhere near the front desk.

Authenticate with security keys

The most secure two-factor authentication method is to use a physical security key, and using NFC makes that even easier. Instead of needing a key that plugs into a physical port — which has been a challenge with Apple’s fixation on Lightning — you can get an NFC key and hold it against the back of your smartphone. This works great for using a two-factor key with everything from Gmail to Facebook, and what’s even better is that most of the NFC 2FA keys double as USB keys, so you can still use them with desktops and laptops, most of which don’t offer NFC support.

Pair headphones and speakers

So far, most of the applications for NFC we’ve discussed have involved various forms of payment and security. While that’s fast becoming the most widespread use for NFC technology, many smartphone accessory makers are embracing these chips as a way to help you pair them up with your smartphone with just a tap.

Although Bluetooth pairing is getting faster and easier than ever, it still requires a few steps that can be awkward and are often different for every accessory. However, if your headphones or speakers feature an NFC chip, you can tap your smartphone in the appropriate spot, and the pairing will be handled automatically.

To be clear, this doesn’t connect your smartphone to your headphones or speakers using NFC; that would be impractical as NFC has neither the range nor the bandwidth to handle an audio stream. Instead, NFC is only used to speed up the normal Bluetooth pairing process. Once that’s done, your smartphone communicates with your accessory over Bluetooth in the same way as if you’d paired it manually. In a few cases, NFC chips can also be used for pairing up Wi-Fi speakers or other devices like smart home accessories. The same principle applies in all cases: NFC is simply used to exchange the necessary information to join your wireless network; after that, the Wi-Fi connection takes over.

NFC chips

For a really creative use of NFC, you can also pick up packs of affordable NFC tags that can be read by your smartphone to trigger shortcuts and other automation. Apple has baked this capability into its Shortcuts app, while Android users can turn to third-party apps like Tasker.

You can get a 30-pack of these NFC tags for only $15. Place them strategically around your home or office, and you’ll be able to do things like set focus modes, silence your phone, control smart home accessories, play your favorite tunes, or set timers — all by tapping on the appropriate tags. Place a tag on your bedside table to turn out the lights, lock the doors, and play some calming music at bedtime. Or, add one to your desktop smartphone stand to automatically put it into a work focus when you sit down. You can also use NFC coasters to grant visitors access to your home Wi-Fi.


NFC (Near Field Communication) technology, widely available on smartphones and wearables, facilitates data exchange over short distances. Initially explored for data sharing, NFC found its niche in mobile payments, offering enhanced security and privacy. It also enables acceptance of contactless payments, fare card reloads, and digital identification. Beyond payments, NFC supports diverse applications like unlocking doors, two-factor authentication, and seamless pairing of accessories. Additionally, affordable NFC tags extend its utility for personalized automation tasks at home or in the office. Overall, NFC’s versatility extends far beyond mobile payments, enhancing convenience and efficiency across various domains of daily life.

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