What is NFC? Here’s everything you need to know

All of today’s smartphones are equipped with NFC technology. Whether you realize it or not, your phone is likely using NFC right now. But don’t worry, NFC uses minimal battery and processing power while offering a host of benefits that improve the functionality of your device.

Although it’s widely used in peer-to-peer payment and data transfer apps, NFC has many more applications that can make your life easier. Read on to find out how you can fully take advantage of your phone’s NFC capability.

What is NFC?

NFC stands for near-field communication and it allows phones, tablets, laptops, and other devices to easily share data with other NFC-equipped devices. It evolved from radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology. RFID is behind those security scan cards that get you into the office every day or bypass that tollbooth on your morning commute.

NFC is very much like RFID, but NFC is limited to communication within about four inches, which is why you have to hold your phone so close to the contactless reader if you’re using Apple Pay or Samsung Pay. Most people consider NFC’s small radius a major security benefit, and it’s one of the reasons that NFC has taken off as a secure alternative to credit cards. The technology can be used for more than buying coffee at Starbucks, however. NFC can also transfer data like videos, contact information, and photos between two NFC-enabled devices.

How does NFC work?

Unlike Bluetooth, NFC doesn’t require any kind of manual pairing or device discovery to transfer data. With NFC, a connection is automatically started when another NFC device enters into that previously specified four-inch range. Once in range, the two devices instantly communicate and send prompts to the user. There’s huge potential with NFC. Listed below are three major ways we already use NFC between devices.

NFC payments

Mobile payments

Placing your smartphone within four inches of the contactless reader in a store will prompt your digital wallet or passbook to pop up and ask you to confirm payment. With Apple Pay, this means placing your finger on the home button, which houses the Touch ID function or scanning your face with Face ID. It also works with Google Pay and Samsung Pay.

Sharing between Android devices

When two enabled NFC devices are in range, a prompt will appear asking if you’d like to “beam” whatever content (videos, contact information, or photos) is on-screen to the other Android device. Android devices have been able to use Android Beam for a while now (since version 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich), but it’s a little-known feature, which may be part of the reason that Google discontinued it. Starting with Android 10, Android Beam no longer works and it has not yet been replaced with anything.

how to use android beam
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

NFC Chips

These passive tags don’t require power and can be programmed with apps like Tasker to perform certain tasks when scanned. For instance, you can put one on your desk and with a quick scan on the tag, you can set your phone to vibrate, disable GPS, or enable only work-related notifications, among other options.

Which devices have NFC?

The list of NFC-equipped devices is growing every day. To keep track of what devices are taking advantage of NFC technology, NFC World maintains a mostly up-to-date list of NFC-enabled phones. Lots of Android devices have NFC, and every iPhone since the iPhone 6 is also packing the feature.

Every iPhone since the iPhone 6

For a long time, Apple restricted NFC-equipped devices to making purchases. However, the latest batch of iPhones, including the iPhone 11 Pro, 11 Pro Max, and 11 also support NFC tags through the Launch Center Pro app.

NFC was also added to the iPad range starting with the iPad Pro, the iPad Air 2, and the third-generation iPad Mini, but those devices won’t work with in-store contactless readers. For a full breakdown of all Apple devices that support NFC and what their limitations are in terms of Apple Pay, check out this Apple support page.

Every device running on Android 4.0 or later

If your device is running Android 4.4 or later, then you can use Google Pay. If you have a Samsung device, then you can also use Samsung Pay.

Android phones with Android 4.4 or later up to Android 9.0 can also use Android Beam, which allows the exchange of pretty much any kind of info, including YouTube videos, webpages, or contact information. Android Beam can be enabled through your phone’s settings; the exact location may differ, but on a Samsung Galaxy S10, for example, it’s in Settings > Connections > NFC and payment. First, toggle NFC on, then find Android Beam and toggle it on as well. You can use Beam by placing your phone next to another NFC-enabled device for several seconds. A prompt should automatically appear asking if you’d like to beam to another phone or device.

What else can NFC do?

Apple Pay, Google Pay, Samsung Pay, and other digital wallets are just part of what NFC can do. Many tech accessories, like speakers, take advantage of NFC to quickly pair with your phone. In some places, people can also use their NFC-enabled smartphones to board trains or subways faster, and keep track of how many trips they have left on their digital ticket. It can also be used for loyalty cards. Then, there’s the option to implant an NFC chip into your body.

You can also use NFC tags for all sorts of things. For example, why not make NFC coasters to grant visitors access to your Wi-Fi with a simple tap?

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