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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 your device’s functionality.

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 on my phone?

NFC payment demo.

NFC stands for near-field communication, and it allows phones, tablets, laptops, and other devices to share data with other NFC-equipped devices easily. 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 4 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 reason why 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 manual pairing or device discovery to transfer data. An NFC connection is automatically started when another NFC device enters into the previously specified 4-inch range. Once in range, the two devices instantly communicate and send prompts to the user. Listed below are some major ways we already use NFC between devices.

NFC payments

Mobile payments

As we gradually transition to a cashless world, mobile payments have become a popular transaction method. With bank cooperation and the biometric technology built into most modern smartphones, making a mobile payment is secure and convenient. Placing your smartphone within 4 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 double-pressing the Power button to scan your face with Face ID. It also works with Google Pay and Samsung Pay.

Samsung Pay demo.

Sharing between Android devices

Android Beam, a now-deprecated technology, was introduced in Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), allowing Android devices in close proximity to share content. When two enabled NFC devices got in range, a prompt appeared asking if you want to “beam” content like videos, contact information, or photos on-screen to the other Android device. The problem was the feature was not well-known and did not work well, so Google discontinued it with Android 10 in 2019. Google replaced Beam in 2020 with Nearby Share, an Apple AirDrop competitor. Nearby Share works with Android and Chrome OS, allowing data transfer via Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Nearby Share lets you choose which protocol among Bluetooth, Bluetooth Low Energy, WebRTC, and peer-to-peer Wi-Fi and who can see your phone in their lists.

Old Android Beam technology.
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

NFC chips

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. Passive tags do not connect with other passive devices and don’t process data from outside sources. Active NFC devices, like smartphones, can send and receive data and communicate with either active and passive devices.

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. Many Android devices have NFC, and every iPhone since the iPhone 6 also packs the feature.

Every iPhone since the iPhone 6

For a long time, Apple restricted NFC-equipped devices to make purchases. However, the latest iPhone models, including the iPhone 12, 12 Pro, 12 Pro Max, and 12 Mini, also support NFC tags through the Launch Center Pro app. Version 3 of the app includes NFC triggers for iPhone XR, XS, and XS Max for actions via custom NFC stickers. The iPhone 7 and newer phones can use in-app NFC scanning.

Launch Center Pro for iPad has been retired, and the iOS version now supports both iPhone and iPad. For a full breakdown of all Apple devices that support NFC and their limitations in terms of Apple Pay, check this Apple support page.

Every device running Android 4.0 and later

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

Android phones operating on Android 4.4 to Android 9.0 can also use Android Beam for a message or file exchange. You can pass a lot of information to others, like YouTube videos, contact information, specific webpages, and much more. To start Android Beam, just go to your phone’s settings. For Samsung Galaxy S10, navigate to Settings > Connections > NFC and Payment. From there, select NFC, and then scroll and tap on Android Beam. When using the beam feature, it’s best to place your phone near another device with an NFC chip. A notification will pop up, asking you to confirm whether you want to connect to the detected device.

What else can NFC do?

NFC is capable of so many tap-and-go functions — digital wallets like Apple Pay, Google Pay, and Samsung Pay cover just a tiny fraction of its capabilities. Music lovers can connect their device to speakers quickly through NFC, and you can also log in to your work computer with a tap on your phone, unlock your car door, or track your health and fitness stats.

This technology is in the process of overhauling public transportation — you can scan an NFC-enabled smartphone on some buses or use them as metro passes in some places. You can add money to a bus or metro pass directly through an app, always ensuring you have funds on your card. This technology is capable of supporting loyalty cards and student IDs. Finally, there’s also the possibility to implant an NFC chip into your body

Clearly, you can use NFC tags for a variety of activities. One way to learn more about this technology is to consider creating NFC coasters to grant visitors access to your home Wi-Fi.

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