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

It's more than a wallet-killer: Everything you need to know about NFC

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Apple

NFC is now mainstream. The number of smartphones with NFC technology is growing fast, but, because it works in the background, you may not know what it is. Don’t worry, we’re here to explain the potential uses for NFC and to elucidate on why you should care. Though it’s primarily being used for wireless payments right now, with services like Google Pay, Apple Pay, and Samsung Pay, allowing you to leave the wallet or purse at home, NFC is capable of more. Let’s take a closer look.

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. The technology evolved from radio-frequency identification (RFID) tech. 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.

Digital Wallet

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, but it’s a little-known feature.

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 XS, XS Max, and XR 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

Android Beam, the native feature for all devices running on Android 4.0 or later, allows the exchange of pretty much any kind of info, including YouTube videos, webpages, or contact information. If your device is running Android 4.4 or later, then you can also use Google Pay.

Android Beam can be enabled through your Phone’s Settings > More. First, toggle NFC on, then tap 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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