NFC or Near Field Communication is a protocol that helps two devices communicate wirelessly when they are placed right next to each other—for instance, smartphones or smart watches can be used for payments or boarding passes. Here’s how it works.

NFC hardware is being included in more and more devices — particularly smartphones, but also some laptops. NFC could be the future of payments, security keys, and boarding passes. NFC is also an upgrade over clunky QR codes. Many new phones have the hardware to do all of the things here today, however, many people with NFC-equipped smartphones haven’t used their NFC capabilities.

What Is NFC?

NFC stands for Near Field Communication. NFC is a set of standards that allow smartphones and other devices to communicate via radio signals when they are held in close proximity. NFC works similarly to RFID, although NFC has a much shorter range than RFID. NFC’s range is about 4 inches, making it harder to eavesdrop on.

Devices with NFC hardware can establish communications with other NFC-equipped devices as well as NFC “tags.” NFC tags are unpowered NFC chips that draw power from a nearby smartphone or other powered NFC device. They don’t need their own battery or source of power. At their most basic, NFC tags could be used as a more convenient replacement for QR codes.

To establish an NFC connection, all you need to do is touch two NFC-equipped devices together. For example, if you had two NFC-equipped smartphones, you would touch them together back-to-back. If you had an NFC tag, you would touch the back of your NFC-equipped smartphone to the NFC tag.

NFC is included in a wide variety of devices, including Android devices like the Nexus 4, Galaxy Nexus, Nexus S, Galaxy S III and HTC One X. Android isn’t the only platform that supports NFC — Windows Phone devices like Nokia’s Lumia series and HTC Windows Phone 8X include NFC, as do many BlackBerry devices. However, none of Apple’s iPhones include NFC hardware.

Update: iPhones got NFC in 2014, but it was only used for Apple Pay. In 2019, Apple unlocked more of NFC’s potential with iOS 13.

Image Credit: Jason Tester Guerrilla Futures on Flickr

Mobile Payments

NFC payments work similarly to tap-to-pay contactless payment features like MasterCard’s PayPass, included on MasterCard credit cards. An NFC-equipped smartphone could be touched to (or waved over) an NFC-enabled payment terminal to pay for something, replacing the need for a credit card.

San Francisco has NFC parking meters, which allow people to pay for parking by tapping an NFC-equipped phone against the parking meter.

Image Credit: Sergio Uceda on Flickr

Wirelessly Transferring Data

Data can be transferred wirelessly between two NFC-equipped smartphone. Android phones have Android Beam, a feature that allows two smartphones to quickly share a web page, contact, photo, video, or other type of information. Touch two phones back-to-back and the content being viewed on one device will be sent to the other. File transfers are handled via Bluetooth once they’re initiated, but there’s no complex Bluetooth pairing process — just tap and the rest will happen automatically.

Similar sharing features are also found in BlackBerry and Windows Phone.

Image Credit: LAI Ryanne on Flickr

NFC Tags

Anyone can purchase NFC tags, which are fairly cheap. You can configure the action that occurs when your smartphone comes in contact with the NFC tag.

For example, let’s say you always put your smartphone into silent mode when you go to sleep. Instead of doing this manually each night, you could put an NFC tag on your bedside table. When you go to bed, you can place your smartphone onto the NFC tag and your smartphone will perform an action you can configure, such as automatically enabling silent mode.

You could also create an NFC tag that contains your Wi-Fi network’s SSID and passphrase. When people visit your home, they could touch their phones to the NFC tag and log on rather than keying in the Wi-Fi network’s details manually.

These are just a few examples — you can perform any action an app on your smartphone can execute.

Image Credit: Nathanael Burton on Flickr

More Possible Uses

NFC has a wide variety of other possible uses, including:

  • Quickly Downloading Information: Many businesses, advertisements, and products have QR codes, which have to be scanned with a smartphone’s camera. NFC could function as a much-improved QR code — just tap or wave the smartphone over an NFC chip where the QR code would be to access the information.
  • Transit & Boarding Passes: NFC-equipped smartphones could also replace transit passes on transit systems or boarding passes at the airport.
  • Security Passes: An NFC-equipped smartphone could be tapped against a reader to access secure areas. Car manufacturers are even working on NFC-equipped car keys.

Image Credit: mac morrison on Flickr

This is just a snapshot of what NFC is currently being used for. It’s a standard for near-field communication, and many more things could be built on top of this standard.

Image Credit: on Flickr

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
Read Full Bio »