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What is NFC? The contactless technology explained

If you’re not sure what exactly is the function of NFC, then read this article to find out all you need to know about the wireless, contactless technology.

On the specs list of your phone, you’ll often come across the abbreviation NFC – and you may even spot that depending on the region sold, phones may lack this feature. But what does it actually mean?

NFC stands for Near-Field Communication, and it is a form of wireless communication that works over a distance of just 10cm or less via a radio frequency current. Using this form of communication, you can send or receive information between two compatible devices (such as two mobile phones, or a mobile phone and a card reader), or use a compatible device to read an NFC tag that is present on a passive device (such as a smart poster).

This tech is most commonly used when making contactless financial transactions with a compatible credit card or a compatible smart phone, however there are a variety of other uses for NFC tags, from validating tickets for entry into a venue to accessing a menu at a restaurant.

How do you use NFC?

If you want to use the NFC feature on your smartphone, firstly make sure that it is indeed compatible, and then you can enable NFC to be able to use it.

  • On an Android device, you can enable NFC by going into your phone’s Settings app, scrolling to Connected devices, and toggling the NFC switch to On.
  • With an iPhone, you must give or deny specific apps the ability to use NFC rather than giving it system-wide approval. To do this, open your Settings app, select Privacy, choose the specific app you’d like to use, and switch the NFC toggle to On.

When your phone is able to use NFC, you can make use of compatible apps. The most common way to use NFC on your phone is by making contactless payments.

In order to do this, you can use services such as Apple Pay (on iPhone), or Google Pay (on Android), among other alternatives, and register your bank cards with them. Once complete, just raise your phone to a contactless payment terminal and you can pay without even having to take your wallet out of your pocket.

To scan other NFC tags, if you have a compatible phone then you should be able to just raise your phone to the active part of the tag, within 1cm or so, and your device should recognise the tag and respond accordingly.

Is NFC secure?

Since NFC is so straightforward to use and need not even involve any physical contact, some consumers are understandably concerned about the potential security pitfalls that it may engender.

Speaking to Trusted Reviews, Martin Jartelius, the CSO at Outpost24 gave us the following assessment:

“NFC is a collection of communication protocols, its security will depend on the implementation. NFC in and of itself do not authenticate devices or approve or validate transactions. To understand the risk, let’s use credit cards. Scandinavian banks are often relatively early in adopting risk based approaches such as multi factor authentications and more – and they have also taken a position when it comes to bank cards and NFC.

NFC transactions are considered secure enough for a limited, pre-defined amount, of transactions between extended validations, meaning they will refuse an NFC based transfer every now and then, and re-enable this only if a transaction using card and pin is made. They also only accept NFC based transactions up to a given amount before demanding extended validation with PIN. This is due to the fact that the banks has determined the loss to fraud and attacks acceptable in this balanced trade-off, i.e. the technology is not perfectly safe, but it is safe enough to be used in a balanced manner.

“There are bad and good NFC based implementations. Is it secure? No. Is it secure enough? Possibly, in the right setting, in a balanced model or with supporting controls.”

Can I turn off NFC?

If you’re worried about the security risks of having NFC enabled, then you can choose to disable this function from your smartphone.

To do so, simply follow these instructions:

  • Using an Android device, you can enable NFC by going into your phone’s Settings app, scrolling to Connected devices, and toggling the NFC switch to Off.
  • On an iPhone, you must grant or deny specific apps the ability to use NFC, as you cannot disable the function in general. To do this, open your Settings app, select Privacy, choose the specific app to which you’d like to deny permission, and switch the NFC toggle to Off.

Do all smartphones have NFC?

No, not all smartphones have NFC. Older smartphones and low-budget handsets may not be able to use this technology, but in 2022 it is widespread among most phones on the mainstream market.

Before you buy a smartphone, first check out via the manufacturer whether it has NFC (and whether this feature is region-dependent) so that you won’t be disappointed if you cannot use it for handy shortcuts like contactless payments.

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