Simple Questions: What is NFC (Near Field Communication)?

NFC is an acronym that is often used when referring to modern smartphones and tablets. But what does it mean? And what does NFC do? I've seen many people who have very expensive smartphones with NFC but they have no idea what NFC is or how they can use this technology. If you would like to learn more about it, including how to tell whether you have NFC on your smartphone or not, read this guide.

What is NFC?

NFC or Near Field Communication is a set of close-range, low-power wireless communication standards that allows devices to establish radio communication with each other, by touching them together or by placing them close to each other, usually no more than 10 centimeters (4 inches).

This technology was invented by Sony, Philips and Nokia. The first phone with NFC was Nokia 6131 and it was released in 2006. The first Android smartphone with NFC was Nexus S and it was released in 2010. Microsoft has added NFC support natively into the Windows Phone 8 operating system. All Windows Phones that were produced as of 2012 onwards should be NFC enabled.

This technology has now been adopted by hundreds of companies and it is widely used in all kinds of devices like smartphones, tablets, PCs, credit cards and even cars. The evolution of this technology and its standard is managed by the NFC Forum - a non-profit industry association. This forum has more than 100 members and it includes most of the important companies in the world of technology, including Intel, Microsoft or Google. All the major mobile manufacturers are also members.

What Can You Do With NFC?

NFC has surprisingly many uses. The most common are the following:

  • Transfer contacts and web pages - NFC allows for instant transfer of contacts and web pages between smartphones with NFC. It literally is the quickest way to transfer such data between two smartphones.
  • Contactless payments - you can use your NFC enabled smartphone to perform quick payments, just like you would with a credit card. Both Google and Microsoft provide NFC payment solutions through their mobile Wallet apps. In these apps you can store your credit card information and then make payments with your smartphone, instead of your credit card. The payment process is obviously faster.
  • Pair devices - NFC can be used to pair Bluetooth headsets, speakers, media players or controllers with an NFC-enabled device like a smartphone, a tablet or a console. NFC is getting great adoption from car manufacturers because this technology can allow users to quickly connect their smart devices to their car's multimedia systems. Companies like BMW and Mercedes have already added NFC to their recent car models.
  • Transfer files - NFC can be used to automatically complete the steps of enabling, pairing and establishing Bluetooth connections, so that you can perform file transfers between two NFC-enabled devices.

There are also other uses that are mostly experimental at this point. The most interesting is that NFC can be used for access & security checks: you can theoretically use NFC-devices to validate your identity and get access to your office building, for example. Several companies and universities are experimenting with NFC-enabled devices as security badges. Also Iberia airlines in Spain has partnered with Samsung to allow travellers to store their boarding passes on their NFC smartphones. Customers will be able to use their smartphone instead of a printed pass at multiple airport locations, including at check-in, security and boarding.

Security Problems with NFC

The only major downside of this technology is that it doesn't provide any kind of security or protection outside the fact that communication can be done only a range of a few centimeters. NFC is vulnerable to all kinds of attacks, from eavesdropping to data modification. A complete list of vulnerabilities was documented on Wikipedia: NFC Security Aspects.

How Can You Tell Whether You Have NFC on a Windows Phone?

If you have a Windows Phone smartphone, you can quickly tell whether it has NFC or not, by going to Settings. Scroll down until you find the settings for WiFi and Bluetooth which are available on any Windows Phone. If you find a category of settings that is named tap+send, then you have NFC on your Windows Phone.

If you tap on this section's name, you will find a switch for NFC sharing which you can turn on, if you want to use it.

How Can You Tell Whether You Have NFC on an Android Smartphone?

Not all Android smartphones have NFC available, at least not the cheaper models. To tell whether you have NFC on your smartphone, go to Settings and then to Wireless & Networks. There, tap the link that says "More…", to expand the list of settings being shown.

If you see an entry named NFC, then you have NFC on your smartphone. To enable this feature, check the NFC box.

How Can You Tell Whether You Have NFC on an iPhone?

If you own an iPhone, then you don't have NFC, not even on the iPhone 5s and 5c. That's because Apple has chosen not to adopt this standard for it smartphones.

NOTE: You can find a complete list with phones that have NFC, here: NFC phones: The definitive list.

Conclusion

As you can see, NFC is a promising technology that can be used for many things. Its growing adoption in all kinds of mobile device will only increase its importance in the future. If you have any questions about NFC, don't hesitate to use the comments form below.